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Building Muscle

Newbie Gains: The Complete Science-Based Guide

What Are Newbie Gains?

The term “newbie gains” is often used colloquially to describe the significant and sudden increases in strength and muscle mass that many newcomers to weight lifting experience in the preliminary stages of a resistance training program.     

While it’s not a phrase you’re likely to encounter in a scientific journal article, it is undoubtedly a real phenomenon.  Researchers have time and again found that compared to those with extensive training backgrounds, people with no previous training experience are often able to see significantly greater developments in strength and muscle mass over the course of the same time period.  

For example, one study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology compared the effects of a 21-week resistance training program on individuals with and without prior weight lifting experience.(1)

At 4 points over the course of the study (weeks 0, 7, 14, and 21), the researchers took muscle cross-sectional area measurements of each participant and evaluated their maximal isometric strength.  At the conclusion of the trial, the researchers found that those with no previous training experience, on average, gained over 3 times as much muscle compared to those who came into the study with multiple years of prior experience (5.6% increase vs 1.8% respectively).   

On top of that, by the end of the study, the untrained individuals had also gained over 5 times as much strength in comparison to those with well-established training histories (20.9% strength increase for the untrained group vs. only 3.9% increase for the trained group).   

Now, this doesn’t mean you’ll be as strong or have as much muscle mass as someone who has trained for years after only a few months, it simply means that when you’re first starting out, you have a higher ceiling, so it’s much easier to make significant improvements.    

What Causes Newbie Gains?

So why do newbie gains happen?  Well, it all has to do with how your body -- and especially your muscles -- react and adapt to physical stimulation.  When you introduce your body to new stimuli -- such as when you begin a weight lifting program for the first time -- your muscles simply aren’t going to be used to the type of stress that’s being placed on them.  

Ultimately, in order to handle the demands of your new training, your muscles are going to have to adapt, which means increasing the size and/or amount of underlying muscle fibers that make them up.  To understand how this all happens though, you have to understand how muscle growth works.  

⫸Newbies Experience Higher Levels of Muscle Protein Synthesis

Muscle growth occurs through a process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS refers to the general process through which your body uses protein from your diet to synthesize new muscle tissues.  The higher your levels of MPS are the greater your muscle-building potential -- in order to actually build muscle, your body must synthesize more protein than it breaks down.  

Research has, time and again, demonstrated that your levels of MPS become elevated following a bout of resistance training -- i.e. lifting weights damages your muscles, which helps to kick off a signaling event to repair the damage. (2)(3)

This response is especially robust in individuals who have never lifted weights before, as their bodies are especially sensitive to new stimuli.  Ultimately, research suggests that MPS is not only spiked to a greater degree in untrained individuals post-exercise, but it also stays elevated for longer, which helps to explain why it’s so much easier to gain significant amounts of size and strength when you’re first starting out.(4)

⫸Newbies Get a Greater Hormonal Effect From Lifting 

On top of benefiting from higher rates of muscle protein synthesis, people who are new to working out also experience a greater hormonal response to lifting weights.  A number of different hormones are integral to the muscle-building process and research shows that untrained individuals are able to produce these hormones in substantially greater amounts when they first begin training. 

For example, one 2008 study comparing hormonal responses to resistance training in trained and untrained individuals ultimately found that those who came into the study with no prior training experience saw significantly greater increases in testosterone, human growth hormone (HGH), and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) -- all well-known anabolic hormones --  in comparison to those who came in with extensive training backgrounds.(5)

How Long Do Newbie Gains last and How Much Muscle Can You Expect to Gain?

Ok, so now that you know what they are and why they happen, you’re probably wondering “How long do newbie gains last?”  In short, there’s no definitive, one-size-fits-all answer; everybody is going to have a somewhat different experience when it comes to how long they last.  

However, for most people, once you get to somewhere around the one year mark of consistently training, your progress will begin to taper off -- you may very well still see gains after that, but not at the rate you did when you were starting out.  

After your training experience begins to add up though, it becomes much more difficult to add on substantial amounts of muscle mass.  For example, once you hit the five-year mark of consistently training, you may only be able to gain a couple of pounds of lean muscle over the course of an entire year after all is said and done.  

How much muscle you’ll actually be able to add on during your newbie gains phase is also going to vary from person to person, however, most people can expect to make some serious and substantial increases in muscle mass and strength over the course of their first year of training.  

With the right procedures in place, it’s not unreasonable to expect that most untrained individuals can gain 10 or even 20 lbs of lean muscle mass over the course of their first year lifting weights -- some lucky people may be able to gain even more than that.  

How to Maximize Your Newbie Gains

So how do you put yourself in the best possible position to gain 10 or even 20 pounds of lean muscle in your first year of training? Well, quite simply, in order to maximize your muscle-building potential, it all comes down to your diet and your training.  

1. Eat Plenty of Protein

When it comes to supporting the muscle-building process, no nutrient is more important than protein.  As we’ve already discussed, it’s ultimately dietary protein that new muscle tissues are made out of, so it may come as little surprise that you need an adequate supply of protein in your daily diet if you’re trying to pack on lean muscle mass.  But how much is that exactly?

