My clients always want to know how long it takes to see progress from exercise. And by progress, they usually mean noticeable improvements in muscle mass and muscle strength from resistance training.
This is a fair question to ask because pumping iron is not exactly a walk in the park. It’s hard work both in the everyday sense of the word and in the physics definition of the word (amount of force multiplied by the distance over which it’s applied).
Allow me to nerd out a bit here. It’s interesting to think that to build muscle mass and strength, you literally have to use your body to generate force so you can move resistance (whether that’s your bodyweight, a barbell, or dumbbells) across a distance. Assuming that the average arm length of an adult is about 1.6 feet and you’re performing 30 push-ups, you’re moving your body weight a total of nearly 50 feet with just your chest and arms.
So it makes sense that if you’re going to be investing time and energy working with the hopes of sculpting your body into a bigger, leaner, and stronger version of yourself, you’re going to want to have an idea of what your ROI or return on investment is going to be.
The good news is that your hard work will, without question, pay off. One study that looked at the effects of resistance training showed that everyone had measurable improvements in lean body mass, muscle size, strength, or function. Chances are, you’re going to see progress.
The bad news is that it takes time to see results. The same study showed that the level of improvement was strongly affected by the number of weeks of exercise, with more improvement following a greater number of weeks of exercise.
Why is this bad news? Because another study found that nearly two-thirds of people abandoned their New Year’s resolutions within a month. Seeing how we’re about 6 weeks out from the New Year, I’m guessing that most people are no longer hitting the gym as hard as they were at the beginning of the year.
If this is you, don’t worry, because what I’ve learned from working with over 50 clients a week for years is that, most of the time, all it takes is cold hard data and a little bit of sweet talking to encourage people to get back on that horse. I know because part of what I do as a physical therapist is to get people who refuse to exercise to get moving again.
How long does it take to see muscle growth and increased strength?
The answer to how long it takes to see muscle growth and increased strength may surprise you—in a good way! A study that looked at the time-course of muscle growth in both younger and older women showed that it took only two weeks for thigh muscle size to improve beyond the measurement error.
In this study, resistance training was performed three times a week and the girth of the thigh muscle was on average one-tenth of an inch thicker after only 2 weeks. I know some of you may be thinking that one-tenth of an inch is insignificant, but remember, this is after only 2 weeks. Imagine the difference after consistently exercising for 3 or 4 months.
Another study showed that 4 sets of 10 reps of leg presses twice a week increased leg strength by over 40% in the elderly after 10 weeks of training. That’s pretty impressive and it gives hope for those of us who don’t think that we can ever change how we move or feel.
Progress is apparent if you know where to look
I mentioned earlier that I’ve worked with over 50 clients a week for years and how part of what I do as a physical therapist is to get people who refuse to exercise to get moving again. One of the most effective ways that I get people motivated to exercise is to point out the progress that I’m witnessing.
And guess what? Progress is apparent if you know where to look. I’ve found that there’s some type of progress on a weekly basis in just about everyone I’ve worked with!
Here are some of the things that I look for that you may be able to spot. By keeping your eyes peeled for these things in your own exercise program, you’ll be able to witness improvements that’ll hopefully help you stay motivated to stick with your workout routine for the long haul.
Improvements in strength and endurance
Improvements in strength and endurance happen in baby steps. What I look for in my clients are small changes in the number of repetitions that they can perform at a particular resistance before fatiguing.
For example, if you performed 8 repetitions of a particular exercise at a particular resistance last week before fatiguing and now you performed 9 or 10 repetitions of the same exercise at the same resistance this week before fatiguing, you’ve improved.
This is something to celebrate, but most people don’t notice this improvement because they don’t keep track of things. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping a logbook of your workouts. It can be as simple as a note on your smartphone that lists the date, exercise performed, resistance used, and the set and rep where you pooped out.
Improvements in quality of movement
Even if you don’t notice improvements in strength and endurance, changes are almost always happening behind the scenes, and quality of movement is a great place to look. What is quality of movement? It’s stuff like an increased range of motion during an exercise, as well as improved control of your movements.
For example, going down a little bit lower on a squat would count as an increased range of motion. Doing so while being able to move in a slow and intentional way would count as improved control.
Improvements in recovery
Improvements in recovery are another way to measure progress. For example, you’ve improved if you need less rest time between sets or if you’re feeling less sore or fatigued the day after your workout.
Again, keeping a logbook of your workouts to track these things can be the difference between noticing improvements or not.
5-day Looking for Improvements Challenge
Let’s put this knowledge to use with a 5-day Looking for Improvements Challenge! Over the next five days, your challenge is to look for the improvements in your progress described earlier. Give it a try and let me know how you feel by emailing me at email@example.com or leaving me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.