When my powerlifter boyfriend reintroduced me to the gym a couple years ago, he did a lot of goal management with me. Like most people I wanted everything to happen right away. I wanted more muscle and less fat. I wanted to be faster and stronger and more nimble. He told me something I’ve carried with me since: You can only serve one master. Essentially, you can only train for one goal at a time since they require different methods. But he added as a caveat that there’s a small window when you’re first starting out in which this simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss is possible. During that brief window you can make what bodybuilders like to call newbie gains.
Could I do everything at once? Absolutely not. But could I build some muscle and lose some fat at the same time? Yes. And that’s special to beginnings. But what are newbie gains and why are they so special? I’ll break that down for you, and also let you know what you can do to maximize them if you’re a newcomer to the gym.
What are newbie gains?
So, what are newbie gains anyway? The term, often expressed by experienced bodybuilders with a hint of jealousy, refers to the gains you’ll make in both strength and physique during your first few months in the gym. Well, as long as you’re following a weight lifting regimen.
People starting out in weight lifting make astonishing gains in strength and muscle mass after a short amount of time. They can also lose some fat during this same time. That’s rare. Experienced bodybuilders, powerlifters or Olympic lifters need to gain muscle and lose fat in cycles, focusing on one at a time. They bulk, or eat above maintenance calories, to build muscle mass. Then they cut, or eat below maintenance, to remove some of the fat they gained putting on muscle.
You’ll also find that experienced lifters strive for months at a time to add incremental weight to their big lifts, like bench and deadlift. While, no, you’re not going to power through 250 pound deadlifts as a beginner, your strength will increase rapidly. My newbie gains took me from squatting the bar (45 pounds) to 110 pounds in 3 months. While that isn’t a lot of weight, it’s a pretty big gain for 12 short weeks.
What causes newbie gains?
There are two systems at work when you’re lifting weights: your muscles and your central nervous system (CNS). Muscle mass takes time and a caloric surplus to build. You will put on a little bit of muscle if you’re eating enough to fuel your body and lifting weights in the beginning. The major strength gains, however, come from your CNS.
Experienced lifters like powerlifters have trained up their CNS to get used to lifting heavy loads. But walking into a gym in the first few months, your CNS will have a lot to learn, and quickly. That’s why powerlifters fight to add 10 pounds to a lift while your weights will jump considerably in the beginning. The effect can’t last forever, though. Soon enough you’ll need to work longer and harder to add weights to your lifts like everyone else.
So since you have such a short window of opportunity, how do you make the most of it?
How can I maximize my newbie gains?
Hopefully you realize what a great opportunity this is and understand that, no, weight lifting in and of itself won’t make you bulky if you’re a woman. Building muscle boosts your resting metabolism, meaning you’ll burn more calories at rest than you do now. Making strength gains quickly sets you up to push yourself in later months and continue to grow this metabolically active tissue. So, how do you make the most of it?
The easy answer is to push yourself and lift as much weight as possible (that you can with good form, of course). Your workout plan doesn’t have to be complicated, though. There are very simple programs called 5 by 5 that will earn you strength gains without any confusion. Just make sure you have a knowledgeable trainer, coach or lifter teach you the proper form before you try pushing your strength limits.
You can find great 5 by 5 programs on sites like T-Nation, where experienced trainers post full free workouts. This program has you doing all 5 big lifts during each workout. Another one has you training only 3 lifts per day, 3 days a week, until you’re ready for a second phase. But the key really is to lift heavy. Don’t pass up the opportunity to make the most of your newbie gains.