You recently incorporated weight lifting into your exercise routine. During the short time you have been lifting weights you notice that your clothes are fitting differently and visually you can see some muscular development. However, the scale isn’t moving.
At this point it is common to question:
“What is happening?”
“Am I actually making progress?”
This is a common point of confusion for those who are new to lifting weights.
Therefore, the purpose of this article is to dive into this scenario and clarify how to assess progress when beginning to lift weights for the first time.
If you’re here, then you most likely have your macronutrient breakdown. If not, then start with the IIFYM macro calculator.
Benefits of Lifting Weights
Before we dive into what happens when an individual begins to lift weights, it is important to discuss reasons why weight lifting is an important part of an exercise routine.
For those looking to maximize body composition change, lifting weights to increase muscular development is going to be a key piece of the puzzle. A recent analysis of over 200 diet and weight loss studies concluded that incorporating weight lifting along with an energy deficit resulted in the greatest changes in body composition observed .
It is also important to note that spot reduction of body fat is not possible.
This means for those looking to maximize fat loss and muscular development weightlifting should be a part of your plan. In addition to muscular development and the visual changes associated with regular weight training, there are a number of other health benefits associated with lifting weights [2, 3]:
- Improved Bone Density
- Reduced Anxiety and Depression
- Improved Self-Esteem
- Reductions in Heart Disease and Diabetes Risk
- Improved Sleep
- Reduced Pain in Chronic Pain Sufferers
- Improvements in Cognition with Aging
- Increased Independence with Aging
Clearly, there are a number of benefits to lifting weights beyond changes in physical appearance and muscular development. Therefore, it would be advisable to include weight lifting into your fitness routine.
What to do in the Gym
When beginning to lift weights, there can be a lot of confusion. With so much information out there, it can be difficult to know what you should be doing in the gym; however, here are a few pointers to those just starting out:
Train Your Entire Body
We all have body parts we would like to improve more than others; however, muscular development across the entire body is going to be important for functionality during daily life and injury prevention.
It is also important to note that spot reduction of body fat is not possible. You will not lose more body fat in a certain region by training it more.
In addition, by training all muscle groups you will increase muscular development and body composition change compared to only training certain body parts.
Furthermore, it is going to look goofy if you have a lot of muscular development in one body part, but not others. Therefore, it will be in your best interest to train your entire body, not just body parts you want to focus on.
Learn Good Technique
It is important that a new lifter learn good technique first prior to adding heavy loads to the bar. This will maximize the effectiveness of the lifts performed and minimize injury risk.
Free Weights vs. Machines
Both free weights and machines can be effective for increasing muscular development. Utilizing a combination of both may increase variety in the gym and help keep a new lifter interested and consistent.
A wide variety of rep ranges has been shown to increase muscular development [4, 5]. For those interested in maximizing muscular development, incorporating most work in the 6-15 rep range is likely best.
However, there is likely benefit to performing some work in both the <6 and >15 rep ranges as well.
Regardless of the movements and rep ranges performed, a lifter’s focus in the gym should be progressive overload.
In fact, a review of over 200 nutrition and exercise weight loss interventions observed the largest changes in body composition when weightlifting was incorporated progressively .
Progressive overload can be achieved through increasing weight used, the number of reps performed, sets performed or even by getting the same number of reps with better technique. However, it is important to note that form should not be sacrificed at the expense of progressive overload.
Other Gym Members
Many new lifters are concerned about what others will think of them. However, the vast majority of gym members are more concerned about their own workouts than what you are doing.
Something that may seem like a big deal to you likely won’t even be noticed by most other gym members.
Beginners can Obtain Muscular Development Quickly
An individual’s potential for muscular development will be at its highest when first starting to lift weights. Studies have shown young healthy males can add 4-5 pounds of lean mass in the first 10 weeks of weight training .
Over the first year of proper training, experts have estimated that a new male lifter can add between 15-25 pounds of muscle. A new female lifter may be able to add approximately half this amount.
The amount of muscle gained over the first year will depend upon a number of factors such as consistency with a nutrition and exercise plan, genetics  and if the individual is in an energy deficit. Maximum muscular development will most likely occur when an individual is NOT in an energy deficit.
However, as an individual becomes more trained, the rate of muscular development will be reduced. An experienced drug-free lifter may only be able to add 1-2 pounds of muscle annually (if that).
If the scale is not changing and you are getting stronger, it is a good sign that you are adding muscle, losing fat and improving body composition.
Moreover, for an experienced lifter, progress is going to be maximized by choosing either fat loss or muscular development as the primary goal because muscular development and fat loss will not occur simultaneously to a larger extent.
For a beginner, muscular development and fat loss can occur at the same time and to a significant extent. Studies in beginning lifters have observed meaningful amounts of fat loss and muscle development during the initial months of training .
If you are new to lifting weights, it is important to realize that body composition change can occur without the scale changing because you are at one of the few times where a significant amount of muscular development and fat loss can occur at the same time.
Other Markers of Progress
Aside from the scale, there are a number of ways a new lifter can monitor progress:
Progress pictures can be a very powerful way to monitor progress over time. Typically, visual changes will occur quickly during the initial months of weight training; however, it is important that progress pictures aren’t taken too frequently to give change time to happen between sets of pictures.
In addition, it would be advisable to take pictures at the same time of day, in the same location/lighting and under the same conditions to be able to accurately assess progress.
A new lifter can gain strength rapidly. This increase in gym performance is important to track because if you are gaining strength, it is very likely you are also gaining muscle.
If the scale is not changing and you are getting stronger, it is a good sign that you are adding muscle, losing fat and improving body composition. We’ve seen this with many of our clients.
As new lifters in a calculated calorie deficit with their Macro Blueprint, they have changed their body compositions considerably.
Body measurements (such as waist and hip circumferences) can be a great way to monitor body composition change. Be sure to take body measurements under the same conditions.
How Clothes Fit
A common way many new lifters notice body composition change is in the fit of their clothes.
A Word of Caution on Body Fat Tests
Many individuals use body composition assessments to track progress. However, it is important to note that many of the methods typically available have a large amount of error. For example, bio-electrical impedance analysis commonly used at gyms has an error of +/- 8 percent .
To minimize error, it is important to measure body composition under the same conditions (for example, first thing in the morning, fasted, in minimal clothing and with an empty bladder).
It is also important to take the results into consideration along with other markers of progress as body composition measurements alone can have large error margins.
Using the Scale
Many new lifters will want to use the scale to assess progress. Should you choose to use the scale, there are a few factors to take into consideration:
Body weight commonly fluctuates a few pounds daily. This due to a combination of factors such as sleep patterns, hormones, stress, salt intake, water intake, bowel movements, sweat and a number of other factors.
However, the daily changes in weight from these factors come primarily from water and intestinal food mass weight, not real tissue weight. Therefore, it is important to look at averages and trends rather than individual weigh-ins when assessing progress.
Time of Day
It is important to weigh-in at the same time of day under the same conditions to minimize fluctuation. An easy way to do this is to weigh first thing in the morning in minimal clothing prior to eating or drinking anything.
Many women will see an increase in water retention around the time of their monthly cycle. Therefore, it is important to keep this in mind when assessing body weight.
Take Home Points
In a new lifter, significant body composition change can occur without much change in body weight. As a result, it is going to be important for a new lifter to assess progress through alternative methods.
If you are seeing a visual change in your pictures, getting stronger in the gym, losing inches and noticing a positive change in the way clothes are fitting, screw the scale you are making progress!