I remember the first day at the gym like it was yesterday. The movements felt awkward, I could barely lift any dumbbell that was over 15 pounds, and I had no idea what to expect from the process.
But, as I kept going back, I got to enjoy steady progress. My strength went up, my form improved, and my confidence grew.
As the months went by, progress became less predictable, and I had no idea why that happened. I thought that progress wouldn’t slow down for years.
But why did things go that way? More importantly, why does progress inevitably slow down?
What Are Newbie Gains?
Newbie gains refer to the linear progress we get to make when we first start training. This linear improvement occurs because the body isn’t used to this stress, so it responds rapidly and improves quickly. It’s also not uncommon for beginners to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously (1, 2).
In general, newbie gains encompass three types of improvement: muscle gain, strength gain, and improved skills. Let’s take a look at each:
1) Muscle gain
The most apparent benefit beginners get to experience when they first start training is the rapid muscle mass gain. Since the body is sensitive to this physical stressor, protein synthesis rates are through the roof, and beginners get to build a lot of muscle mass, even on a suboptimal training plan (3). Beginners can even build muscle in a calorie deficit (1, 2). The growth will occur more slowly, but the visual improvements will be drastic.
The precise amount of muscle one can gain during the newbie period is hard to determine, but we can borrow some research data. In one paper, researchers found that untrained men can build between four and seven pounds of lean mass in their first three months of training (4).
How much gain folks can experience in a year is challenging to say, especially since we don’t have such long-term research. According to a model by Lyle McDonald, beginners should be able to build up to 22 pounds of lean mass in their first year of proper training.
2) Strength gain
Rapid strength gains are the next pronounced effect of newbie gains, and some folks can see linear improvements for a long time.
For instance, I saw the transformation of one person a while back and was astounded. I remember him going to the gym and barely pressing 65 pounds for sets of five reps. As he kept coming back, he would linearly add more weight to the bar. What was even more impressive is that his form also improved alongside this. Before long, he was pressing well over 200 pounds, and his technique was excellent.
A friend and former client of mine also experienced something similar. Being a relatively short individual (around 5’6” or 167 cm) with a stocky frame, he began with a squat of about 135 pounds for sets of six to ten reps. Within two months, he was squatting 225 pounds for sets of five. Keep in mind that he had never done any dedicated gym training before he began working with me (as far as he told me), and he wasn’t very active before that.
Contrary to what many believe, muscular development is not the only factor that contributes to strength. Other factors that contribute include neuromuscular efficiency, skill (which we’ll look at next), leverages, and anatomy (5).
Some folks start with more strength and can make reasonably predictable strength gains for a long time. Others tend to see their progress slow down in as little as a few months.
3) Improved skills
Like many other things, the ability to lift weights is also a skill that can improve with practice. With all else remaining the same, you could get better at lifting weights and improve your performance. For example, take the squat. Though it may seem simple enough, you need to be mindful of several things to execute a successful squat:
- Keeping your back neutral and chest out
- Maintaining a solid position of the barbell
- Keeping your heels in firm contact with the floor at all times
- Breathing properly and bracing
- Keeping your elbows, wrists, knees, and feet in a proper position
Each contributes to the whole, and you can improve upon every detail with enough practice. For example, when you first start squatting, your form is bad, and you feel wobbly. You have a hard time keeping your back neutral; the barbell seems to slide up and down your back, your heels tend to lift off the floor, and you forget to breathe.
But as you practice the lift, each detail becomes more natural and automatic. The more you do it, the better you get at it. You feel stabler, more secure, and more confident. With that, you also add more weight to the bar and squat it with better form.
How to Make The Most Of Your Newbie Gains
I often like to tell beginners that linear and predictable progress doesn’t last forever, so they should enjoy it while they can. Here are seven tactics related to optimal training, nutrition, and longevity:
1. Start a simple training program
Many newcomers fall for the trap of seeking out the most complicated and demanding way to start training. In truth, a simple but challenging program will help you maximize your newbie gains.
