It’s no surprise that most of these well-intentioned people are nowhere to be seen by the beginning of March. They’ve washed out, stopped going to the gym, and their resolution has fallen by the wayside. There are plenty of reasons people stop working out – maybe they started working out for the wrong reasons (i.e. to impress someone else, with no internalized drive to make a positive change for themselves), maybe they felt intimidated in the gym environment, or maybe they just realized (or remembered) that they didn’t like working out and eating less in the first place.
However, one of the major reasons people burn out is that they start with unrealistic goals.
Now, if this has happened to you, it’s not entirely your fault. Magazines at the front of every store and ads plastered all over the internet promise to tell you how to lose 30 pounds in 30 days, add two inches to your arms in a month, put 50 pounds on your bench press in 8 weeks, etc. If you don’t have any real experience with working out and/or dieting, all of those may sound like aggressive but realistic targets.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Hordes of people fall into the trap of setting unrealistic goals because they were promised unrealistic results, falling short of those goals (or not realizing how much time and effort it would take to realistically reach those goals), feeling demoralized, and burning out.
In this article, I’m going to cut through the BS to let you know what sorts of goals are realistic and attainable for the majority of people when they hit the gym. The primary audience for this article is people who are brand new to working out, but it will also touch on how rates of progress change with training experience, as well as realistic goal-setting for more advanced lifters.
How fast can I build muscle at first?
In a huge analysis of over 200 studies (conducted primarily on untrained people), the average rate of increase in muscle cross-sectional area was roughly 0.1-0.2% per day. In other words, if you just started training, you have 13 inch arms now, and you want to add an inch to your arms (which would be a 7% increase in arm size, and closer to a 10% increase in muscle size when accounting for bone and fat), you should expect it to take at least 2-4 months.
Furthermore, you should expect it to take at least 2-3 weeks before you see any noticeable gains in size whatsoever. Research has shown that in the first few weeks of training, it’s all the muscles can do to just repair themselves after a workout, leaving them with virtually no resources to actually start growing. Expect to work out consistently for at least a month before you start seeing any visual changes, and at least 2-3 months before seeing really noticeable changes in muscle size.
In terms of scale weight, a gain of 2-3kg (4-7lbs) of lean body mass (which is composed primarily of muscle) is pretty typical for your first 3 months of training. There’s definitely a huge range with some people gaining 2-3+ times more muscle than the average person, and some people actually losing muscle when they start working out (both of which are rare), but at first, you should expect to gain somewhere around 1kg/2lbs of muscle per month on average, with a “normal” range from .5kg/1lb per month to 2kg/4lbs per month.
Is it different for women?
It may come as a surprise to most people, but no, not really. Study after study after study has shown that women gain about the same relative amount of muscle as men do. In other words, men start out with more muscle mass, but the percentage increase in muscle size in response to training is essentially the same between the sexes. So, if a man starts with 40kg of muscle mass and gains 4kg of muscle mass in response to training, a woman starting with 25kg of muscle mass would have a good shot at gaining 2.5kg.
How quickly should I expect to gain strength at first?
I’m not aware of any massive reviews concerning rates of strength gains, but luckily we’re not entirely in the dark here.
Last year, I sent out a survey (which I still need to finish analyzing; I haven’t forgotten about it guys!) to get some normative data to work with. More than 1,800 people responded, so it’s a very robust data set. One drawback is that some people reported their lifts in pounds when the survey specifically asked for kilos, but they were a very small minority, and I’ve spent a lot of time combing through all the answers and removing or editing all instances where the units were definitely wrong or very likely wrong. At this point, I’m confident that 99%+ of the entries are accurate, and so if I missed any, they aren’t going to meaningfully change the group averages. It’s also worth noting that the survey asked people to only respond if their primary training goal was building strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. These numbers only apply for people in that population, and not for typical gymgoers who aren’t primarily focused on gaining strength in those lifts.
The respondents were stratified based on the length of time they’d spent training. Since it was a survey, these data are cross-sectional. However, each group was large enough that I think we can still draw inferences regarding rates of progress.
