How Long Does It Take To See Results?
We have come to live in a microwaved society. Microwaved foods that provide you with a whole “cooked” meal in a matter of seconds or minutes, products that can be delivered to your door in a matter of hours and on demand information at the touch of a button. Don’t get me wrong, I am just as guilty as the next person for taking advantage of some of the luxuries that modern technology has brought us. However, it is important to understand that the “on-demand” ideology should not apply to everything. A common question I get as a trainer is how long will it take for me to lose X amount of weight? Or how long will it take for me to see definition? I will also get clients that have come to me and said, “I want to lose 40 pounds in two months,” or have some other deadline that isn’t really realistic. Our society has developed the ability to provide things so quickly to people that when it comes to working out, losing weight or gaining muscle they have become conditioned to believe that it shouldn’t be any different than anything else. It’s important to understand that some things in life should not be rewarded so quickly. This principle will always apply to the human body. The human body can be stubborn and in order to instill lasting change it takes time and hard work. Many people will look for the quick-and-easy only to be disappointed or even worse, harmed. This is why it’s important to embrace the journey and as cliché as it sounds think of it as a lifestyle change. In this article, I will explore some of the current research that’s available related to this topic to help everyone understand what to expect when undertaking such a journey.
Before I dive into the topics that everyone wants to know about, I first want to touch on the neuromuscular system and how it relates to gains that an individual might experience. The Neuromuscular system is very responsive and very good at what it does. Whatever you expose the body to, the body will try to get really good at it. I often have a conversation with clients about the dangers of sitting and specifically sitting with poor posture. I will tell them that the body is really good at what you expose it to, so if you slouch your body will say, “Ok, we are going to get really good at slouching,” and the viscous cycle will continue from there. However, the same is true for exercise. Whatever you expose your body to in the gym, it will try very hard to get better at. This is what is called neurological adaptation. For people that are brand new to exercise or have not worked out consistently for a while this will be very relevant to them. Individuals can expect to see anywhere from 25%-100% gains in strength in 3-6 months. However, much of these strength gains are actually attributed to the neurological adaptation that is occurring or your body just getting better at the specific movement that you are measuring. According to Kenney, Wilmore and Costill (2015) The learning effect of the neuromuscular system can account for nearly 50% of early strength gains.
This piece of information is important for people to understand for many reasons. First of all, it shows that the neuromuscular system, which is thought of as very responsive, takes a roughly three months to see noticeable improvement in movement quality and apparent strength. Second, it shows that this is a necessary step for overall growth and that it’s a very important part of a persons training journey. I have many people that come to me and expect dramatic “Biggest Loser” style changes and that really isn’t possible at least in a healthy way. Oh, yea and by the way, anyone follow up with the Biggest Loser contestants and see how they’re doing lately? Not good. The point is that everything always takes time and we need to remove ourselves from our typical “on-demand” habits that we have become accustomed to outside the gym and sit back and enjoy the journey.
This is the big one. The one that most people want to know about. How do I shed the belly fat and get those six-pack abs that I’ve always wanted? Fat loss can be simpler than muscle gain can be. What it mostly comes down to is something called energy balance. I say mostly because there are certain populations dealing with metabolic disease or some other medical contraindication that makes their situation much more complex. However, for a relatively healthy individual the best place to start is calories in vs calories out. Simply put the amount of energy, “calories,” you are consuming and the amount of energy you are burning.
There are approximately 3,500 calories in one pound of fat. So, if someone wants to lose 10 pounds that would be 3,500 cals x 10 = 35,000 calories over a certain period of time. It’s important to understand that the body does not like extreme calorie deprivation and it has processes in place that will actually lead to more harm than good if one undertakes an extreme diet. The body is very good at staying alive in extremes and if you severely restrict calories one of the first things it will do is adjust to that new calorie level by reducing resting metabolic rate also known as Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). You can’t blame the body for this, it’s simply adapting to what it’s being exposed to. The more one restricts calories the more the metabolic rate will slow and the harder it will be to maintain fat loss. The other issue with this is that once you increase calories to a more appropriate level, weight will most likely be put back on because of the reduction in metabolic rate and other factors. There are other problems that result from extreme dieting. The body can possibly go into survival mode and slow processes down related to non-vital organs. For both sexes this can mean a reduced libido and for women it can result in amenorrhea or the absence of menstruation and more harmful undesired results.
