How big and strong can you expect to be after your first year of lifting? I wrote a newsletter about this and it got a lot of positive responses, so we decided to publish it as a blog post as well. If you like this kind of content, though, I’d recommend signing up for our newsletter at the top right of the page. (We send out around four newsletters for every blog post that we write.)
There’s a lot of research looking into rates of muscle growth and rates of strength gain… but what if you’re a naturally skinny guy, a hardgainer, an ectomorph? Does the answer change for us? After all, we’re starting off with far less muscle mass and strength.
In this article, we’ll go over two main questions from a hardgainer’s perspective:
1. How much lean mass can a guy expect to gain in his first year? The typical answer is that someone can gain around two pounds of muscle per month while making newbie gains, and then after a few months the rate of muscle growth will slow to about a pound per month. So in his first year, a drug-free guy can expect to gain around around twenty pounds of muscle. That begs the question, then: if that’s true, how can our program guarantee over twenty pounds within just a few months?
2. How strong should a beginner be after a year of lifting weights? The typical answer is that after a year of lifting, a guy should be able to bench press 225lbs (100kg), squat 315lbs (140kg), and deadlift 405lbs (180kg). This begs another question: why do so many skinny guys fail to get anywhere close to those numbers during their first year of lifting?
These typical answers are wrong for naturally skinny guys, both in good ways and bad.
Let’s dig into the science.
How much muscle can a skinny guy gain in a year?
Before we can talk about how much muscle skinny guys can build, we need to understand what sets us apart from the average guy. The main difference is that by the time the average man reaches adulthood, he’s naturally accumulated a fair amount of muscle mass on his frame, partly due to his genetics, partly due to the fact that he’s probably a bit overweight. That means that compared to us naturally skinny guys, he’s already far closer to his genetic muscular potential.
When he makes newbie gains, he might be able to gain a whopping two pounds of muscle per month which, to be clear, is an incredible rate of muscle growth. From the perspective of a naturally skinny guy, though, that’s nothing. We can put those newbie gains to shame:
How is that possible, though? Doesn’t the research disprove this? The research shows that on average people can gain about two pounds per month. There are studies showing far greater rates of muscle growth than that, but, at least on average, most experts agree that a lifter following a good bulking program can realistically expect to gain about two pounds of muscle per month. However, the research also shows that rates of muscle growth vary highly from person to person. While gaining two pounds of muscle per month may be the average, some guys are able to gain muscle up to three times as quickly (study).
If we look at GK here, instead of gaining two pounds of muscle per month, he’s appearing to gain more like six pounds. Mind you, not all of his weight gain is muscle. At least a few of those pounds are other forms of lean mass, and surely there’s some fat in there as well. Still, he’s gaining muscle far more quickly than the average guy could ever hope to.
But don’t hardgainers have worse muscle-building genetics? When I first started trying to build muscle, I assumed that being skinny meant that I wouldn’t be able to build muscle very quickly. That was confirmed by the fact that I was trying everything I could to gain weight and still couldn’t get the damn scale to budge.
Furthermore, the term “hardgainer” is sometimes used to describe someone who struggles to gain muscle. The way we use the term, though, a hardgainer is someone who struggles to gain weight. I know that sounds like a weird distinction to make, given that you need to gain weight in order to gain an appreciable amount of muscle, but our struggle to gain weight has little to do with our muscle-building genetics and more to with our having higher metabolisms and smaller appetites/stomachs. In my case, at least, I wasn’t failing to build muscle because I was having a poor response to lifting weights, I was failing to build muscle because I couldn’t get into a calorie surplus, and thus I was failing to gain weight. It was a diet issue.
Once we learn how to eat enough calories, hardgainers tend to respond incredibly well to lifting weights—with a proper bulking program, we’re almost always able to exceed all the expected rates of muscle growth even while keeping our gains fairly lean.
We do start with less muscle, though. A study published in 2000 in the Journal of Applied Physiology determined that the average man weighs around 200 pounds and has about 80 pounds of muscle mass on his frame (study). Over the course of his life, he might be able to add another forty pounds of muscle to that, accumulating 120 pounds of muscle overall.
A naturally skinny guy, on the other hand, might only weigh 130 pounds. He’ll likely have slightly thinner bones, a narrower frame, and a smaller stomach, which accounts for some of the weight difference, but most of the weight difference is due to the fact that he’s carrying far less muscle and fat. Obviously here are different degrees of hardgainers, but for the sake of this example, let’s say that the hardgainer only has around forty pounds of muscle by the time he reaches adulthood. He’s starting behind the starting line.