Here are some pointers:
a) Focus on a few core lifts.
You don’t have to perform the squat, bench press, and deadlift, but you should pick a few exercises and focus on getting better at them from week to week. You can spend your entire newbie phase without changing them.
Good examples include pull-ups, chin-ups, back rows, front squats, push-ups, and dips.
b) Train three times per week.
You’re likely to come across all sorts of recommendations for your weekly frequency, but I feel that three workouts per week are the sweet spot for anyone new.
As we discussed above, your body is sensitive to training, so you don’t need to do much to cause significant disruption. Plus, three workouts are manageable, and you’re a lot more likely to stick with it and make lifting a habit.
c) Rest enough between sets.
There is an idea that we need to push ourselves hard and try to finish our workouts as quickly as possible. This isn’t true if your primary goals are muscle and strength gain.
According to research, longer rest periods are better for strength and muscle mass because they allow you to perform enough quality work (6, 7). In contrast, resting too little between sets hinders your performance and prevents you from doing enough sets and reps.
As a general rule, you should rest:
- 3 to 5 minutes on heavy sets (3-6 reps)
- 2 to 3 minutes on moderate sets (5 to 8 reps)
- 1 to 2 minutes on lighter sets (8 to 12 reps)
- 30 to 90 seconds on light work (12+ reps)
If you’re interested in a training program that takes all of this into consideration, click the button below and download my beginner’s training program:
2. Think form first, weight on the bar second
Your first and most crucial goal should always be to lift weights with proper technique and a solid range of motion. Sacrificing your form for the sake of lifting more weight doesn’t contribute in any way but instead worsens the quality of your training and increases the risk of injury.
This is important to go over because beginners often make this mistake. Newbies tend to get overly-ambitious because of the linear progress and feel they should add weight to the bar every week. At some point, the body simply isn’t ready for more weight, and by pushing yourself, you only sacrifice your form.
So, before adding more weight to the bar, make sure what you’re currently training with is manageable. You should be able to lift it with good form and a decent range of motion before ever thinking of adding more weight.
3. Focus on making small and consistent improvements
We are obsessed with milestones and goals—bench press 225 pounds, squat 315 pounds, deadlift 405 pounds. In our obsession, we often forget that progressing toward these milestones is much like climbing stairs. We can’t get to step number three before first going through steps one and two. We need to establish a solid foundation repeatedly before using it to push ourselves further.
The good news is, small progress adds up. For example, if you add a single pound to your squat every week, you’ll be squatting 52 more pounds within a year. You’ll be squatting 104 pounds in two years and 156 pounds in three years. Sure, progress is rarely that linear, but focusing on minor improvements works.
Now, ask yourself this:
Do you know many people who make consistent progress year over year? In their efforts to lift ten or twenty more pounds, people cripple themselves to what truly matters: the minor improvements that add up.
Knowing when to add more weight is tricky, and you need to be careful. Say that you’re trying to improve your bench press, and you can currently press 95 pounds for four sets of six reps. Let’s explore how that might go over the weeks:
Week 1: 4 sets w/ 97.5 lbs x 6, 6, 6, 6
Week 2: 4 sets w/ 100 lbs x 6, 5, 5, 4
Week 3: 4 sets w/ 100 lbs x 6, 6, 6, 5
Week 4: 4 sets w/ 100 lbs x 6, 6, 6, 7
Now that you’ve gotten six reps across all sets add 2.5 lbs and start progressing again. Before you do that, make sure that:
- You’re training with good form and a full range of motion
- You’re not sacrificing your technique in any way to do more reps
- You’re not taking all of your sets to failure
4. Practice caloric mindfulness
A significant roadblock for beginners (especially those struggling with weight gain) is the lack of caloric awareness. Folks spend tons of effort and time in the gym, dial in every detail, yet rarely consider how much food they are eating. This is a problem because poor nutritional habits make an otherwise sound training plan ineffective.
