How Much Muscle Can You Gain Naturally?

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

As a strength training newbie, if you do everything right you can gain twenty pounds of muscle in your first year of proper training.

In some rare cases I’ve even seen some gifted kids gain thirty.

But to gain thirty you have to also be growing at that time anyway, with or without strength training. That means it’s only gonna happen if you’re 16-22, maybe even up to 25.

Gaining much more than that is going to be damn near impossible. That’s not a defeatist statement but rather a reality check so that you don’t frustrate yourself and get disappointed.

I’ve also seen plenty of guys who half assed their training and nutrition for five years make “newbie gains” when they finally dialed it in. In those cases gains of 12-15 pounds at year six are fairly realistic.

Year one will always be your best year for gaining muscle. Then things slow down fairly rapidly.

The gains start to get cut in half for the next few years until they become pretty miniscule after year five.  That’s reality.

How Much Muscle Can You Gain Naturally in Your Lifetime?

Mike Mentzer used to claim that with proper training and nutrition you could come very close to hitting your genetic potential for muscular gains within just a few years. He was probably closer to being right than most of us would like to think.

Here’s how muscle gains will look for most people:

Year 1: 20-30 pounds (if you start between 15 and 22 years old)
Year 2: 10-12 pounds
Year 3: 5-8 pounds
Year 4 & 5: 3-6 pounds
The next 10-20 years: 3-10 pounds

And that’s high end, assuming you’re doing everything right.

Most people have the potential to add a good thirty pounds of muscle to their frames regardless of how shitty their genetics are. Some can add forty.

And a smaller percentage can add fifty. In my quarter century of training I’ve never seen anyone add more than fifty pounds of muscle to their frame naturally.

After your initial newbie gains progress will be random and unpredictable. You might gain two pounds one year, zero the next, and one the year after that.

Then, occasionally, you’ll get that one year where everything falls into place for you, you finally learn to chill out and reduce stress levels, you quit the job that was ruining your life, you start sleeping an extra two hours per night, you start meditating and stop worrying so much…

And you actually gain five pounds of muscle over the course of twelve months.

But no matter what you do naturally, your potential is limited. A lot more so than supplement companies and bodybuilding mags would have you believe. You have to accept that if you’re going to be happy and enjoy training.

A Reality Check From Muscle Building Genetic Freaks

Think about this for a second- John Cena, a professional wrestler with the WWE (pictured to the left), has what many would argue to be some of the best muscle building genetics ever.

His joints are the size of my head. And I know more than one person, all of whom would know and I trust, that swear he is 100% natural.

People will argue that all day, but what you’re arguing would actually strengthen my point. So it’s irrelevant.

He weighs 250 pounds at 36 years old. As far as I can tell he’s been the exact same weight for the entire twelve years he’s been in the WWE, even though he trains every day, as hard as anyone in the world.

His normal untrained, adult weight is probably around 200-210 pounds. He weighed that in high school.

The Rock was 225 in high school. At his peak he weighs 275. That’s a fifty-pound gain in however many years it took.

Arnold was 200 pounds as a teen and competed in the Mr. Olympia at 237. That’s not even a fifty pound gain.

Your Reality as a Skinny-Fat Guy with Average Genetics

My point here (even if all the numbers aren’t exact) is that the guys with some of the greatest muscle building genetics in the world have gained fifty pounds of muscle in their lifetimes. Think about that for a second.

What this means is that if you’re the average skinny-fat guy who weighs 150 at 5’10” with 18% bodyfat you’re never going to be over 200 pounds. If you do hit that milestone you’ll be fat.

There are a lot of guys who “think” they are 200 pounds but they’re lying to themselves. If they were lean they’d be 175.

The skinny-fat guy who is 160 with 18% bodyfat would be 144 if he were 10% bodyfat (which is a pretty respectable level that most people could hold year round). Now, if somehow he could match John Cena’s and The Rock’s fifty pound muscle gain in a lifetime he could get up to 194 pounds over the course of a decade or so.

But, if guys with the best genetics in the world can only gain fifty pounds of muscle in a lifetime what makes you think you can if you’ve got the shittiest genetics in the world and are covered in wale skin with six-inch wrists?

Maybe you’ve only got thirty pounds in you.

Realistic Expectations= Happiness & A Better Life

I say all of this not to discourage you but rather to encourage you.

When you set unrealistic goals and live or die by them your life will suck and you’ll always be unhappy and depressed.

If you accept reality and learn to accept yourself for who you are and stop being so insecure or concerned with what other people think or are doing you’ll be a lot happier in your own skin.

I’m not saying to set limits on yourself. Certainly not. But at least set goals that are somewhat realistic. For most guys, gaining forty pounds of muscle in 5-8 years isn’t out of the question. It’s doable.

With realistic expectations and goals you won’t be so let down all the time. These are the cards you’ve been dealt. You accept it and live life to the fullest, doing the best you can with what you’ve got.

There’s not a secret supplement that you’re not taking that can change all that. The only thing that would help guys with average to shitty muscle building genetics, like you and me, to ever end up looking like Adrian Petersen or The Rock is a new set of parents.

Dudes come to me all the time at a starting weight of 130-155, with narrow shoulders, wide hips and wale skin. Zero definition, zero muscle. They tell me that their goal is to be a lean 225 within the next two years.

There’s nothing I can do to help these people because they are in outer space, living in a fantasy world. They won’t commit to the time and effort required. They’ll be gone in a month, looking for the next magic bullet.

Setting goals for yourself like that is like me picking up the guitar for the first time today and saying I’m going to be playing like Hendrix in a year, while also simultaneously breaking all of Wayne Gretzky’s records during that same time frame, even though I have never played hockey before.

It’s so unrealistic that it’s nonsensical. The world has led you to believe that things that aren’t possible really are and that wizards and unicorns really do exist.

Off the top of my head I can’t think of any guys who have gained more than fifty pounds of muscle, naturally in their lifetime. Maybe they exist; I just don’t know of them.

So stop stressing yourself out and getting caught up in hype and nonsense. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else.

Once you get a good solid grasp on reality you can start to realize that little day to day things like having a bad workout or missing a meal or not getting more than one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight don’t really matter that much. The stress all goes away.

Get on a solid, proven program and train because you love it. Forget about old school bulk cycles and follow an intelligent eating plan, keeping in mind that you can’t eat your way to building muscle faster than humanly possible.

Don’t freak out because you aren’t dwarfing The Rock just yet. Stay dedicated and the muscle gains will come. And when they stop there will always be a new lift or bodyweight exercise for you to master.

You can always get better in way or another, and that’s all that really matters.

Want to learn more about gaining muscle?  

Here are 3 killer podcasts to check out: