Newbie gains is a term used to describe the phenomenon among beginners where they put on an appreciable amount of muscle mass and strength in a much shorter time frame than more experienced lifters.
So, how long do newbie gains last?
You can expect to see an accelerated growth period from 6 months to about a year after starting to lift regularly. However, this can vary from person to person and it depends on the quality of both your training, nutrition, age, and genetics.
Ironically, most people learn about newbie gains after their newbie gain period has already passed. So if you are new to lifting and are reading this article now, you’re already a few steps ahead of most experienced lifters when they were beginners.
In this article, I will break down…
- What newbie gains are
- How long they last
- How much you can expect to gain depending on if you’re male or female
- Why they stop
- Some tips to continue progressing
- Whether you can experience newbie gains more than once?
What Are Newbie Gains?
Newbie gains refer to the period of time after someone starts lifting weights where they see lots of muscle development and strength improve in a relatively short amount of time.
In a 2003 study by Ahtiainen et al that looked at hormonal adaptations influencing muscle growth and strength by documenting changes in trained and untrained subjects.
They observed non-strength athletes gaining 20.9% in muscle force and 5.6% in muscle size compared to 3.9% and 1.8% in the trained subjects.
Therefore, the well trained subjects were only able to increase their strength and size by a mere fraction compared to the untrained subjects, and this discrepancy is known within the lifting community as “newbie gains.”
So, it is true that someone who has been consistently training for 5 years can spend an entire year trying to make any kind of improvement to their physique or performance, while a beginner can easily double their strength or transform their body in a few months time.
This is a phenomenon that likely stems from your body trying to adapt and catch up to meet the demands of this brand new stimulus you are now giving it.
A 2015 review by Damas et. al. determined that muscle protein synthesis peaks earlier and is shorter in duration in trained subjects than untrained, suggesting resistance training itself ironically produces a weakening of the muscle protein response after exercise.
Newbie Gains: How Long Do They Last?
While individual variability definitely plays a part, most lifters report newbie gains lasting from 6 months to 1 year upon starting regular resistance training.
The estimated range of 6 months to 1 year is pretty wide because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when newbie gains end and non-newbie gains begin.
With this said, some signs you will see are that you have gone an entire month without gaining any weight, or from a lifting perspective, you can no longer add more weight on the bar week to week.
It is even harder to determine how long newbie gains last for those who have a higher body fat percentage and are likely net losing weight during this time, but are still actually gaining muscle, it’s just hard to quantify visually or with a scale.
How long this phase lasts probably has to do with your training age as well.
For someone who has spent most of their life sedentary and is picking up weights for the first time ever has a lot more “catching up” to do physically than someone who played a college level sport and then happened to get into lifting 10 years later.
The theory behind why this happens is still not fully known but it likely has, at least in part, something to do with mononuclei.
Muscles have a certain number of mononuclei that in essence determine the potential for muscle growth.
You can increase mononuclei numbers with training and interestingly, a 2010 study found that when you stop training they don’t go away.
Therefore someone who had some muscular development previously in life will acquire muscle much faster which I would assume can result in a shorter “newbie” gain phase than someone with very little experience and less mononuclei in the muscle tissue.
Therefore, stressing over how long it will exactly last for you isn’t a productive use of time, but rather just spend the first year setting your goals high, training consistently, preferably following a program and eating well.
Your body will just about respond to just about anything so you might as well maximize your efforts and make the most of it.
How Much Can You Expect To Gain From Newbie Gains?
How much muscle you put on will be dependent on your diet, training quality, genetics and general training age.
Newbie gain phase will last longer or shorter depending on the person. Therefore, you can expect the amount of weight someone puts on during this time to also be variable.
However, in general, men usually can experience about a 20-25lbs increase in their muscle mass while women are closer to about 10-12lbs. This is the result of women weighing less at the start on average as well as hormonal differences.
Researchers Alan Aragon and Eric Helms both have a similar breakdown of muscle gain expectations based in percentage that are as follows:
- Beginners/Novices: 1-1.5% body weight per month
- Intermediates: 0.5-1% body weight per month
- Advanced: up to 0.5% body weight per month
- Beginners/Novices: 0.5-0.75% body weight per month
- Intermediates: 0.25%- 0.5% body weight per month
- Advanced: 0.25% body weight per month
The definition of beginner, intermediate or advanced differ slightly within the scientific community but for the sake of the topic of newbie gains, the figure or 1-1.5% body weight gain per month as a man or 0.5-0.75% as a woman is your answer.
Some variables that may affect this include your age, genetics, and training intensity and style. Teenagers for example are extremely anabolic due to puberty and may present as an outlier to this and in contrast, someone who is middle-aged or an older adult will likely fall on the lower end of the spectrum.
In addition, those that go into training with bodybuilding or muscle-building goals specifically and run programming tailored to hypertrophy will likely experience more of it than someone with strength-only goals and doesn’t fill their training with muscle-building accessories.
Why Do Newbie Gains Stop?
To answer why newbie gains stop you have to consider why they happened in the first place: because the stimulus was new and your body was learning how to be efficient.
You may be surprised to find out that the scientific community actually doesn’t fully understand the mechanism of muscle hypertrophy and so the reasons behind why and how we build muscle is still being actively researched.
However, we do know that the accelerated response does stop eventually for everyone.
The repeated bout effect is an effect researched within the strength and conditioning community that sits on the principle that doing the same thing over and over again isn’t going to impact you the same way each time.
Therefore, every repeated bout will be less impactful until whatever you’re doing doesn’t work anymore.