Sure, training is more beneficial than not doing anything, but if you want to maximize your fitness results and newbie gains, you also need to become mindful of your food intake and diet quality.
The good news is, getting started isn’t that difficult. You can download a simple tracking app like MyFitnessPal and begin to input the foods you’re eating and their respective quantities. This will help you gain a basic idea of how much food you’re eating. By taking the time to write down what you’re eating, you will also become more aware of your nutrition's overall quality. Based on that, you can start making improvements.
You should also do your best to track your protein intake and aim for around 0.8 grams per pound of body weight (8). For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, aim for up to 128 grams of protein per day.
5. Get into the habit of warming up well
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen beginners walk into the gym, grab the first weight they come across, and start moving it in some awkward manner. I get it, the gym is a new environment, and you feel anxious. You’re a beginner, but you don’t want to look like you have no idea what you’re doing. But here is the thing:
Most folks at the gym are generally nice and supportive. If you walk up to someone and ask for help, they would be more than happy to give you some pointers. I’m not saying that you should, but this illustrates that your worries are in your head.
With that said, a good warm-up achieves two things:
First, it helps you get into the mindset of training. By starting each session in the same manner, you subconsciously begin associating this process with working out. Once you start warming up, you’ve won half the battle.
Second, a good warm-up prepares your muscles, connective tissues, and joints for the work you’re about to do. In doing so, you boost your performance, feel more motivated, prevent aches from occurring, and keep yourself safe and injury-free in the long run.
I recommend starting with a couple of minutes of low-intensity cardio to warm-up a bit. You can walk on a treadmill, cycle on a bike, jump on a rope, or simply hop in place. After that, do some dynamic warm-up movements to loosen yourself and further raise your core body temperature.
Once you do these two things, get into your specific warm-up. For example, if you’re about to squat, start with the barbell and slowly work up to your working weight. Here is how it might look:
Set 1 - 45 lbs (empty bar) for 8-10 reps
Set 2 - 90 lbs for 3-5 reps
Set 3 - 135 lbs for 1-2 reps
Set 4 (first working set) - 165 lbs
Working up like this is vital for ensuring that everything feels good and you don’t have any alarming aches. It also helps you get in the groove and allows you to practice proper technique, which is always welcome.
6. Do some cardio, but don’t go overboard
Cardio is fantastic, and if you enjoy doing it, you shouldn’t stop. But keep in mind that doing too much of it can interfere with your gym progress (9). Most notably, doing more aerobics can make it more challenging to recover well between workouts.
I recently got an email from a reader who asked me how he could balance lifting weights with cardio. He was an avid runner but wanted to get into weight training to build up some strength and muscle mass.
His primary concern was that he wanted to maintain his running regimen and find a suitable way to add lifting on top of that. After examining his program, I advised him to clarify what he wanted to work toward first. He didn’t want to give up running. His program was demanding and adding weights on top of it wouldn’t have been good for him.
He eventually decided to reduce his running volume and allocate some of his energy to lifting weights.
7. Most importantly, remain patient
Yes, patience is difficult to master. We live in an age of instant gratification, and we want results now. I remember when I first got into weight training. With all but one week of consistent training, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disheartened. Why? Because I wasn’t fit already, and I had only lost a bit of weight during my first seven days.
But good things take time. Like many other life achievements, becoming fit is preceded by a process: eating well, training hard, sleeping enough, and giving your body time to recover. This process delivers impressive results when you apply it consistently and give it time.
Something I’ve found to work for myself is to remind myself that the time will pass anyway. For example, if I struggle with patience, I remind myself that the months will pass regardless of what I do. If I remain patient and stick to the plan, I will eventually reach the goal I’m working toward.
Is It Possible to ‘Miss Out’ On Newbie Gains?
Say that you’ve been training for a year and are just now learning of newbie gains. You’re probably thinking, “Well, have I missed out on my newbie gains?”