If you read our newbie gains article, then you know that the further away from our genetic potential we are, the faster we’re able to grow. This is because the slow part of building muscle is the process of adding more nuclei to our muscle fibres, like so:
Newbies don’t need to do that. When we’re far enough away from our genetic potential, the nuclei in our muscle fibres are still capable of managing larger areas, meaning that we can gain muscle without needing to increase the number of nuclei in our muscles fibres, like so:
Admittedly, this example is oversimplified, and there are other known factors that contribute to the slowing rate of muscle growth as well (such as the repeated bout effect), but the main takeaway here is that our muscles grow quickly at first, and then as we get closer to our genetic potential, our rate of muscle growth slows. We get progressively diminishing returns:
However, given that we’re starting so far away from our genetic potential—and here’s where a bit of speculation comes in—we’re starting at the best possible point on the growth curve: right at the very beginning.
This seems to explain why guys who are starting out thinner than average are able to build muscle at such a tremendous pace. I suspect that our muscle growth trajectory looks more like this:
How much muscle can we gain before our genetic potential starts to limit us? Now we’ve arrived at the issue of our genetic muscular potential. As naturally skinny hardgainers, how far away from our genetic potential are we? After all, it doesn’t matter how close to the average genetic potential we are, it matters how closer to our genetic potential we are.
The best researcher looking into this question is Casey Butts, PhD, who found that the genetic potential of a hardgainer is about 5–10% lower than the average man (due to having thinner bones and smaller frames). So if the average man can hold around 120 pounds of muscle, us hardgainers can expect to hold about 108–114 pounds of muscle. That’s a disadvantage, sure, but not a significant one. In fact, given how few people get anywhere even close to reaching their genetic potential, there’s nothing stopping us from becoming far stronger and more muscular than almost every other man we come across.
Our 130-pound skinny beginner, though, still only has forty pounds of muscle. That means that he still has 68–74 pounds of muscle to gain before he starts butting up against his genetic potential. That’s an absolutely insane amount of muscle that he can gain over the course of his lifetime, most of which will come during his first couple years of proper bulking.
Compared to other body types, yes, we start off with less muscle, but our genetics aren’t nearly as limiting as most of us think they are. With some heavy metal and protein shakes, we’re able to completely transform our physiques.
As we showed above, it’s almost like we get multiple rounds of newbie gains, allowing us to catch up to other guys incredibly quickly, at which point, through cleverness and a good work ethic, we have every opportunity to blow past them.
We have our skinny-guy newbie gains, where we bulk up insanely quickly, gaining up to thirty pounds in just a few months. This often allows us to shoot past the average non-lifter, like so:
Then, because we’re no longer skinny, we have our typical newbie gains, where we can expect to gain around two pounds of muscle per month. This usually allows us to catch up to the other casual lifters over the course of a year or so, earning us a totally athletic and attractive physique, like so:
Then at this intermediate point, we can expect to start gaining muscle at a slower rate. It also becomes hard to add more muscle mass. We need to start following especially well-programmed lifting routines as well as actively overcoming plateaus. This is also where we might need to start bringing up weak or lagging muscle groups.
The good news is that by the time our progress really begins to slow, we’re already quite strong and muscular, and we’ve hopefully developed good skills, knowledge, and habits. Yes, it takes longer to see further improvements, but we already look and feel awesome, so there’s less urgency to it. For example, here’s JoeBrusk going from having an awesome physique to having an incredible physique:
Compared to Dan gaining thirty pounds in ten weeks, gaining an estimated eight pounds of muscle over the course of five months might not sound like a lot, but that’s actually quite rapid progress for someone who’s already built such a solid foundation.
Okay, now let’s talk about strength standards for naturally skinny guys.
How strong should a hardgainer be after a year of lifting?
Most naturally skinny guys are able to laugh at the muscle growth standards, shooting way past them… but then the strength standards seem totally out of reach. Why do we keep hearing that within our first year of lifting, we should be able to bench press over 225 pounds? That sounds insane!
So, first of all, where do these strength standards come from? As far as I can tell, the most credible source that’s looked into this is Greg Nuckols, BS, from Stronger by Science (an incredible strength training blog). He took a survey of his readers, all of whom are serious about both powerlifting and science, but who ranged from beginners all the way up to advanced lifters. He found that within a year of serious lifting, the average guy was able to bench press 235 pounds. Furthermore, Greg mentions that with proper workout programming and coaching, guys should be able to do even better than that.
