What 15 pounds of muscle ACTUALLY looks like

Suck it, every breathless hype cycle for celebrity transformations for superhero roles. Plus: personality change, whether "thin is in again" 🙄 and a cinnamon cake.

What 15 pounds of muscle ACTUALLY looks like
2012 vs 2022.

Over the weekend I explained how a washboarded-ab man like Lenny Kravitz would realistically be working out using only a set of 15-pound dumbbells, at least enough that he would be carrying them around in his luggage [1]. In that post, I talked about the overall muscle-building trajectory, and that sustained periods of significant progress are more important to whatever your muscle-related goals are (strength, size) than keeping that pressure up unfailingly, forever and ever, amen.

But a related question is: When are we “done”? When does the pressure we are keeping up become, if not totally futile, a case of wildly diminished returns? At what point are we shadowboxing the idea of gains, only to never again land a solid punch?

I hope I don’t have to tell you you are done whenever you want to be. But there is another interpretation of “done,” covered well in this StrongerByScience post, YOUR Drug-Free Muscle and Strength Potential: Part 1. (I hear you going “but Lenny Kravitz might not be drug-fr—” and I’m holding a finger to your lips and going shhh, shh for a second. That doesn’t matter right now.)

One of the great and amazing things about building muscle and strength is that, once you do it, you never really, meaningfully totally lose it again. Somewhere in the fabric of your nervous system, your body keeps at least a “like riding a bike” level of “muscle memory.”

I mention this because it’s spiritually related to another fact: Everyone has, if not quite a ceiling, a sort of lean-muscle-mass asymptote out there. Those numbers will be slightly different for everyone, depending on their size, genetics, hormonal profiles, and more. But the training does literally get harder, to the degree that it becomes a less and less even-handed choice between “continuing to get stronger” and “not.”

“Results,” both in strength and size/physique, do taper off. The first few pounds are relatively much easier to gain than the last few, by an order of magnitude. As LIFTOFF explains, you can show up to the gym and eat your protein/carbs/fats almost in your sleep and still get stronger, in your earliest days. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not unusual for someone 10 or 15 years in the game to fight their hardest with extremely precise programming and diet to add, say, 5 pounds to their deadlift, or an additional half-pound of muscle.

There are a few formulas for calculating one’s total muscular potential in this post. I thought it would be interesting to figure out where I’m at and how much muscle I’ve gained as an example. (If you don’t like numbers, skip this.)

For me, for instance, according to the Casey Butt Maximum Muscular Potential Model that uses ankle and wrist measurements, my apparently tiny bird bones mean I would top out at 135.5 pounds of lean body mass at 12 percent body fat (which would make my total weight 153 pounds). Right now, I’m about 170 pounds and 25 percent body fat, making my lean mass 127.5 pounds. If I make a few math estimations, that means I’ve gained probably 15 pounds of muscle mass thus far in my eight years of lifting (holy shit!! Magazine profiles claiming celebs put on 15-25 pounds of muscle in a matter of months you are on deep and abiding notice) of my total 23-pound capacity. This is a pair of photos that show me at among my deepest points of muscle loss, and me within the last few days:

There’s not that much left! My easy gains are well over. And if I want that last 8 pounds, based on how hard intense training has started to feel, I’d have to really fight for it. On the other hand, I can train pretty easy, well away from my maxes, and stay strong without it being a full-bore effort.

I mention this because it all goes toward the idea that working out can be a great microcosm for proving to yourself that you can achieve actually really impressive stuff by doing no more than showing up and checking the boxes and taking it a step at a time most days. For a lot of people, lifting is relatively untrod ground in terms of hangups or preconceived notions about what they “should” be able to do.

But it can also be not that. It can be maintenance, or just fun, or free-form experimentation. While goals are helpful if you are feeling particularly listless or adrift, there is nothing shameful about just staying in basic, destinationless motion. And it is possible to flow between those two states, neither a waste of the other.


~Discord Pick of the Week: when I say “big beautiful horse,” I mean what Bev Francis means:

But I also mean:


Here’s just a good, straightforward link: A list of 15 useful accessories for making your deadlift better. I must admit I’ve never thought to front-rack on a split squat, but now I kind of can’t wait to ruin my own life with it. I always forget about Meadows rows, too, though I do love them. The unassailable GOAT of the list though is, to me, the single-leg RDL.

