As a beginning weight lifter, you might be impressed by your newbie gains — or you might be wondering why you're not packing on the muscle quick enough. There's no set amount of muscle that you can expect to gain per month; it depends on a variety of factors, some of which aren't in your control.
Read more: Your Ultimate Guide to Gaining Lean Muscle
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Factors in Average Muscle Gain
Significant muscle growth without steroids isn't as simple as lifting weights a couple of times a week — that's a beginner gains myth — but everyone can put on muscle if they follow the right training program and dietary plan. However, no one can predict the exact rate at which a person will gain muscle, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), because the factors are different for everyone.
There are two factors in muscle-mass development, ACE states: your genotype, which is a person's genetic code, and your phenotype, which refers to your observable characteristics. The latter doesn't mean your personality quirks or what color your hair is, but rather your habits and lifestyle choices.
Some of those choices include your weightlifting training regimen, such as how much weight you lift, how frequently you lift weight and how long each weightlifting session is. Phenotype also refers to your dietary habits, such as your protein and carbohydrate intake, the total number of calories you consume on a daily basis, as well as your hydration levels.
For the most part, these are factors you control. However, hormones are also a part of your phenotype, and shifts in hormones as you age can play a role in the ability to gain muscle, ACE says.
Unfortunately, you can't control your genotype, either. Some people have a natural disposition to building muscle — for example, a 20-year-old whose body contains a good number of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are the kind that respond best to muscle growth, might be able to gain an average of 2 pounds of lean muscle a month, ACE states.
However, someone with a different genetic profile may only be able to gain an average of a half-pound of muscle a month, even with the same dietary and training strategies.
Hypertrophy Workout Plan
If your goal is to gain muscle — technically speaking that's known as "hypertrophy" — then it's important to follow a workout plan that's specifically focused on that, ACE recommends. A hypertrophy workout, says the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), is a series of exercises with low to intermediate reps with progressive overload.
The principle of overload, according to NASM, states that in order for a muscle to adapt, or grow bigger, it must be progressively overloaded, or asked to lift more weight. Following the principle of overload is the principle of adaption: Your body will adapt to the demands you place on it. Therefore, if you overload the muscle by lifting heavier weights, your body will adapt by growing more muscle.
Here's an example of this hypertrophy workout, according to NASM: For each exercise, do 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 12 repetitions, each done at 75 percent to 85 percent of the one-repetition maximum, with a one- to two-minute rest period in between.
ACE recommends organizing your workout into a four-day split. This divides up working out various body parts over four days, so you don't work the same muscle groups on consecutive days. For example, you might do chest and biceps on day one, back and abs on day two, shoulders and triceps on day three and legs on day four.
Some of the exercises you might incorporate, suggests NASM, are barbell bench presses, standing upright barbell rows, planks, barbell squats and dumbbell side lunges. In addition to lifting weights, ACE suggests incorporating a couple of days of high-intensity interval training to burn additional calories.
However, don't forget to take a rest day, which allows the muscles to regenerate and prevent overuse injuries, says ACE. Wait 72 hours before training the same muscle group again, which will allow for enough time for the muscles to repair themselves.
Choosing the Right Weights
How frequently you lift and how long you lift are two facets of building muscle, but how much you lift is an important factor, as well. To stimulate hypertrophy, you must stimulate your muscles — and that means lifting heavy weights, says ACE.
Heavier weights engage more of your type II muscle fibers, which generates muscle force, according to ACE. Type II muscle fibers are also responsible for the size and definition of a muscle, so you're more likely to see results when you recruit these fibers regularly.
Some people, particularly women, underestimate their strength, so they default to lighter weights. When selecting the amount of weight you lift, choose an amount that can be lifted 10 times without losing proper form. The last two repetitions should feel incredibly challenging, but still doable. If you're starting to take shortcuts or making modifications to lift the weight, you need to select a lighter load.
After you lift heavy weights, especially for the first time, or if you increase the amount you're lifting, you might experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This occurs when you stress out your muscles with a load that they're not used to.
Soreness in your muscles can develop between 12 and 24 hours after exercising, peaking at 24 to 72 hours after the workout, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. This pain occurs due to the microscopic tears in your muscle fibers as a result of the stress.