The good news is, you can’t miss out on your newbie gains. If you don’t do things right, you won’t achieve results. For example, if you train well but ignore your nutrition, you won’t build as much muscle. But this isn’t to say that you won’t be able to experience the full force of newbie gains once you optimize your plan.
Think of it like this:
According to experts, we should save an equivalent of three annual salaries by age forty. If you earn $60,000 per year, you should have $180,000 in your account at age 40. So what if you’re broke at age 44? Does this mean you’re doomed? No, it doesn’t.
Through sound financial management, discipline, and investments, you can turn things around for yourself and have the money in your account within a few years. The same goes for newbie gains.
How sensitive your body is to training largely depends on your fitness level, not on the amount of time you’ve been going to the gym. There are plenty of people who make significant mistakes for years and don’t improve much. But once they start following a good plan, they see rapid improvements, despite not being in their first year of training.
It’s never too late to get in shape or take full advantage of newbie gains. If you’ve trained for a long time but haven’t seen much progress, it’s entirely possible to experience rapid gains.
What to do Once Your Newbie Gains Are Over?
At some point, every lifter reaches this spot:
Progress is no longer linear and predictable. Further improvements happen slowly, and despite your best efforts, you might even backslide at times. This can be frustrating and disheartening.
What matters most is that you change the way you look at it. Sure, progress is now slower, but this doesn’t mean you won’t improve anymore. Little by little, it adds up. Here are the five fundamentals of progressing after the newbie gains:
1. Maintain a small to moderate calorie surplus
The initial training period is great because you can achieve good results even if you make many mistakes. For example, beginners can build decent amounts of muscle without being in a calorie surplus. But once the newbie period ends, it’s time to get more organized with your nutrition. Specifically, you need to maintain a slight calorie surplus to ensure optimal growth.
According to most experts, a surplus of 200 to 300 calories per day works great. Research has a slightly higher recommendation - 360 to 480 calories over maintenance (10). I find it too much and recommend keeping it more modest to prevent too much fat gain.
Eric Helms has his unique take: focus on gaining 0.5 to 1 percent body weight per month. For example, if you weigh 180 lbs at the start of the month, you should be no more than 182 by the end of it. Track your weight, take circumference measures, see how you’re progressing in the gym, and adjust.
2. Get enough protein
Many people recommend tracking all three macronutrients: protein, carbs, and fats. I find this too complicated as an approach, as it often makes things more complex than they need to be. Plus, unless you’re an elite-level bodybuilder or athlete, this type of precision won’t net you superior results.
Instead, I recommend focusing on a straightforward rule related to macronutrients:
Get 0.8 to one gram of protein per pound of body weight every day (8). For example, if you weigh 180 lbs, aim for somewhere between 144 and 180 grams of protein daily.
3. Track your progress
Tracking your progress is important because it gives you actionable data. Without data, you’re blind, and you can’t tell if you’re progressing, stagnating, or going backward.
The more metrics you track, and the more precise you are with each, the better. But be careful of obsessive behaviors. If it gets to a point where a stupid digit can ruin your day, take a step back and reassess. Fitness should add to your life, not subtract.
I recommend tracking the following metrics: body weight, circumferences, visual changes, and gym performance. Let’s take a look at each:
- Body weight - step on the scale four to seven times per week, in the morning, and on an empty stomach. Calculate the weekly average.
- Circumferences - take measurements of several key places (upper arms, chest, at navel, hips, and thighs) every two to four weeks and compare.
- Visual changes - take progress photos every two to four weeks and compare how your body changes over time.
- Gym performance - pick up a log or install a phone app where you record your workouts and can go back to see how your performance changes over the weeks.
4. Keep working toward small improvements
Newbie gains are great, but they also create unrealistic long-term expectations for training. At some point, progress slows down to a crawl, and many people get frustrated. Some even give up.
Perhaps the most important thing you need to do once the newbie phase is over is to start appreciating any improvements as they happen. Progress inevitably slows down, but what matters is that we still improve, even if that happens slowly.
For example, if you can bench press 2.5 pounds than you did last week, be grateful. Little by little, improvements add up.
