Let’s cut straight to the truth about building muscle: it takes hard work, patience, and time. Like any other fitness goal, it doesn’t happen overnight. But how much time does it take to build muscle?
Here’s what the research says:
According to one review: “at least 6-7 weeks of regular resistive training at reasonably high intensity” is required to produce significant changes in muscle mass.
A review published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research says that beginners can expect to see changes in muscle mass within the first couple months of training.
Another review suggests that muscle growth begins after about 10 resistance training sessions.
Although this research gives us a general idea of the muscle-building timeline, research also shows that it’s not quite that straight-forward.
In reality, it depends on many different factors. This includes things you have control over (training regimen, diet, lifestyle), as well as things you can’t control (genetics, sex, age).
While it does often take 6–10 weeks of consistent strength training and proper diet to see noticeable muscle growth, further research, and my own six years of experience as a personal trainer reveal that it depends on the individual and their genetics.
But, there are many things that are in your control. I help my clients harness these elements of muscle-building by incorporating three crucial principles.
An effective training program must be in place to build muscle, but you can’t neglect the other 23 hours of your day that are spent outside the gym. What you eat and how you take care of yourself are more important than you might think!
Here are the three principles that have gotten my clients the best and fastest results, and how you can start implementing them now.
An Effective Training Regimen
First things first, you need a training plan that’s conducive to hypertrophy, or muscle growth.
And what type of training is hands-down the most effective at this? Resistance training.
Resistance training, or strength training, is what you might recognize as weight lifting, and includes exercises using free weights, machines or resistance bands, as well as bodyweight exercises, such as push-ups.
Resistance training is optimal primarily because it creates tension in the muscles that stimulates muscle growth.
Hours spent on the stairmaster won’t do the trick!
Instead, incorporate two to four strength sessions each week in order to start building muscle.
Let’s get into a couple variables that make a strength workout effective.
One of the most common reasons people aren’t seeing results from their strength workouts is that they’re not lifting heavy enough. Remember, muscle growth is stimulated when the muscle is under enough tension. So, if there isn’t enough force applied to the muscle, it won’t grow.
I can tell you from personal experience that, as a woman, I used to avoid lifting heavy in fear of developing a manly physique. So, I stuck to my light weights and yet I wondered why I wasn’t achieving the “toned” look I desired.
Eventually, I was convinced to try heavy lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench press. And guess what? I started seeing results. Turns out “toning” requires muscle!
So, how heavy is “heavy”?
The last few reps of a set should be pretty challenging. So, if you can hold a conversation during a whole set, it’s time to bump up the weight.
While hypertrophy can be achieved at lower and higher rep ranges, experts agree that the optimal range is 6–12 reps.
As the same reps and weights become easier, you should slowly increase the difficulty level to overcome the muscle’s adaptation and prevent a plateau in progress.
Simply put, each week you should challenge yourself more than the last. For example, if you squatted 95 pounds for 10 reps last week, you could try increasing to 105 pounds or 12 reps.
This is called progressive overload, and it’s essential to building muscle.
Training regimen, check! What else?
A Proper Diet
Next, you must make sure that your diet provides the energy and nutrients necessary for building muscle.
It’s the oldest story in the book — someone who does everything right in the gym but neglects their diet. You can’t out-exercise a poor diet.
My advice is to keep it simple and stick to what we know has the biggest impact on muscle growth: protein and calorie intake.
The number-one thing you should prioritize when it comes to nutrition is protein.
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is the process in which muscle is made. And the only way MPS can occur is with the use of the building blocks, called amino acids, found in the protein sources you eat.
Aim to consume 1.6–2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight daily to maximize muscle growth.
Though this may sound daunting, rest assured, I’ll share some easy ways to sneak extra protein into your diet.
Tip #1: Opt for a leaner cut of meat.
Chicken breast has more protein per gram compared to the thigh.
Tip #2: Try high-protein alternatives.
You can meet your protein target without giving up your favorite foods! Look for high-protein versions of pasta, ice cream, tortillas, etc.
Tip #3: Incorporate dairy products.
Plain Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are great high-protein snacks but can also add extra protein in smoothies and sauces.
Tip #4: Find a protein shake or powder you like.
This is the easiest way to sneak in an extra 20–30g of protein. Some brands with clean ingredients include Orgain, Owyn, Aloha, Vega Sport, and Huel.
Does it matter when you consume your protein? Yes! But when doesn’t matter nearly as much as how much.
Ideally, spread protein intake evenly throughout the day (about three hours between each meal) to give your body more opportunities to conduct MPS. It’s also best to consume protein one to two hours before or after your strength workouts to maximize muscle repair and growth.
