The beginning of our fitness journey can be a magical time in our training career where we can succeed at, what may be in the future, a hopeless endeavor.
Building slabs of muscle and burning fat…at the same time.
Not only is your body primed for the ultimate recomposition, but you’ll be capable of gaining more strength, in one week, than most high level lifters gain in 1 year.
In fact, if you follow the strategies that I am about to lay down for you in this article, you’ll could achieve more muscle growth in your first 12 months, than your next 4 years, combined.
You can expect to gain 40-50 pounds of total muscle mass over a lifting career with about half of that (20-25 lbs) growth coming in the first year, according to author of The Protein Book, Lyle Mcdonald.
Alan Aragon, another expert in the field, suggested more or less the same thing (18-27 lbs).
This is due to our bodies being hyper-responsive to the newly introduced stimulus during the beginning stages of our training.
I think it’s safe to say that we have a very good idea of what is achievable in the first year of lifting, and that it’s pretty damn amazing.
Have You Missed The Boat on Newbie Gains?
If you’ve been lifting for more than a year and haven’t achieved noticeable strength and size gains, you might be afraid that you’ve missed the boat.
Fortunately, that’s just not the case.
Real newbie gains begin when training and nutrition are in order.
So if you’ve been dicking around for 6 months, and wondering why you’re not making gains, it’s because your training and/or nutrition sucks.
Can you expect to gain the maximum amount of muscle as someone who is completely new to the gym?
Maybe, maybe not. Who cares?
The point is, you’re not doomed and you too can expect to make some amazing progress, if, and only if you start training smarter and eating better.
The Muscle-Building for Beginners Hierarchy
There are 5 critical components to maximizing your newbie gains.
Components that, if followed correctly, will allow you to build the maximum amount of muscle mass your genetics will allow as a novice lifter (somewhere between 18-27 lbs).
I’ve laid these principles out in a hierarchy of importance.
Use this guide to help prioritize your training and nutrition in a way that will ensure you get the best return on your investment.
The investment being your time and effort, and the return being new muscle gains.
So what is the most critical component to build muscle as a beginner?
Drum roll please!
As someone who’s never stepped foot in the gym, even the least strategic workout program will produce muscle growth.
Perhaps not maximal, but certainly noticeable…
…if you are consistent.
Theoretically speaking, let’s say you had two well thought out training programs to choose from.
The first was a 20% less effective 4 day split, while the second was a superior routine that required you to train 5-6x per week.
Because you want to build muscle at the fastest rate possible, you opt for the more effective one, in theory.
Unfortunately, because of your job, it’s very rare that you have the time to train 5x per week (let alone 6x).
This inhibits your adherence.
You’re either (1) skipping training days too frequently, or you’re (2) pushing the days back so that you don’t miss sessions.
Assuming you’ve got more sense than to think you can skip days and still make the same amount of progress, let’s say you opted for option two, and simply pushed the days back as opposed to skipping them completely.
Well, although it makes it easier to sleep at night knowing you haven’t, technically, skipped a workout, it doesn’t make it “optimal”.
Because the progression of the program is based on those 5-6 training days, you’re now delaying the rate of progress by breaking, what should be 1 week, into 2.
It’s not hard to see that you’re decreasing the rate of progression by 50%.
But let’s go back and assume that you took your work schedule into consideration.
You chose the 4 day split that was, in theory, less effective.
Now you’re following the program, consistently, because it fits perfectly into your life.
In this case, which program do you think will have gotten you the best results in 12 weeks?
Optimal Does Not Equal Sustainable. – Eric Helms
This is why (or at least my understanding of why) Eric Helms, in this video, suggests that you start by asking “what can I do?” rather than “what should I do?”
Now let’s take it a bit further and imagine your choices were made up of two 4-day splits. Difference is, on paper, one is “optimal” and the other is sub-optimal.
Because they both fit your schedule, you figure that the more optimal program is the obvious choice.
That is, of course, until you start following that program and realize that you are no longer pumped for the gym, and would rather sleep-in than have to go train your chest and back on the same day (as an example) again.
This is where, as I stated here, enjoyment becomes a major factor.
