There’s One Surefire Way to Know You’re Gaining Muscle and Losing Body Fat

There’s One Surefire Way to Know You’re Gaining Muscle and Losing Body Fat

So after reading your column for years, haha, I finally started strength training with your Liftoff guide a few weeks ago, and I’m loving it! I’m not seeing tons of changes physically but I really see what you mean in terms of how I FEEL completely different. So that leaves me to wonder: How fast can I gain muscle? I think I would like to gain about five pounds, but I’m wondering if having a goal amount is even the best way of going about this. You also keep saying “lift heavy weights and keep going up in order to build muscle,” but how heavy? Up by how much? Up by how often? I’ve looked at a few different sources and they all seem to say different things. —In Need of Progress

Publications love to run headlines like “Hugh Jackman puts on 20 pounds of muscle for his new role in X-Men 17: Avengers vs Wolverine Vengeance: X-Men War.” You might come to believe from a headline like this that building a lot of muscle is relatively easy to do almost by accident; if 20 pounds of muscle can appear in six months, what’s to stop a few pounds from appearing in a week? Who wants their body fluctuating all over with random amounts of muscle? Probably no one, and this is at least one reason why people feel scared and intimidated by weightlifting activities.

In this column, I am going to explain why this is categorically wrong, and why it’s a bald-faced lie that Emma Stone gained 15 pounds of muscle in three months. But hopefully I can do it in a way that helps you understand what actually happens when you (and Wolverine) build muscle. 

There are two parts to the “How fast can I gain muscle?” question: How much muscle mass can a person gain in one month? And if we’re trying to grow as fast as possible, how does that happen? So let’s start with the first question.

How much muscle can you gain in one month?

I want to be clear that gaining muscle is not the same as “gaining body weight,” necessarily. It’s important to not confuse these things. A person can be neither gaining nor losing pounds on the scale, but still gaining muscle. That’s because at the same time they are gaining muscle, they are losing fat. This is called a “body recomposition” phase, and it happens to people when they first start strength training, as well as in a few other situations (there are plenty of longer explainers on this), as long as you are eating enough. After several months, this process will slow down a lot.

So because of all that, you will not always necessarily be able to measure “muscle gained.” This doesn’t make the gaining of muscle any less meaningful; it just means the feedback loop will not be as simple and straightforward as going to the gym for a few weeks and then hopping on the scale and being like “sick, my body weight is three pounds higher, therefore I gained three pounds of muscle.”

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We build muscle more slowly than you probably think: With extremely consistent effort,  women can build about a pound of muscle in one month, at best. For men, it’s about double that, two pounds a month. And that’s if you’re really doing your training and eating to the letter, and it only applies in the newbie gains period; after a year-ish worth of consistent training, the process becomes much less straightforward (but, in many ways, more fun). 

How do you, in fact, make sure you are actually doing anything productive, if you can’t measure your pounds of muscle? You do two things: First, you take “progress pictures,” to your chosen degree of nudity. I promise you will be able to see the change in body composition and it will be validating. Second, you make sure the weights you are lifting are going up. If you are getting predictably stronger, and even working at the top of the range in terms of the rate at which people can get stronger, you can rest assured you are building muscle, regardless of what any pictures or scale says. 

An important thing to keep in mind at the end here is that while you, or Wolverine, or anyone, can’t pack on 20 pounds of muscle in six months, that doesn’t make strength training worthless by a long stretch. Wolverine probably only actually gained 6-12 pounds of muscle, and look at him! He’s fucking ripped! (Likely not without drugs, but nonetheless!) A little muscle can make an entire world of difference. If six pounds sounds meaningless to you, it’s probably because those kinds of headlines have worn a rut in your brain, and you need to ignore the rut, steer around the rut, hope that the rut eventually fills in with the fine sediment of “your personal experience.” 

So how, actually, do you build muscle? Progressive overload. 

How do I build muscle?

No term is more in need of a friendlier, less-technical-sounding makeover than “progressive overload,” but I promise it’s neither as technical nor as unfriendly as it sounds. I’m truly sorry for the metaphor that’s about to follow here, but unfortunately nothing works quite like muscles, because they’re actually sort of complex. So here we go: You are a peasant, maybe a humble goatherd, with a waterskin (the Nalgenes of yore). This is you, filling your waterskin in the town square before heading out with your flock:

Man filling waterskin from spigot

Man filling waterskin from spigot. Courtesy of G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection via Library of Congress.

Because you’re but a humble goatherd, the skin of your waterskin is thin, and you can’t afford a better or larger waterskin. The waterskin is stretchy-ish, especially when wet, but can only hold so much water; if you overfill it, it will leak or pop, and it will pop before it will ever overflow. You wish you had a more capacious waterskin, but you can’t just go out and buy a new waterskin. You’re a humble goatherd—you can’t change your ways. So every day when you go to the babbling brook near the goat pasture to refill your waterskin, you fill it up juuuuust to the point of it nearly popping, so the skin is stretched. 

