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What Is Your Genetic “Natural” Muscle Building Potential?

Years 1 – 4

Posted by Scott_Herman - March 19th, 2020

Today I want to talk about YOUR genetic muscle building potential as a NATURAL athlete! I had made a comment about this in my recent video response to Greg Doucette on training as a natural athlete vs enhanced and while we agreed on almost everything, how much muscle you can gain when you first start your fitness journey was something Greg disagreed with me on and that spawned some other videos like the one by Steve Shaw to be made as well. So, I want to address that today and talk about the numbers I gave, where I got them from, and why I said them.

I made a video 4 years ago called “Bulking, You Are Doing it Wrong” and in that video I referenced an article from Lyle McDonald where he talks about Your “Genetic Muscular Potential” and he gives his opinion based on his 20 years’ experience working with athletes, bodybuilders and powerlifters and he also compares his findings to a similar model by Alan Aragon and I’ll link to the article HERE.

Lyle McDonald’s Findings

But basically, it came down to this. Lyle McDonald’s chart explains that in your first year of proper training you can expect to gain.

  • YEAR 1 --- 20 – 25 lbs of muscles (2 pounds per month)
  • YEAR 2 --- 10 – 12 of pounds (1 pound per month)
  • YEAR 3 --- 5 – 6 of pounds (0.5 pound per month)
  • YEAR 4 --- 2 – 3 of pounds (and then it tapers off)

Now it should go without saying that these numbers are for males and for females the values are about half per year. But if taken out of context, I 100% can see why this may confuse a lot of you. Sometimes we get tunnel vision and just assume that the people we’re talking to know where we’re coming from when we make statements like this, which is admittingly my own fault.  Communication is KEY and that goes for all relationships, including the one I share with all of you!

So the first thing we need to clear up is the phrase Lyle uses and that’s “Year Of PROPER Training”.  He didn’t just say “Year Of Training”, he said “Year Of PROPER TRAINING” because it’s not technically your first year of training where you can expect these types of gains. It’s your first PROPER year. So what’s the difference?  Well, proper training means you’re going to the gym and focusing on compound exercises, lifting heavy and progressive overload.  Not just curling and benching with your buddies. You have a structured program, you’re sticking to your rest periods and adding weight when you can across your entire exercise selection.  You’re also eating right, increasing calories as you gain muscle and getting plenty of sleep. Also, and this is VERY important, this chart is HIGHLY influenced by NEWBIE GAINS and your AGE.  Even Lyle makes the statement…

“For example, it’s not unheard of for “underweight high school kids” to gain muscle very rapidly. But they’re usually starting out very underweight and have the natural anabolic steroid cycle called puberty working for them.”

So Lyle’s model on genetic muscle building potential is placing more emphasis on hormonal changes and age. Now this is where the confusion in difference of numbers is coming in. Lyle’s chart has always resonated with ME because as a junior in high school I was very underweight at about 128lbs and by Senior year I was much bigger sitting at around 155lbs and still super lean.  I didn’t grow much in height, but definitely packed on more muscle because I was training 5 – 6 days a week at the gym with a group of guys who were much older than me and enjoyed pushing my limits. I was also eating more because that’s what I was told to do. Pack in the protein and eat everything in sight. To be honest, that was when I really fell in love with fitness because I had a lifting schedule, great workout partners and the overall structure you need to be successful in building muscle.

But if I really think back and I talk about this a lot when I coach younger guys, I know for a fact I was not eating enough food and I often wonder just how much bigger I could’ve gotten if I was eating even just 500 calories more a day.

But that’s life right?  There’s really no way to know for sure what “could’ve happened” in a scenario like this because you can’t go back in time and try again. So when we offer advice on “Muscle Building Potential” and your genetic limit, it has to be based on years of experience working with all sorts of people.

Alan Aragon’s Findings

Now if we take a look at Alan’s chart, it’s a bit different but the end results are roughly the same. His chart is split into categories of Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced, which basically equates to Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3.

So according to Alan, a beginner can expect to gain about 1 – 1.5% of their total bodyweight per month. Intermediates can gain 0.5 – 1% their total bodyweight per month and advanced lifters can expect to gain 0.25 - .5% total body weight per month and then it tapers off.  Lyle then takes these numbers and gives a really good example using a male beginner at 150lbs. He says:

“So a 150 pound beginner might be able to gain 1.5 - 2.25 pounds of muscle per month (18 - 27 pounds).  After a year, he’s now an intermediate at 170 pounds and might be capable of gaining 0.85 - 1.7 lbs per month (10 - 20 pounds).  And then a after another year, he’s an advanced lifter at 180lbs and might only gain 0.5 - 1 lb per month (and even says that a true 1 lb/month gain in muscle mass for an advanced athlete would be pretty rare). So this 150lbs male would top out at around 190 - 200 pounds after another year or two of training and at 10% body fat, he’d have about 170 - 180 pounds of lean body mass.”

So when it’s laid out like this, it makes a lot more sense and now, hopefully, you can understand where I was coming from with my numbers for natural potential. Because I was that underweight teen when I started training and thinking back to my own journey, the chart made a lot of sense.

Steve Shaw’s Response

Now in Steve Shaw’s video he mentioned publications by Dr. Casey Butt where he studied around 300 natural bodybuilding champions to see what’s possible to gain in terms of muscle over the lifetime of a TRUE natural athlete and presented some numbers that were different than mine.

  • Year 1 --- 14 – 16lbs of muscle
  • Year 2 --- 7 – 8 lbs of muscle
  • Year 3 --- 3 - 4 lbs of muscle

So about 24 - 28lbs of muscle in your first few years.