5. Lean down methodically
As you spend time in a calorie surplus, you will inevitably gain some fat. Don’t worry - this is normal and to be expected. Don’t let your fear of gaining a bit of fluff stop you from building muscle. Instead, take regular breaks from gaining to lean down.
With that said, be careful not to fall for the trap of going from one diet to the next to be lean year-round. This can ruin your relationship with food, contribute to body image problems, and prevent you from using your time effectively.
The truth is, muscle gain takes a long time. To build a meaningful amount, you need to spend most of your time in a surplus and only diet every so often when you genuinely feel that you need to.
According to Eric Helms, a good ratio to shoot for is four to one. Meaning, for every four months of gaining, you should allow yourself one month of cutting. This is a solid rule and helps keep you on the right path and spending your time productively.
Plus, if you maintain a sensible surplus and don’t gain much more than 0.5 to one percent body weight per month, you likely won’t need to diet that often.
Newbie gains are fantastic. Sadly, they don’t last forever, and we eventually need to face reality:
Muscle gain is a slow process that takes discipline, consistency, and patience. Still, this shouldn’t stop you. The time will pass anyway, so why not make the most of it?
To start lifting has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Despite the countless hours, sweat, and effort, I don’t regret a single moment. And even though I’ve made many mistakes and have sabotaged my progress in more ways than you can imagine, I’m better off thanks to this habit, and I strongly encourage you to do the same.
Start your fitness journey, make the most of the newbie phase, remain patient, and lift that heavy iron!
Click the button to download a free beginner's program you can start using immediately:
1. Demling RH, DeSanti L. “Effect of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake and resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police officers.” Ann Nutr Metab. 2000;44(1):21-9. doi: 10.1159/000012817. PMID: 10838463.
2. Longland TM, Oikawa SY, Mitchell CJ, Devries MC, Phillips SM. “Higher compared with lower dietary protein during an energy deficit combined with intense exercise promotes greater lean mass gain and fat mass loss: a randomized trial.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2016 Mar;103(3):738-46. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.119339. Epub 2016 Jan 27. PMID: 26817506.
3. Damas F, Phillips S, Vechin FC, Ugrinowitsch C. “A review of resistance training-induced changes in skeletal muscle protein synthesis and their contribution to hypertrophy.” Sports Med. 2015 Jun;45(6):801-7. doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0320-0. PMID: 25739559.
4. Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomeé R. “The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans.” Sports Med. 2007;37(3):225-64. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200737030-00004. PMID: 17326698.
5. Enoka, Roger M, and Jacques Duchateau. “Rate Coding and the Control of Muscle Force.” Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine vol. 7,10 a029702. 3 Oct. 2017, doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a029702
6. Schoenfeld BJ, Pope ZK, Benik FM, Hester GM, Sellers J, Nooner JL, Schnaiter JA, Bond-Williams KE, Carter AS, Ross CL, Just BL, Henselmans M, Krieger JW. Longer “Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men.” J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1805-12. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001272. PMID: 26605807.
7. de Salles BF, Simão R, Miranda F, Novaes Jda S, Lemos A, Willardson JM. “Rest interval between sets in strength training.” Sports Med. 2009;39(9):765-77. doi: 10.2165/11315230-000000000-00000. PMID: 19691365.
8. Stokes T, Hector AJ, Morton RW, McGlory C, Phillips SM. “Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training.” Nutrients. 2018;10(2):180. Published 2018 Feb 7. doi:10.3390/nu10020180
9. Fyfe JJ, Bishop DJ, Stepto NK. “Interference between concurrent resistance and endurance exercise: molecular bases and the role of individual training variables.” Sports Med. 2014 Jun;44(6):743-62. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0162-1. PMID: 24728927.
10. Slater GJ, Dieter BP, Marsh DJ, Helms ER, Shaw G, Iraki J. “Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training.” Front Nutr. 2019;6:131. Published 2019 Aug 20. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00131