Did the Pandemic Change Your Personality? Possibly. In thinking a lot about this, I’ve wondered how much of this is just maturing. “Personality change” feels like an overly grabby way of putting what I think is closer to the truth: the pandemic made the parts of my personality that were adaptive to my personal set of pandemic challenges jump out. At best, that wave is turning out to be slow to roll back into the sea of “whoever it is that I am.”

After posting about finally getting my outdoor gym setup going (!!), a reader tweeted at me this mini-doc about a super-cool-looking community outdoor gym in Kyiv made from “Soviet-era scraps” called Kachalka (meaning “to pump,” lol). It opened all the way back in 1966. I’m afraid to ask what’s become of it during the war. You can see more photos of it at the Google Maps listing.

Speaking of progress, a cleansing comment about comparing yourself to even other normal people from this Reddit post, Not happy about progress after ~1 year of lifting:

Most people that make normal progress don’t bother with sharing pics on Reddit, the outliers can’t wait.

/wiping tears from my eyes The National Park Service knows about leg day :’)

Obsessed with this guy doing basic Cirque du Soleil moves (name? Comment if you know the word for it? You guys were so good with the hurricanrana) as art.

The Internet’s retro sandwich sleuth.

Why more girls are hitting puberty early.


WaPo: Female bodybuilders describe widespread sexual exploitation. Just to tie a few threads together from this, the grossness of the guy at the center of this story aside: As the story mentions, prizes for women’s bodybuilding shows are a fraction of men’s, meaning that a lot of them supplement their income by other means, including selling content online via OnlyFans, Fansly, etc. So it’s not just ideologically disgusting to sell stolen/unapproved photos of them; it’s likely literally stealing their livelihood.

Everyone is Beautiful and No One Is Horny. I love the headline, though I’m not exactly on board with the idea that we used to work out exclusively as a means to carnal relations and now it’s ONLY about appearance for appearance’s sake. But this all does feel of a piece with the way that no one is on Tinder to actually meet anyone, as I wrote a few years ago; everyone’s there to push the validation button and get a dopamine hit off a version of themselves they don’t have to manually dress up and drag out to a bar. Nonetheless, here is everything I fight against each day:

The same fate has befallen our bodies. A body is no longer a holistic system. It is not the vehicle through which we experience joy and pleasure during our brief time in the land of the living. It is not a home to live in and be happy. It, too, is a collection of features: six pack, thigh gap, cum gutters. And these features exist not to make our lives more comfortable, but to increase the value of our assets. Our bodies are investments, which must always be optimized to bring us… what, exactly? Some vague sense of better living? Is a life without bread objectively better than a life with it? When we were children, did we dream of counting every calorie and logging every step?

I should be the exact target audience for a New Yorker piece on metabolism, but it all feels like so much “trying to walk by thinking about how to move the individual muscles of your legs one at a time.” Still, some interesting stuff about the origins of RNA and the way that mitochondria (the powerhouse of the cell) work.

Many are clamoring for my take on the question “Could thin be in again?” and I’m pleased to offer my response:


Mark Zuckerberg is definitely going to kill his company. (Not for nothing, Elon Musk might really kill his company, too. But if I were laying bets, as I’m wont, I’d say he will absolutely not torpedo the value over the company “free speech” that turns off advertisers.)

RIP delightfully belligerent activist Mike Davis; friend of the blog Max Read put together an absolutely amazing Mike Davis reader.

Will watch with trepidation this Disney+ animated short about a young plus-size ballerina dancer with body dysmorphia (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but handling these topics has not been the forte of… anyone ever throughout history. Yet!).

I'm begging you on my hands and knees, especially if you like me are a staunch '80s music revivalist, to list to The 1975's new album Being Funny In A Foreign Language.

I love the idea of this cinnamon cake; if you try it, PLEASE contact me.

That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—

  1. In response, some banged the “people lie about this stuff” drums. Look: No one believes that people lie more than I do. Lenny Kravitz claimed, in an open-ended inquiry about his favorite stuff, not only that he uses 15-pound dumbbells, but brings them on the road with him. This would just be such an unnecessarily voluntary lie that it feels improbable for it be completely made up; it is also feasible, in a way that’s worth talking about, even if it were not literally true.