So, a responsible way to approach it is the best option. What I mean by that is start with a moderate reduction in calories. This is beneficial for many reasons. One, you will be able to eat enough food to make sure that you are getting adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals and other micronutrients that are important for bodily functions including burning fat. Two, it will be enough food so you don’t feel like you are starving yourself. Sure, you might feel more hungry than usual at times, but as I mentioned above the body is very good at adapting and you will become more comfortable with the new calorie level within a few days. So how much of a reduction are you wondering? Typically a good place to start is around a 500-calorie deficit, which would equate to slightly less at each meal. Another simple estimate to start with would be you bodyweight multiplied by 10-12.. It’s important however to be flexible and understand that 500 calories might not be the right number and it’s ok to make adjustments. If you are not losing weight, then reduce it by another 250 calories. On the other hand, if you are losing weight too quickly then add 250 calories. The goal for healthy fat loss should be about 1-2 pounds per week. That would mean your goal of 10 pounds would be reached in 5-10 weeks, which in the big picture is a very short period of time. I don’t recommend counting calories long term, however, it can be beneficial to do for a short period of time, maybe 2 weeks, to get an idea of how much you should be consuming and what it would look like. Calorie counting also isn’t an exact science because of so many variables going into the calorie content of food.
Sometimes fat loss isn’t that simple. There can be other factors at play such as hormonal imbalances, Diabetes, metabolic disease, and other medical issues that are outside of the scope of practice for a personal trainer. If someone is struggling with any of the previously mentioned it is important for him or her to seek out the guidance of someone that is trained in that area such as a Registered Dietician (RD).
As mentioned above much of the initial “gains” can be attributed to improvement in neuromotor function. Evidence of this has been shown in multiple studies one of them consisting of putting men and women through an 8-week resistance training program. The researchers took muscle biopsies every two weeks and there were no significant changes in muscle fiber size or number even though 1 Rep Max increased. These results lead to the conclusion that the increases in strength were due to increased neural activation. In other words, the muscle hadn’t physiologically changed which is what a lot of people are after. So, the take away from this is that two months in you may be stronger and moving better but you might not be looking very different unless there is also a loss in fat, which will reveal more musculature. This is where it is important to not get discouraged and it is why I am writing this article. It’s important for people to understand that you need to consistently put in work in order to get the results you want, but they will happen as long as you show up and work hard, your body has no other choice but to respond.
So, beyond the 8-week mark what happens? Well, that is when muscle hypertrophy, or muscle growth, starts to play a bigger role in increases in strength. Hypertrophy plays a very little role in the first 8-10 weeks of training and progressively increases over time becoming the major contributor to gains in strength beyond 10 weeks. Just like with most things in life consistency can be the key to progress. Research has shown that cessation from training causes changes in the structure and function of muscle. One study examined the effects of lower body resistance training in women and had the subjects complete a 20-week training cycle followed by 30 to 32 weeks of no training and then another 6-week training cycle. Results from the study are shown at right (figure 1) and you can see the gains in strength after the 20-week cycle and the subsequent loss in strength after the cessation of training. One interesting observation to be made is that the rebound strength gains after the 6-weeks of training bring the subjects strength back to comparable levels with the post 20-week cycle.
The take away from this should be that life will throw curveballs at you and it’s important to understand that even if you are away from your training for a period of time, getting back on the saddle will not be as hard as when you first got on. Ideally, when life gets busy you will be able to follow some sort of maintenance plan until you can return a regular training schedule. However, if you can’t, it’s no reason to throw in the towel on training since as we can see the work that you put in early on will always provide you with a solid baseline. An important note is that the longer you are away from training the less effect that baseline will have. As with anything related to the human body this is not an absolute. Some people may experience results similar to the above explained and some people may not. There are multiple variables at play throughout the whole process but in most situations this information is applicable. So, keep providing stimulus for your muscles and know that with time they will get stronger.
This is more commonly known as cardio in the realm of fitness. Aerobic capacity basically describes the body’s ability to utilize oxygen. Most commonly it is measured with something called a VO2max test. You may have seen these on commercials before where people are running on treadmills with a mask and a hose hooked up to their face. VO2max is defined as the highest rate of oxygen consumption attainable during maximal or exhaustive exercise. There are also many submaximal tests that can be conducted to estimate VO2max. For the average person we can mostly tell if this is improving based on the way we feel when we exercise and complete daily activities. Another indication of improvement in the cardiovascular system would be running a faster mile, rowing a faster 5k or other comparable forms of exercise tests. But how long does it take improvement to occur in this system?
