Here’s what most medical studies suggest about how long it takes to build lean muscle mass with consistent strength training:
- 10 to 25 lbs. (~5-11 kg) per year.
- 1 to 2 lbs. (~0.5-1 kg) per month.
The difference between the minimum and maximum is huge. But it’s not surprising when you consider all the factors that affect muscle gain like:
- experience level
- consistency and intensity of training
Because of all these factors, your personal results will vary by a lot.
So instead of relying just on the scientific data about how long it takes to build muscle, I’m going to test this myself for a year. And I’m going to record the details of the experiment in this article as a case study.
Why building a lot of muscle is hard?
I’ve always been a skinny guy and building more muscle has been a goal of mine for 10+ years. In that time, I’ve been in the gym on and off trying to achieve this goal.
But the results have always been the same…
I stick with my exercise plan for 3-4 months and see good muscle gains. But then life happens—a trip, vacation, holidays, etc. Something always takes me off track and just a few months later all the gains are gone and I’m back at square one.
It felt like those 3-4 months of workout are wasted time.
I realized that just a few months of exercise isn’t going to cut it if I want to make a real transformation, not just a few pounds of muscle gained.
That’s why this year I decided to do a 365-day challenge of consistent gym training and see how close my muscle gains will be to the results from the scientific studies.
Below, you’ll find the details of the challenge and my personal results every month including weight, body fat percentage, and body photos.
365 Days of Building Muscle
The main goal of this challenge is consistent exercise—go to the gym 6/7 days per week without missing a single workout for a whole year.
That means a total of 312 workouts for the whole year.
But along with the consistency, I’ll be doing my best to stick with all the major proven factors that affect muscle gain.
Some of these factors are uncontrollable and there’s nothing I can do about them. Here’s where I’m at in December at the beginning of this challenge:
- Age—I’m 31 years old.
- Genetics—I’ve always been very skinny, so I consider myself to be a “hard-gainer”. Or what science would call an ectomorph.
level—even though I have 10+ years of experience (on and off) in the gym, I
still consider myself a beginner.
The experience level is mostly about how close you are to the physical limitations your body can achieve for lean muscle mass. Since I’m skinny at the start of this challenge, I’m nowhere near the maximum muscle that my frame can take—beginner.
And here are the goals for the other factors that I can directly control:
- Intensity of training—a minimum of 1 hr. in the gym putting in maximum effort (going to failure or close to it on all sets).
- Sleep—a minimum of 7 hours of sleep (preferably 8 hours on most days).
- Diet—The most important diet factor is to take enough protein every day. I’ve been on a ketogenic diet for the past 1 year, mostly for the fat loss and mental clarity benefits. So I intend to continue with keto while taking enough protein to make sure it’s not a bottleneck.
- Supplements— Part of the challenge is to do it naturally. No steroids, HGH, or anything that has negative health consequences. The only supplement I’ll be taking is creatine and whey protein.
When can I let myself off the hook?
The things that usually take me off track from the exercise plan are vacations and holidays.
But that’s a lame excuse.
Nowadays—no matter where you are—you can always find a way to exercise.
- Find a tree with a horizontal branch and do pull-ups.
- Find something heavy to lift and deadlift or squat.
- Put something on your back and do weighted push-ups.
- Pack a few resistance bands in your luggage.
Sure, the exercise on the road might not be as effective, but it’s not a valid excuse to stop training.
So this year I’ve pre-planned for what happens when I travel.
Before I book any trips I’ll make sure there is a gym nearby. In case, I’m on a trip somewhere in nature or there are no gyms around, I’ve prepared a backup bodyweight exercise plan.
The only exception that lets me off the hook is a serious injury like a hernia, broken bone, or a serious sprain. I’m doing my best to exercise safely and have perfect form on all lifts, so hopefully, that won’t be a problem.
Even if something like that happens though, I’ll still do my best to continue exercise avoiding just the injured area.
For example, I had a herniated lower back disc a few years ago and it’s still giving me some trouble. So I’ll go easy on the deadlifts and squats—perfect form and putting on more weight very slowly.
How to track your muscle gain progress?
Since I want this to be a meaningful experience that others can learn from, I’ll be tracking a few measurements meticulously like:
- Monthly body photos.
- Lean muscle and body fat percentage.
