Discover more from Strong As An Ox
Your Guide To Newbie Gains
How to Make Your First Year your Best Year
Your first year in the gym will completely change your life. We talked about this a couple weeks ago, it’s not unreasonable to think you can put on 20-25lbs of lean muscle mass within your first year.
You're going to put on muscle regardless, but how productive this period for you is will all depend on getting the little things right. This is the difference between looking better and looking great, totally brand new.
It’s not hard, it’s actually very simple. The hard part is getting the big things right every single day and not falling off. If you can get your first 3 months down, you’re probably going to make it happen.
I mention and talk about Newbie Gains all the time, but I’ve never really got into the topic in depth, while I like focusing on more advanced topics (Saturday’s paid post is for sure)—the reality is 80% of my audience is very new to the gym.
Actually, I want to see the exact number:
What Are Newbie Gains
Newbie Gains are the initial period in the gym where you are just starting out, learning, and getting familiar in the gym. If you reference back to my post on realistic timelines, this is the period where you will see the most muscle growth.
How long you are getting Newbie Gains will be individual based, but you can expect your first 6-12 months of the gym being this period where you see accelerated muscle growth (and ability to lose fat at the same time, which we’ll get into later).
In this period—we’ll call it 12 months—you are likely going to put on 50% of the total muscle mass you can naturally, genetically achieve in your life.
The reason for the accelerated muscle growth is you are untrained so all the stimulus is new to your body and your body will rapidly overcompensate to adapt to these new demands.
Before we get into the more sciency aspect of this, let’s take a step back and refer to this post on Muscle Protein Synthesis, it’s a paid post, so in summary, Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is your body’s rate of repair or building muscle.
Muscle Protein Synthesis competes with Muscle Protein Breakdown (which is just as it sounds, breaking down “muscle”) to determine which adaptation your body has. If you have more MPS than MPB you will build muscle, if you have more MPB than MPS you will lose muscle, if equal, nothing really happens.
When we lift weights with proper stimulus, we trigger a response in the cells of the muscle themselves to increase MPS and repair and adapt to the lifting session. (We won’t go into mTor and these cellular signalling processes, not important, but they happen, that’s all you need to know.)
I bring this up not because I’m a nerd (I am) but so we can understand why we are growing so fast.
As a new lifter, your MPS response to a workout is much higher and lasts much longer. In new trainees, this can last up to 3 days vs the 1 or so days for a “trained” (now newbie) lifter.
This means that we have more time and opportunity to feed and grow the muscle after every workout session, which is also why we don’t need as much time in the gym because your MPS is still elevated for 2-3 days.
As we are in the gym more and more, we start to experience what is known as the Repeated Bout Effect which states that we adapt less and less to stimulus as we are exposed to it over time. Eventually, our bodies begin to get used to lifting and the effects are less dramatic.
It would be great if we could continue to grow at a rate of 1-2lbs of muscle a month forever, but the reality is that would mean we would all look like Ronnie Coleman and that’s not healthy and really even fun to look at (No offense Ronnie!)
Taking Advantage Of Newbie Gains
While the reality is we could do most things wrong and still make a ton of progress in this period - the better you train and diet, the more profound the results are going to be.
This is especially important if we want to take advantage of a rare but possible outcome for a newbie trainer—the recomp, building muscle and losing fat at the same time.
This is one of the very few situations where this is possible, and you can really, really change the way you look for the better by doing this.
We also can get away with stimulating the muscle enough to grow without a ton of intensity, volume, or effort - this doesn’t mean we don’t want to train hard, but it means we can really dial in form and technique and get comfortable on the movements without worrying if we lifted hard enough or if the weight was enough.
This is key because you develop neural circuits to the movement patterns you are doing and we want to ensure we are learning the correct way and not having to undo years of suboptimal technique and form down the line—most get this wrong.
Your goal should look like this:
Learn and get familiar with an exercise → Dial in form until you are comfortable with exercise → Start adding weight and really focusing on safely taking the lift as close to failure while maintaining great, not good, form.