Well, the NIH recommends that adults should get between 10 - 35% of their total dailycalories from healthy protein sources.(6) When it comes to building muscle, in particular, a tried and true practice within the bodybuilding community has been to consume 1g of protein per lb of bodyweight -- this number should fit nicely within the NIH’s recommended range for just about everybody.  So for example, if you’re a 150-pound male, you’d be shooting to consume at least 150g of protein per day.  

2. Consume Enough Calories Every Day

In addition to eating enough protein, you’ll also want to stay on top of your calorie intake during the newbie gains phase.  Though you may be able to make some improvements when you’re first starting out without monitoring their calories, in order to maximize your muscle-building potential, you’ll need to be eating a small calorie surplus -- that means taking in slightly more calories per day than your body burns off.

So how many extra calories should you be consuming each day?  Well, somewhere between 250 - 500 extra calories seems to be the sweet spot for supporting muscle growth while minimizing fat gains -- you want to have enough extra calories in your diet without having so many that some of them are ultimately converted into body fat.  

For example, let’s say you need 2,000 calories to maintain your current weight -- this is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) -- you’d simply tack on an extra 250 to 500 calories to arrive at your daily calorie target of  2,250 - 2,500 calories per day.  You can easily estimate your TDEE using an online calculator.  

3. Make Sure You’re Training Right

In order to maximize your muscle-building potential, you also have to be training right.  While it’s true you may be able to build some muscle at first even with a sub-optimal training routine, you’ll undoubtedly build even more muscle with the right training variables in place.  

Focus on Compound Movements in Your Training

First things first, you need to be doing the right kind of exercises in order to add on some serious size and strength during the newbie gains phase -- more than anything else, that means centering your routine around compound movements.  

As opposed to isolation movements, compound movements are exercises that engage multiple muscles across multiple joints, and countless studies have demonstrated that they’re superior to isolation movements when it comes to building muscle.  In simple terms, compound movements are going to breakdown more muscle tissue in comparison to isolation movements, which is the name of the game when we’re talking about making serious gains.  

Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do isolation movements if you want to build muscle, but rather that you should start off your workout with heavier compound movements and finish up with lighter, less challenging isolation movements. 

Not only should you be focusing on compound movements in your training, but you should also be working with challenging weights.  That means working with weights that you can lift for somewhere between 8 - 12 repetitions per set -- if you are going to go with lighter weight, you’ll need to push some of your sets to failure in order to see comparable results.  

Pay Attention to Your Training Volume

On top of that, you’ll also have to be paying attention to your training volume in order to see the most amount of muscle growth during the newbie gains phase.  Each training session in your routine should consist of multiple exercises and you should be doing multiple sets on each exercise.  

In order to make sure that you keep seeing progress, your training volume needs to continue to go up over time -- i.e. you’ll need to regularly increase how much weight you lift and/or how many sets and reps you do on a given exercise.  Somewhere around every 6 - 8 weeks, you’ll want to make adjustments to your routine to accommodate for strength gains that you’ve made in your training. 

4. Taking Supplements Can Also Help

There are also several different supplements that can help to further maximize your muscle-building potential during the newbie gains phase.  

Whey Protein 

One of the most well-known is whey protein, which has been shown to be one of the most effective proteins when it comes to supporting the muscle-building process, helping to spike muscle protein synthesis (MPS) to a greater degree than any other type of protein.(7)

On top of that, whey protein supplements can also help make hitting your daily protein target that much easier -- they’re easy to drink, and consuming 2 servings per day can add an extra 50+ grams of protein into your diet.  

Ergogenic Aids

In addition to whey protein, ergogenic aids (EAs) are another kind of supplement that can help increase your gains.  EAs are supplements that improve muscle function and performance and several different substances have been found to be effective in randomized control trials. 

In combination with diet and exercise, natural substances like HICA, HMB, and phosphatidic acid have all been shown to significantly increase muscle protein synthesis and/or decrease muscle protein breakdown, with several studies demonstrating that regular supplementation leads to significantly more muscle growth over time.(8)(9)(10)

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Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are another supplement that may also help you build more muscle.  On top of helping to activate MPS -- although to a lesser degree than whey -- BCAAs have also been shown to help expedite the muscle recovery process. (11)(12) Ultimately, the faster you’re able to recover, the more training you’re able to do, and the more you’re able to train (without overtraining) the higher your muscle-building potential will be.  

What Happens After Newbie Gains are Over?

The unfortunate reality is that newbie gains don’t last forever; eventually, your progress will slow. Once you have a decent amount of training experience those gains are going to be much harder to come by -- i.e. you may only be able to gain a couple of pounds of muscle over the course of an entire year once you have numerous years of experience under your belt.  

After the newbie gains are over and muscle growth slows, your body composition is also at greater risk of taking a downward turn.  Because you won’t be able to gain rapid amounts of muscle mass like you did when you were first starting out, you’re way more susceptible to increasing your ratio of body fat to lean muscle if you stay in a calorie surplus for too long.  

That’s why many individuals with extensive training backgrounds ultimately alternate between bulking and cutting phases, where they’ll spend a few months eating extra calories to try and add on lean muscle mass and then switch over to cutting their calories for the next few months to shed any fat that they gained while they were bulking up.  But again, this is certainly not something you’re going to need to concern yourself with when you’re first starting out.  

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