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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
Updated On: February 17, 2023
You‘ve been training for an entire week and still haven’t seen any gains. What’s going on!? Just how long does it take for muscles to grow? Should you have given yourself 3 weeks to get ready for your vacation rather than 2?
We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but unfortunately, it takes much longer than that to build a significant amount of muscle. Building muscle is a slow, grueling process that takes a lot of time. This article will cover:
Time for a reality check. And then get your muscle gains started!
Right off the bat, without telling us anything else about you, we can say with absolute certainty that your muscle mass has increased dramatically already. Compared to when you were a child at maybe 10 pounds total body weight, your muscle mass has now increased more than 20 times that - no ultimate leg workout needed.
We actually have no idea the exact proportional increase, but that's not the point. We also know that's not really answering your question.
The point we're making is that we need to clarify the question you're asking and we're answering. The best question to ask is how long you need to lift weights to notice an increase in muscle mass. To answer that, we need to start by looking a the science of muscle growth.
The technical term for muscle growth is called muscle hypertrophy, and it simply means the enlargement of muscle tissue.
Here's a very concise way of explaining the process of muscle growth. First, you must break your muscle fibers down with resistance training exercises (or any type of stress).
Second, focus on the importance of sleep. While sleeping, the muscle repair process occurs, and the body will fix the damaged muscle. And once repaired, the muscle will be a bit stronger and bigger. Third, make sure you're eating correctly to optimize growth.
To provide a bit more context, our bodies are extremely adaptable to the environments that they find themselves in. At the end of the day, our number 1 goal is survival, and our bodies have put in place various physiological processes that allow adaptation to take place for survival.
Out of all tissues, our muscles are perhaps the most adaptable. When high loads of stress are placed on it, damage occurs to the muscle fibers and surrounding cells. Sitting around and waiting for this to happen are special cells known as satellite cells. Satellite cells are cells that hold the coding to allow the growth of new muscle cells.
So these satellite cells go and attach themselves to the damaged muscle to repair it. Once repaired, the muscle will now be a bit larger and stronger.
Over time, the size of the muscle will gradually increase as this process occurs over and over again. Our bodies will do this to be prepared for the next time they encounter this stress.
Understanding the muscle mass building process is important. However, what's more important is knowing what you need to do to get the process started.
As you're reading this article, chances are you're either about to begin an exercise routine, or you may have started a training regimen a few weeks ago and aren't seeing muscle growth yet.
The best thing about making your muscles grow is the concept of muscle growth is pretty easy. Your personal trainer or other wellness professionals may try to complicate it, but trust us, theoretically, it's not hard.
We will quickly lay out the three things your body needs for optimal growth and then provide more detail after.
An easier way to contextualize this is by thinking of your resistance training program as the "reason" why your muscles need to grow. And, it's up to you to give it to them. An effective strength training program and well-planned workout split will hit every muscle group and use a variety of main compound movements and isolation.
Further, resistance training can improve your hormone levels and make your body more anabolic. For example, human growth hormone secretion from the pituitary gland is highly responsive to intense weight training¹. Similarly, men involved in resistance training see higher levels of testosterone.
Building muscle is a process that requires extra energy. Therefore, you need to give your body extra calories and a higher protein intake. Also, make sure to incorporate the best foods for muscles.
Not consuming enough is sabotaging yourself, so eat! Here's a clean bulk plan if you’re not sure where to start.
Rest days are essential for muscle and workout recovery. Remember, the muscle repair process is cyclical, going from breaking muscle down and going home to repair it. If you don't allow adequate recovery and muscle fiber repair, you'll never get to your muscle growth goals.
Optimal muscle growth will occur differently with various styles of weight training depending on the trainee's fitness level. We will go over different styles of training and benefits, along with different levels of lifters and strategies each group can use to make gains.
Bodybuilding-style workouts, typically followed by the top bodybuilders, are those that make muscle building the number 1 goal. Being so, they are obviously the best choice for those who are interested in building muscle.
These workouts tend to use lighter weight to produce very high volume for muscle growth. To do this, they are more likely to use more isolation movements, stationary weight machines, and a high number of exercise selections.
Contrary to bodybuilding, powerlifting programs are more focused on improving the neuromuscular system. To do this, it tends to use heavier weights, lower reps, and a lower number of exercise selections.
While these programs are ideal for building strength, they lack the volume for muscle building seen in strict bodybuilding programs. To be clear, you can still build muscle if you only lift heavy weights your whole life. It just won't be as much.
Only using body weight exercises to train is called calisthenics. Calisthenic workout plans are awesome and, contrary to what some people say, will definitely build muscle.
Push-up variations are easily one of the best types of exercises you can do for building muscle in your upper body. In fact, the muscle activation of a push-up is almost identical to the bench press if loaded properly.
This brings us to the first issue with bodyweight training: It can be hard to load the movements. Secondly, you need a basic level of fitness to make the most of bodyweight workouts.
The above two aspects can make building muscle seem slower than using other methods.
Strictly calisthenic guys tend to have smaller muscles yet have greater muscle definition and full muscle development. To be clear, a lot of these guys are jacked and chiseled. They just don’t have as much mass as gym lifters.
An advanced lifter is someone who has already put a few years under the barbell. He has traveled further to his genetic potential, meaning it will be harder to grow more muscle.
