Tracking muscle gain with any degree of accuracy is extremely difficult, particularly once your newbie gains are out of the way.
Once you’ve moved past the beginner stages of training, building muscle at a decent rate will typically require adjusting and fine-tuning your training program.
Problem is, the need for fine adjustments tends to increase at the same time as it becomes progressively more difficult to establish how well those fine adjustments are working.
Body fat scales are largely a waste of time. Skinfold calipers can be useful in some circumstances, but even they have their problems. Even high tech methods like DEXA and the Bod Pod can’t be trusted.
So what are you supposed to do?
Rather than rely on expensive body fat tests, I think you’re much better off using two simple low-tech metrics — your weight on the scales and your performance in the gym.
Probably the most simple and straightforward way to tell if you’re building muscle is to track your weight using some regular bathroom scales.
The scales won’t tell you exactly how much muscle is being gained. But if you use them in the right way, they will tell you if you’re on the right road and moving in the right direction.
First, weigh yourself every day, rather than every week or every month.
Some advise against the practice of weighing yourself daily, mainly on the basis that your weight fluctuates from day to day.
But when you think about it, this is really an argument in favor of daily weighing.
Let’s say that you weigh yourself once a week, and that you stepped on the scales first thing this morning. Let’s also assume that the scales show you’re one pound heavier than you were last week.
“Great,” you think to yourself. “Things are moving in the right direction.”
But are they really?
How do you know that today isn’t one of those days when your weight happened to fluctuate upwards? And that if you weighed yourself again tomorrow morning, it won’t have shifted downwards again?
A single weekly data point isn’t particularly useful when it comes to guiding your decisions about what to eat and how to train.
Rather than weigh yourself once a week, weigh yourself every day. Then take an average at the end of the week.
Any daily fluctuation in weight will be averaged out over time. Over a period of several weeks, you’ll be able to see a trend. If the trend isn’t upwards, you’ll know that some aspect of your diet and training program needs to change.
Now, the obvious problem with relying solely on changes in weight is that you don’t know how much of the extra weight comes from muscle, and how much comes from fat.
If you’re trying to gain muscle as fast as possible, and eating enough food to fuel that growth, it’s highly unusual to build muscle without adding some fat at the same time.
However, you don’t want to get to the point where you’re adding more fat than muscle. There’s no point putting on a large amount of fat only to have to get rid of it all at some point in the future.
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That’s why it’s important to pair the data you get from the scales with an assessment of how much fat is being gained.
Your waist measurement is one of the best ways to go about doing so, but you can also take into account how tight your clothes fit around the waist and how you look in the mirror.
It’s also useful to have a realistic idea of how much muscle mass you can expect to gain in a given amount of time.
If you’re gaining weight at a significantly faster rate than it’s humanly possible to build muscle, chances are you’re gaining a large chunk of unwanted fat along with it.
This is exactly what happened to me in my first few years of lifting weights.
Back then I used to weigh myself once a month, as well as measuring the size of my chest, arms and legs with a tape measure.
I remember one month in particular where I ended up gaining about 7 pounds in weight, most of which I believed (wrongly as it turns out) was in the form of muscle mass.
Knowing what I know now, given that I’d been lifting weights consistently for about 18 months at that point, there was no way even half of that came from muscle.
But at the time, I was convinced that most of this extra weight was in the form of muscle, and I’d edged another step closer to my Mr Olympia debut.
This is why it’s useful to have a ballpark idea of what the physiological upper limits are in terms of muscle growth.
If you’re gaining weight at a rate that clearly exceeds those upper limits, chances are you’re adding a lot more fat than you think.
So, how fast can you realistically expect to gain muscle?
Studies show that in the first 10-12 weeks of training, gains in lean body mass (a reasonable proxy for muscle mass) can average somewhere in the region of 0.6 to 1.2 pounds per week [1, 2, 3].
During those first few months, your body is extremely sensitive to the stimulus provided by your new workout routine. As a result, new muscle tissue tends to be built relatively quickly.
In your first year of serious training, you’ll be doing extremely well to gain 20 pounds of muscle. Most people are going to see muscular gains closer to 10 pounds. You can certainly put on more than that in weight, but not all of it’s going to be muscle.
But over time, those gains will slow down.
The longer you’ve been training, the closer you get to your genetic ceiling in terms of muscle growth. And the closer you get to that genetic ceiling, the slower your gains will be.
Beginners tend to see faster gains than intermediate lifters, who in turn will build muscle faster than advanced lifters.
Seasoned lifters are doing extremely well to gain a few pounds of muscle every year.
As long as your training program is set up properly, one of the more reliable signs your muscles are growing is that your performance in the gym is improving.
If you’re able to lift more weight for the same number of reps, or do more reps with the same amount of weight, you’re on the right track.
