Growing into a show. It almost sounds too good to be true. How can someone gain muscle, yet at the same time reach the extreme levels of body composition required to be competitive onstage?

A number of high level athletes in untested competitions (such as Kevin Levrone, Arnold and others) have discussed how they would grow into their shows.

What about athletes competing in drug-tested competition?

The purpose of this article is to review the scientific literature on this topic to determine the likelihood that a natural athlete would be able to gain muscle and lose body fat simultaneously to grow into their show, while at the same time achieving stage-lean levels of body fat.


Rate of Muscle Gain

If you read the mainstream bodybuilding magazines, you will see plans guaranteeing 10lbs of muscle gain this month. However, diving into the scientific literature on rate of muscle gain, you see a different story.

One of the fastest rates of muscle gain ever observed was in a classic study by Bhasin 1996 [1] in which they took novice young male lifters and gave them testosterone. After the first 10 weeks of weightlifting and testosterone usage, the mean lean mass gain was 13.4lbs. Body weight also increased during this time indicating these individuals were in a caloric surplus throughout the intervention.

In the same study, beginners who were not taking steroids gained on average 4.4lbs lean mass while losing 2.4lbs fat mass over their first 10 weeks of training. Since body weight increased in this group by 2lbs these individuals were also in a calorie surplus during this intervention.

While it is clear muscle can be accrued at a relatively rapid rate in novices, the rate of muscle gain decreases as an individual becomes a more advanced lifter. Numerous experts have put out general estimates for rate of gain with training experience. While the specifics may differ, the one thing all of these estimations have in common is that rate of gain goes down almost exponentially as training experience increases.

For example, Lyle McDonald has estimated that 20-25lbs of muscle can be gained during the first year of training in a male, 10-12lbs year 2, 5-6lbs year 3 and even less as a lifter becomes more advanced, with women achieving about half of the rate of gain of men. Similarly, Alan Aragon has estimated that a rate of gain of 1 – 1.5% of body weight monthly is achievable for a beginner. However, that rate slows to 0.5 – 1 % of body weight monthly as they become intermediate and less than 0.5% of body weight monthly for an advance lifter. Eric Helms (and others) have also provided similar estimations.

Although these are just estimations and rate of muscle gain can vary greatly between individuals [2], the important take home point is that as an individual gets more trained he/she will gain muscle more slowly. Since those preparing for a competition should be trained and not beginners (which is a topic for another article) rate of muscle gain will be slower than when they first started lifting.

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