How fast can you gain muscle and lose fat?

I can't tell you how many times I've seen people abandon ship on their nutrition or exercise plan due to frustration with their progress.  And as is often the case, they were progressing just fine!  So why would someone stop doing something that is bringing them an optimal rate of success?


If you browse through the myriad of magazines in the checkout aisle at the grocery store or skim through ads in Facebook you're going to see the "fast track solution", "one weird trick" for your goals.  Trust me, this advertising works.  And it works because we as humans like black and white decision making - it's easier to say I always do X but never do Y because it makes the distinction very clear.

So if the blanket statement of carbohydrates and insulin cause fat gain, it is very easy to differentiate foods and make clear-cut decisions on what to eat or not to eat.  Of course, that above statement is not true (even though you'll still hear it) but it feels good to be able to pick a side.  Flashbacks to middle school dodgeball anyone?

The biggest issue with anecdotes

I really have a problem with anyone who uses an anecdote to prove their theory or statements.  Anecdotes are usually fun, interesting and do provide some personal context but it should never be the the reason someone is justifying what they do for nutrition or exercise. One solid case in point which I have reference many times in blog posts are the homozygous twins who were overfed 1,000 calories each day: some gained weight and some LOST weight. Now would you want fat loss advice from someone who's experiencing with losing weight is when they ate MORE calories?

Personal claims of success are nothing more than that, personal. And the reason this very limited viewpoint is damaging is because that person will give advice only based on what works for them and while a small percentage of people might also find success, everyone else will struggle. This is precisely why weight loss "systems" that focus on strict rules for foods, meal timing, weird carb timing, supplements, shakes or detoxes are a crock of shit.  And yeah, I want to be very clear here in how I feel because I've seen the clients who get royally screwed up trying to follow an arbitrary system.

Anecdote alert! What I say might not be true for everyone, gasp!

Here's a quick rundown of some damage I've seen with clients trying to fit themselves into an arbitrary system:

-An irrational fear of the food(s) the system decides to eliminate

-A total misunderstanding of the word detox

-Digestion screwed up so bad from shake systems that we needed to take MONTHS to reintroduce solid foods

-Feelings of failure and frustration

-Huge initial progress followed by no progress, follow by gaining all the weight back

-An obsession with food spurred on by restriction and constant hunger

-A complete misunderstanding of what a good rate of progress is

And therein lies the heart of what we're discussing.  No one knows how fast they should lose fat or gain muscle! Or people sometimes do see success with wacky nutrition systems which makes this process even harder because they often attribute success to the wrong variables. One such example is low-carb.  Some people do fantastic on this approach, enjoy it and seem to thrive on the food choices and how it helps them manage their calories.  Cool.  Why would I deter this person?

But there's a huge camp of people who tried low-carb and dropped 15-35lbs the first couple months.  Psychologically this is extremely positive in terms of reinforcing that something is working.  But this is the part of the problem too: what if the weight lost wasn't just fat but water weight from glycogen and lowered inflammation?  What if eliminating carbs simple meant you lowered your calories which was the true cause of the weight loss?  What if in fact you could have seen the SAME progress while eating carbohydrates?

And this huge intial loss in weight people see tends to do two things: One is that they now assume carbohydrates were in fact the cause of all their weight gain (see?  I cut them out and lost weight thus they were the issue!). Two is that this person now EXPECTS progress to happen in huge 15-35lb jumps like it did the first time.

Does losing twenty pounds even faze you?

Whether this was low-carb or not, you could insert a ton of different nutrition gimmicks or fads into that example with pretty much the same outcome.  And this creates a personal experience where losing 20lbs isn't just expected, it's "too slow". This is not a good place to be from a long-term success standpoint.  If you think losing 20lbs is unimpressive than you'll never be happy with your success.  Aside from literally not eating at all, you won't be able to recreate that huge weight loss scenario leading to a cycle of constant frustration, restriction, possible bingeing and stacking up a pile of foods you're afraid of and rules you have to follow.

Success comes from unexpected places

Did you know that research shows in untrained people (no previous weight training experience), they gain muscle mass from riding a bike which leads to an improvement in their lifts in the gym?  Think about that.  When was the last time someone told you their squat went up from riding their bike to work?

