Everyone knows that bulking up and building strong muscles doesn’t happen overnight. But if after weeks of working hard in the weight room, you flex in the mirror and see only a little bump, you might get frustrated and lose motivation.
Earlier during your workout, you might have thought you were starting to see some muscle definition. “Called transient hypertrophy, or a muscle pump, this physiological phenomenon occurs when blood rushes to your muscles to supply them with workout-powering fuel and even jump-start the recovery process,” explains certified strength and conditioning specialist Samuel Simpson, co-owner and vice president of B-Fit Training Studio in Miami. He notes that this muscle pump often starts mid-workout and subsides within a few hours after leaving the gym. And as the muscle pump deflates, it’s easy to lose determination.
Muscle Results in Days, Weeks and Months
It’s important to keep in mind that building muscle is a process, not an event. Developing muscle begins the second that you challenge your muscles to do something demanding and unfamiliar, whether that’s picking up a dumbbell, performing a pushup or sprinting on a treadmill. “These actions all stress and, thus, create microscopic damage within your body’s muscle cells, also called muscle fibers,” Simpson says.
“It’s as your body repairs the cells, taking in and laying down new structural and contractile proteins, that each muscle cell becomes bigger than it was before,” explains certified strength and conditioning specialist and registered dietitian Albert Matheny, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City and adviser to ProMix Nutrition.
Depending on the amount of microscopic muscle damage from any given workout, your muscle cells can take anywhere from one to several days to grow back bigger and stronger than before. That’s why many trainers don’t recommend working the same muscle group on back-to-back days, he says.
However, in the beginning weeks of starting a new workout routine, the majority of strength gains aren’t actually a result of this muscle protein synthesis and hypertrophy. Rather, they are a result of the body’s neurological system learning when and how to fire the needed muscle cells, explains Abbie E. Smith-Ryan, associate professor of exercise physiology at the department of exercise and sport science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
The first time you perform a new exercise — for example, a bench press — you likely feel pretty shaky. Your arms aren’t totally in sync and the weights may sway a bit from side to side. But by the time you perform your second or third set of that same exercise, the practice gets a little smoother. That’s your neurological system at work, and typically happens within the first few training sessions.
For the average person starting a new strength training routine, neurological adaptations will be responsible for the majority of strength benefits for roughly the first four to six weeks of that routine. “These improvements are generally pretty remarkable or large because the neuromuscular system is rapidly adapting,” Smith-Ryan says.
However, muscle-building adaptations are still occurring, and as the weeks go on, they account for more and more progress, Simpson says. The longer and more consistently you have been strength training, the more of your initial strength gains will come from actual muscle growth.
The amount of progress people make while training to build muscle varies, research suggests. For example, a study published this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that “strength gains and muscle activations may take place faster in (high responders) and decrease also faster compared with other subgroups” during periods when the individuals aren’t training.
Any muscle growth will be more noticeable in areas like the arms that tend to carry less fat, which can block the muscles from view, Matheny says.
Over the course of weeks, months and years, this process ebbs and flows, but with the right exercise and nutrition plan, most people can gain anywhere from one to two pounds of lean muscle per month, Simpson says.
Competitive and professional bodybuilders, however, can often build up to two to three pounds of muscle per month during dedicated bulking periods. “But they are living and breathing muscle growth. They aren’t just in and out of the gym like most people,” Simpson says.
Still, it’s important to realize that for everyone, at a certain point, building muscle becomes more difficult. “We all have an endpoint to our genetic potential,” Matheny says. “Someone who is starting strength training for the first time can build muscle with a lower percentage of their 1RM (one-rep max, or the maximum amount of weight they can lift one time) than a more tenured athlete. The longer you train and the closer you to get to your natural potential, the more specific you need to get with your training and nutrition to keep making progress.”
Fortunately for impatient muscle builders, no matter how long you have been training, there are effective approaches for gaining muscle faster.
These are five strategies for accelerating muscle gain:
— Train each muscle group twice per week.
— Eat a gram of protein per your ideal body weight.
— Do 6-12 reps with 60 seconds of rest.
— Consider range of motion resistance training.
— If you’re a beginner, work out more frequently.
1. Train each muscle group twice per week. To maximize muscle growth, plan to train every major muscle group at least twice per week. According to a 2016 Sports Medicine review, even if you don’t work that muscle any harder or longer, by simply dividing your chest, leg or back workout into two days, you’ll spur more muscle growth. While the jury is still out on whether training each muscle group three days per week is better than two at spurring hypertrophy, it’s likely better suited toward experienced lifters than beginners, Matheny says.
To work a given muscle group two to three times per week without working the same muscle groups for two consecutive days, try splitting your weekly routine based on muscle groups or body parts.
2. Eat a gram of protein per your ideal body weight. The protein you eat becomes the protein in your muscles, and is vital to muscle recovery and growth. As an easy rule of thumb, Matheny recommends muscle builders eat one gram of protein per their ideal body weight per day, and space that protein intake throughout the day.
Research suggests that that the “daily protein intake for the goal of maximizing resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength” is about one gram of protein for each kilogram of body weight, if the individual is not dieting, according to a study published in 2018 in the Journal of the International Society in Sports Nutrition.
3. Do 6-12 reps with 60 seconds of rest. Research suggests doing 6 to 12 reps, resting for 60 seconds between the reps, is a sound approach. Smith-Ryan also notes performing three or more exercises per muscle group will increase that muscle group’s training volume and size gains. “Your training stimulus has the largest impact on your degree of muscle growth,” Smith-Ryan explains. “It must be large enough with enough volume.” Training volume denotes the amount of weight lifted multiplied by the number of reps and sets for which you lift that weight.
4. Consider range of motion resistance training. When it comes to engaging in resistance training, doing exercises with a full range of motion appears to be beneficial when it comes to your lower body musculature, according to a meta-analysis published in 2020 in SAGE Open Medicine. The evidence that such training is helpful for the upper body is “less conclusive,” according to the meta-analysis.
5. If you’re a beginner, work out more frequently. If you’re a neophyte at working out, exercising more frequently could be beneficial “because you are in part learning and improving general movement patterns and mobility,” Matheny says.
In general, younger people should be able to train at a higher frequency than older people, who have a longer recovery time. After the age of 30, your recovery time decreases by about 10% per decade, he says.
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Update 06/10/21: This article was previously published and has been updated with new information.