The men training for less than 3 months, on average, squatted 102kg (225lbs), and the men training for between 3 and 6 months squatted 132kg (290lbs) on average. Assuming similarity between those groups, this means you can expect to gain about 9-10kg (~20lbs) per month on your squat in your first ~6 months in the gym (and likely even faster at first).
The men training for less than 3 months, on average, benched 85kg (185-190lbs), and the men training for between 3 and 6 months benched 96kg (210lbs) on average, for a difference of about 3.4kg (7-8lbs) per month.
The men training for less than 3 months, on average, deadlifted 130kg (285lbs), and the men training for between 3 and 6 months deadlifted 165kg (365lbs) on average, for a difference of about 11.5kg (25lbs) per month.
For women, the averages were a 65kg squat with 0-3 months of training experience, and a 76kg squat with 3-6 months of experience. So, on average, women can expect to gain about 3.6kg (7-8lbs) on their squat per month.
The women training for less than 3 months, on average, benched 40kg (85-90lbs), and the women training for between 3 and 6 months benched 47kg (100-105lbs) on average, for a difference of about 2kg (5lbs) per month.
The women training for less than 3 months, on average, deadlifted 83kg (180-185lbs), and the women training for between 3 and 6 months deadlifted 93kg (205lbs) on average, for a difference of about 3.3kg (7lbs) per month.
Let me make two quick notes about these numbers:
- The “0-3 month” numbers seem a bit high to me. This may just be a case of voluntary response bias – people who were weaker than average were probably a bit less likely to respond to the survey in the first place.
- The difference in strength per month of training (not exactly rates of progress since these data were cross-sectional, but probably a good proxy) seem about right based on what I’ve seen from people who manage their own training, but they’re considerably smaller than what you see in most studies on new lifters, and they’re considerably smaller than you could expect if you hired a competent coach early in your lifting career. As I’ve detailed before, most people are simply not great at pushing themselves.
Here are the average strength levels over time from the survey (note: everything is in kilos):
|MEN||Average Squat||Standard Deviation||Average gains per month|
|less than 3 months (N=40)||102.5||31.3||9.9|
|3-6 months (N=112)||132.2||37.3||4.0|
|6-12 months (N=280)||150.1||35.4||2.1|
|1-2 years (N=453)||168.6||41.8||0.7|
|2-5 years (N=456)||185.3||38.1||0.7|
|5-10 years (N=58)||216.9||43.2|
|WOMEN||Average Squat||Standard Deviation||Average gains per month|
|less than 3 months (N=19)||64.9||27.8||3.6|
|3-6 months (N=32)||75.8||19.0||3.1|
|6-12 months (N=70)||89.9||30.0||1.0|
|1-2 years (N=97)||99.1||26.0||0.3|
|2-10 years (N=76)||113.0||28.0|
|MEN||Average Bench||Standard Deviation||Average gains per month|
|less than 3 months||85.4||27.2||3.4|
|WOMEN||Average Bench||Standard Deviation||Average gains per month|
|less than 3 months||40.9||11.2||2.1|
|MEN||Average Deadlift||Standard Deviation||Average gains per month|
|less than 3 months||130.0||39.6||11.5|
|WOMEN||Average Deadlift||Standard Deviation||Average gains per month|
|less than 3 months||82.8||30.7||3.3|
How fast can I lose fat?
A 2005 study found that body fat stores can liberate, at most, about 31kcal/day to be burned. In a subsequent interview (which, unfortunately, I can’t find the link to anymore), the lead researcher admitted he botched a couple of calculations, and the limit was closer to 22kcal/day from each pound of body fat.
With this information, we can use a nifty little formula that can tell you how fast you can shoot to lose fat without unnecessarily increasing your risk of losing much (or any) lean mass in the process. I’m using 25kcal/day per pound of fat because those 3kcal/day aren’t going to make a meaningful difference, and they’ll simplify the calculation a lot, as you’ll see in a second:
Body weight x bodyfat percentage = total body fat x 25kcal/day per pound of fat = daily caloric deficit x 7 = weekly caloric deficit ÷ 3500 (since there are roughly 3500kcal per pound of fat tissue) = pounds of fat you can lose per week
It may look messy, but here’s what it all simplifies to:
Body fat percentage ÷ 20 = percentage of your current bodyweight you should aim to lose per week.