You let it hang out like that each day, fully filled, for a while. After you drink all the water, the waterskin shrinks again to mostly its normal size, but each day it stays a little more stretched out than it was the day before. As you keep slightly overstretching the waterskin, not so much that it pops but not so little that its integrity isn’t tested, day by day, it holds more and more water at a time. Soon your waterskin is the envy of all the land, because not only do you have a formidable waterskin, but you did it by training the waterskin to just be bigger, and didn’t spend a single ducat to do it. All it took was pressure and time, though you might have been helped by a big goddamn poster.  

Now, this isn’t a perfect metaphor, because you aren’t filling or stretching your muscles in size the same way as a waterskin when you strength train. But you are challenging your muscles just beyond their current comfort level every time you train. If you eat and sleep to recover well, not only do your muscles have more “capacity” to train the next time, just like the waterskin, but the recovery you gave them means they have built back better than they were before. 

The important thing is, this cannot happen if you aren’t nailing the sweet spot between “not challenging your muscles at all” and “challenging them way too much.” If you don’t get it quite right, you’re either not going to get stronger and build muscle, or you’re going to end up more sore than was necessary. As a newbie, I felt a lot of anxiety around whether I was actually hitting this sweet spot, and that I had no way of knowing before I tried what was too much. No one is going to be able to tell you, and the only way to know is to experiment, trying a weight you know you can do, and then the next level up, and then the next level up. I know empirically that is scary, but you want to start low and go slow and steady; this is why having access to a range of weights, and especially eventually barbells and incremental plates, matters. 

So what is “the next level up”? There are actually a number of ways to progressively overload your lifts: doing more reps, or more reps in a shorter amount of time; trying to do the reps with more speed/power; doing more sets; training more frequently. But the best way for a newbie, in my opinion, is “linear progression,” or adding a small but consistent amount of weight to their lifts each session.

Why do I believe this? Well, first: When I started lifting, the idea that I would be able to add weight every session, to the point that if I was lifting 20 pounds now I could be lifting 40 pounds in the next couple weeks, was mind blowing to me. I couldn’t believe human bodies could really do that, especially mine. It turns out that not only can they do it, but they can do it with relative ease. Bodies are good at this. It feels, to me, like one of the best kept-secrets about our bodies for some of the worst reasons (“being bulky is bad” “lifting is too hard” and these kinds of things). 

I also believe this because there are still, to this day, women scaring women off of this kind of progress, even ones that lift heavy weights, like Stephanie Sanzo here! And I quote:

“While intensity is an important part of progressive overload, using it alone could see your progress plateau or lead to soft tissue injury. It’s also not physically possible to simply add more weight every session or every week.” 

Is it physically possible forever? No. Is it not only possible but extremely straightforward and perhaps even the single most validating way of progressing in a beginner lifter’s early days? Yes.

Therefore: If you are new to lifting, a good rule of thumb is to add 2.5 pounds per session to your upper body lifts, and 5 pounds to your lower body lifts. That means if today you are squatting 25 pounds for your “working sets” (the sets that come after you warm up), next time you squat, you squat 30 pounds. The next time, 35 pounds. “Heavy weights” always means “heavy for you in this moment.” I’m begging you to try it, because I bet you will be as shocked as I was at how this turns out to be pretty… easy? (If you are saying “but my two pound weights already feel so difficult!”, this might be true, but it’s misleading.) If the weight you lift is going up, and your body weight isn’t changing, you are right in the magical recomposition zone. And you don’t have to be! It could make sense for you to go straight into bulking; it could make sense for you to lose body fat. I am judge nor jury on this matter, but a doctor with modern sensibilities should be.

Now, what if this doesn’t work, or stops working? What if you fail a set? I tried a lot of different things to deal with this when I was still working on my linear progression, and my favorite method ended up being this: 

  • I would step back to the previous increment (so if I failed 40 pounds, I would go back to 35 pounds)
  • On my last set of 35 pounds, instead of doing the prescribed number of reps, I would try to do “as many reps as possible,” but stopping before I was so gassed I would have to drop the weight. (We refer to this as “having one to two reps in the tank,” or RPE 8, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
  • The next time, I would use 35 pounds again and repeat the process until I was able to get twice as many reps with good form on my last set as I was programmed (so if I was supposed to do 5 reps, I would be shooting for 10). At that point, if I could crank out 10 reps with 35 pounds, I could almost certainly do my 5 reps with 40 pounds.

This isn’t the only thing that will ever work, but in addition to working on my form, it helped me the most. If you are dialed in on your progressive overload, however you do it, that will be the way to build muscle the fastest; not tiny booty bands, not HIIT, not wrist bangles (or at least, not any of those things to the exclusion of heavy weights). And even then, you are looking at about a couple pounds of difference in your body composition. This is slow work! It’s also why all the booty bands and wrist bangles are such a cruel joke; your body changes so slowly even with a lot of stimulation lifting a substantial proportion of your body weight that tiny weights are a profound waste of time. 

But this is also another reason why the adding of weight to progressively overload to my lifts was important for me; my body didn’t change that fast, but the way it felt and moved really did. If you’ve shied away from adding weight to your lifts in the past, try not doing that anymore, in my opinion. You are stronger than you think you are.

Do you have a question about working out, eating, health, or why you shouldn’t be afraid of lifting heavy weights? Send it to swole.woman@vice.com and follow @swolewoman on Instagram.

Disclaimer:  This content is for education and entertainment purposes only. Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights. Consult a professional for your personal medical and health needs.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.