Building muscle takes time. Here’s how long you can expect it to take, and how to speed up the process.
Building muscle takes much longer than most people realize. It’s a slow — almost excruciatingly slow — process that can feel discouraging when you don’t see the muscle definition you want.
But if you’re on a quest for bigger muscles, it’s important to start your new workout plan with the right expectations. Lifting weights is the best way to build muscle over time. Research supports resistance training, especially weightlifting, as the best method for inducing hypertrophy (the scientific term for muscle growth).
Here you’ll learn how long it takes to build muscle and what factors influence your ability to get stronger, leaner and fitter from weight training.
How muscle growth happens
Building muscle involves the repair of microtraumas in your muscle fibers. Here’s a breakdown of this extremely complex process:
1. Each muscle is made up of thousands of tiny muscle fibers.
2. When you lift weights (or do body weight exercises), your muscles endure tiny injuries throughout their fibers.
3. Then, when you rest your muscles, your body begins repairing your damaged muscle cells.
4. The repair process involves fusing torn muscle fibers back together, as well as laying down new proteins within each muscle cell.
5. Your muscles become bigger and stronger as a result of the repair process.
Keep in mind that the above is a tremendously simplified version of what actually happens in your body after a weight training workout. In reality, the process includes more than just your muscles — your nervous system, circulatory system and endocrine system all contribute to muscle repair and growth.
How long does it take to build muscle?
There’s no one muscle-building timeline, because several factors affect your ability to build muscle mass, including:
Your protein intake: While all macronutrients have their roles, protein is king when it comes to building muscle. Your muscles need adequate protein to repair themselves after the stress of weight training. Without enough protein, muscle growth stagnates.
Your calorie intake: If you don’t eat enough calories on a daily basis, you won’t build muscle even if you eat a lot of protein. To build muscle, your body must create new tissue, and it can’t create something from nothing. Extra fuel from extra calories expedites muscle recovery and growth. This is one reason many people never reach their muscle growth goals — they aren’t willing to deal with the extra body fat that comes along with a muscle-building phase.
Your sleep schedule: Lifting weights while sleep-deprived isn’t a smart strategy. You might see some gains, but you definitely can’t optimize muscle growth when you don’t give your body a fighting chance to recover.
Your lifting routine: If you’re trying to build muscle, you should know about two key strength training concepts: frequency and volume. Frequency refers to how often you train a muscle or muscle group, while volume refers to the total load you stress a muscle with.
For example, if you perform three sets of 10 reps on squats using 100 pounds, your total volume is 3,000 pounds. More volume and higher frequency typically equate to more muscle, unless you reach the point of overtraining.
Your training age: The more advanced you are, the less muscle growth you’ll see (yeah, that sounds backward). Everyone has a maximum genetic potential for muscle growth, and the closer you get to yours, the harder it gets to build more muscle.
Your actual age: Like a lot of things, building muscle gets harder as you get older. Sarcopenia, or loss of muscle mass and function, is actually a big problem in older adults. That’s one reason why it’s so important to stay active as you get older.
Other major factors include your genetic potential for building muscle (which is impossible to quantify without lab testing, and even then, kind of wishy-washy) and your testosterone levels — which is why men typically have more muscle than women. Other hormones, including human growth hormone and insulin growth factor also play a role in muscle growth.
All that said, the muscle-building process starts the moment you challenge your muscles to do something. True beginners might see muscle growth within six weeks of starting a resistance training program, and advanced lifters may see results within six to eight weeks of switching up their usual strength training regimen.
Regardless of fitness level, building muscle takes several weeks, even when your diet, sleep and training regimen are all dialed in to optimize muscle growth.
Can you build muscle doing cardio?
This depends on your definition of cardio and your training age. Most people won’t build much muscle from traditional cardio, such as walking or jogging, and people who’ve been training for a long time definitely won’t build new muscle through traditional cardio. It doesn’t recruit your muscles in a way that sends a muscle-building signal to your body.
However, cardio that involves high-intensity exercises like plyometrics (think jump squats) or high-volume weight training can help you build muscle to an extent. Sprinting hills, hiking, skiing and other outdoor cardio can also contribute a small amount to muscle mass, especially for beginners. People with a long training history may not see as much success with cardio.
Although cardio can improve your overall fitness and help build muscle in select scenarios, strength training remains the best way to build muscle mass.
Capritto, A. (2021, July 3). How long it really takes to build muscle. CNET. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://www.cnet.com/health/fitness/how-long-does-it-take-to-build-muscle/