You’ve just started strength training, and you’re eager to see those first ripples of muscle. One of the reasons people stop training is because they get discouraged when they don’t see results quickly enough. How long does it really take to see the fruits of your strength training labors?
Strength Gains Happen More Quickly Than Gains in Muscle Mass
It can take six weeks or more to see changes in muscle size. On the other hand, strength gains happen more quickly. Despite the fact that your muscles don’t increase in size during the first few weeks of strength training, they become do become stronger. This is due to changes in the way your brain interacts with your muscles fibers.
Muscle fibers are grouped into motor units. Each motor unit is a cluster of muscle fibers innervated by a motor nerve cell. During the first weeks of strength training, your brain responds to training by recruiting more motor units with each muscles contraction. This means you have more muscle fibers working in your favor to move a weight. This increases the force you can generate.
Even though you haven’t increased the cross-sectional area of the muscle yet, your brain gives you an extra strength boost by recruiting more motor units to allow you to generate more force. It also increases how rapidly these motor units fire. This is called neuromuscular adaptation.
After 4 to 6 weeks of training if you’ve challenged the muscles sufficiently, your muscle fibers will start to increase in size. This further boosts muscle strength as the muscle cross-sectional area enlarges or “hypertrophies.” This is when you start to see the first signs of muscle enlargement and the much hoped for ripples when you flex your biceps.
Your Muscles May Look Slightly Larger After a Workout
Your muscles may look more defined after a workout, but this isn’t due to an increase in muscle tissue. After strength training, blood flow to the muscle increases greatly. As the muscle swells with blood and fluid, it temporarily looks larger, and it may feel tighter as well. Bodybuilders refer to this as the “muscle pump.” This effect lasts for only a few hours, but it can temporarily make you look more defined.
Other Factors That Affect How Soon You’ll See Results
To see results in 6 weeks, you need to be consistent with your strength training workouts, working each muscle group at least twice a week using weights that are challenging enough to break down muscle fibers so they can be rebuilt. Use a weight that’s heavy enough that you can’t eek out another rep after 12 repetitions, and do 2 to 3 sets of each exercise.
Even if you strength train using heavy weights consistently, you won’t see those ripples if they’re covered by a layer of body fat. That’s where diet and high-intensity cardio comes into play to help you melt away the fat that’s hiding your growing muscles.
The Bottom Line?
Strength gains occur earlier than gains in muscle mass. This is due to neuromuscular adaptation. But if you’re consistent, you’ll see an increase in muscle mass and definition about a month later. Building lean body mass takes patience, but it’s worth it.
Exercise Physiology: Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance. Powers and Howley. 2009.