First-time exposure to something tells us our body is so adaptable that it will make huge initial changes to meet the new imposed demand.  This is why literally almost any program works in the gym if you've never lifted before.  And almost any nutrition program works if you ultimately restrict calories.  And deep down, you know this.  If you've been going to the gym for a few years you know that at first, you got better at everything every single time you came back.  Then, past the first 6-12 months, you only got better on a weekly basis, and now you've got to scrape and claw for every push of the needle in the right direction.

Ask yourself this question: how many SECOND transformations do you ever see people make?  I'll answer that for you, none.

The skinny guy who packed on 30lbs of muscle the first year of training?  Yeah, he isn't doing that 10 years later.  And if it does happen it's because he took a long time off and came back just to regain what he lost or he introduced some exogenous hormones. This makes sense physiologically; the first time you experience something you will make the fastest rate of progress because everything is a new stimulus, but you can't keep getting better in huge jumps because you'd be 400lbs of pure muscle after a few years. 

But trainers, magazines, ads and of course personal anecdote always use these first-time experiences as proof that their system works. The reality is many things could have worked and all we're seeing is the effect of first-time exposure.

What to expect

This is not to discount the work you put into the gym or your nutrition.  But it's so easy to get caught up in how fast something initially worked that you expect that all the time.  And being married to an idea just because it worked for you ONCE can really cause some problems down the line.

Listen, if you've never lifted weights before, all you need is a competent trainer who won't get you hurt and some form of progressive overload.  Those things will ensure progress.  If you've never tried to lose weight before and program that doesn't sacrifice protein but does control calories will ensure weight loss.  That leaves a lot of room for individualization.  But it's important to remember that the approach you use can and most likely will need to change over time.  Basic tenets stay the same however.

In terms of muscle gain, some people gain faster than others.  And it all depends on your starting point too.  Maybe a super-skinny person will gain more muscular weight than someone who's pretty well-built already.  That's fine.  But overall when we talk about literal muscle (not fat gain or water weight gain) from training, you can expect about the following (courtesy of Lyle McDonald):

CategoryRate of Muscle Gain (Men)Rate of Muscle Gain (women)
Beginner1-1.5% total body weight/month0.5-0.75% total body weight/month
Intermediate0.5-1% total body weight/month0.25-0.5% total body weight/month
Advanced0.25-0.5% total body weight/month0.125-0.25% total bodyweight/month

And in terms of fat loss, we look at total percentages lost per week based on weight.  This keeps things relative to the person and provides a window of progress since you can't expect the same linear changes week in and week out (especially as you lose weight).

Average Weekly Fat Loss

Example: 200lb starting weight

Example: 120lb starting weight

0.5 - 1% total bodyweight

1 to 2 lbs per week

0.6 to 1.2 lbs per week


When we look at these numbers, they don't seem too impressive.  That is most likely due to our expectations not meeting the reality of how quickly change happens.  And remember when I said people often abandon ship even when making good progress?  Imagine you give your nutrition program a full 6 to 12 months to work rather than trying to force that change in 4 weeks!  You'd not only cumulatively see huge progress but the process itself would be much easier and less restrictive.  You might even be able to do crazy stuff like eat some carbs, only exercise 4 times per week, eat dinner after 6PM, have gluten or any other piece that you've had to cut out in the past.

Final thoughts are this; if you've already made one huge transformation it's time to look at the charts above and set your realistic exectations and just realize that that IS optmal progress.  And if you've never attempted to really lose weight or gain muscle than use a smart and sustainable approach and don't let the fast initial results convince you that they'll continue to happen forever.

If your end goal seems so far off and out of reach, let me leave you with this final chart showing what 0.75% bodyweight loss looks like for 200lb person over the course of sixteen weeks, factoring in how the percent of weight loss changes as their weight goes down:

WeekStarting WeightPercent of Weight Loss Weekly

If you told the average person 0.75% of their weight could be lost per week, they might scoff.  And maybe scoff further at around 6-7lbs per month.  But this person has made a life changing transformation in 16 weeks without having to overly restrict or try to lose it all the first month.  And their likelihood of keeping the weight off is dramatically higher. 

Expectations can determine if you feel like you've succeeded or failed.  Setting the right ones from the start will save you a world of frustration and time.