Specifically, I’m talking about your repetition strength in higher rep ranges, rather than the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition.
Muscle size and strength are not 100% correlated, and there are other factors (most notably your nervous system doing a better job of using the available fibers in a given muscle) that contribute to gains in strength.
But for our purposes, the link is strong enough.
If you’re gaining strength in higher rep ranges, then keep doing what you’re doing, because it’s working.
To keep track of your performance in the gym, you can use a notebook and pen (this is what I prefer) or an app for your phone that lets you record your workouts.
However, if your repetition strength starts getting worse rather than better, and your performance in the gym takes a dive, it’s a sign something’s wrong.
Don’t worry too much about what happens in one workout. You might have just been having a bad day. A lack of sleep, a spike in stress levels, or a day of crappy eating can do that.
Sometimes your performance can take a dip for reasons that have nothing to do with your training. But a bad couple of weeks, or even just one very bad week, is a sign that something’s not right.
You also need to factor in how you’re feeling. Do you actually want to train? Or is your energy and motivation lower than normal?
If your desire and enthusiasm to train is low, your performance is tanking, despite the fact that you’re ticking all the boxes in terms of diet, sleep, stress and so on, then some aspect of your training needs to change.
Can You Measure Muscle Gain With a Tape Measure?
The problem with using a tape measure is that the placement of the tape, or even just a slight change in the amount of tension applied to the tape, can skew the results from one reading to the next.
If you’re measuring the size of your arms, for example, small differences in the extent to which you’re tensing your biceps and triceps can make it seem like you’ve gained more (or less) muscle than you really have.
The amount of air you hold in your lungs, or the extent to which you flare your lats, can affect your chest measurement.
The size of the potential error is often larger than the amount of muscle you might expect to gain over a period of 6-8 weeks.
Circumference measurements over longer periods of time, say 6-8 months, can be useful for assessing long-term trends.
But in terms of gathering data about how well your training program is or isn’t working over a shorter time frame (1-2 months), I wouldn’t rely on the tape measure.
Is Muscle Soreness a Good Sign That Your Muscles Are Growing?
There’s no proven link between soreness and growth, and no rule that says you have to annihilate each muscle group in order to make it grow.
Although feeling sore and stiff for days might be oddly satisfying, it’s no guarantee that muscle is going to be built any faster.
Strength training can cause damage to muscle fibers. But there’s very little evidence to show those muscle fibers need to be damaged in order to make them grow.
In one study, Brazilian researchers found that both high- and low-soreness strength training programs led to similar gains in muscle strength and size .
They compared training a muscle once a week with a full-body workout performed five times a week, Monday through Friday.
Both groups did the same exercises and the same number of sets, with one key difference.
The once-a-week group did two exercises per workout for 5-10 sets per exercise, while the full-body group did 11 exercises for 1-2 sets per exercise.
Subjects in the group that hit each muscle group once a week reported a much higher level of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
However, the researchers found no significant differences in terms of strength or size gains between the two groups. In other words, both the “low soreness” and “high soreness” training programs increased muscle mass and strength similarly.
A weight training program geared towards muscle hypertrophy will sometimes leave you feeling sore the next day.
But that very same weight training program will sometimes include workouts that don’t produce the same level of soreness.
In other words, the fact that you’re not sore doesn’t mean your muscles aren’t growing. Likewise, sore muscles don’t necessarily translate into faster growth.
Summary: How Do You Know if Your Muscles Are Growing?
Building muscle is a slow process, which can make it difficult to tell if what you’re doing in the gym is actually working.
Progress rarely happens as quickly as you’d like it to, and most people want to see some kind of tangible reward for all the time and effort they’re putting in at the gym.
Seeing that you’re making progress is motivating. It makes you want to improve even more.
On the flip side, it can be incredibly demotivating to train hard for months on end, only for it to seem like nothing is happening.
Are you gaining weight? Is your performance in the gym getting better? Are you seeing minimal changes in waist size? If so, chances are high that your muscles are growing.
If you’re gaining weight while seeing minimal changes in waist size, a good chunk of that weight gain is going to be in the form of muscle mass.
On the flip side, if your waist size is expanding, you’re getting heavier, but the amount of weight you can lift in various compound lifts (such as squats and bench presses) isn’t budging much, chances are that your training program is in need of an overhaul.
What if your performance in the gym is getting better, and you’re putting on weight, but your waist size is expanding far too quickly? This is a sign that your overall calorie intake is too high, and you could do with cutting back slightly on the food intake.
Tracking your weight on the scales and your strength levels in the gym is not a particularly accurate way to quantify how much muscle you’re gaining.
But it will tell you if you’re on the right track and moving in the right direction. Most of the time, that’s all you really need to know.
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