We all want to see change quickly but transformation doesn’t always come swiftly, especially when you’re trying to change your body composition. The most effective way to transform your physique is through weight training. Yet, there is a certain degree of variability between individuals with regard to how quickly their muscles grow. Some people develop muscle faster than others while others struggle to see gains even with consistent training. What are the factors that determine how quickly your muscles grow and how many of those factors do you have control over?
Genes play a role with regard to many aspects of health, right? Our genes are a blueprint that influences health risks, body type, and factors like how strong we are and how much stamina we have. Genes aren’t destiny, as we can impact gene expression through lifestyle, However, they are a factor in how quickly muscles grow in size and become stronger.
Not surprisingly, some people have a genetic blueprint that’s more favorable for muscle growth. For example, some folks are born with more fast-twitch muscle fibers optimized for strength and power. This creates muscle and strength-building advantages. But, anyone has the capacity to build muscle strength and size through training. For some, it takes a little longer and a bit more work.
Genetics also impact how much muscle you can easily gain, the so-called upper limit of muscle growth. People who win bodybuilding contests tend to have favorable genetics for muscle building, but they also have to work hard to get there. The physique you build is partially determined by genetics but is also based on how you train and what you eat.
Age is another factor that impacts how quickly you gain muscle and how much muscle you gain through weight training. We lose muscle mass as we age, and this process accelerates after the age of 50. So, a 60-year-old person will likely be less muscle bound than a 30-year-old who strength trains and the 60-year-old will like have to work a little harder and wait longer to see the fruits of their strength-training labors.
Why does age impact muscle development? Research shows the muscles of older people are less sensitive to anabolic signals that tell them to grow, a phenomenon called anabolic resistance. However, multiple studies show even people age 80 and up can improve muscle strength and size through training. It really is never too late to build muscle or improve your body composition. Studies also show that higher intensity workouts and heavier lifting are more effective for building muscle in older people than lifting lighter. Older adults can also benefit from more protein to help compensate for anabolic resistance. Other research suggests that long-chain omega-3’s from diet or supplements may counter some of the negative impact anabolic resistance has on body composition.
It seems pretty obvious that how you train determines how quickly your muscles hypertrophy and to what degree. Lifting heavy, at greater than 80% of one-rep max, is optimal for building strength, while you need more training volume and a higher number of reps to build muscle size. The ideal hypertrophy range is training at 60 to 80% of one-rep max, a weight at which you should be able to do 6 to 12 reps. Studies also show that lifting lighter, at less than 60% of one-rep max can also build muscle if you train the muscles to near failure.
Of course, there are other training variables as well and changing these variables regularly can help you avoid a plateau. You’re probably familiar with most of the training variables:
· Number of repetitions
· Order of exercises
· Exercise selection
· Lifting tempo
· Frequency of training
· Number of sets
· Rest intervals between sets
The key is to adjust these variables to meet your goals and to add variety to your workout.
You’ve heard it before – body composition is at least 80% nutrition. How you train may be on target, but if you’re not consuming enough protein or calories, your gains will be slow. Amino acids from protein are the building blocks of new muscle tissue and not getting enough is a recipe for slow muscle hypertrophy, if you make gains at all. Although the protein requirements for a sedentary person are modest, around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, you may need up to twice this amount if you weight train intensely. Studies show that increasing dietary protein boosts muscle protein synthesis even in the absence of weight training.
It also pays to enjoy a protein and carb snack after a workout. A study published in the Journal of Physiology showed that older men who consumed a protein snack right after a strength-training session developed more muscle over 12 weeks than those who waited 2 hours after a workout to consume protein. Getting enough protein is especially important for men and women over the age of 60 due to anabolic resistance. Plus, an after-workout snack that contains protein helps with muscle recovery.
The reality is this. Nutrition can make or break you. Without the proper amino acids from protein for repair to build new muscle tissue, your results will be delayed or will fall short of your goals. Without enough calories and carbs, your muscles won’t have the glycogen reserves to support a challenging workout. If extreme, your body will enter a catabolic state where muscle breakdown exceeds the synthesis of new muscle protein and you will experience no growth or, even worse, loss of muscle tissue. So, fill your plate with whole, healthy, nutrient-dense foods that contain adequate protein, carbs, and healthy fats.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know some of the factors that impact how quickly you build muscle in response to weight training. Some of these, like how you train and what you eat, you can have control over. Others, like age and genetics, you don’t. So, make sure you’re optimizing the factors you can’t control to maximize your gains.
Berkeley Wellness. “Slowing Down Muscle Loss”
American Council on Exercise. “How Quickly Does Muscle Grow?”
Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Feb; 93(2): 402–412.