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How Much Muscle Can You Gain Naturally?

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

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, this is what I’ve learned being part of the fitness industry.

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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  • Joe says:

    Hey Marc,

    Love the article just wanted to get a better understanding. Im 6 foot, 170lbs 11-13% body fat. According to the chart, when I hit 171lbs at 6%BF i will reach/be around my max muscle gains. Does this mean I will plateau and no longer gain size or strength?
    Im 21 and almost kinda worried that when I do gain the 10lbs of muscle(just a guess) i will reach my max and will no longer see gains. Say i reach my max in a year or two, going to the gym knowing you've reached your max amount of muscle is not something I've thought about. I'm in the gym to see gains and reach my goals. Are you saying in the near future I will be going to the gym for a different reason..not to gain muscle/ strength/ size, but to maybe just maintain the muscle and stay in shape?


    • Marc Perry says:

      @Joe - As I stated in some of my other comments, this article was merely supposed to be a guideline to help natural guys realize the difference between natural muscle size, and drug induced results. I don't know and you don't know your maximum muscle potential, but it may very well be around 180lb when ripped (not 170lb as you wrote in your comment, that's your max LBM predicted by the formulas). With that said, I can just about guarantee you there will be a time in your life when you are not constantly trying to get bigger, but may want to lose some more fat, improve your mobility, improve your cardio capacity, or simply want to stay in shape, or maintain the physique you have. You have a long journey ahead of you my friend and I wish you the best of luck!

  • Tim says:

    I'm sure those formulas don't work for short people. I'm 5 foot 5 and I'm sure I can get more lean body mass than 135lb, that's scrawny as hell for bodybuilding! I probably have about that at the moment with a total body weight of 162lb and about 25lb of fat and I do weight train but not seriously

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Tim - Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It's very possible that these formulas do not hold up well on the taller and and shorter end of the spectrum. They are built for guys around 5'10-5'11.

  • Tim says:

    135lb lean bodymass is tiny for 5 foot 5. I'm probably at that now, as an occasional weight trainer, although I also have 25lbs or so of fat on top of that.

  • James Barclay says:

    Hi Marc,

    Just a couple of thoughts I'd like to throw out there regarding how much (most) people can gain naturally and get a bit feedback from yourself and others about your opinions. Firstly can I just point out that I for one completely agree with the above guide on what the typical max ripped & LBM most of us can achieve although I know a LOT of guys who would argue that it is incorrect. I'd say there's a couple of reasons for this and the first is because most people can't get their head round the fact that a 5' 10" man who is 171 pounds with a very low body fat is in fact huge, that's surely because a lot of people don't understand that there's a bit of a trade off going on in the sense that being ripped means losing a lot of "fat weight" and in turn replacing that weight with muscle and then subsequently adding more weight on top with more muscle to achieve those above guideline figures. I think a lot of us (myself included) become a bit overwhelmed by the truth that there's a lot of fat to be shed before starting to build muscle and the loss of that fat leaves most of us with a figure which we simply aren't happy with. For example the gym I train at has most of the people training within it standing at say an average of 5' 10" 168 pounds and a body fat percentage in the high teens. When those people look in the mirror they tend to think they are mostly muscle while being oblivious to the fact they are carrying a lot of fat as they are generally pretty strong and are simply not happy with the reality of having to lose 10-15 pounds of fat and start their muscle building plan from there. I routinely see these guys on crunch machines and doing endless sit ups believing they are a couple of weeks away from a prominent 6 pack. These guys invariably underestimate their body fat percentage which is a shame because knowledge is power and if only they'd realise this, their progress would be somewhat faster and extremely revealing should they listen to the tips I have found here on HIIT and excellent nutrition.

    Secondly I have noticed that there are a lot of websites out there which state we can pack on 20-30 pounds of muscle in a year naturally? How can they come up with those figures and why do they exploit young gym enthusiasts by setting these unreasonable/unachievable goals?! I personally believe, and I think you would agree, that the most amount of muscle (most) of us can put on inside a year assuming excellent nutrition and good solid sensible workouts would sit at around 7 pounds (ish). I've scrutinised numbers for quite some time now and I stand by that, both because of my own experience and through what I've witnessed from others. Don't get me wrong, there are always exceptions to the rules and I have also seen some guys who seem to have superior genes that can exceed these figures as you have already pointed out in the past. Going by your realistic figures Marc it would appear that a lot of us would reach our genetic potential within a few years of committed training and nutrition which to me sounds about right, whereas these other websites are more or less indicating reaching the height of our genetic potential inside a year or 2! That just doesn't stack up for me so I'm not buying it, so just to let you know I'm happy to have this website to refer to every now and then for educated advice and I'm sure most others who visit your website feel the same, all in all good job! Any advice or thoughts on this from yourself or others would be welcomed, and just so the readers know, I'm not looking to offend anyone who doesn't necessarily agree with the guide above or even my thoughts, that's just my opinion and I appreciate everybody is

    Just for the record I'm standing 160 pounds at 5' 10" with 14% body fat so I have a bit of work to do initially in losing approximately 7-8 pounds of fat to get to single digit percentage of body fat and then work on putting on about 15 pounds of lean muscle to reach my ultimate goal of 168 pounds. I know this will take some time but it's better knowing that it will indeed take a significant period to get me there than to be fooled into thinking it can happen overnight which would undoubtedly result in complete failure which sadly is the case for a lot of people out there. All the best to everyone training hard, be patient I say, we can all see on Marc's site how the transformations can be realised.



    • Marc Perry says:

      @James - Thanks for sharing your in depth thoughts. I agree with everything you said and I wish you luck on your journey to reaching your ideal physique. I plan on adding a lot more helpful articles to BuiltLean in the coming months, so I look forward to your participation.

  • Adon says:

    Are you kidding me?
    I am 5'8 and weighing 163 lbs with 10%bodyfat and i even started lifting weights 1 month ago! so does it mean, that i won't gain that much muscle anymore? doesnt make sense.

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Adon - As I've mentioned in previous comments, this is simply a guide. You don't know how much muscle you can build until you try. The main point of the article was to highlight the unrealistic expectations of a lot of guys who have a misinformed belief they need to weigh 190lb when ripped to get the body they want. That's simply very, very false. It's highly unusual for a guy to be 190lb and ripped who doesn't take steroids, or some type of steroid like supplement.

  • Kyle Michaud says:

    I'm interested in competing. I am natural 5 foot 5 and 150 at 12 percent body fat so currently my lbm is 131.7. I'm turning twenty soon and I don't believe my lbm will stop anywhere near 135. What should I do about competitions. I have very decent measurements. My only problem is my right tricep is smaller than my left

    • Marc Perry says:

      @Kyle Michaud - Don't understand your question. What do you mean by, "what should I do about competing?"

  • Joey says:

    Hey Marc,
    Thanks for your article.

    I've come to the same conclusion as you about too much muscle and it being tough on your heart. I'm interested in seeing an article about that. My weight fluctuates between 5'10" 175ish when I'm at my highest strength (more just seems to turn to fat if I add weight to my frame even though I can lift a little bit heavier) and 165 when I am more running-distance trained. I'm currently just trying to focus on a strength:mass ratio, which is why I've taken an interest in gymnastics as an adult. It's quite a challenge to learn now (I'm obviously not doing anything too dangerous too soon, but just working on a planche and I already have a solid balanced handstand easily). I personally don't think that running extreme distances is healthy for your body either (ie ones where you're supposed to supplement carbohydrate to prolong your exercise time).

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Joey - Happy you agree with me!

  • Clayton says:


    I appreciate the article. But almost every estimation I have looked at for natural muscularity limits puts me right at or above my supposed natural limits. I am a hair shy of 5'11" and just over 220lbs at 17% body fat. But I would not consider myself huge... more like a healthy athletic (slightly more muscular than average) build. I am natural (no pro-hormones either) and I'm sure that I could probably add another 10-15lbs of muscle to my frame naturally before hitting my limit.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Clayton - I'm jealous. Another factor/limitation with these models excluding the Casey Butts model is that some people have much wider/more dense bone structures. Sounds like you are in this camp. If you take a guy is 5'11'' with a shoulder girdle that is 5 inches wider than a guy the same height, that will create a significant difference in maximum muscle potential.

  • Kyle Michaud says:

    Like what competetitions should I enter and how could I even up my arms. Its only 16 and 15.5 but it looks like its all tricep. Iill be twenty soon so I can't enter a teen competition. I feel I might make it far in the business seeing my age and measurements and id like to know where to start please and thank you

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Kyle Michaud - What specific competitions to look into is out of my realm because I’ve never competed myself. If you are natural (which I hope), then check out the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF). Your arms on not majorly out of proportion at 0.5 inches difference and your arm size is solid for your age and height. If you do more dumbbell work, that could be your best option. You can also measure the surface area of your triceps/biceps and see if you can more specifically identify the reason why one arm is smaller than the other, than address the difference.

  • Eldin says:

    Hey man that was a good article, im 5'8 160 pounds about 13 percent body fat. Ive been lifting for about 8 months now and ive never lifted before that. When I first started lifting I was 135 pounds and around 8 to 10 percent body fat. During that time period I didn't really focus on my legs to much, I rarely did squats and deadlifts. I was lifting 5 to 6 days a week doing just about everything in the gym. I just started doing squats and deadlifts and I found out I can do more then I thought. I deadlift 250 and squat 235. My goal is to get up to 170, just wondering by focusing on my legs more will this add that 10 pounds that I want.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Eldin - I think focusing on your legs is a VERY smart strategy to help gain muscle because (1) you can pack on a lot of muscle mass on your legs, (2) it can help increase your testosterone and other muscle building hormones and (3) your upper body can get stronger from a strong lower body (sounds strange, but it's true).