First of all, let’s talk about what changes might occur that would lead to an improvement to this system. One would expect the following: Increased Heart size, Increased Stroke Volume, Decreased Resting Hear rate, changes in cardiac output, changes in blood volume, and changes in blood flow. What it all boils down to is how well your body is able to transport oxygen to the necessary places in your body during exercise, specifically the metabolically active tissues of the body those primarily being muscles. All of the aforementioned changes contribute to a more efficient oxygen delivery system.
So how long does it take?
Studies have demonstrated that untrained subjects have seen increases in VO2max of 15%-20% after a 20-week or 5-month training period. Other studies have shown an increase of 30% over a 12-month training period. Most of the current research shows that individuals will meet their VO2max within about 12-18 months after following an endurance-training program. However, that doesn’t mean that the individual won’t continue to improve, but what causes the continuous improvement isn’t exactly clear. One theory could be related to the individual’s ability to perform at higher percentages of their VO2max for longer periods of time. As with any form of training, cessation from training will lead to a loss in the gains made, which is why staying consistent is important. Aerobic capacity is typically easier to gain and lose than muscular adaptations.
The role of nutrition
Nutrition is very important in all of the above situations. Some would argue that it’s more important than exercise. I think that both play a crucial role in getting the results that you want. I truly believe that you can’t have one without the other. You can’t out-exercise bad nutrition and you can out-eat poor training habits. I think about it this way; exercise accounts for anywhere from 5-10 hours per week ideally and nutrition, or eating, is something that we must do in order to continue to live. Research continues to show that exercise intervention alone compared to exercise and nutrition intervention leads to drastic differences in results. A 2012 study consisting of 399 women published on PubMed Central show this difference. The study participants underwent an exercise intervention, a dietary intervention or a diet and exercise intervention. After 12 months the researchers measured bodyweight and compared the results with baseline numbers. What they found was that the diet only group lost 8.5% bodyweight, the exercise only group lost 2.4% and the diet and exercise group lost 10.8%. They also had a control group that lost 0.8% during that same time. So as you can see the combination of diet and exercise is extremely powerful when compared to each on their own.
My recommendation for all my clients is to try to incorporate good nutrition practices into their life. I find with most individuals that what is really needed is proper education on what good nutrition is. Many people might think they know what good nutrition is but their information is coming from various, not credible, sources on the Internet or someone they know that really has no formal education or understanding on the subject of nutrition. There is a reason I went to school and spent so much money and time on gaining an understanding of nutrition and exercise and how it affects the human body. You wouldn’t try to tell a Real Estate Agent about housing market trends or a Doctor about pathology. For some reason Nutrition is different and there are so many different fads and ideas out there that it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not.
To have a thorough conversation about good nutrition would require a whole other discussion. For the most part, good nutrition provides balance. Balance in terms of macronutrients, micronutrients, food type and energy. This leads to the most satisfying diet not only from the standpoint of physiology but also from the standpoint of psychology. It’s fairly easy to find a lot of great tasting whole foods that will give you so much variety and opportunities to try new foods that you don’t ever have to feel like you are on a diet, which you shouldn’t. Also making sure that you are eating in the right amounts. I know we live in such a fast paced environment, but for people trying to lose weight it’s important to at least try to slow down when eating. Use that time to clear your mind and practice mindfulness and enjoying each bite of food. You will find that you become full in a more appropriate time and don’t overeat as much.
As you can see, this topic can be as complex or simple as you would like to make it. One thing that is certain is that you can’t just focus on one thing and expect to see amazing results. At the same time, it’s important to maintain a big picture view when making changes and make them in small steps. Try not to get discourage when you “fall off the wagon” because it is almost a certainty that you will encounter such challenges. I always think about it like the stock market, there will be peaks and troughs, highs and lows, but what is important is what direction you are trending. Whether it’s improving performance, losing weight, gaining muscle or just general health improvement, know that if you consistently put in the time, results will come.
Kenny, W.L; Wilmore, J; Costill, D (2015). Physiology of Sport and Exercise 6th edition. Champagne, IL. Human Kinetics.
Foster-Schubert, KE; Alfano, CM; Duggan, CR; Xiao, L; Campbell, KL; Kong, A; Bain, C; Wang, CY; Blackburn, G; McTiernan, A (2011). Effect of diet and exercise, alone or combined, on weight and body composition in overweight-to-obese post-menopausal women. Obesity (Silver Spring). 20 (8).
Andrews, R. All About Fat Loss. http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-fat-loss.
Berardi, J. When Exercise Doesn’t work. http://www.precisionnutrition.com/when-exercise-doesnt-work.