At this point, it's pretty much an undisputed fact that exercise is a necessary part of living a healthy life. There's no need for everybody to be ripped and athletic; some folks are as happy and healthy heavy, others tend to be on the thin side, and still others have a tendency toward being muscular. Regardless of body type and genetics though, engaging in intentional exercise a few times each week– whether that's going for a walk with friends or a round of HIIT training– is vital for boosting your mood, improving your energy levels, and strengthening your muscles and bones.
For those who get their regular exercise by going to the gym and doing weight training, there's a common arc of progress, especially if you're doing so for the first time.
Often, guys find that they improve pretty rapidly at first. They start to feel more confident in their movements and have more muscle control after their first few weeks at the gym and the improvements are noticeable. Then, however, this rapid progress starts to peter out. You go from the high of feeling newfound confidence to the frustration of feeling like you've quickly plateaued.
Unfortunately, that means that guys also often start to compare themselves to others at the gym ("he's doing more weight than me even though he's smaller" or the internalized misogyny version of "I have to do more weight because a woman is doing almost as much as me") or they just feel outright defeated.
The expectations we set for ourselves when it comes to having a fitness routine often don't match up with reality or what is physically possible. Sure, there are people who have fantastic, rapid changes to their physique or physical ability, but often these are folks who are working with a trainer and following a strict exercise and diet routine. For most of us, the safest and surest goal should be gradual improvements, not rapid transformations.
A few years back, I was going to the gym on a regular basis for the first time in my life. I kept an exercise journal with me and wrote down how many reps I did of each exercise along with the amount of weight I was using. Thinking that I was plateauing, I challenged myself to continuously increase the amount of weight that I was lifting. If I lifted the same amount two weeks in a row, for example, I'd add 5-10lbs the next week. While this led to pretty rapid progress for a little while, it also led me to overloading my joints. I put myself in a position where I was straining to lift well above what should have been my max weight.
The result was a shoulder injury that took me out of the gym for a full nine months and still causes me some issues with pain and inflammation almost a full 4 years later.
Now that I'm back to a regular workout routine, I've learned from my mistakes (sorry, rotator cuff) and have been more intentional about strengthening large muscle groups, improving mobility and stability, and– most importantly– making steady, gradual progress toward achieving my fitness goals.
That being said, if you're like me, you're neurotic en0ugh to feel like you need to be keeping track of your progress and hitting milestones rather than just taking an approach of "I'll get there when I get there." In that case, how do you know how long it should take for you to be seeing results?
How Long Does it take to Build Muscle?
Let's start by getting clear about what we mean when we talk about building muscle.
Muscle growth– the process of your muscles getting both bigger and stronger– actually starts as tiny tears in your muscle. Your muscles are made up of bundles of fibers, and as you stress those fibers through exertion, tiny tears form along them. It's similar to back in ye olden days when headphones had cables that connected to your phone (or iPod if you're prehistoric like me); after using your headphones for a while, the cable would start to get frayed in the area where it was used most, usually right by the earbuds or the jack.
Unlike antiquated auditory technology, however, the cables that comprise your muscle don't just stay broken (thankfully). Instead, through a process of protein synthesis, your body repairs these fibers, fusing them together in a way that causes them to be bigger and stronger than they were before.
BuiltLean describes this process by saying:
After you workout, your body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibers through a cellular process where it fuses muscle fibers together to form new muscle protein strands or myofibrils. These repaired myofibrils increase in thickness and number to create muscle hypertrophy (growth). Muscle growth occurs whenever the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown. This adaption, however, does not happen while you actually lift the weights. Instead, it occurs while you rest.
The rate at which hypertrophy occurs will vary from person to person. The amount of rest you get, your diet, hormones, and a variety of genetic factors are at play in determining how quickly hypertrophy will occur.
Assuming you're lifting weights frequently, getting adequate rest, sending the appropriate nutrients to your muscles, and don't have a health condition that limits or inhibits your body's ability to recover on its own, you can anticipate approximately 1-2 lbs of muscle growth per month.