So, for example, if you’re currently at 20% body fat, you should aim to lose about 1% of your bodyweight per week. If you’re 10%, you should only aim to lose about 0.5% of your body weight per week.
Now, you can certainly aim to lose weight faster than that, but you’ll almost certainly lose muscle in the process. If that doesn’t matter to you (since it’s much faster to gain back muscle you’d previously lost much faster than to build new muscle), then be my guest and crash diet, but your rate of fat loss probably won’t be much faster.
If you don’t know your body fat percentage, the US Navy developed a nifty formula that can accurately predict your body fat percentage based on the circumferences of your neck, waist, and (for women) hips. The standard error for this calculation is around 3%, which is good enough for our purposes here.
Strapping in for the long haul
Now that you know where to set your expectations for your first few months of training, let’s turn our attention to the future: How much should you (reasonably) expect to accomplish across your training career?
These two studies (one, two) tell us the fat-free mass indices (a measure of muscularity relative to body height) of typical gym-goers with at least 2 years of training experience. The average is a fat-free mass index was about 22.3, with a standard deviation of 1.9 points. We also know the average fat-free mass index of untrained people – about 18.9±1.3 points. For more background information on FFMI, check out this article.
Converting the rather arcane units of the fat free mass index to terms that are more easily understandable, that means an average-height guy with no training experience starts with between 57-65.5kg of lean body mass, and ends up with about 66-78.5kg of lean body mass, gaining (on average) between 3.5-18.5kg of lean mass across a training career.
That may sound like a huge range…because it is. Your genetic draw plays a big role in how well you’ll respond to training.
I made a spreadsheet that’ll do all of these calculations for you and give you the range of results you can expect, and the likelihood of each result. Just click “file” and “make a copy” (if you use Google Sheets) or “download” (if you use Excel, Numbers or Open Office) to play with the spreadsheet. You just need to put in your height, and it’ll do the rest. Make sure you check out all of the sheets, since there are options to see how using adjusted vs. unadjusted FFMI impacts things.
In terms of strength, the typical male in my data set who’d been training for 5-10 years ended up with these stats:
217kg squat, 158kg bench, 253kg deadlift, and a 615kg total.
114kg squat, 68kg bench, 141kg deadlift, and a 321kg total.
Now, it’s worth keeping three things in mind about those numbers:
- Those were the averages across all weight classes. Averages will be higher for bigger people, and lower for smaller people.
- In all cases, the standard deviations were pretty big – generally at least 25% of the mean. For example, for the men’s squats, ±1SD (217±43kg) gives you a range from 174-260kg that’s “normal.”
- There’s no guarantee that all of the people who took the survey who’d been training for 5-10 years were truly at the limits of their strength, which would mean even bigger numbers would probably be likely. On the other hand, voluntary response bias is still a possibility, and survivorship bias is a possibility here too, which would inflate the numbers. I’m assuming those effects roughly cancel each other out.
With all that in mind, plug your weight (or target weight) into the calculators below to get a good idea of the numbers you should be aiming for with 5-10 years of training experience, along with the range of “normal” lifts (which should account for about 2/3 of people). The calculator uses allometrically scaled strength to account for differences in body weight.
Keep in mind, these are numbers you should aim to hit after years of training. You shouldn’t expect to hit them overnight, but they should give you solid numbers to aim for in the long term.
Wrapping it up
Setting good goals and having reasonable expectations about rates of progress is important, especially for people who are new to lifting and don’t have an experience base to draw from. I wasn’t aware of any other resources that actually laid out reasonable rates of progress and long-term goals to shoot for based on any real data (plenty of people have given recommendations based solely on number they pulled out of thin air), so I figured I’d whip one up to kick off this new year.
Do you have friends or family members who are new to lifting? Send this their way so they have a reasonable idea of what to aim for. And keep in mind, this article just deals with averages and the typical spread of results; about 1/6 of people will (unfortunately) get results below the ranges laid out in this article, and about 1/6 of people should get results above the ranges laid out in this article. However, this article should give you a reasonable idea of what to expect.
Ready to take the next step? Check out this guide that will teach you how to set up a training program and make consistent progress across your training career.