How much muscle can you gain naturally? Disclaimer: may be upsetting for some
“So I’m going to start lifting weights,”
“Ok, great what are your goals? Get in shape, for a sport…?”
“Just to be in shape. Don’t want to get too big though…”
I’ve had this conversation a few times, normally when talking to a friend or someone I have met in the gym.
I take it as meaning two things:
- They haven’t got much experience of training, so don’t realize how hard it is to gain muscle, i.e. getting ‘too big’ is never going to be on the list of a natural trainers problems.
- They have this view through inexperience but it has been cultivated by the way the media and the fitness industry sells the idea of how getting muscular can be achieved in simple steps with the right product, as well as inflating the expectations of what is possible through propaganda campaigns with drug-using role-models
It is interesting when you look at pictures of athletes from the 1970s compared to now. In physical contact sports like Rugby or American Football professional players are now something like on average 10-15 kgs heavier, whilst being faster, leaner and stronger. So for example if a player in a certain position in the 70s was 6′ tall and 80 kgs, nowadays they would be 95 kgs.
That is an 18.75% increase in weight, whilst becoming faster, stronger and leaner, in 30 years.
This kind of increase is put down to professionalism and the advance of sports science; better training, better knowledge of physiology, better nutrition and so on. It does make sense and sure, all those things have undoubtedly helped to make athletes perform more efficiently.
But an almost 19% increase in size whilst improving all the other parameters like speed and agility? Were the athletes in the past not eating and just doing a few press ups once a week as training?
When you think about it, something doesn’t add up. The problem is that nowadays the idea of a guy being 6′ and 95kgs of muscle at 8% bodyfat doesn’t seem remarkable anymore. For those of you who follow the fitness world, or the fitness channels on YouTube, everyone seems to be hitting those numbers; it has got to the point where guys are 250 lbs (114 kgs or almost 18 stone) and lean and claiming they are just training hard and drinking milk.
In fact if you’re 6′ and under 200 lbs (approximately 91 kgs or 14.3 stone) of muscle and in shape nowadays you’re not even impressive, according to the standards of the online fitness community.
Again, before I knew better I was deluded too. No-one wants hear about limits, and when you believe that your favourite athletes are that big while being natural it is going to follow that you think you can do it too, probably by drinking whatever shake that person is promoting.
Obviously though there has to be limit to how much muscle you can put on and that your frame can support. If you stay off the PEDs and external assistance, what is that limit? You evidently can’t keep adding 10 lbs of muscle a year ad infinitum.
So how much muscle can you expect to gain as a natural, dedicated lifter over the course of your training career?
Disclaimer: if you’d rather not know and not be disappointed please do not read the next section
The short answer is: probably a lot less than you thought.
The best place to start when determining this is to take a genetically gifted person (i.e. one with good bone structure, natural strength and a natural disposition for building muscle- you know the guy who doesn’t train but is pretty big) and apply the dedication and optimal training protocols required to maximise muscle growth.
I’m talking living the lifestyle; eating well and enough, training intelligently with intensity, sleeping enough for recovery etc. Basically a lifestyle revolving around training and muscle growth.
As we are determining just maximum muscular potential and not too concerned about speed or agility the best place to find individuals like this would be the world of natural bodybuilding.
In case you didn’t know there are generally two types of bodybuilding; tested and non-tested. In theory the tested federations have competitors who submit to drugs tested and are meant to be free from use of steroids and PEDs (I say in theory because the testing protocols are probably not as tight as you would think, but that is a whole other post).
The non-tested federations are what you think of when you think of Arnold Schwartznegger; no one actually admits to drug use but the lack of testing means that it is fair game and so everyone is doped to the gills.
So, setting aside for a moment whether competitors in natural bodybuilding are actually completely natural the easiest way to determine how big you can get is to look at the average size of natural champions and use it as a rough maximum.
This should give us the maximum possible; it means that 99.9% of people aren’t going to get anywhere near the numbers.
These guys are genetically gifted and insanely dedicated, competing in a sport where maximum muscular size whilst maintaining leanness is the goal; whatever they manage is not going to be topped by the average 3 times a week bench presser.
