The strong, toned look is in! Consequently, more of us are hitting the weights with the aim of gaining muscle mass and strength.
When we start out on a new fitness regime, the pure enthusiasm of getting started is enough to fire up our motivation initially. But pretty soon, we expect to start seeing results in order to keep that motivation going! So exactly when can we expect to see muscle gains and what is a typical rate of progression?
Well, this question can be likened to 'how long is a piece of string?'. There are a bucketload of variables which determine how quickly someone can gain muscles mass, including but not limited to:
Because there are so many factors at play, there aren't many studies available which clearly define typical rates of muscle gain. That being said, the most commonly quoted figures are between 1-2lbs of muscle per month for men and 0.5-1lb of muscle per month for women. So these figures can be used as a general guide.
How quickly into a training programme someone can expect to see muscle changes also varies. Anecdotal evidence suggests it typically takes at least 6-8 weeks before someone will see any change, but potentially 3 months or more to see significant results.
So it's clear gaining muscle isn't a quick process – it takes long-term dedication and the right type of training to achieve it over time. This is an important point to highlight for all those people who are concerned that lifting weights will make them too muscley or bulky. Gaining that sort of muscle takes work – it doesn't happen overnight or after one or two weight training sessions.
So we've addressed the 'when', but what about the 'how' - what exactly happens within our body to form new muscle? Many people know from experience that consistent weight training leads to muscle growth – so we know this type of exercise is an important stimulus. However, what happens from a cellular point of view to produce this outcome isn't that straightforward for us to research or explain. Most agree on the general idea, but the nitty-gritty science can be a little tough to determine.
For the purpose of this article, I will keep it top level and as simple as possible! Essentially, when we perform resistance style exercises which put strain on our muscles, we cause little tears in our muscle fibres – muscle damage. This damage signals an immune response and the relevant cells come along to repair the damaged muscle fibres. In doing so, the fibres are gradually made bigger with each repair, leading to growth over time.
There is a theory that our body has this response to prepare it for that same level of increased workload going forward. If the muscles are adapted, the same level of damage won't be caused next time the same stress is put on it. Since our bodies are incredibly adaptive machines – I'd say this makes complete sense!
There is also the point about protein synthesis and protein breakdown to raise. In order for new muscle to be built, protein synthesis must be higher than protein breakdown. Protein synthesis is triggered by resistance training and also when enough protein is supplied to the working muscles – so this is where diet plays a part.
We now know what is going on inside our body, and when we are likely to see some real gains, so now let's discuss what we can do from a practical point of view. If your goal is to gain muscle, you'll need to follow an appropriate resistance training programme. Simply lifting any kind of weight isn't quite enough – if you want to build muscle you need to ensure you're lifting the correct weight and performing the ideal number of repetitions (reps) per set.
Research shows that the optimum weight to be lifted to encourage the most hypertrophy (muscle growth) is 70% of a persons 1RM (one rep max) . So for example, if you were able to perform 1 bicep curl with a 20kg dumbbell, but not perform a single other repetition – this would be your 1RM for dumbbell bicep curls. 70% of this would be 14kg, so that would be the weight you’d need to lift to provide the most significant muscle gains.
A person can usually perform 8-12 reps when lifting 70% of their 1RM – so that is also another useful guide. Rather than lifting very heavy weights to determine your 1RM, aim for 8-12 reps with a weight you feel is appropriate. If you can perform 3 sets and find the last 2-3 reps of the final set very tough, then this weight is suitable. It's important to really struggle to finish otherwise you are possibly performing reps which will lead to muscular endurance improvements rather than size gains.
When it comes to lifting weights, the general guidance is as follows:
While performing 3 sets of 8-12 reps may be the best approach for muscle gains, if you're brand new to this sort of resistance training, you'd be better off working up to this level. Going straight in at this level of training could cause an uncomfortable amount of muscle damage, which will leave you feeling very sore for days – not exactly what you want when embarking on a new exercise programme! So it's best to ease yourself in to give your muscles time to get used to the movements and lifting weights, then build up to where you need to be.
If you're just starting out with lifting weights, I'd recommend the following approach:
Weeks 1-3 – aim to perform 1 set of each exercise, aiming for 15-20 reps per exercise. The weight should be enough that you find it challenging towards the end of the set, but not impossible to finish or so heavy that your form (technique) becomes compromised. Focus on 6-8 different exercises per session to begin with.
Weeks 4-6 – Increase the number of sets you're doing to 2/3, but keep the weight at a similar level. You may need to increase the weight a little if you are finding it less challenging, but still aim for that 15-20 reps mark.
Week 7 and beyond – By now your body will be more experienced in lifting weight and performing multiple sets, so you can start to add some extra load. At this time, look to drop your reps down to 8-12 and up the weights. Performing 3 sets of 12 reps should be a challenge – that's how you know your weight is correct. But never compromise on your technique, so the moment you have to break form to finish a lift, stop and rest.
As well as the above, you should ideally be looking to complete 2-3 sessions per week, and mixing up the muscle groups you’re targeting in each session.
Training to gain muscle mass and strength is a big plus, and something we should all be doing to improve our overall health and quality of life. It also has great benefits for helping with weight maintenance too. Whether you're starting out or just looking to focus more on your weight training sessions, I hope the above helps to give you a steer on how to plan your workout – and also what you can expect in terms of progress. Happy lifting!
To log your workout reps and sets more accurately, use our strength tracking feature! Head into the Diary > tap the search bar > tap on Exercise at the very top of the screen > tap Strength and search for your exercise.
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Emma White (Certified Personal Trainer) has always loved fitness. She's passionate about the many benefits of regular exercise, particularly the positive impact on mental health and overall quality of life, as well as how it provides the key to successful weight management.