In 1999, McHugh et al. discussed the repeated bout effect and some potential mechanisms most of which are thought of to be neural, cellular or influenced by connective tissue.
Meaning, your nervous system or your muscle tissues communicate better and become a lot more efficient over time; however, a conclusive mechanism on what causes this is still up in the air.
At the microscopic level, you are eliciting fewer hormones for muscle protein synthesis and creating less prolonged damage to the muscle as a well-trained person, possibly resulting in a less significant training effect, as discussed in a paper by Damas et al.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense because we are adaptive creatures, from an athletic perspective this is just an unfortunate reality you have to come to terms with.
At a micro-level you see the repeated bout effect start to kick in when you notice that you’re just a little less sore this week than you were last week from the exact same workout. At the macro level, you eventually see it as hitting a plateau with either muscle gain, strength gain or both.
Hitting a plateau? Check out our articles:
7 Tips To Keep Progressing After Newbie Gains
While the rate of progress will definitely slow down, it doesn’t mean that you’re destined to never improve or make significant progress year after year.
To keep the progress going, try these 7 tips:
1. Maintain High Protein Intake
Building muscle requires that you take in protein so if you aren’t already eating lots of protein as a newbie, you will want to start now. You’ll want to take in roughly 1g/pound of body weight to ensure you’re giving your muscles enough building blocks to work with.
Try to get 20g-40g of protein per meal in the day, especially in the hours after your lifting session. While eating more than this won’t hurt you, the added benefits start to drop off and you’re better off filling your meals with carbs and fats.
2. Focus on Getting Stronger
In order to keep giving your muscles more stimulus you will need to get stronger over time.
Once you notice a plateau in muscle growth and strength you will want to lean into strength-focused programming to get your body stronger so you can handle more weight and consequently increase your volume simply by using heavier weights.
3. Make Changes to Your Program (volume, exercise selection)
While you don’t need to do super complicated exercises or change things up week to week, after several weeks of staying on a certain program you will want to change something.
Either swap out your accessories for different ones, change up intensity, reps and sets of exercises to give your muscles a different experience and something new to adapt to.
A 2008 study documented that trained individuals required higher volume in order to stimulate a similar hormonal response to untrained individuals. Meaning, you can’t continue doing the same thing and you need to increase volume over time to elicit change.
4. Stay in a Caloric Surplus
If your only goal is to continue improving strength you can get away with staying around maintenance, but if you want to continue progressing with muscle growth you will need to make sure you are fueling a little more than your body needs.
You don’t need to go into a major surplus, just avoid falling below maintenance as that will compromise your potential for muscle growth, a consequence that you likely won’t experience during the newbie gain phase but will impact you once it’s over.
5. Choose Compound Movements
Doing compound movements will be an important tool to help you keep improving over time. This is because they are more complex and can take years to master and they are great for building great total body strength.
Lifts, the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press are going to be a great key to keeping your strength moving upward and increasing overall muscle mass past the newbie stage
6. Train Hard
While this sounds like subjective advice, and it is in some ways, training close to failure or at a perceived exertion of at least 7 will be necessary to keep you moving forward.
A lot of gym-goers look the exact same or lift the exact same weight for years on end because they get stuck in a routine and stop challenging themselves.
While you shouldn’t be working to failure on every set of every exercise, your time in the gym shouldn’t always feel like a casual walk in the park if you’re looking to be better.
Effort is one of the most underrated factors for progress and if you make sure you don’t fall behind here you will surely continue to see gains.
7. Don’t Ignore Recovery
It’s an easy trap to fall into where you continually go to the gym, give your 100%, 6-7 days a week and just live in a perpetual state of exhaustion and make little to no progress. This is not the right approach as it can seem that more is always more with muscle gain.
Getting adequate sleep, nutrition, hydration, and rest within your week will actually allow you to maximize the amount of effort you can give in any single individual training session.
Balancing fatigue is imperative because if you continue to beat yourself down day after day you’ll find you are chasing exhaustion more than you are chasing gains and are compromising your true potential.
Can you Experience Newbie Gains More than Once?
Yes! The newbie gain phenomenon or a similar experience can be seen in those who have taken lots of time off from lifting or those who have switched to a new modality.
I started exercising with resistance regularly 3 years before I committed myself to powerlifting-specific training.One would assume that because I wasn’t completely untrained and my muscles had likely already experienced newbie gains that I wouldn’t experience that rapid improvement upon starting heavy lifting.
I was wrong! My strength improved at a lightning speed rate for almost an entire year and I gained roughly 8lbs over the course of the year with a significant shift in my body composition so much so that people thought I lost weight.
Why did this happen? I was training in a completely new fashion and at a completely new intensity. While my body was accustomed to doing bicep curls and leg presses for sets of 12-15, it wasn’t accustomed to hitting heaving sets of 3, 4 and 5 reps. Therefore, I still responded like a “newbie” and could reap all the benefits once more.
This is also seen in those who have taken significant amounts of time off of the gym due to life circumstances or injuries. Once they get back to their routine they will regain strength and size even faster than when they first put it on.
Newbie gains are an exciting and important stage in every lifter’s journey. It is often what gets people hooked on training and really drives their motivation up in the first 6 months to a year.
Going beyond the first year you are sure to notice a drop off in progress, however there are several things you can implement like increasing strength and eating enough of the right food to keep you progressing for years to come.
It’s all part of the process, it’s to be expected and even embraced as a challenge we’re all destined to be hit with unless you choose to go the enhanced route.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.