Steve also says in his video that the numbers he is referencing are if you’re starting at a normal average weight, so not underweight like Lyle’s chart or my own experience. Steve then goes on to say that you CAN expect to see more muscle growth than even his own numbers if you start off underweight like I was because your body is normalizing first, or getting to its “true” starting point and therein lies the confusion.

In my statement I’m assuming that most of you are starting out the same way I did.  Underweight and around the same age because over the years the majority of you guys who ask me for help are young and “hardgainers”. But what happens when we assume, right?  Context is key, especially when making statements like this.

Steve then mentions that Dr. Casey Butt says you can expect to gain 30 – 35lbs of muscle over the lifetime of your lifting career NATURALLY.  Well, I found the publication by Dr. Casey Butt titled “Your Maximum Muscular Bodyweight and Measurements” and it was an amazing read. But the most impressive part was at the very bottom where he states:

“If you are a bodybuilder or strength athlete having verifiable statistics in excess of what the equations of this article predict and have competed in a drug-tested bodybuilding contest then, please, contact me and I'll include the information in an ongoing statistical analysis – your name will be withheld upon request. This invitation has been open since this article was first posted (in early 2007 and dating back through its predecessors to 2000) and remains so. To those who have contributed I'd like to thank you here. I appreciate your honesty and even bravery ...if that's the right word.”

“Over the years I've also received many emails full of unsubstantiated claims, hostile remarks and even personal attacks because of the information presented here. But in that time, though many have told me they're easily going to surpass these predictions, I haven 't received any legitimate, verifiable statistics that significantly exceed the results of the equations presented above ...including correspondence with some of today's top-ranked drug-free bodybuilders upon which the equations were partially based. So, please, if you're not able to provide verifiable measurements contradicting the information in this article then don't send me slander, accusations and hate mail.”

Then if you scroll up he has a link to his e-book “Your Muscular Potential – How to Predict Your Maximum Muscular Bodyweight and Measurements” which is only about $10 and I purchased a copy because you ask me all the time in the comments section what your “maximum potential” could be and Dr. Casey Butt even gives examples of some of these equations throughout this article as well. The more information I can learn and offer you all, the better!

But we still have that difference where Lyle and Alan’s chart says about 40 – 50 pounds over a lifetime of lifting and Dr. Casey Butt’s 30 – 35lbs. So where are the missing 5 - 15lbs?  Well, that bring us back to what Steve said about your weight “normalizing” and even that number is going to be in a range of probably 5 – 15lbs depending on exactly how underweight you are when you started training.

A Real World Example

A good example I can use is my older brother George who’s 2 years older than me and never took weight lifting seriously, he maybe came to the gym with me 20 times max in 20 years and even now I tell him all the time he needs to eat more food!  But he’s your average guy, he works hard all day and goes home after work to spend time with his family.

We’re about the same height at 5’10”, except that he is 135lbs and I’m 185lbs.  In my family all Herman men are skinny with superfast metabolisms. Lucky, some of you might say…but not when it comes to building muscle! I had to work hard to get here and my insane metabolism was the reason why I was so underweight when I started!  But my brother George and I grew up together and we have the same genetics, however, while I was in the gym 5 days a week, my bro was doing his own thing and that’s why he’s about 50 pounds smaller than me. I even bet that because he works a labor-intensive job, if he ate more food he could easily get his weight up to 145 – 150lbs very quickly.

I think what it comes down to is that often times we forget that it’s very easy to take a statement like “genetic muscle building potential” out of context because fitness is not black and white and when you say something in an uploaded video, you do not have the ability to explain your statements if someone questions them…unless you upload another video. But having said that, I think it’s great that Lyle’s chart sparked all this debate because now I’m in possession of some great information that I think is actually much more relatable to the majority of you by Dr. Casey Butt, so thank you very much Steve.

Genetic Potential

Also, a lot of you ask me if I think I’ve hit my true genetic limit yet. Well, the short answer is no, and I am going to talk about this when I post my video on my recent experiment with NUCLEI OVERLOAD TRAINING on my biceps where I did 100 curls a day for 30 day. I hope this helped to make sense of what’s genetically possible for a natural lifter and put the “Years Of Training” chart in proper context for all of you. Moving forward I will be referencing Dr. Casey Butt’s publication for reasons I just mentioned and I hope the confusion didn’t put too many of you off.

But looking back, I think this is great because for a lot of you, thinking about what’s “genetically possible” is a very frustrating subject and it causes a lot of us to just go too deep down the rabbit hole of what it takes to build muscle and what usually happens is a lot of you guys just get frustrated, confused and demotivated.

At the end of the day if you want to grow you just need to train HARD every day, every week, every month, get enough sleep and EAT! So find a program you like and beat the crap out of it every day and as you build muscle, increase your daily calorie intake to help support the muscle you’re gaining. As a beginner to intermediate lifter, the equation is really that simple. You don’t need to spend 2 hours online trying to figure out which 10 biceps exercises are the best for muscle growth. Just keep slamming heavy chin-ups and barbell curls until your biceps explode and then EAT more food.


You know Rikki and I were actually talking about this last night at the gym. We were talking about how back in the Golden Era of bodybuilding people just trained. They tried everything and anything and focused on pushing their limits only worrying about breaking through plateaus. Granted, we should definitely pay attention to the advancements in knowledge of nutrition and program building that’s available today. However, spend less time on YouTube and more time training as hard as you can and you WILL see results. Save the YouTube time for ONLY when doing cardio, then that way, even if you get hung up watching videos for an hour, you burned some calories while doing it!


What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential?

By Lyle McDonald

The WeighTrainer - Your Maximum Muscular Bodyweight and Measurements

by Casey Butt, Ph.D. 

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