How Much Muscle Can You Gain Naturally?
I get questions all the time from normal guys who are 5’10” but want to be a ripped 190lb. This tells me there is a huge misconception about how much muscle the average man can gain naturally. This perception is skewed by muscle magazines that promote bodybuilders who take steroids on their covers.
The following digs deeper into this question of maximum muscle potential for men and offers some equations you can use to estimate how much muscle you can gain naturally.
Unnatural vs. Natural Physiques
If you see a 250lb bodybuilder with veins popping out all over the place, you can be sure that dude not only takes steroids, but a bunch of mostly illegal, dangerous supplements, referred to as a “stack”. Not only are 99% of bodybuilders taking steroids, even a large percentage of fitness models (men and women) who promote supplements take steroids, or HGH (human growth hormone). I wish it weren’t true, but sadly I know it for a fact.
Natural Bodybuilders (sample photo to the right) who comprise a very small percentage of the bodybuilding industry do not take any steroids, or other heavy-duty, performance enhancing substances.
NOTE: All the formulas to arrive at your maximum muscle potential in this article are based on natural male bodybuilders who are extremely dedicated individuals and have lifted for oftentimes 10+ years.
The Genetic Bell Curve
The bell curve can be applied to body type to arrive at what percentage of people will experience average, above average, or below average muscle mass development. If you remember statistics, this genetic bell curve implies about 68% of people are average (within 1 standard deviation of the mean), 16% are below average, and 16% are above average.
People who are “average” will respond by gaining muscle over time with solid training and nutrition, and will be statistically average in terms of total muscle potential. The formulas in this article are based upon this genetic average. The 16% of people who are “below average” will not genetically be able to put on as much muscle despite using the same exercise, or nutrition regimen. The 16% who are “above average” can get bigger just by looking at weights! I’m sure you’ve seen, or know a guy like this.
Muscle Gain Potential Formula #1: BuiltLean.com
I came up with this short hand approach to calculate your maximum Lean Body Mass (LBM). Your LBM is everything in your body besides fat, including your bones, organs, muscle, and blood. This approach gives very similar results to the #2 formula below.
(Your Height in Inches -70) x 5 + 160 = Maximum LBM
This equation implies that starting at 160lb, add 5lb for every inch you are over 5’10”, or subtract 5lb for every inch you are below 5’10”. That’s the maximum LBM you can gain naturally assuming you are in the average span of the genetic bell curve. Pretty simple.
In order to figure out your total weight, just figure out how much fat you want to have on your body given your maximum LBM. For example, if you had an LBM max of 160lb with 10lb of fat, you would have a total body weight of 170lb and a body fat percentage of 6% (10lb of fat divided by 170).
Muscle Gain Potential Formula #2: LeanGains.com
This formula is from natural bodybuilder Martin Berkahn over at LeanGains.com who coaches other natural bodybuilders. Needless to say, he has a great feel for the max amount of muscle you can build naturally.
The following formula is elegant because it’s so simple and is impressively accurate for most people:
(Height in centimeters – 100) = Max Body Weight in Kg When Ripped
The only downside of this equation is that the Max Body Weight is given “when ripped” (i.e. 5-6% body fat, or shredded with no visible fat). I prefer using LBM, from which you can simply add on whatever amount of fat you think is reasonable.
To save you from centimeter and kilogram conversions, I have a chart below that shows for a given height the maximum muscle potential when ripped using the LeanGains formula (“Max Ripped”) and the Max LBM (assuming 6% body fat):
Muscle Gain Potential Formula #3: Frame Size Model
From my experience, I think the following formula overestimates maximum muscle potential (my guess is there may be some selection bias, which includes many champion bodybuilders), but I wanted to include it because it’s often cited and it’s based on exhaustive research.
Casey Butt is a natural bodybuilder who came up with a formula for calculating muscle potential based on height, wrist size, and ankle size. The idea is that people with larger bone structures can put on more muscle even at the same height as those with smaller bone structures, which makes perfect sense.
H = Height in inches
A = Ankle circumference at the smallest point
W = Wrist circumference measured on the hand side of the styloid process.
(The styloid process is the bony lump on the outside of your wrist.)
%bf = The body fat percentage at which you want to predict your maximum lean body mass
I’m guessing you don’t want to solve this equation yourself, so here’s a link to the muscle potential calculator. The difference between the BuiltLean.com/LeanGains.com and the Frame Size Model is typically around 8-15lb. For a very detailed discussion of not only muscle potential, but also maximum body measurements, you can check out this article.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t worry too much about your genetic muscle potential, just focus on training hard, eating more calories than you burn with ample protein, and see how the chips fall. In my opinion, you don’t need as much muscle as you think to have an exceptionally aesthetic physique that is also very strong. In fact, I think you can take off a solid 15lb off the genetic muscle potential chart above for your height, and you will still have a great physique when lean. I also believe building too much muscle can be taxing for your entire body, including your organs, but I guess that’s a conversation for another time.
Hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions!
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