Luckily for me there are a lot of pre-existing studies out there, some more scientific than others but I have selected one I believe to be the most comprehensive. For the whole analysis I point you in the direction of two thorough and excellent articles by Casey Butt, Ph.D. for those interested- Maximum Drug-Free Bodybuilding Potential, ed 1.0 and the sister article Your Maximum Bodyweight and Measurements.
His results are based on analysis of over 300 drug-tested champion bodybuilders and strength athletes.
In summary from his studies Butt presents the following equation for predicting muscular potential based on an individuals Height (H), Wrist measurement (W) and Ankle circumference (A), all in inches % bodyfat.
Predicting Maximum Muscular Bodyweight: The Equation
I’ll use myself as an example: 5’10” (70 inches), wrist measurement (on the hand side of the bone) 7.25, ankle at narrowest point 8.75″.
Plugging it in I get the result of: 178.27 lbs, 81.03 kgs or 12.7 stone
So according to analysis of hundreds of champions, this is the apparent predicted maximum amount of lean body mass a person of my height and measurements could naturally hope to ever attain. So if I was theoretically 10% bodyfat, which is lean enough to have a good visible six-pack the most a lifter of my dimensions could ever hope to weigh is: 198 lbs, 90 kgs, or 14.1 stone.
My current weight is around 189 lbs, 86 kgs or 13.5 stone. I have no accurate way of measuring my body fat at the moment but let’s say conservatively it is 14-15% since I have visible abs but am not doing anything special regarding diet or specifically trying to be as lean as possible.
So this would mean my lean body mass at the moment is around 161 lbs, 73 kgs, or 11.5 stone.
It appears I am a long way from the predicated maximum! So should I just eat more, train harder to get to those numbers?
No. These stats are based on the most genetically gifted, dedicated champions; they are not meant represent an aspirational number to achieve.
Another thing to bear in mind is that there is no way of knowing 100% that the guys whose data was used were completely, lifetime drug-free.
Although they competed or are competing in a drug-tested federation drug tests are not difficult to get around; if people like Lance Armstrong never tested positive despite the hundreds of cutting edge tests in a multi-million pound sport like pro cycling how hard is it to get around a much less well-funded doping control which would be used for these bodybuilding shows?
My point is that the real numbers are likely even lower if you could somehow use a sample that was definitively 100% lifetime drug-free.
The take away is that if you know a guy who is 5’10” and he is a genuine 8% bodyfat whilst being over 200 lbs, to say that he is not on steroids would be to claim that he somehow has better genetics, work ethic, dedication and training than hundreds of champion natural bodybuilders.
Is it impossible? No, you could have a ridiculous genetic outlier. But is it probable? Not very.
It is even less probable that out of the thousands of professionals the majority of NFL players, pro rugby players, strength athletes etc. are all genetic outliers or ‘freaks of nature’; not just freaks of nature compared to the average man but freaks compared to champion natural bodybuilders.
I would say it is impossible that the massive guy at your gym is natural because if he was that genetically talented it would have been spotted at a young age and he would be playing pro sports now, not bouncing at your local club.
Don’t let reality be tainted; set achievable targets
Ignore the propaganda; set yourself a realistic goal and don’t get hung up on trying to be like your favourite athletes or believe that guy at the gym who says you can gain muscle year after year after year and that being 185 lbs at 6′ is tiny.
Genetics and hormones dictate your muscular limits and potential, and it seems as though unsurprisingly nature has a relatively modest limit to how much muscle anyone can carry without external assistance.
If your reaction to all this is “you’re wrong, I know someone who is 6′, and 17 stone of pure muscle, all natural,” then I’ll leave you with Casey Butt’s succinct conclusion:
Depending on how unrealistic or realistic your expectations are, those numbers may seem way too low, or ridiculously high. If you’ve never used steroids and have been training seriously for more than five years (and have actually gotten lean enough to see your abs) then you probably think your predictions are unattainable.
If, on the other hand, you’re a beginner who reads the muscle magazines showcasing heavy steroid-users then you’re probably shocked and calling me a quack about now. Hey, either way, I didn’t impose these “maximums”, I just did the analysis of them.