However, we also need to consider how much these guys were able to bench press when they started lifting. In this case, the average guy started off benching around 188 pounds. So within their first year of lifting, they only added 50 pounds to the bar. They were adding less than five pounds to the bar each month. This is an “aha” moment for a lot of us skinny guys.
It’s not that we gain strength more slowly, it’s that we start off behind the starting line. In fact, similar to how we can build muscle far more quickly than the average guy, we can also gain strength far more quickly. It just takes a little while for us to catch up.
When we’re looking at this 235-pound target, we need to keep in mind that we’re talking about the average man here, and the average man is starting off with roughly 80 pounds of muscle mass. Then, during his first year of lifting, he can make it up to around 100 pounds of overall muscle mass. That means that he only needs to bulk up his chest muscles a tiny bit in order to have the horsepower he needs to bench 235 pounds.
So to understand why our strength is starting off so much lower, we need to consider how much muscle mass we’re starting off with. Consider the 130-pound skinny guy from our example. He’s only starting with forty pounds of muscle, so he doesn’t have anywhere close to the amount of muscle mass required to bench press 185 pounds, let alone 235.
As a naturally skinny guy, I mean, I don’t know about you, but when I first started bench pressing, I was benching fifty pounds for six reps. Rounding up, that puts my estimated one-rep max at 60 pounds.
At the time, I figured I was at a disadvantage because of my thin torso, long arms, and just generally bad genetics for the bench press. That can make the bench press harder to learn, for sure—I couldn’t bring the barbell down to my chest, for one—but a new study just published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research confirms that bench press strength is directly correlated with the amount of muscle someone has in their chest, arms, and shoulders and has almost nothing to do with body proportions. Bench press strength also has almost nothing to do with skill, either. It’s a movement that requires sheer muscle mass (study). Once we build the muscle, we’ll have the strength.
In my case, at 6’2 and 130 pounds, it stands to reason that I was only benching fifty pounds. I still had a small chest, small arms, small shoulders. I wasn’t weak because of my lanky proportions, I was weak because I had so little muscle mass on my frame:
So what do these strength standards mean for skinny guys? Not much unless we also factor in muscle mass. So let’s do that. The average man starts off with eighty pounds of muscle and can bench press 188 pounds. After a year of lifting, he gains up to twenty more pounds of muscle and moves his bench press up to 235 pounds.
If strength is indeed directly related to muscle mass, then in order to even bench press 188 pounds, I’d need to match his muscle mass pound for pound. To do that, I’d need to gain an estimated forty pounds of muscle. And in order to bench press 235 pounds, I’d need to gain another twenty pounds on top of that.
In my case, this theory held true. I gained 55 pounds within my first couple years of lifting, going from 130 up to 185 pounds with a body-fat percentage of 10.8 (as measured by DEXA). Again, no drugs or secrets, just a good bulking program:
By the time I had gained 55 pounds, I was benching around 250, squatting around 275, and deadlifting around 365 pounds. I’m a human male so, not surprisingly, I put a bit more work into my bench press than my squat. When I got more serious about my squat and deadlift, though, they popped up to 315 and 405 over the course of another couple months. So, once I had a solid amount of muscle mass, my strength hit those targets without a problem.
To be fair, I hit both a size and a strength plateau at around 150 pounds, and if it weren’t for Marco coaching me through the process, I probably would have stayed stuck there for quite a while.
I know, I know. Even taking into account that I had a world-class strength coach guiding me through half of this bulk, I realize this rate of muscle gain sounds borderline impossible. And that’s fair. For the average guy, this is impossible. But keep in mind that after a couple years of lifting, I still only had as much muscle mass as the average guy would have after a single year of lifting. Compared with an average guy following a serious bulking program, it took me about twice as long to reach a comparable level of muscularity.
For another example, Marco is 6’4 and started off his adult life weighing around 150 pounds. He gained 65 pounds over the course of a few years, bumping up to 215 pounds at a little under 10% body fat. At that point he was benching 250, squatting 315, and deadlifting 450. Again, once he gained enough muscle mass, he was able to pass those strength targets without an issue.
If we want to get strong, we have to get big; if we want to get big, we have to get strong. And for us skinny guys trying to become big and strong, that’s perfect.
Anyway, all things considered, it takes us a little longer to build a big and strong physique. Not that much longer, mind you—maybe an extra 6–12 months, depending on how skinny you are to begin with. If you aren’t as skinny as I was, don’t expect to gain muscle as quickly as I did, but do expect to bench 250 sooner than I was able to.
