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I'm on the smaller side, and I'm looking to get bigger. I've been lifting heavy and eating healthy, but I'm not putting on the mass I'd hoped for. Give it to me straight: How much muscle can I expect to put on naturally?

How many times have you heard actors say they gained 30 or 40 pounds of muscle for a film in a matter of months? You sit there in disbelief, wondering what type of diet and training program they were on, who their trainer is, and what you have to do to bulk up and mimic their ripped physique by next month.

Well, I'm here to break it to you easy: It's virtually impossible for somebody who's been training regularly to gain 30-40 pounds of muscle in a couple of months or even a year. The only person with the ability to potentially gain 18-20 pounds of muscle in a year is a gym newbie—someone who's never lifted weights or trained before.

Why? Their genetic muscular potential hasn't been activated yet. In other words, they haven't even approached their greatest gains. An experienced trainee, on the other hand, has hit or neared his potential, making lean muscle, fat-free gains much slower.

Still questioning your progress? Let's review some expert opinions.

Alan Arogon's Natural Lean Muscle Mass Gain Model

According to Aragon, advanced trainees near their genetic potential are lucky to gain 0.25% to 0.5% of their total body weight gain as fat-free muscle per month. That makes the 10-pound-gain claims of already ripped celebrities seem outrageous, right?

In my opinion, it's rare to see a natural bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast close to their genetic muscular potential gain more than 2-3 pounds of lean muscle in a year. This is why it's an accomplishment when experienced bodybuilders manage to gain 7-10 pounds of fat-free muscle in a year.

Lyle McDonald's Natural Lean Muscle Mass Gain Model

Provided that they follow a sensible, structured diet and training program, a 150-pound beginner fitness enthusiast in Aragon's model can potentially gain 18-27 pounds of lean muscle per year. A 170-pound intermediate fitness enthusiast can potentially gain 10-15 pounds of muscle.

Another expert, Lyle McDonald, offers a natural lean muscle mass theory that's slightly different from Aragon's theory, placing more emphasis on hormonal changes and age. McDonald believes that you can naturally gain 40-50 pounds of muscle in a weightlifting career. This is close to what I've put on naturally throughout my lifting career, and I believe I am close to my genetic potential.

So, if 5,000 calories per day is overkill, what's a good range? That depends on your activity level. Below are recommendations from the International Sports Science Association based on workout regularity.

The ISSA Daily Caloric Consumption Theory For Bulking

My Tips on Lean Muscle Mass Gain for Naturals

It starts with nutrition. The ratio that has worked well with my clients in terms of daily caloric consumption for lean muscle mass gains and minimal fat gain is the 16 calories per pound ratio. For example, if you're a 200-pound person and you're on a 16-calorie-per-pound bulking diet, you would consume 3,200 calories at a ratio of 40 percent protein, 40 percent carbs, and 20 percent fat.

It also leans on exercise. Even when I've trained clients whose goal was to put on lean muscle mass, I still had them doing sprints at least 3-4 days per week, 20-25 minutes per day. Check out Dr. Wilson's article: Mass vs. Cardio. There he touts short-duration, high-intensity activities as the key to fat loss and muscle preservation. In fact, sprinting was actually found to increase muscle size if limited to roughly 20 minutes per day.

You don't need to lift the whole gym to make your muscles grow, but you want to lift heavier. You have to add stress and tension to muscles to make them grow. I advise a client to train at 80 percent of their one-rep max for each set. A rep count should be 10-12 reps.

It is amazing how many muscle-building programs out there promise that you'll look like the incredible Hulk if eat more than 5,000 calories each day. Sure, you'll look like a hulk ... of fat. Many of these programs cause you to gain an enormous amount of unnecessary fat, giving the illusion that you put on muscle. The number on the scale might increase, but the likelihood that lean-muscle gains are the cause is slim. Never rely on the scale as indicator of how much muscle you put on, because it doesn't differentiate between lean muscle and fat. The only way to determine how much lean muscle you have is to get an underwater body-fat test or a Bod Pod test to break down your numbers on fat-free lean muscle mass weight versus body fat.

Any time you're on a bulking program where you goal is to put on muscle, it's inevitable that you're going to gain a little fat. Just make sure that fat gain is minimal.

Once you can separate the myths from the truth about natural muscle gains, you'll be on your way. Train hard, eat healthy, be patient, and it will happen!


  1. International Sports Sciences Association- Berardi, John, PhD, Andrews, Ryan, MS/MA, RD. "Nutrition: The Complete Guide". PG. 347
  2. Mcdonald, Lyle

About the Author

Obi Obadike, M.S.

Obi Obadike, M.S.

Obi Obadike, M.S., is a celebrity trainer and fitness author who holds a Master of Science degree from the University of Phoenix (Phoenix, Arizona).

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