The Truth About Muscle Weight Gain

by Chris Miquel September 12, 2015

The Truth About Muscle Weight Gain

Myth: If the number on the scale is going up when you start a lifting program, it's all muscle, baby!

Reality: Glycogen and water retention are usually the culprit for your weight gain, not an increase in pure muscle mass.

If you’ve been working out at the gym long enough, tales of Herculean muscle gain become common, almost legendary. Guys boast of losing 10 pounds of fat but gaining 10 pounds of muscle in a short amount of time. No doubt when you start getting bigger, these claims have you drunk with visions of amassing pound upon glorious pound of muscle. After a few weeks of weight training, the scale confirms your wildest bulking fantasies—double-digit muscle gains. Hell yeah!

Now, wait a minute, little Schwarzenegger. I hate to burst your bubble but there is more to this anabolic story than your scale is telling. Insulin sensitivity, testosterone levels, cortisol-to-testosterone ratio, muscle fiber type and other genetic factors aside, the ability to pack on muscle varies from person to person. Assuming proper diet, nutrition, rest, training and supplementation are in place, the average male can reasonably gain 1-2 pounds of muscle a month, or 0.25 -0.5 pounds of muscle a week. This increase in muscle and muscle repair means more water and glycogen (a building block in the body’s energy fuel) in working muscles accounting for the rest of the weight gain seen on the scale.

A general rule of thumb is for every 10 pounds of muscle gain, expect about 4 pounds of additional water and glycogen. Still not convinced? I know it can be hard to let go of the fantasy that muscle growth is virtually limitless under the right conditions. You must be wondering, “What about all the guys I see at gym who with massive muscle gains in a just few months?” If muscle mass was put on naturally, then the answer is simple—they have also gained fat.

“Eat to grow,” is what we’re told to do. Growing and working muscles need fuel. No argument there. If there isn’t a surplus of calories to support greater training demands, then the risk is muscle loss not gain. However, it is possible to take in an excess of calories and the wrong type of calories in relation to your energy output. It’s so easy to take things to an extreme in pursuit of muscle gains that eating to grow in order to bulk is really an excuse to eat recklessly. While there is a time to bulk up on unconventional foods, face-smashing donuts, Pop Tarts and pizza at every turn will result in some undesirable long-term effects on your body. This brings us to the topic of lean threshold and hyperplasia. 

The Lean Threshold

The lean threshold is the unofficial name given to the body fat range at which we look the same despite a change in body fat. For example, a guy at 13% will look about the same at 16%.The increase in muscle density and body fat seem proportional within this threshold. At the outer edges of this lean threshold is when a change in appearance becomes obvious. At roughly 10% body fat you can expect to look leaner and at 18% you notice fat gain versus muscle gain. The issue here is that by the time you notice the fat gain you have already increased your body fat by a few percentages. This leads us to hyperplasia.


Hyperplasia is defined as “an increase in the number of normal cells in a tissue or organ, excluding tumor formation, whereby the bulk of the part or organ may be increased.” This applies to fat cells as well. We have a certain number of fat cells and those fat cells only have so much space to store fat. With this lack of space, what does the body do to accommodate the endless flow of incoming fat? Make more fat cells, of course! And we all know that fat adds more volume than muscle. In other words, you just look bigger because of the added fat. Do you see the long-term problems with this bulking approach? Aside from establishing poor and undisciplined eating habits, bulking in this way will make the cutting phase more difficult each time as the body acclimates. A vicious cycle will ensue with you gaining more fat with each bulk that is harder to lose with each cut. 

Muscle Weight Gain

Okay, okay, enough with the negative news. Let’s forget about traditional bulking and leave that to the bros. There is a much smarter, controlled and efficient method for muscle weight gain without excessive fat. First, you need to find out what percentage of your total weight is made up of fat. If you don’t know your body fat, decide how you want to get a reading here. Once you know your current body fat percentage, you can better plan your method of attack in the gym, if gaining muscle mass is your goal. Follow a challenging but practical hypertrophy workout plan and monitor your body fat percentage. If you continue to gain weight and notice a size increase while your body fat percentage stays the same, you can rest assured that those gains are legitimate. Now, that you learned truth about muscle weight gain, give this approach a whirl. May the gains be ever in your favor!

Chris Miquel
Chris Miquel


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