We also have a genetic advantage: our leanness. Even skinny-fat guys aren’t dealing with the same propensity for obesity that the average person is—not even close. And the more muscle we gain, the easier it becomes to stay lean (study). If a skinny-fat guy gains 40–50 pounds of muscle, gets in the habit of lifting, starts eating a better diet… staying lean is probably going to become second nature for him.
That’s the edge us hardgainers have. We can build muscle very quickly, and if we do it properly, we’ll be able to maintain a lean and muscular physique year-round. Even if we’re only able to get 90–95% as big as the average serious lifetime lifter… that’s probably bigger and stronger than we thought we could be anyway. With good training, most of us should eventually be able to bench over 315 pounds, squat over 450, and deadlift over 500.
But wait a second… If you train at a standard gym, you may have noticed that the vast majority of skinny guys stay skinny forever. And, most guys, even with a decade of lifting experience, aren’t deadlifting anywhere close to even 400 pounds.
In fact, if you do a set of deadlifts with four plates on the bar in a commercial gym, you’re going to draw stares. Guys will probably come up to you and ask for lifting advice.
Why are so many people failing to become big and strong?
The good news is that it has nothing to do with genetic variation. As I mentioned above, even if you have poor genetics for building muscle, you can almost certainly still get your bench press over 300 pounds, your squat over 400, your deadlift over 500. The trick is that you need to build a bunch of muscle in order to do it (which is probably your main goal anyway, so that’s great).
The real reason that most people fail to make progress is because:
- They refuse to follow good bulking programs. Maybe they want to do this without spending any money. Or maybe they spend money on the programs with the fanciest marketing instead of by looking at the education and credentials of the people making it. Or maybe they follow programs designed for people on drugs. There are a lot of great programs out there, but there are also a lot of bad ones.
- They don’t use coaches. Right when we started beta testing the very first version of our bulking program, we realized that we needed to include online coaching with every membership. We know that our members are going to run into problems and plateaus. They’re going to have unique circumstances. They’ll benefit from feedback on their lifting technique. We need to be there to help them through that. That’s the only way that we can guarantee progress.
- Intermediate lifters fail to put in enough effort.
- Beginners lack consistency.
People who bulk properly are able to accomplish incredible things, blowing past the average lifter in no time. But if you aren’t bulking properly, you’re not going to gain enough muscle mass to get anywhere even close to these muscle growth or strength targets.
The other thing to keep in mind is that progress requires getting a few things right all at once. If people don’t approach bulking properly, it’s not that they’ll progress more slowly, it’s that they won’t progress at all—ever. Zero gains per week adds up to zero gains per year.
In fact, it’s possible to spend decades lifting weights without ever gaining more than 10–20 pounds of muscle and without ever even matching the strength of a guy who followed a good program for a single year. If you never do this properly, you might go your entire life without ever knowing what it’s like to be big and strong.
This is great news in the sense that we have every opportunity to become far better than average. But it’s bad news if you were hoping that this would be a walk in the park.
There’s also the issue of people underestimating their potential, which is why I wanted to write this article in the first place. A recent study published in Nature split the participants into two random groups. They told half the participants that they were genetically gifted, and they told the other half that they were at a genetic disadvantage. Those who thought they were genetically gifted performed markedly better. (Greg Nuckols wrote up a good breakdown of the study here.)
You have to expect a lot of yourself and then truly fight for it in order to reach your full potential. If you keep thinking that being a hardgainer is holding you back, it will.
So, how big and strong should a hardgainer be after a year of lifting?
- Skinny guys start off with less muscle mass, but we catch up quickly. While we’re underweight, we’re often able to build muscle at a tremendous pace, often gaining 20+ pounds in just our first couple months of lifting, and up to forty pounds within our first year. Then, when we get up to more average size, we can expect to gain muscle at a more average rate.
- Strength and size are almost perfectly correlated. Until we’ve gained as much muscle mass as the average lifter, we shouldn’t expect to be able to lift as much as him. That might mean that we need to gain 20–40 pounds of muscle before we’re able to lift as much as they are, which can add an extra 6–18 months before we’re able to hit the strength targets of bench pressing 235, squatting 330, and deadlifting 405 pounds.
- Our potential is quite high. Most people aren’t failing to hit these standards because of genetic limitations, they’re failing because they aren’t following good programs, they aren’t seeking the advice of qualified strength and conditioning coaches, and they aren’t pushing themselves consistently.
If you want a structured lifting and nutrition program that will help you gain size and strength every week, guaranteed, then you’ll love our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program. And if you hit a plateau along the way, we’ll guide you through it in the coaching community, ensuring that you’re able to march steadily closer towards your size and strength potential.