If you're experiencing DOMS, you can take measures to reduce the symptoms. This might include applying ice packs, using massage or taking over-the-counter painkillers. DOMS will only last three to five days, ACSM says, and the sore muscles will be better adapted for the exercise during your next workout.
Role of Nutrition
You can lift all the weights you want, but it might be for naught — at least when it comes to building muscle — if you don't eat properly. Instead of cutting calories, which is what you do if you want to lose weight, you should increase your caloric intake to build muscle.
It takes an excess of 2,000 and 2,500 calories to gain 1 pound of lean muscle, according to Sanford Health, compared to 3,500 calories to gain a pound of fat. But of course, that will only happen if following the workout plan as well.
You also want those calories to break down into the proper ratio of macronutrients: protein, fat and carbohydrates. Therefore, you don't just want to eat empty-calorie foods, which are foods that contain a lot of calories and not a lot of nutritional value. Sanford Health recommends eating nutrient-rich, calorie-dense nutritious foods spread over five to six moderately sized meals throughout the day, rather than eating three extra-large meals.
Read more: 18 Best Muscle-Building Foods to Add to Your Diet
Protein and Muscle Building
Protein should make up 10 percent to 35 percent of your total calories, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For a person who aims to eat around 2,500 calories, this breaks down to 250 calories to 875 calories from protein. Because each gram of protein has 4 calories, according to Kaiser Permanente, this equals between 63 and 218 grams of protein per day. It's a wide range, but nutrition needs can vary from person to person.
You can break it down on a per-meal basis too. A study published in February 2018 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine says that to maximize anabolism — the process by which the body grows new cells and maintains tissue — a person should aim to consume 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight at each meal, if you're eating three meals per day. For a person who weighs 150 pounds, or 68 kilograms, this is equal to 27 grams of protein per meal.
Choose quality protein sources. Some high-protein foods, according to the University of Washington Health, include:
- Meat, fish and poultry: 7 g protein per ounce.
- Beans: 7 to 9 g protein per half-cup.
- Eggs: 6 g protein per egg.
- Milk: 8 g protein per cup.
- Cottage cheese: 13 g per half-cup.
- Nut butters: 8 g protein per 2 tablespoons.
- Quinoa: 8 g protein per cup.
Carbohydrates and Fats
Protein is the most well-known macronutrient for muscle building, but you can't just eat protein all the time. Carbs and fat have their place too.
Carbohydrates are key for fueling your muscles. They're converted in part to glycogen, which is stored in your muscles and recruited to power your workouts. You should eat about half of your calories per day from sources of high-quality carbohydrates — or, if you try to eat 2,500 calories a day, about 1,250 calories. Like protein, carbs have 4 calories per gram, Kaiser Permanente says, so this breaks down to about 312 grams of carbohydrates a day.
Instead of reaching for carbohydrates in the form of pizza, bagels or sugary baked goods, try to get your carbs from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and other quality sources. Low-fat dairy, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, are also sources of carbohydrates, as well as protein.
Like carbohydrates, fat is also a source of energy for your body. It should make up your remaining calories, or 20 to 35 percent of total daily calories. On a 2,500-calorie diet, this means 500 to 875 calories. Fat contains 9 calories per gram, so this breaks down to 55 to 97 grams per day.
The American Heart Association recommends eating heart-healthy fats, or unsaturated fats such as avocado, fish, nuts and olive oil. Limit saturated fat, such as butter, bacon and full-fat dairy products, and avoid trans fats entirely.
- American Council on Exercise: "How Muscle Grows"
- Sanford Health: "Weight Gain: Does It Impact Performance?"
- American Council on Exercise: "A Girls Guide to Gaining Muscle: Weight Training"
- American Council on Exercise: "The Do’s and Don’ts of Building Muscle"
- National Academy of Sports Medicine: "Back to the Basics: Hypertrophy"
- American Council on Exercise: "Why You Should Be Lifting Heavy"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "ACSM Information on ... Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass"
- Kaiser Permanente: "Balancing Carbs, Protein and Fat"
- University of Washington Health: "High Protein Food Sources"
- American Heart Association: "The Facts on Fats Infographic"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine: "How Much Protein Can the Body Use in a Single Meal for Muscle-Building? Implications for Daily Protein Distribution"