Being someone who's lifted consistently for over a decade now, I've seen a lot of people struggle with making the progress they wanted or expected. Some look to shortcuts to reach their fitness goals, while others give up altogether. My advice before reading this piece would be to check out my powerbuilding program for lifting advice and article on IIFYM for nutrition tips. You then need to ensure you're getting enough sleep, focusing daily on recovery, and being disciplined. Without maintaining consistency in these areas, the rest of this blog post is useless. If you do, though, then consider the lessons I've learned over the years to adjust your perspective.
How Long Does It Take To Gain Muscle?
This question has a pretty lame answer, but an important one: it depends. How much work are you putting in? You've likely heard the expression, "You get out what you put in." This is largely true with gaining strength and muscle mass. With that said, it's difficult to quantify because everybody's different. A man with naturally high levels of testosterone will have a much easier time gaining muscle than your average woman. Similarly, how do you quantify progress? If your goal is to lose 5lb and gain a little bit of muscle tone, then you'll hit your goal far quicker than somebody looking to compete in bodybuilding, powerlifting, or Olympic weightlifting. To cut through the nuance, I'll offer my personal experience.
I began lifting seriously toward the end of my time in high school. I had always been a runner, whether in soccer, track & field, or cross country. I had a pretty thin frame and weighed a maximum of about 150lb before college. I gradually got stronger, but didn't notice substantial size and strength gains until 2 or 3 years into the process. By my senior year of college, I weighed a maximum of 205lb. My bench press was around 325lb, my squat was about 475lb, and my deadlift was nearly 550lb. For perspective, that was about 5 consistent years of weight training. To be honest, I didn't know a whole lot about nutrition until midway through college, either. And while this progress seems impressive, it's important to note that these strength gains were not linear. I'd usually have a string of a few great weeks, then feel burnt out. You'll experience a natural up and down as your body grows and adapts.
Backing up a bit, please understand that your first year will entail a lot of experimenting and learning. What kind of training program do I want to go with? Which specific exercises should I incorporate? How do I even perform these exercises? A lot of it will be uncomfortable. I had a bad experience my first time squatting, but overcame that lingering fear as I practiced. It helps to have a training partner during this process who you can learn and grow with. They'll hold you accountable and make the journey more enjoyable. One of my best friends to this day was the guy who got me into weightlifting. Whatever you do, don't quit because you don't see the improvements you expected. You need to be in it for the long haul if you want to see notable progress.
Avoid Snake Oil Salesmen (*Cough Joel Seedman)
Perhaps my least favorite aspect of the fitness community is trainers who sell garbage to their clients. Too often, people flock to personal trainers with Instagram fame or 6-pack abs. While I would personally avoid a trainer who looks like a twig and doesn't practice what they preach, not every good trainer will look like a chiseled god. They might not be elite lifters, either, but they'll know different training methods to help you recover and/or reach your fitness goals. Perhaps the best way to navigate through this jungle is to remember that personal training itself usually requires a lot of marketing, as trainers need to build their client lists. This results in trainers overpromising on results, showing off their bodies, and creating flashy new exercises for attention (like in our next example). No good trainer will promise outstanding results in the short-term. No good trainer will ignore the importance of nutrition. Most trainers are outgoing and sociable, but you must remain mindful of their claims.
In the case of Dr. Joel Seedman, people see a man who works with professional athletes and assume he knows what he's talking about. It's tough to blame them for thinking this way because it takes knowledge in training to see the flaws in his program. Dr. Seedman is the guy who advocates for "90° joint angles" when lifting, despite it being proven that training through a muscle's full range of motion is better for muscle development. He's claimed that one of his clients gained 17lb of muscle in 6 weeks, which is just silly. He uses big sciency words to sound intelligent, such as THE BEST ECCENTRIC ISOMETRIC HYPERTROPHY INDUCING SQUAT OPTIMAL FOR PERFORMANCE (slight exaggeration). The reason I chose to pick on him in this article, though, is because he promotes dangerous exercises that novice fitness enthusiasts then try for themselves. These sometimes crazy looking movements drive a lot of traffic on social media, but hold no water. In many cases, they put people at risk unnecessarily. Maybe I'm playing into his hand by writing about him, but at least you know not to take his methods seriously. If you don't believe me, here's a video by Dr. Layne Norton that addresses the topic.
Form Breakdown and Squat University
Many people in the lifting community are aware of Dr. Aaron Horschig's Squat University. Credit where it's due, Dr. Horschig offers a lot of good material on training, recovery, and rehab. However, he often focuses too much on form breakdown and trying to maintain perfect form. In my view, harping on perfect form can hold people back. While it's certainly important to try to maintain proper form, some form breakdown will inevitably occur as you push your limits. We've all seen videos of bodybuilders doing cheat curls or rows where they use their legs and lower back to drive their last couple of reps. This extra effort pays dividends over time so long as you're mindful of the position you're putting your body in. On a heavy deadlift, for example, it's sometimes better to drop the bar and reset if you find yourself out of position. On the contrary, you can live with a little bit of forward lean on a seventh or eighth rep at a lighter weight.
Those who are new to lifting are notorious for having bad form. Some of this is due to a lack of knowledge, and some of it is a result of figuring out what position is natural for their body. Like with anything, there needs to be balance. I've changed my form many times as I've progressed and learned. If I always stayed light to practice and maintain form, I would not have experienced the same progress that I did. In short, there's grey area here that people need to navigate themselves. Don't be afraid to push yourself, but don't be stupid either.
Everybody's Strength Progression is Unique
We already touched on this, but it's worth saying again. Everybody is going to have a different experience when it comes to gaining muscle and strength. It's impossible to account for every variable that goes into this process. How hard do you push yourself at the gym? How many days per week do you train? How much sleep do you get? Are you a naturally strong person? All of this matters to some extent as far as rate of progression, so don't be discouraged if your friend is advancing quicker than you are. If you feel weak or behind, use that to drive you. You'll be amazed at what consistency and discipline can achieve.