Therefore, if this group wants to build more muscle (remember, advanced lifters have already gained a lot), they will definitely need to use a bodybuilding program, like this PHAT workout program. At the same time, they should still be incorporating strength training to some degree.
Intermediate lifters are guys with at least 1 good year of training with progressive overload. A visible increase in their muscle growth still occurs, but it has slowed down.
One advantage this group has is the ability to identify muscle groups that don't respond as well as other muscle groups. While these lifters can still gain muscle using compound movements, they should start incorporating more isolation exercises, like the concentration curl if you're targeting your biceps or these glute isolation moves for more-developed buttocks, to hit these problem areas.
The good news for beginner lifters is that they will build muscle fast. Any new workout routine this group follows will likely produce similar muscle gains in the same length of time.
For example, research shows that adding isolation movements to a strength program provided beginners no added benefit². Because we have a threshold for how much our muscles grow, beginner lifters reach this very easily, meaning they should see noticeable muscle growth with almost any program.
That said, we like this group to concentrate on using compound movements to hit all the major muscle groups. They can then add 1 or 2 isolation movements if they want. However, these are more for conditioning the joints to mitigate any type of muscle injury rather than muscle gain. Likely a 3-day split is sufficient for this group.
There are a few reasons, but the most common occurrence is that guys don't utilize progressive overload. Remember above when we talked about how your muscles adapt and grow?
The problem arises as guys go back to the gym after their muscle has been repaired and then go lift the same weight. They are applying the same amount of stress, meaning their body has no reason for a bigger muscle!
This is why when lifting weights you must always increase the intensity by adding weight, reps, or sets, or decreasing rest time.
If you are applying progressive overload and eating properly, the muscle building process will make it so your muscles grow.
To optimize muscle growth, you should eat 300 to 500 more calories than your maintenance level. This surplus of calories will help supply the energy required to fuel the process of muscle repair.
If you're not sure how many calories that is, check out an online calorie counter. Keep in mind: You will still need to monitor your body to identify changes in your body composition.
Once you have your calories, you need to figure out your macros. We like to keep it simple.
Determining how much protein per day to build muscle is important. We recommend 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight. Studies show this is the sweet spot for increased muscle mass and improved body composition.
From there, calculate 30% of your total calories and fill those with fat. From there, use the rest for your carb intake. To further support muscle growth, figure out what to eat before a workout and what to eat after a workout to support your muscle-building goals.
You could do everything you're supposed to yet sabotage yourself by making some common mistakes. There are a few things we see happen way too often.
The term for this is body recomposition. There are ways to effectively achieve this, but they're for relatively advanced lifters as everything must be dialed in all the time. And regardless how advanced a lifter is, the muscle gain will still be inferior compared to eating in a calorie surplus.
Your body needs calories to build muscle, so give it what it needs. If you're concerned with fat gain and your body fat percentage, start on the lower end of a caloric surplus. Try 200 or 300 calories.
While the mechanisms are exactly understood, we are finding the body does not build muscle as well with low carbs³. That's all we're going to say on this as it's simple if you want to promote muscle growth: Eat your carbs.
Aerobic exercise, like these non-running cardio workouts, is awesome, and we are certainly not haters. It's great for heart health and can increase the amount of work you can perform.
However, excessive aerobic training can be very stressful and cause more damage and muscle fatigue to your muscle fibers than needed. This can result in too much fatigue and inadequate recovery. If your nutrition sucks, this extra aerobic exercise can increase the amount of cortisol in the body as well as put you in a caloric deficit. Both can cause you to lose muscle mass.
If muscle building is your goal, keep your sessions to 30 minutes max. Try a fast and effective HIIT workout.
So, after all that, how long is this going to take? The process of muscle growth will begin immediately. The process starts on the first day you go to the gym, and begin your workout split.
This is why you hear things like "Today's a good day to start" or "Train today, and you'll be one day closer." This refers to the fact that muscle building is long and takes time. But you can start whenever you want.
It usually takes 3 to 4 weeks once you start lifting weights before you might begin to see signs of the athletic physique you're working toward. Keep in mind this could just be because you're in a better mood (lifting improves your mental state!), have lost a little fat, or are in good lighting.
Or, you could have noticeable muscle gains. From here, we would guess you need 3 to 4 months to start seeing any real changes.
After this, it's just a journey full of little benchmarks. Things you have to look forward to include your first ab line, semi-visible bicep veins, and the beginning of shoulder definition.
Those sounds trivial but trust us when you first stand under the light at the right angle and can see your bicep vein, it's exciting. Those achievements will drive you to train harder.
The last thing you should know is that, on average, a new lifter will put on 20 to 30 pounds their first year, depending on many variables and circumstances.
Have you ever wondered why some guys in the fitness industry get irritated when they hear people say things like "I don't lift heavy because I don't want to get bulky" or a guy says "I don't really want to get that big."
It's not that they're offended - well, some might be offended. It's because you're implying it's easy to get to their level. As if you might train too hard this week and accidentally wake up ready to grace the cover of fitness magazines, like these top fitness models.
Building muscle is anything but easy. It takes years of patience, dedication, dialed-in nutrition, and consistent weight training. Having said that, anyone can do it if they're willing to put in the work. Instead of worrying about when, just learn to enjoy the process and gym culture. We think the workouts are just as much fun as seeing those muscles grow.
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February 20, 2024
February 20, 2024
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