When we start a new training plan or diet, we’re always eager to realise quick results. Of course, the changes that occur in response to exercise are varied.
For instance, with the right training plan, your body composition will start to change as you burn body fat and add more muscle. You’ll get stronger, fitter and, possibly, more flexible and mobile.
Some of these changes will happen quickly, while others will take more time.
The rate at which you start to realise these changes will also vary from person to person based on numerous factors.
The principle of individual difference dictates that people will respond differently to the same inputs – think diet and exercise protocols – based on factors such as their genetics, age, hormonal profile, diet and lifestyle, and various environmental factors.
For example, you might respond to high-intensity interval training and a low-carb, high-fat diet, but your friend may realise better results from a carb cycling approach and more endurance-type training.
As such, it is difficult to provide exact timelines as it can take time, and trial and error to find the most effective approach for you. Having said that, science and research offers some insights regarding the rate at which we can expect to see results with the optimal approach.
Healthy, sustainable weight-loss
Most people who join a gym do so to lose weight. This outcome is obviously closely linked to your diet, which should provide the right macronutrient ratio based on the genetic makeup, and the appropriate calorie intake based on your daily activity levels and current metabolic rate.
While people can realise significant weight loss from restrictive diet plans and high-volume training, the healthiest, most sustainable approach to weight loss is roughly 0.5kg, or 1 pound per week. This rate of weight loss requires that you create a 3,500-calorie deficit each week through diet and exercise, which neatly equates to a 500-calorie-a-day deficit. Just be aware that you won’t be able to lose weight at this rate indefinitely.
Due to the metabolic adaptations that occur during weight loss, a daily deficit of 500 calories produces slightly less of an effect on each subsequent day.
While the impact is negligible at first, the more weight you lose, the greater this response becomes. The impact of this metabolic adaptation is so profound that over a 12-month period you can only expect to lose 50% of the weight that the 3,500-calorie deficit initially prompted.
This effectively means that you would then need to create a 7,000-calorie deficit to lose the same amount of weight that was achieved in the initial stages of a diet, which is extreme and unsustainable.
While the math can become complicated and the principle of individual difference dictates that this won’t be the same for everyone, the general consensus is that the longer you diet, the greater your calorie deficit needs to be to realise results.
That’s why it’s advisable to change elements of your training and/or diet periodically to keep seeing results.
6 weeks to stronger muscles
The average person who starts a new strength training program can improve strength within just 4-6 weeks.
However, that rapid progression is not directly related to an increase in muscle size, unfortunately. Instead, the initial strength gains come from the neuromuscular adaptations that occur during training.
But with continued weight training over weeks and months, supported by the right diet, which must provide adequate protein from foods and supplements, you will start to add more muscle to your physique.
If this is the first time you’ve trained with weights, expect to see noticeable changes to muscles, particularly in your arms, shoulders and legs, within 8-12 weeks.
However, this rate of progression will also depend on the type of training you perform, your training frequency and intensity, your genes and the effectiveness of your recovery approach.
If you’re making a return to the gym after a lay-off, you could see more muscle on your frame within as little as 3-4 weeks, depending on your degree of “muscle memory”.
This happens because once your neuromuscular system learns and ‘memorises’ motor skills through repeatedly training specific movement patterns, it quickly re-establishes those pathways when you return to training.
3 months to a fitter you
In terms of your fitness, numerous studies show that an individual can reach peak cardiovascular fitness within 3 months, with numerous key adaptations occurring within the first 6 weeks that can significantly boost your fitness levels.
For example, a study conducted by German researchers and published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, had 18 sedentary volunteers undergo a year of moderate intensity training.
The participants engaged in a walk-jog program, exercising 3 times a week for 45 minutes. The researchers found that even at this low level of intensity and volume, the largest gains were seen in the first three months. After six months, most of the markers that were monitored began to plateau.
It is possible to realise even better results in a shorter timeframe, but only with the correct training approach that ideally includes more intense training.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.