Nutrition Information | Exercise and Physiology Information


How Much Muscle Can You Gain?

By Maki Riddington

One frequently asked question which always seems to plague gym instructors, Internet message boards, various magazines and books has to do with muscle gain. Many of us have heard or have overheard the local gym guru or the community fitness expert boasting about how much he/she has gained, or how one of their clients has gained 10 pounds in a month. When someone hears this, a light goes on inside their head and it kicks off a series of thoughts that quickly translate into a set of unrealistic goals. I will say this: that from whichever mouth it comes, whether a highly regarded coach, trainer or a bodybuilder, the fact of the matter is that it’s physiologically impossible to achieve this muscle status! Later on, I’ll explain why.

Often, people making this claim have a faulty perception of how the body either works or are just super-optimistic. Of course, it’s not only the gym (freaks) that espouses this myth; it can be traced to numerous ads in a variety of muscle magazines lining the bookstore shelves. The bodybuilding industry, nowadays, thrives on people who are hungry for a quick change. They are ready to buy into the notion that a change can be accomplished because a certain ad lays claims by way of an incredible cut and paste transformation. Frequently, it’s a beginner who testifies to the astounding feat of gaining 30 pounds over a period of several months. This is, no doubt, a great achievement but most have been fooled into believing that a large percentage is muscle when most of it is due to an increase in glycogen stores, body fat and water.

Now it’s not my intention to dash your hopes or crush your dreams. I’d merely like you to know that the body simply cannot adapt at the speed claimed by many. Canadian strength coach and author Chris Thibaudeau states: “making physical changes takes time;” this couldn’t be closer to the truth. So be forewarned that in your quest to change or morph yourself into the next Ronnie Coleman; the transformation is going to take more than a few months. Our bodies are equipped with systems that need to adapt together over a period. This is what you should bear in mind while working towards the goal of a more muscular physique.

So How Much Muscle Can You Gain.

Sometimes we are our own worst enemy when it comes to gaining muscle. Nine times out of ten, most of us fail in the dedication department. What starts out as a carefully planned and calculated program, ends up hitting some bumps along the way. However, even if we are dedicated (some may call it obsessed) and diligent about our nutrition, with proper training and recuperation practices, we still would not be able to add more than 1 pound of muscle in a week. That’s right, only one pound a week--and this is assuming you’ve had a darn good week both inside and outside the gym!

Often, people believe that if they take in 3500 more calories during a week that they will be successful at packing on slabs of muscle. However, the old adage that one pound equates to 3500 calories is right for fat but NOT muscle. If you want to gain one pound of fat, then you should be taking in an extra 3500 calories a week. Now there’s one way of putting on some weight!

As I mentioned earlier, the body’s multiple systems are all intricately interconnected: if one system has not undergone the proper adaptation, then the results will show in the form of a failure to produce optimal hypertrophy of the muscle complex. For example, if we were to look at some of the soft tissues involved in the hypertrophy process of the muscle complex, we’d see that muscle would generally adapt to a load within several days. Unlike the tendons and ligaments, studies have shown that muscle responds by adapting after a period of several weeks or even months of progressive loading (McDough & Davies, 1984). It also should be noted that the protein turnover rate in collagen occurs approximately every 1000 days. This clearly shows that even if one were to gain in bodyweight, the body would only be able to accommodate a certain amount in the form of muscle; otherwise, the muscles would fall prey to injury due to the time-span in adaptation rates for various other tissues. Those who scoff at this and continue to believe they’ve gained super size over such a short period forget, as suggested earlier, that much of the increased bodyweight is largely due to increased body fat stores, glycogen and water. Hypertrophy of the muscle complex has so far, been shown to be controlled by what is known as protein turnover (the breakdown of damaged muscle proteins and creation of new and stronger ones). This process takes time. Just as the many living organisms around us in nature require time to grow, so do our muscles. In our enzymes the protein turnover rate occurs approximately every 7-10 minutes. In the liver and plasma, it’s every 10 days. And in the hemoglobin it’s every 120days.In the muscles, protein turnover rate occurs approximately every 180 days (6 months). This lends even more support to the observation that the turnover rate limits the natural body (of the non drug-using athlete, bodybuilder) in building muscle quickly.

The Colgan Institute of Nutritional Sciences (located in San Diego, CA) run by Dr Michael Colgan PHD, a leading sport nutritionist explains that in his extensive experience, the most muscle gain he or any of his colleagues have recorded over a year was 181/4 lbs. Dr Colgan goes on to state that “because of the limiting rate of turnover in the muscle cells it is impossible to grow more than an ounce of new muscle each day.” In non-complicated, mathematical terms, this would equate to roughly 23 pounds in a year! Keep in mind that high-level athletes are the subjects of these studies.

Putting It All Together

Now that I’ve put a damper on your expectations you can step back and take a closer look at your training, nutritional practices and recuperation tactics. There’s no need to beat yourself up because you’ve only been able to gain a pound a week for the last 6 weeks. If anything, assuming your body fat levels have been kept at bay, you’re probably on the right track.

When it comes to muscle gain there is no dramatic technique or quick fix that will allow you to pack on more muscle naturally. It’s better to stay focused and realistic by training hard, eating meticulously and spending time to recuperate properly; this will result in your achieving a more muscular physique. Keep in mind that it’s physiologically impossible to gain more than one pound of lean muscle per week. For most weight-gainers, .5 pounds per week would be an even more realistic goal as they reach their genetic limit. Remember that gaining muscle is a long-term project and not something that can be simply turned on. If you’re dedicated and diligent in your efforts, you’ll not be disappointed!


About Maki Riddington

Maki Riddington is a CPT, Body Recomposition and Strength and Conditoning Specialist based in Richmond British Columbia. He focuses on athletic and strength conditioning. For more info go to and join his free online newsletter. Each monthly issue is packed with all the latest training info. MORE >>>

Maki Riddington  - Personal Trainer in Richmond