Do not chase numbers and bring your ego into the gym, you’re not going to add crazy weight fast and you shouldn’t really even have future goals for lifts. Your only goal should be getting better at the movement and lifting a little bit more than the last session.
Truly “listen” and pay attention to your body. When you’re sore, be aware of where you’re sore and how to, for lack of better terms, flex and make it feel sore—this will start to develop your mind muscle connection because the soreness will make you fully aware of where the muscle is.
You do not need an advanced split at this time, realistically you only need about 3 training sessions a week to maximize your growth. Refer back to the section on MPS, because it is elevated for close to 3 days, we don’t need to train every day and we aren’t advanced enough to need to split up body parts.
I suggest a 3 day a week Upper/Lower Split or a 3 day a week Full-Body split. These are geared towards beginners and will allow you to recover and grow well, all while keeping it simple with only 3 days to help ensure adherence. At most I would do a 4 Day Upper/Lower Split—but suggest 3 days over this.
When it comes to diet, day 1 you should start tracking food and ensuring you are getting enough protein. This is going to develop the habits and skills that will give you more flexibility in the future—if you don’t do this you will likely over or underestimate how much protein and calories you are eating.
I won’t beat a dead horse on recovery, you just need to be sleeping well at night and allowing the muscles to truly recover and grow.
Maximizing Newbie Gains
When it comes down to the things to focus on, I’m going to give you some guidance and a checklist of sorts to make this as easy as possible.
Setting Yourself Up
Do yourself a favor and buy the following items:
Body Weight Scale
Proper Gym Shoes and Clothes
Download an App to track calories
Get an app, notebook, or whatever to track lifts
(Optional) Hire a Coach (I’m available starting August 1st) or find a *good* local personal trainer—at least get a few sessions to ensure good form
First thing you want to do is get your weight and accurately try to estimate your body fat percentage—use this as reference and be brutally honest.
This is going to determine your initial strategy - do you need to focus on losing fat, do you want to recomp, or do you need to focus on putting on muscle?
This brings us to the next piece.
We should really focus on making a lifestyle change to a healthier diet lifestyle if we haven’t already. We have a few key items we need to focus on for diet:
Eating mostly whole foods
Eating enough protein, 1g per pound of bodyweight or 1g per pound of estimated lean body weight if over 20% body fat
Getting familiar with portion sizes, meal prepping, and weighing our food.
When we get into setting up our diet based on our goal, we are going to break this up into 3 groups: Lose Fat, Recomp, Bulk—***REFER TO THIS POST ON SETTING UP DIET***
If you are over 20% body fat, you are going to want to first start by losing fat to get into a healthier place, don’t worry, you will still be building muscle, but the fat needs to go first. If this is you then you want to eat in a 500 calorie deficit until you are in the 15-17% body fat range, then you want to slowly add food until around maintenance to allow a recomp effect.
If you are between 13-20% body fat I would focus on eating right at or 100-200 calories above maintenance and allow the recomp effect to take place. Focus on eating enough to maximize growth while also allowing yourself to lose fat, this will look somewhat like what some refer to as a “lean bulk”.
If you are 12% or below, you need to eat, you’re going to want to be in a 300-500 calorie surplus to maximize muscle growth, but you still will not have to worry about gaining any fat at this rate due to the fact you are a beginner.
Going with everything in the section above, your goal is to become extremely proficient in your movements and form. Youtube is going to be your best friend - record your lifts and compare them. If struggling, hire a good coach (in person preferably).
After you are comfortable, you want to learn what getting close to and lifting to failure feels like. This is the intensity you will want to lift with to ensure you are building muscle over your lifting career.
You will want to have a logbook or tracking app where you can track your lifts and ensure you are progressing—as a newbie you will be progressing every session if you are doing everything right.
You are going to be very sore, this is normal, some days it will last for 1-3 days after lifting and probably the most sore on the 2nd day, this is also normal. While I’m not one to suggest skipping a session, if the muscles you are supposed to train are so sore you can barely move them, take the day off and push the session back a day. If mild soreness, do your lift, this is fine.
