I saw my first bodybuilding show in the early 1980s. It was an amateur contest in St. Louis, my hometown. The range of physiques on display was astounding. One guy had the widest shoulders I'd ever seen, with deltoids that looked like twin moons in partial eclipse. Another, a compact former powerlifter competing for the first time, had muscles that seemed impossibly dense. Even the also-rans had distinct strengths and weaknesses.
The highlight, though, was a guest posing routine by Tom Platz, a pro bodybuilder with thighs that were easily the size of my waist at the time. His legs reminded me of those pictures we used to draw in grade school of cars with jet engines. It had never occurred to me that a human could pack on that much muscle.
I knew little about diet and training, and even less about genetics and steroids. All I saw was a ton of muscle, and I wanted to know how to get more. Thirty years later, I'm pretty sure I know. And it's not at all what I expected.
Part 1: The Upper Limits
In The Sports Gene, author David Epstein has a definitive answer to the question of how much muscle any individual can pack onto his frame: five pounds for every pound of bone. Unfortunately, you'd need a DEXA scan to figure out how much muscle and bone you have now, and by extension how much more you could gain if everything worked out exactly right.
Research typically tackles the question with short-term training programs, often with one group using a nutritional supplement and the other getting a placebo. Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., who has conducted many of these studies at McMaster University in Ontario, says he expects the average subject to gain 4 to 7 pounds of muscle in three months. No matter how good the program or supplements are, he never sees average gains exceeding about a half-pound a week.
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Individuals, he notes, will show more extreme results. One guy might gain 15 pounds, while another doesn't build any measurable amount of muscle. But the average will still be around 4 to 7 pounds.
Moreover, Phillips adds, the gains in the first 12 weeks of training are a very good indication of their overall potential. "I'm not saying guys can't put on muscle with more than 12 weeks of training, but you see a good deal of what people can do in that time. More importantly, if you're a hardgainer in those 12 weeks, then you're a hardgainer, period." (Bulk up as much as possible with The Workout Plan All Skinny Guys Have Been Waiting For.)
To Phillips, the reason for the disparity in results—the difference between a textbook hardgainer like me and the bodybuilders on that stage—is "90 percent genetics."