You’re doing the work, you’re feeling the burn, but how long does it actually take to build muscle?
Building muscle isn’t just a matter of showing up and working out however and whenever you want. Looking in the mirror doesn’t help either (sorry). You have to incorporate a few important strategies into your training regimen in order to trigger the physiologic response that leads to hypertrophy, the process that causes your muscles to grow.
Depending on how massive you want your muscles to get, there are a few tricks you can incorporate, such as blood flow restriction training and consuming extra protein, but as a general rule, you can expect the process to take anywhere from three to 12 weeks. A beginner should be able to gain about one to four pounds in a month, while an experienced lifter may only be able to gain about half a pound in a month.
Hypertrophy is defined as the enlargement of an organ or tissue due to an increase in the size of its cells. This natural process occurs when the body is stressed to the point of tissue damage, which triggers a repair process that prepares the body to handle the same amount of work without the same amount of damage the next time around. As you progressively load your tissue, what’s actually happening is a process of “stimulation and repair.” By lifting heavier loads than your body is accustomed to, you stimulate an inflammatory and hormonal response that leads to increased cellular activity, increased size of your cells and increased cross sectional area of your muscles.
During the inflammatory response, certain cells are flushed into the stressed or “injured” site to repair the tissue that is damaged. This response also tells your body’s skeletal muscle cells that they need to grow bigger and stronger to handle the increased load. Testosterone is among the hormones triggered (along with cortisol and growth factor). These hormones help regulate cell activity and lead to increased protein synthesis (specifically, actin and myosin, the contractile proteins in muscle) which, in turn, builds the muscle fibers back thicker and stronger.
But this doesn’t happen overnight. While inflammation can come on quickly, the repair process takes longer. Like with any training, the time it takes to grow muscle can vary based on many factors. Smaller muscles require less time than larger muscles (think forearms vs. quads), for example, and numerous personal factors such as age, gender, health history, and nutrition can play a key role in outcome.
Nutrition and rest also are particularly critical during this process. The most basic step: supplementing your diet with extra protein. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which is among the most highly respected authorities in the exercise science field, recommends 1.2 to 2.0 g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight for men looking to build muscle. You should also get seven to nine hours of sleep every night because that is when the body spends its time and energy repairing damaged tissue.
There are multiple schools of thought about the best ways for quick muscle growth, but the National Strength and Conditioning Association‘s guidelines to build muscle efficiently suggests that your plan should look something like this:
Remember: There is a fine line between loading your body enough to positively change it, and being too aggressive with the concept of “overloading,” which can lead to injury. If you can’t work with a trainer and/or dietician to build a personalized plan, use a trusted guide such as those set out by the NSCA to make sure you build strength in a smart and safe way.
If you’re working out on your own, try estimating your 1 RM rather than pushing your body to find it. And always make sure to listen to your body as you go. A good 12-week general strength training plan can be found here.
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