If you’re meeting your protein target but not consuming enough calories, your progress will still be hindered.
Research shows that when you eat less than you burn, you tend to lose weight. And about a quarter of the loss comes from lean body mass — opposite of what we’re looking for!
This means, for optimal results, you must consume more calories than you expend.
I, for one, used to be scared to eat too much and wouldn’t dare exceed 1,200 calories a day. Not only was I not building muscle, but I was also somehow not losing weight.
I slowly increased my calories until I was in a slight surplus, allowing me to put on muscle without gaining fat. And I wasn’t perpetually starving… imagine that.
If you’re worried about gaining fat in the process, start with a minimal surplus and see how your body responds.
Here’s how to calculate your target calories in two easy steps:
Calculate your maintenance calorieshere. This number reflects the amount of calories required to neither gain nor lose weight.
Add 200–500 calories to this number to create a surplus of calories. A smaller surplus is ideal for those who want to minimize fat gain. A larger surplus is ideal for those who have difficulty putting on weight.
I want to preface this section by saying that you absolutely can achieve your goals without the use of supplements. But, if you choose to use them, stick to the ones backed by science and unbiased experts.
Here are a couple supplements worth looking into:
Protein powder is always the number-one supplement I recommend because it has high potential for enhancing muscle growth. Plus, it’s safe, easy to use, and affordable.
My go-to is whey protein because research shows it’s the most effective, especially post-workout. A review of nutritional research found that whey protein is one of the highest-quality proteins (it has all essential branched-chain and leucine amino acids), digests quickly, and stimulates MPS to a greater degree than soy or casein.
For vegans, soy protein is the best alternative.
So, if you’re unable to get at least 1.6 g/kg/bodyweight from your normal diet, you’ll want to supplement with protein powder to optimize results.
Creatine is another safe and cost-effective supplement that research strongly supports and that I recommend looking into.
Creatine is a quick energy source stored in your muscles. The supplement creatine monohydrate increases the amount of creatine stores, allowing you to perform better during your training sessions and build more muscle as a result.
Here’s what the research says:
Creatine supplementation coupled with resistance training can result in a 0.5–2 kg greater increase in fat-free mass.
A review of sports nutrition articles says creatine is the most effective nutritional supplement at increasing lean body mass and boosting high-intensity exercise capacity.
To get the most out of this supplement, start by consuming 5 grams four times a day for five to seven days. Then, consume just 5 grams a day to maintain creatine stores.
Keep in mind: no supplement can replace a good diet.
Alright! An effective training program and a diet sufficient in protein and calories are only two parts of our muscle-gaining trifecta… moving on to the final element.
Rest and Recovery
Easy enough, right?
Actually, it’s often much harder than it sounds. Recovery is often the most neglected factor when it comes to muscle growth.
It’s harder for your body to use the nutrients you consume to repair the muscles you broke down in your workouts if you’re overtrained or lack sleep.
Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night to promote optimal muscle growth. Your body produces many hormones used to repair muscle during sleep. You also continue to metabolize the carbs you’ve consumed to replace glycogen, which promotes muscle growth.
Sleep loss leads to decreased MPS and therefore, muscle mass.
What does science say?
One study found that MPS is reduced by sleep restriction, but may be maintained by doing high-intensity interval exercise.
A cohort study saw muscle mass decline by almost 7% in elderly subjects getting <7 hours of sleep.
You don’t want all of your hard work in the gym to go to waste because you couldn’t get off Instagram until 1 am.
If you have a “no-days-off” mentality, I admire your ambition and dedication to your goals. But, you may actually be doing more harm than good.
Overtraining can lead to injury and even impede muscle growth.
Research found that there’s no fix for Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) other than adequate rest.
This also means you need to spread out when you work different muscle groups so that you aren’t training the same muscle group before it has recovered. According to the American Council on Exercise, you should wait 48–72 hours before training the same muscle group again to allow for optimal recovery.
The simplest way to avoid overtraining is to train your various muscle groups on the same day each week. Remember, you only need two to four strength workouts a week.
Here’s how I like to split up my muscle groups:
Monday: legs (hip hinge focus)
Wednesday: pull (back/biceps)
Friday: legs (knee extension focus)
Sunday: push (chest/shoulders/triceps)
Let’s Get Started
Make a plan right now that includes a muscle-building workout regimen, nutrition that supports muscle growth, and a sleep routine that ensures optimal recovery.
Here are four things you can do right now to get started:
Write down your new strength workout schedule along with a few exercises you’d like to start working on.
Calculate your calorie and protein targets.
Create a bedtime routine and follow it.
Schedule a free consultation with a Kickoff trainer, who can help you create the perfect muscle-building plan for you.