Even if you don’t feel like it, your goal is to build the habit, so force yourself to go, even going 50% is fine, don’t make it a habit, but get it done.
At some point when acclimated, throw in some cardio on your off days, I’m not saying you absolutely have to, but you need to—it becomes a must as you progress simply for good health. 2-3x a week for 20 minutes is more than enough.
This is going to be a period of your most growth and strength gains, take advantage of it, but most importantly have fun and fall in love with the process. Also:
DON’T SKIP LEG DAY, I AM WATCHING, WE CAN ALL TELL, YOU LOOK RIDICULOUS.
Going to keep this short and sweet—Sleep 7-9 hours a night, use the gym to lower stress, avoid drinking right after the gym and limit to once a week (preferably none but whatevs), and to not try to do too much extra in the gym—more does not equal more.
You are growing like a weed and your body is going to have increased recovery demands, listen to your body. If you are on a 3 day a week schedule, you have tons of flexibility if you are too sore, take an extra day if you *truly* need it.
Start to experiment with things like saunas, cold therapy (away from gym sessions), foam rolling, etc. and see what benefits you.
On your rest days, be sure to remain active and get outside and go on a few walks, this is active recovery and will boost your recovery process.
Above all else, focus on getting no less than 6 hours of sleep, it’s not a big ask, okay?
Exiting The Newbie Phase
Congrats, it’s been a year and you’re 20lbs+ bigger, you’re leaner, and in the best shape of your life. What changes? Well not much, you should have already built healthy habits, but take note of a few things:
Your progress in the gym will slow down, don’t overcompensate by doing more in the gym, as long as the logbook is going up, you’re still making progress.
You also now have a little less flexibility with diet and a recomp is no longer a likely scenario, now is when you will start to incorporate more traditional cutting and bulk cycles—pay attention especially to the latter. You don’t need to eat everything to grow, just a few hundred extra calories a day.
If you really blew it away and have great genetics, consider if this is something you could do as a career (contrary to what they say, there is a TON of money in fitness if you’re good and the world is getting fatter and fatter and needs good coaches—I can’t coach them all, there’s enough for us all), or see if you’d like to try your hand in bodybuilding and compete in a show to show off what you’ve done and see if you like it (again, tons of money in bodybuilding if you’re smart, BUT at higher levels it is extremely unhealthy).
Again, not much is going to change, stick with it, just realize things are gonna slow down just a bit.
Putting It All Together
Your first year in the gym is the most exciting time you’re ever going to have. Things are so new, exciting, and you’re making progress at a very quick rate. Take advantage of this time, do it right, and fall in love with the process. If you do, you’re ensuring lifelong fitness.
Writing this was fun because I got to reflect and think back on my beginner days—I wish I had a post like this to guide me. I promise, follow this and you’re going to make absolutely absurd progress.
While you’re going to make progress regardless, you could do most things wrong and still grow because the stimulus is so new—you want to ensure you’re developing the right habits, this way when you do leave the newbie gain stage, you don’t have to make a ton of adjustments - largely you can just continue doing what you’re doing.
At the end of the day, you can ride this advice out for a couple years before ever really needing to specialize and focus on smaller things, and you’ll have your answers to those because I plan to write for a couple more years and can’t fit it all into one post—what fun is that ;)
As mentioned, I do offer coaching, the plan was to start a couple weeks ago, but I had to move across the country and found out I was going to be a father. Next week I am going on vacation (don’t worry, bringing my laptop) and I will go through everything and be ready to start with everyone on August 1st.
Also… as you might’ve seen, there will be Strong As An Ox Logbooks coming very soon, this is the very same logbook I have been using for 3 years now, tailored exactly to the style of programs and advice I give—so be on the lookout for those, will be a discount for everyone on the substack.
Anyway, I’m 1200 words over my planned post length so I will shut up now.
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout program, diet plan, or supplement protocol. These are opinions from a Cartoon Ox.