I get it. We all want to look like superheroes and stars, be it Captain America, Daniel Craig, or Katniss Everdeen.
Fortunately for us, there is no shortage of magazines, products, and supplements promising us those results in just a few short weeks/months!
UNFORTUNATELY for us, reality doesn’t agree. Yes, we can eventually get the results we’re after…provided we put in the time, energy, effort, discipline, and dedication.
So how DO we get there? For most people – the superhero version of themselves would require a loss of fat and both increase in muscle. We covered the weight loss side of this in a recent article.
If you’ve read that article, then you know our recommendation is usually to start with trimming the fat before we pack on some muscle, which is the focus of today’s article. If you’re a person on the thinner side of average looking to bulk up, this article will cover you too.
Here are some of the most common questions we get that we’ll be addressing today:
- How fast can I build muscle?
- If I’m new, can I gain more quickly?
- I’m worried about getting too bulky, help?
- Can I target specific body parts?
As a skinny guy who has been trying to build muscle naturally for the past 15 years, I’ve made all the mistakes one can make. I dutifully chugged protein shakes that made me gassy, I went to the gym 6 days a week and followed bodybuilder workout routines, and did everything I could to get bigger.
However, I had a few key things wrong, and that resulted in YEARS of frustration, confusion, and no progress.
Over the past few years, after a decade of inconsistent progress, I cracked the code, and figured out how to finally gain some muscle that has actually stuck. I’m still not big by many people’s standards, but I’m the Incredible Hulk compared to where I used to be:
This “build muscle naturally” thing can be quite difficult.
I struggled with building muscle for most of my adult life, (including 6 years of wasted efforts in the gym).
It wasn’t until I finally matched the right weight training program with the right nutritional strategy that I finally saw results that stuck.
I dig into all of the science and psychology in the article below, but I have to point out one HUGE secret I had working for me.
I hired a coach.
For the past four years, I’ve been working with an online fitness coach – he’s programmed all of my workouts and nutritional goals. It changed my life, and I want to help change yours too.
For the right person, our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program is a gamechanger – custom workouts, form checks, nutritional guidance, and worldwide accountability in your pocket. If you’re interested, click on the image below, and then keep reading about the ins and out of building muscle!
Alright, onto “how much muscle can I build naturally?”
How fast can I build muscle naturally?
Under OPTIMAL conditions, you can expect to gain around 1-2 pounds of muscle per month – though we’ve found that for most Rebels, closer to one pound is the reality.
“Optimal conditions” mean that you are eating the right amount and the right kinds of food, AND you are training perfectly for muscle growth (which we’ll explain below). Proper sleep is also absolutely necessary.
This also means you are trying to thread the needle of eating JUST enough to build muscle, but not too much that you put on a lot of fat, too. Yeah, you could go full hulk mode (“dirty bulk”) and just eat anything and everything, maxing out your muscle building… but it’ll be buried under fat, which you’ll have to trim again and restart the cycle.
While it is certainly one effective way to gain muscle and strength, we more often recommend fiddling with your diet and training so you can find that sweet spot where you’re building muscle and not gaining too much fat.
All of this to say: Yes, can build muscle, but it will NOT be the crazy amount you read about in the magazines, unless you’re taking Dr. Stark’s super serum (ROIDS!). If you had grand visions of looking like the dudes in the ads you see in muscle and fitness, don’t expect to do so in 90 days with a few days of training and protein shakes.
Remember: Expect 1-2 pounds of month of muscle gain…under optimal conditions.
The one possible exception to gaining strength and muscle fast? Noob gains.
What about Noob gains?
Yes, we’ve all heard the stories of guys that have gained 40 pounds of muscle in two months. Those stories aren’t real.
We’ve also seen all the ridiculous ads about “the workout supplement doctors don’t want you to see” with a guy that looks like Bane.
99% of that stuff is absolute bullshit, so let’s just get that out in the open! HOWEVER, If you’re really skinny, young, training hard, and eating all day every day, as a newbie you can produce results very quickly (ESPECIALLY if you are naturally predisposed to building muscle).
It is possible, in the first year of true strength training with intense focus and dedication, to gain 15-20 pounds of muscle. Combine that with 15-20 pounds of fat gain and you can drastically change your appearance if you started out very skinny.
When I started to take strength training, I felt like I was invincible. I even gained 18 pounds in a month, and I foolishly assumed most of it was muscle. But due to taking the supplement creatine (which allows your muscles to hold more water weight), almost all of it was water weight, along with some fat… and then probably 2-3 pounds of muscle!
I’ve since come to learn TEH MUSCLE GAINZ aren’t that easy. Fortunately, that’s only part of what I learned in that month. If you are new to strength training and you are eating right, you’ll not only pack on muscle, but you’ll see some incredibly impressive gains in your strength training:
- Going from 1 pull up to 3 sets of 15?
- Adding 100 pounds to your squat?
- Adding 150 pounds to your deadlift?
I can’t predict what sort of results you’ll see in that first year, but it can be pretty epic if you attack it right! Muscle growth might happen slower than you want, but I expect something different will happen along the way – you’ll fall in love with this idea of building STRENGTH! In fact, getting hooked on progress, and strength training is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
So, if you are young, growing, and brand spankin new to strength training, you’ll be able to pack on muscle at a decent clip. Our goal will be for you to do it in a way that’s sustainable!
Hopefully I didn’t put a big damper on your Captain-America fueled dreams! I just want to set proper expectations so you don’t get discouraged with slow progress, and instead get SUPER encouraged with any progress. Getting strong should be freakin’ fun! Weirdly enough, once I stopped trying to get there quickly is when I started to actually make permanent progress.
Good? Good! Now let’s build you some muscle!
Okay, How do I build muscle?
We’ve covered this at length in the “Beginner’s Guide to Getting Bigger” but I’ll give you the abridged version:
- Lift heavy things, progressively lifting heavier things.
- Specifically include squats and deadlifts and compound movements – they target the muscle building triggers in your entire body.
- Sleep as much as you can.
- Eat more calories, especially on training days (with plenty of protein and carbs, and vegetables).
- Repeat month after month after month.
- When in doubt, eat more than you think.
- If you put on too much fat, cut back on calories/carbs on non-training days.
The goal here is to thread the needle where we pack on size and muscle but not fat. If we don’t eat enough (generally a problem for skinny people), we will struggle to put on either. However, if we overeat we’ll build muscle and add some fat. We can then trim the fat, if after a few weeks we notice our body fat percentage creeping up.
“But Steve, I don’t have access to a gym – can I pack on muscle with just bodyweight exercises?”
Yes, you can pack on size while only doing bodyweight exercises – I did it while traveling the world – and gymnasts train mostly with bodyweight movements. However, this can feel like playing Halo on Legendary difficulty. It can be done, but damn it can be challenging – especially for lower body movements. If your sole goal is to get bigger as fast as possible, access to a barbell for squats and deadlift is almost a requirement.
One note: Our genetics factor in tremendously – some people can put on muscle easily, some people put on fat easily, while naturally thin people (like myself) will struggle to put on either. It’s in our genetics! We can certainly do our best to fight that battle, but it will be a struggle for some more than others.
Note about all of the above. If you’re confused about how to start with strength training, or you want to start with bodyweight training before trying a gym, or you just want to make sure you’re squatting and doing pull-ups right, we cover ALL of that in our free downloadable guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know.
Get your free guide when you sign up in the box below, and we’ll show you exactly what to do:
- Everything you need to know about getting strong.
- Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
- How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
…But I don’t want to get bulky
“I want to put on muscle, but not too much” shouldn’t be a big worry for you.
However, we get this question a LOT, from guys and girls. In fact, we get it so much from women, we included it in our top 7 myths of strength training for women. Mostly, this comment comes from folks who are new to strength training and fitness, which makes sense.
The unknown is scary, and we’re scared to start something if we’re not quite sure how our bodies are going to adapt. Combine this with mainstream magazines saying things like “lift light weights to tone arms!” and we we conjure up visions of lifting heavy weights producing a Hulk-like response.
Here’s a before and after from Staci, our Lead Female trainer in our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program, who picked up VERY heavy weights and actively tried to get bulky. Let’s see the results:
Here’s the truth: YOU DO NOT GET BULKY WITHOUT TRYING VERY HARD TO DO IT! Unless you are training with hypertrophy (increased muscle size) as a focus, have superior genetics, are taking steroids, eating like a horse, and focusing on nothing but muscle size for months/years, you are NOT going to get too bulky.
I run a fitness site. I have dedicated my life to health and fitness for the past twelve years, and I have actively been trying to put on weight and muscle throughout that entire time.
I am nowhere close to looking bulky, despite all of my efforts to do so, and dedicating my last 13 months to building muscle and size.
Yes, genetically some of us put on muscle faster than others, but even then it’s fractions of a degree, not DRASTIC sweeping differences. We tend to get this question from men or women who are so thin and have such fast metabolisms, they probably need to put on 40-50+ pounds of both fat and muscle, before they would ever even think to use the word “too bulky.”
So, remove this from your vocabulary!
Get strong. Now.
I want to talk about one final thing: all of the above info about muscle building is true, if you are 100% focused on muscle building.
Your results will vary if you are trying to build muscle while also:
- Running regularly
- Doing martial arts
- Participating in sports that require endurance
Now, all of this information comes with a caveat: do what makes you happy! If you love to run, or play ultimate frisbee 4 days a week, go for it. Just be sure to temper your goals if you’re ALSO trying to accomplish a billion other things too. Just temper your expectations as to what will be possible.
If you are looking for more specific guidance on how to build muscle naturally, or you’ve been at it for months/years without getting results and think you’re a lost cause, you’re not alone!
I honestly thought I was a lost cause because I spent 6 years training to bulk up and saw no results. Despite the story I told myself, it wasn’t because of my genetics. It was because I was following bad advice, had a bad training program, and didn’t have the right nutritional strategy!
If you are tired of not getting results, want to avoid trial-and-error, or you just want to be told exactly what to do to reach your goals, check out our popular 1-on-1 Coaching Program. You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself and program your workouts and nutrition strategy for you.
Now, if you are somebody that is more of the “do-it-yourself” type, check out our self-paced online course, the Nerd Fitness Academy. The Academy has 20+ workouts for both bodyweight or weight training, a benchmark test to determine your starting workout, HD demonstrations of every movement, boss battles so you know when you to level up your routine, meal plans, a questing system, and supportive community.
What else can I answer for you about healthy strength and muscle building?
We can become superheroes, and we have dozens of stories to prove it 🙂 – just remember it’s going to take time. Attack the problem with the right game plan, and your ascension to superhero status can come a bit quicker.
What do you want to know about building muscle and strength? Leave questions in the comments!
PS: Not ready to commit to one of our programs? That’s cool too! Make sure you sign up for our email list so we can send you BOTH the “Skinny nerd’s guide to bulking up” and also our entire “Strength Training 101: What you need to know” ebook! You can get both free when you sign up in the box below:
- The Nerd Fitness "Get Bigger" Shopping List
- Bulk like the Hulk with our rules for getting bigger
photo source: Jay Springett: Start