I guarantee that the more you enjoy a training program, the more it gets your juices flowing, and the more excited you are to get out of bed to train – the more effort you’ll put in, and the better your adherence will be.
2. Choosing a Proven Program
If you’re consistent in your training, you’re going to grow, period. This is why adherence is at the top of this list. Because no program, I don’t care how well thought out, will work without consistency.
The next most important factor then becomes choosing a well thought out program.
Just because the guy who is consistent on a bad program will achieve better results than the inconsistent guy on the better program, doesn’t mean programming doesn’t matter.
If we were to take two guys who are consistent in the gym, but one is on a better program, who gets better results?
How to Choose the Right Program for You
It’s like flying a plane without a teacher (only a bit less dangerous). With the help of the internet you could probably figure it out over time, but you could be in the air much faster had you just hired an instructor instead.
Now although programming for a beginner doesn’t have to be intricate, there are some principles that should be in place if you want to maximize your results.
What Every Beginner Program Should Have (In Order of Importance)
Linear Progression: As a beginner, your program should take full advantage of your distinct ability to progress from session to session. And as long as there is some sort of linear progression scheme in place, you’ll be able to continue stimulate new growth, regularly.
Volume (Sets x Reps): Studies have shown that, when compared to single sets (per exercise), multiple sets increased muscle thickness and strength to a greater degree.
Intensity: According to research, you would have to perform 3x the load, when using a lighter weight, to get the same exact results you would from a moderate load. Not to mention, strength increases in the heavy load group were significantly higher.
Frequency: This refers to the number of training sessions per week. A study published by the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research compared a 1-day per week training frequency to a 3-days per week while keeping volume constant between both groups. They found that a higher frequency of training, despite no difference in total volume, produced more strength gains.
Things to Look for In Your Training Program:
• Linear Progression
• 3-5 Sets per Exercise
• 5-12 Reps Per Exercise
• 3-5 Days Per Week
And remember, the best program is the one you can stick to…and enjoy.
3. Eat Enough to Build Muscle Tissue
Most people eat intuitively and manage to maintain their bodyweight.
As someone new to weight training, eating at maintenance is more than enough to produce great results; something that becomes damn near impossible as you transition into the intermediate stages of your training.
If that isn’t enough to consider your first year of training “magical”, then consider this:
The newbie “jump start” is simply large enough to overpower the muscle-related disadvantages of a calorie deficit, which still slow down muscle growth but can’t halt it altogether. – Mike Matthews
But if we are talking about maximizing muscle mass, then it’s imperative we consume more energy than we are expending.
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It doesn’t matter how perfect your macronutrient ratios are, how many meals you’re consuming, or when you are consuming them; without eating enough calories to be in a surplus, you won’t build muscle as fast as possible.
How Many Calories to Achieve a Caloric Surplus?
If you are a male with a healthy metabolism who exercises regularly then the number 16 is a great place to start.
Where does this number (16) come from?
• Resting Metabolic Rate
• Thermic Effect of Activity
• Thermic Effect of Food
Calculating Your Caloric Intake:
Bodyweight (in lbs) x 16 = Starting Caloric Intake
170 lbs x 16 = 2,720
Ensuring You’re Eating Enough
1. Weigh yourself every morning for an entire week while adhering to the prescribed calorie intake.
2. Get an average of your weigh-ins for that week.
3. Weigh yourself every morning for another week while adhering to the prescribed calorie intake.
4. Get an average of your weigh-ins for week 2.
5. Subtract the week 1 average from the week 2 average.
If the average weigh-in has decreased, then this means you are in a caloric deficit and will need more calories to achieve a positive energy balance.
Increase your intake by 250-500kcal and repeat the process.
If the average weigh-in remained the same, then you are at maintenance. Simply increase your intake by about 250kcal and that should be enough to put you into a surplus where you can start makin’ gains.
How Much Weight Should I Gain Per Week?
As a male who’s new to weight training, you should aim to gain about 0.5-1 pound per week. If you’re gaining more than that, chances are you’re putting on more fat than you need to.
4. Minimize Fat Gain Maximize Muscle Growth
Now that you know you’re eating enough to build muscle, but not so much that you’re going to get fat in the process, it’s time to adjust your macronutrient distribution for a better muscle:fat ratio.