- Consistency of the relevant habits: number of workouts, sleep, diet.
- Strength gains on key exercises like bench press, squat, overhead press.
Each month I’ll update this article with the average for the month of all these metrics including the body photos.
I’m using a FitBit aria smart scale to weigh myself every day. While it’s not very accurate objectively, it’s good enough to track relative progress. Meaning, it will capture the body fat % change from month to month, even if it’s not objectively accurate compared to bod pod tracking.
The data below is the average weight/body fat for each month. Here’s my starting point:
Measurements for December
- Weight: 167.2 lbs. (75.8 kg)
- Lean muscle: 145.9 lbs. (66.1 kg)
- Body fat percentage: 12.7%
- Bench press: 150 lbs. (68 kg) x 5 reps
- Overhead press: 75 lbs. (34 kg) x 5 reps
- Weighed Pull-up: 10 lbs. (4.5 kg) x 5 reps
- Squat: 100 lbs. (45 kg) x 5 reps
Workout Routine Breakdown
Since the main goal of the challenge is consistency, I’ve simplified my gym routine as much as possible to make it easy to follow.
I’ll have 3 different workout routines that I’ll repeat twice every week. Each of the 3 workouts will focus on different muscle groups to allow at least 48 hours for recovery.
Here’s what it looks like in detail:
Day 1 — Chest and Triceps
- Bench press
- Cable crossover
- Triceps pushdown
Day 2 — Back and Biceps
- Horizontal Lats Machine
- Straight arm pushdown
Day 3 — Legs and Shoulders
- Backward lunges
- Overhead press
- Lateral Shoulder Raise
In addition to these, I’ve included support exercises for core and stability like crunches, torso rotations, face pulls, wrist extensions, etc. But since these are not going to contribute a lot to muscle gain, I’m not going to record those results.
Sets and Reps
I’ll repeat the exact same 3 routines on days 4,5, and 6. However, for the second part of the week, I’ll be training for endurance instead of strength. The balance between strength training and endurance has worked well for me in the past.
For the first 3 days of the week, I’ll go for 5-6 reps and 3-4 sets for each exercise, trying to get to failure on all sets. The rest between sets will be about 4-5 minutes.
For day 4, 5, and 6, I’ll be doing the same exercises but focusing on drop sets, slow reps, and eccentric overload.
Here’s an example:
- Set 1: 5-6 very slow reps (up for 5 seconds and down for 5 seconds). [no rest]
- Set 2: Lower the weight and do 5-6 more slow reps. [no rest]
- Set 3: Lower the weight further and do 5-6 more slow reps.
So for the second part of the week, I’ll do sets 2 and 3 immediately—no rest in between—to maximize metabolic stress.
Meal Plan Breakdown
As I mentioned I’ll be following mostly the ketogenic diet for the whole year.
There are plenty of examples of people building and maintaining muscle mass on keto, so I’m not worried about it holding back my muscle growth.
The main goal of the diet is to get plenty of protein and stay lean.
I’m not going to be doing bulking and cutting phases. I want steady and lean muscle gain throughout the year while keeping the body fat percentage low. That’s pretty easy for me on a keto diet so I don’t expect fat gain to be a problem.
The challenge with the diet is getting enough protein regularly. Compared to the workout consistency (where I expect 100%) the diet isn’t going to be so strict.
I’ll probably fall off track for a week or two because of traveling and holidays so I’ll aim for a minimum of 80% diet consistency on average.
Again to make the consistency easy, I’ll follow a very simple meal plan. Essentially, the same 2 meals repeated for lunch and dinner. That makes cooking and prep much easier.
Since I’m also doing intermittent fasting I’ll skip breakfast.
The meal plan is going to be essentially meat and salad:
- Meat: chicken, pork, fish (about 200 g per meal).
- Salad: cucumber, tomato, greens, avocado, olive oil.
- Snacks: 6 raw eggs or jerky.
- Protein supplement: 30g whey isolate.
On average that will give me 2000+ calories/day and 150+ grams of protein.
The protein amount with this meal plan is almost double of what’s recommended for my body weight. Maybe it’s unnecessary but I want to make sure the protein intake is not a bottleneck. Plus, I’ve tried this diet for a few months before—it feels good, it keeps me in ketosis, and the body fat % in check.