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How long does it actually take to build muscle?

With the new year fast approaching, we are about to see a lot more “transformation” programs or “challenges” about to sell you on the idea of adding x amount of muscle in minimal time, such as 6 weeks. I’ve always cringed at these programs largely because, unfortunately, it takes a lot longer than 6 weeks to see noticeable changes in muscle size.

In this blog post, I’m going to explain what a realistic timeline would be for gaining muscle that is evidence-based and truthful. If you are curious to hear the truth about how long it takes to see changes in muscle growth, read on!

This always happens before muscle growth

Strength gains are rapid in individuals who are new to the gym or haven’t trained for some time. This is largely due to the fact that the person's brain is getting “smarter” at lifting the weight, through better coordination between the individual muscle fibres and the brain, coined motor unit synchronization (1).

Other mechanisms that take place include improving neuron firing rate and muscle fibre activation (1). In this early stage of training, muscle growth is still at a microscopic level and plays a trivial role in the rate of force development.

Muscle growth indeed happens rapidly, however..

Emerging evidence has demonstrated that muscle growth, or “hypertrophy,” starts to take shape hours after a resistance training session (1). Indeed, the process of muscle growth is rapid following training but to see noticeable changes in size and strength, much longer periods are required.

This is because the continual process of breaking down and repairing must take place to continue to grow a muscle. Many training sessions targetting the same muscles with heavy loads and multiple sets with adequate recovery are what is required to see the desired physical changes over an extended period of time.

But how long does it REALLY take to grow muscle?

Studies conducted on untrained participants examining the timeline it takes to see noticeable changes in muscle growth have described periods between 10-14 weeks to see muscle growth changes of approximately 15% from pre-training levels (2). What this means in practical terms is noticeable changes in how your appearance looks along with how your clothes fit will become apparent. Will you look like the hulk in this time? Absolutely not. In fact, muscle growth continues to proceed at an increasingly slower rate as one gets closer to their genetic window.

However, significant growth can take place in the first year of training with consistency and following a well-thought-out training program, with a significant increase (starting to look like the hulk) amount of muscle taking place around the 6-month mark and (hulk-like) changes occurring at the 1-year mark. Interestingly, it appears that the physiological process of continuous adaptation to strength training is an interplay between neurological (brain getting smarter) and structural changes (body getting tougher via muscle size, tendon stiffness, bone density, etc.).

With that being said, what is the best course for building muscle?

For those previously unaware, building muscle takes consistency and time. Patience and a well-designed training program with proper rest and recovery is the best way to maximize your results.

It was the purpose of this blog post to emphasize that, although there are many short-term programs claiming to get you results quickly, they are misleading. In reality, there are no quick fixes and it’s in your best interest to stay clear of these challenges and focus on sustainability and long-term growth.

At Shift to Strength, we do things differently. We build trust with evidence-based programming and set realistic and achievable goals that get you to your results without fads or extremes.

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  1. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.

  2. Holm, L., Reitelseder, S., Pedersen, T. G., Doessing, S., Petersen, S. G., Flyvbjerg, A., ... & Kjaer, M. (2008). Changes in muscle size and MHC composition in response to resistance exercise with heavy and light loading intensity. Journal of applied physiology, 105(5), 1454-1461.


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