If you’re in a slight surplus and gaining about 0.5-1 pound per week, but your calories are coming from a high amount of fats, low carbs, and low protein, then chances are you’re going to end up gaining more unnecessary body-fat than someone on low/moderate fats, high carbs, and high protein.
The Perfect Macronutrient Ratio
Fats – Low/Moderate: A healthy fat intake has been associated with better hormone production, reduced risk of heart disease, decreased inflammation, and the list goes on. But more does not always mean better. Research has shown that consuming 0.3-0.4 grams of fat per pound of bodyweight is more than enough to reap all of the benefits associated. And although a higher intake isn’t inherently bad, it could lead to faster fat gain. This is due to dietary fat being more efficiently stored as bodyfat than carbs or protein.
Protein – Moderate/High: Proteins are comprised of amino acids. The building of muscle proteins requires a variety of amino acids. Failing to consume enough protein will lead to impaired muscle growth. There is plenty of research out there about protein intake for building muscle mass, but the overall consensus is somewhere between 0.8-1 grams per pound of bodyweight. I typically recommend the higher end of the spectrum just as a safety measure.
Carbohydrates – High: Carbs are broken down into glycogen in the body. Glycogen is the body’s primary source of energy for intense exercise. Full glycogen stores equal better gym performance, and better gym performance equals faster adaptations and muscle growth. I recommend starting at anywhere from 2-3 grams per pound of bodyweight and then adjusting intake from there.
5. Get the 5% Advantage
I’ll be honest, adhering to the first 4 principles of this hierarchy is more than enough to achieve 95-99% of your potential.
In fact, you may be able to achieve 100% of your potential newbie gains without even considering this section.
In the past we were led to believe that if we wanted to build muscle, we had to:
• Eat 6 meals per day
• Chug a protein shake 15 minutes after training
• and eat “clean”
Over the years, the science of nutrition has evolved and so have our stances on the topic.
But although we know that we don’t need 6 meals per day…
We still have one question.
Does Meal Frequency Matter?
Some say if doesn’t matter if you eat 1 meal per day or 1 meal per hour.
Others say you have to stick to the magic number 6.
The logic behind the first group is that the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) is the same for someone eating 2000kcals in 1 sitting or in 10 sittings…
This is 100% accurate.
The logic behind the second group is…well I am actually not sure. There doesn’t seem to be much logic in that thinking.
What about protein frequency?
Studies have shown that consuming 20 grams of protein 4x per day with 3 hours in between meals produced the greatest elevations in protein synthesis.
It worked better than 8 meals with 10 grams of protein per and it worked better than 2 meals with 40 grams of protein per.
So does meal frequency actually matter?
No…but protein frequency does. The question becomes: to what degree?
How Many Meals per Day to Maximize Muscle Mass?
My suggestion would be 3-5 meals per day, with 3 hours in between sittings, and at least 20 grams of protein per meal.
• Are busy and cannot eat every 2-3 hours…don’t.
• Must follow a schedule, then create one that fits your day.
• Want structure and must follow a schedule, but are limited on time, then precook your meals.
• Have the luxury of cooking and consuming as you see fit from day to day, then do so.
• Would rather follow a meal plan, then create one.
What About Nutrient Timing?
Should you consume a pre-workout meal or shake?
If you have the time and feel more primed in the gym, then yes.
If you prefer to train fasted, then do so. Just make sure you get a nice meal in shortly after.
Should you consume a post workout meal or shake?
But don’t worry about filling it with simple sugars and chugging it immediately after.
If you had a pre-workout meal, you have a good 3-4 hours before you MUST* get your post workout protein in.
If you trained fasted, then that window is much smaller. Aim to get it in within an hour or so.
As I stated earlier, the beginning stages of your training are a magical time where you can build muscle by simply stepping food into a gym. But when it comes getting the best return (muscle growth) on your investment (time and effort), you have to be strategic.
If you can manage to follow a proven program, consistently, while providing your body with the necessary nutrients for muscle growth, you can expect to gain anywhere from 18-27 pounds of muscle in your first 12 months.
For most people, 18-27 pounds of lean mass is more than enough to go from shopping in the kids clothing section to getting asked by girls (or guys) to take their shirt off.
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