For some people, the benefits of muscle gain are clear and obvious, and they’ll stop at nothing to gain as much muscle, as quickly as possible (i.e. use steroids).
Steroids can dramatically increase the amount of muscle you can gain, and the speed at which you can gain it, but I’m too scared to try it, and frankly I don’t really see the point, given that I’m not getting paid to gain or maintain muscle.
If you are taking steroids, or are planning to, this article probably isn’t for you because you’ll likely be able to add more muscle in a month than I did in a year.
For everyone, read on…
Let’s get this out the way first; gaining muscle naturally is a VERY long and gruelling process. You really need to be in it for the long game, and from month to month, almost dupe yourself into the mindset that you don’t care if you gain muscle or not, because you sure as hell won’t see tangible results over the course of weeks or months.
You simply need to keep banging the workouts in, week in, week out, make sure your volume load is steadily increasing, and make sure you’re in a small calorie surplus. Oh, and pray.
There are two scenarios where muscle growth might be a bit quicker;
You’re brand new to the gym
If you’ve never trained before, and you start lifting, you can put on muscle mass very very quickly. This is because your body will react to the novel stimulus placed upon it. This can happen even if your nutrition isn’t on point.
You’re eating shitloads
There is absolutely a limit to the amount of muscle you can gain naturally over a given time period, however if you’re ensuring that you’re definitely providing enough calories for your body to grow new muscle, you will maximise this potential more so than if you were to eat conservatively in an attempt to minimise fat gain.
The problem is, eating way over your calorie requirements can create the perception that you’re building more muscle than you actually are, because the layer of fat covering your muscles will get thicker too. This isn’t necessarily an issue, but most people will likely reach a point where the fat covering their chest and stomach gets to an unacceptable level and they get pissed off, start dieting to lose the fat and compromise any progress they may have been making with muscle gain.
How To Do It Properly
The bulk/cut mentality is rife in the bodybuilding world, and while it might work for professionals competing in Mr Olympia on tons of gear, it’s far less likely to work for Phil, 37 from Stockport who trains twice a week.
My view is that everyone should try and get as lean as they can (Without compromising their health) just once. From that point, you can simply slowly build muscle, eat in a slight surplus, and generally enjoy training and your life without having to do a ‘cut’ every few months because your ‘bulk’ made you too fat.
Trust me, it’s a much nicer way to manage your training and nutrition.
The downsides? `It’s boring. You need to be comfortable with the fact that your physique isn’t going to change much in short periods of time. Bulking can be fun and motivating because you get to eat a bit more, and you start filling out your Large T-shirts fairly quickly, even if part of the reason for that is some fat gain.
So How Much Did I Gain in a Year?
My aim was to gain 5kg of muscle in a year, while keeping fat gain to an absolute minimum.
I did pretty much exactly that (well 5kg of weight at least), going from ~75kg in January 2019 to ~80kg in January 2020.
I picked 5kg as a target because it gave me scope to build a noticeable amount of muscle, and it was a big enough number to be able to track progress on a monthly basis (5kg over 12 months is 0.4kg per month or just under 1b per month).
Anything less than that would have been pretty difficult to track since weight can fluctuate so wildly from day to day.
Now, 5kg is probably quite ambitious, especially since I’ve been training for over ten years (how many of those I’ve been training ‘properly’ is up for debate).
Why is it ambitious?
What Does The Evidence Say?
Studies on the speed of muscle growth are hard to come by, but here are a couple I picked out;
This study compared low and high frequency training across 19 participants and found that average muscle mass increase was almost bang on 1kg across 8 weeks. Extrapolated across a year, this means that they could hope to gain 7kg in 12 months. Not bad, BUT the average training age of the group was only 4 years.
This study looked at 56 individuals (It’s unclear what their training ages were) performing a 5 days a week resistance training plan for a 12 week period. There were wild variations in lean mass gain across high and low responders (the top and bottom 15% of subjects based on lean mass gains).
This shows that low responders gained an average of 1kg across 12 weeks, while low responders gained an average of 4.5kg over 12 weeks, this means in a year, low responders could hope to gain 4kg while high responders might be looking at 18kg.
As we can see, numbers across the two studies (and even within the second study) vary wildly.
The more you train and the stronger you become, the closer to your genetic potential you’ll get, and the rate of muscle growth with slow. 7kg was way too ambitious for me, but I didn’t want to go above 5kg for the reasons stated above, and 5kg was close to the amount gained by the slow responders group in the second study.
Plus, if you spend all your time researching and planning rather than training you won’t gain any muscle, so 5kg it was for the target.
What Did I Do?
I trained on average 4.5 times per week, using full-body workouts consisting of 13 sets each.
I made sure that the total volume load was increasing over time, only through increasing a combination of weight and reps (extra sets were only occasionally utilised).
I also aimed to gain 5kg of weight (with the assumption that the increase in volume load and adequate protein in my diet would mean that most of this was muscle).
I actually ended up gaining 4kg.
I didn’t track calories, I just made sure I was hitting my target protein numbers and getting in enough carbs to give me enough energy to train.
What Were The Results?
I tried to get similar shots (i.e same position, same lighting etc) approximately one year apart; left is January 2019, right is January 2020.
While the fact that I gained 4kg is indisputable, it’s very difficult to say how much of that was muscle and how much was fat. One of the most accurate ways to get a read of your bodyfat vs lean mass ratio is with a Dexa scan; these are really expensive and inconvenient, and I just didn’t care enough to get one
Eyeballing it, it doesn’t look like I gained much muscle at all, although it’s clear to see that I gained some fat.
My clothes are tighter, but again that could just be fat.
Also this is just one angle, I should have taken multiple shots from the back/side etc.
The short answer is I haven’t got a clue how much actual muscle I gained, I’d estimate around 2kg if you put a gun to my head (please don’t do that).
Was It a Successful Training Year?
Definitely; volume load increased dramatically, which is never a bad thing, particularly when there was no increase in sets.
Because I’m 4kg heavier, I can also eat more than I could at 76kg without gaining weight (because metabolism increases as weight increases).
I’m also still happy with my body fat levels, which means I can carry on doing this for another year.
Should you do The Same?
If your goal is to build muscle while minimsing fat gain, you should definitely follow this method; i.e. pick a muscle gain goal – the longer you’ve been training, the lower this goal should be. I’ll probably aim for another 2-3kg this year, but if you’ve only been training for a couple of years and are very lean; 5-7kg might be a good goal.
You should definitely track your volume load and try to creep it up slowly over time.
You should also track your weight everyday.
If you thought rapid muscle gain was possible without roids, I’m sorry to disapoint you.
The reality is that muscle gain is a very slow, boring process that you can’t really take any short cuts with.
Sure, you can gain weight rapidly (which might get you a bit more muscle), but a lot of it will be fat that you’ll just have to diet off again.
There is something to say for slow and steady muscle gain, it means you’ll never be in state where you’re unhappy with your body fat levels, and there’s no pressure to to eat when you’re not hungry.