What You Did Not Know About The Beginners Gains Myth

November 5th 2019

Most beginners new to weight training have often heard of the concept of “beginner gains.” This can be described as an individual’s increased ability to make a substantial improvement in strength when first beginning a weight training regimen proportional to the reduction in strength improvement over an extended period of time on said regimen. 

Are Beginners Gains A Myth?

As a new lifter, your body is rapidly recovering from your workout. Over the course of a few weeks/months, most lifters will have adapted efficiently, hence why many lifters see slower progress, if not complete stagnation after this phase of “beginners’ gains”. So, your body is really becoming physically and neurologically adapted to your current training; there is no magic happening to beginner lifters where they ALWAYS develop more gains than an advanced lifter.

Your progress is highly dependent on what you do inside and outside of the gym. From your training efforts, ie your programming, intensity, volume, frequency, and effort exerted, to your recovery, ie your sleep, nutrition, stress, hormone levels, will dictate how rapidly your body can adapt to stress and grow.

Overall, any individual’s ability to make improvements is a direct causally related concept that is influenced by a culmination of several variables. Everything from nutrition to the type, time, duration, and intensity of the exercise regimen are essential factors. The individual’s genetics play a huge role as well. 

For example, a naturally mesomorphic person is more likely to add muscle relative to an ectomorphic person when all other factors are properly accounted for. Therefore, any newcomer must realize the complexity of the question when attempting to understand the “beginner gains” concept. 

For the purposes of the discussion of the remainder of this article, we will assume that these variables mentioned above are adequately accounted for and normalized for populations discussed and that the main comparison being evaluated is that of the newcomer versus the experienced individual concerning a weight training program.

Ability to Generate Force Production from a Muscle

If you are looking to make some gains, TRAIN HARD. Manipulate volume, intensity, and frequency of training in order to achieve the results you want. For instance, if you want to be strong, you need to lift heavy, meaning that your intensity will be somewhat high.

As a muscle is exposed to a sufficient level of hormetic stress through weight training, the muscle will begin to adapt creating beneficial changes that will allow the muscle to tolerate increased levels of subsequent similar stressors in the future. If an individual’s main goal is to make strength gains, it is imperative that the muscle is taxed sufficiently in two areas that are directly responsible for force production. 

When examining the amount of force production any given muscle is capable of producing, the two main existing factors are the number of muscle fibers available for recruitment and the neurological rate coding required for proper activation of the muscle fibers. It is common knowledge and easy for anyone to see that the bigger the muscle, i.e., increased muscle fiber size or hypertrophy of the muscle, equates to increased strength. 

However, the capability of the innervating eccentric motor nerve, i.e., the “on-switch” of the muscle, to generate compound muscle action potentials that will stimulate the contraction of the muscle fiber is often overlooked. By creating stronger neurological connections to the muscle, an individual can create an enhanced ability to generate increased force production from the muscle being targeted in training.

Hypertrophy of Muscle Fibers

A bigger muscle has the POTENTIAL to become stronger.  

The process of hypertrophy, which increases the size of the muscle fibers, happens with the physiological repair of small tears in the muscle fiber which occur resulting from the hormetic stress placed on the muscle during a strength training exercise. Many factors serve to influence and stimulate hypertrophy of the muscle fiber size. All other factors being equal, there is simply no way to decrease the time it takes for the small tears in the muscle to be repaired. This is a regular waxing and waning process of increasing growth as a factor of time. Over time, hypertrophy happens with the application of appropriate increasing levels of stress. 

As long as the muscle is not being overloaded and overstressed during training, it will make gradual hypertrophic increases in size directly proportional to the time invested. This process cannot be cheated. It can take many hours, days, and years of proper training and nutrition to create this muscle hypertrophy that most people seek to achieve through strength training. Whether an individual is an amateur or experienced professional, time must be invested equally in order to create this hypertrophy of the muscle fiber.              

Why does the Myth of “Beginner Gains” Exist?

But if there is no substitute for the factor of time, why does the myth of “beginner gains” exist? Often people notice that they can almost effortlessly make strength gains early on when beginning to weight train. Then after a few months, the rate at which these gains occur seems to diminish. Again, we must mention that many variables can cause a plateau or decrease in strength improvement. 

Improper nutrition or decreases in training intensity and variability are only a few possible reasons for this stagnation. If we assume that these factors are equal once again, we can then examine the relevance of the strength gains as a factor from neurological improvements which also occur as beneficial adaptations resultant from the hormetic stress of strength training. 

Above we briefly laid out the relevant factors that combine to generate the amount of force production for which a muscle is capable. While time is still a factor for these neurological improvements, as it was for the hypertrophy of the muscle, it is not a constant. It is possible for an individual who has never trained to forge stronger and novel neurological connections to muscles at an increased rate for a short initial duration comparatively to a time later. While the plasticity of the nervous system to continue to adapt to new stimuli maintains throughout time, it is often most impactful during the brief timeframe when the stimuli are still novel. 

As with most biological systems, as the duration of the stimuli is increased, the system begins to create a tolerance for the stimuli thereby diminishing the rate of change that occurs resultant to comparable levels of the same stimuli. This means that generally in the new or beginning stages of a stimulus there is a unique capability of the biological system, to which the stimulus is exposed, to have a rate of change that will be increased while the stimulus is still novel to the system. 

Busting the “Beginner Gains” Myth

As more time passes, the system will begin to adapt to the stimulus, and the rate of change imposed by the stimulus will, therefore, become somewhat diminished. This means that it is possible for an individual to quickly strengthen existing and create new neurological connections to the muscle that will serve to create increases in force production in the muscle in the beginning stages of strength training. While this ability will not completely subside, it will become somewhat decreased gradually with the passage of more time and adaptation to the stimulus. 

If we factor in this neurological aspect of strength, then the myth of “beginner gains” ceases to be a legend and becomes more a product of increased neurological efficiency. In other words, the more time you spend training, the better you will become. In return, your body will not be able to make as much “beginners’ gains” as before, which may deter newer lifters from continuing to put in hard work in training. Even though there is no substitute for time as a factor relative for strength gains, it can be possible under certain circumstances to accelerate increases in the muscle’s ability to generate force by focusing on the neurological adaptations over muscle fiber hypertrophy. This is a natural, unavoidable occurrence when any individual first begins a new strength training regimen, but it is also possible for experienced individuals to take advantage of this process as well. 

For the new individual, there is no intelligent thought needed to force this adaptation to occur. The experienced individual can, if planned appropriately through training variability, use this phenomenon to force continued improvement at the most efficient and optimized rate possible as well. 

In conclusion, there really is no myth of “beginner gains.” When you pull back the curtain of exercise physiology, you can reveal the simple explanation that has been hiding in plain sight all along. 

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