It's certainly possible to put on more muscle weight per month, but doing so usually requires the use of steroids or "dirty bulking," which consists of consuming massive amounts of calories in a very short period of time. The negative side effects of steroids can be quite severe, and dirty bulking often results in increasing your body fat percentage as well, meaning that it can be counterproductive if you're trying to get lean.
These exceptions aside, if you lift 4-5 times per week, consume adequate amounts of protein for your muscles to recover, get enough rest, and eat a well-rounded diet, the steady increase of 1-2 lbs of muscle per month is ideal. Even though this doesn't sound like much upfront, it's still a change that will be quite noticeable for you, as those couple of pounds can create a significant amount of definition and leave you feeling much stronger.
How Long Does it take to Lose Weight?
If your fitness goals include losing weight, it's important to keep in mind that just like building muscle there are a variety of factors that can affect the rate at which you lose weight. Obviously, your activity level and nutritional intake are the most significant factors, but your body composition, hormones, medications, stress levels, and a variety of genetic factors are also at play. It's important to keep in mind that some people are just going to keep a few extra pounds in certain areas of their bodies due to the way that they're shaped, and that shouldn't be a deterrent to keep you from exercising or something that you should make you feel a sense of shame.
Still, if you're hoping to lower your body fat percentage, you can set healthful goals for yourself to track your progress.
First and foremost, remember that weight loss should never be rapid. If you're creating an extreme calorie deficit for yourself so that you shed weight quickly, you may be causing more harm than benefit for your body and your overall health. Additionally, if you have ever struggled with an eating disorder or have a family history of eating disorders, it's best to consult your doctor before starting any exercise or weight loss routine and to lose weight under close medical supervision.
If you are in a position where you can lose weight independently and in a healthful way, once again 1-2 lbs is a decent target, though in this case, that's per week rather than per month.
Again, it helps to think about how weight loss occurs to understand why this target is ideal.
As cited on Live Strong, "When you eat fewer calories than your body needs, your body will burn fat to make up the difference — and gradually, you'll lose weight. One pound of body fat equals about 3,500 calories." Because of this, a daily calorie deficit of 500 to 1000 calories will add up to about 1-2lbs of fat loss per week.
To determine what your caloric intake should be so that you're consuming a calorie deficit, you'll want to start by calculating your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR. Your BMR refers to the number of calories required to keep your body functioning at rest. You can use a BMR calculator to estimate your BMR based upon your current height, weight, age, and level of physical activity. For many guys, your BMR will be around 2,000 to 2,200 calories, though it may be higher or lower depending upon the aforementioned factors used to calculate it.
Once you know your BMR, plan out your meals so that you're prioritizing nutrient-dense foods like lean proteins, vegetables, and leafy greens and cutting down on processed foods, sweets, and fried foods until your daily food intake comes out to an estimated 500 calories below your BMR.
Remember: rapid weight loss is likely doing more harm than good, so aim for that 500 calorie deficit and don't exceed a deficit greater than 1,000 calories. If your body begins to go into famine mode, it will start to rely on muscle stores instead of fat stores to give your body energy. Plus, an extreme calorie deficit can get you into crash dieting territory, which is never ideal.
Remaining active while losing weight is important as well, as it will help prevent your muscles from atrophying while you're losing weight.
Your Wellness is a Retirement Account, Not a Get Rich Quick Scheme
While a change of 1-2 lbs as either muscle gain or weight loss may not seem like much, it will add up over time. The cliche is to say that slow and steady will win the race, and that's true for both weight loss and muscle development. Moving too rapidly in either direction can inhibit rather than help your overall wellness and can cause longterm problems.
Think about your physical wellbeing as functioning in the same way that a retirement account works. You're putting in a little at a time so that there can be compounded growth over a long period of time. Crash dieting or going to extreme measures to build muscle is akin to taking every dime you have out of your savings and putting it into a get rich quick scheme. Perhaps you'll see some big wins in the short term, but what's the long-term cost? Once the Bernie Madoff of your physical fitness journey gets thrown in jail and the money you've invested in him goes missing, you'll be wishing you'd have invested in something that produces steady returns over time.
Mixed metaphors aside, always remember that any time you're up and active, it's a win. You don't have to suddenly have 18-inch biceps or a six-pack to be making progress.