Truth About Strength Gains and Muscular Hypertrophy

What is the Truth About Strength Gains and Muscular Hypertrophy?

On average, how much strength and fat free body mass do men and women gain from resistance training?
How would you know if you were responsive to training or a “hard-gainer”?

Having been fed by the spin of the media and the “muscle industry” that depicts outcomes for a few exceptional people, most of us have no idea what outcomes to expect from resistance training.

If you read and believe the hype on many online sites or in any of the so-called “fitness” magazines you will quickly conclude the following:

Even after you’ve been training for a long while, you should still be able to expect to at least double your strength and add 20 or more pounds of fat free (“lean”) body mass. Further, you should expect to achieve these astounding gains quickly.
But, what do the data actually tell us?

I recently researched this question. I examined studies that used previously untrained adults as subjects, studies with younger adults and studies with older adults. I also looked at a database that I had helped another researcher develop. It chronicled outcomes from resistance training for men and women in different age groups.

What I found is consistent with background provided by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) but hardly noted by the ACSM itself.1 It is certainly not promoted by other groups such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and never by the “muscle industry”.

The average gain in strength after six months of training for previously untrained men and women is about 35%. Some studies show somewhat less and some show somewhat more.

After six months or less, however, strength gains slow appreciably. Training for many more months or even years, may only yield an additional 10% more strength for the average person. Some people will not gain any more strength beyond their initial gains likely because of genetic and/or motivational factors.

The average gain in fat free mass is more striking. After six months of consistent resistance training, previously untrained younger men and women on average gain about five pounds of fat free mass. Previously untrained older men and women tend to gain less fat free mass than younger men and women. Minimal additional fat free mass is gained beyond six months even when the subjects continue to train.

These data suggest that while many people can benefit from training, their ability to make continual, large gains in strength over time is rare. Their ability to adapt to resistance training by adding a great deal of muscle mass is even rarer.

So, does that mean that resistance training over a lifetime is a futile activity? The simple answer is NO!

Even in the absence of substantially increasing strength or adding a good deal of muscle mass, there are many other health benefits of resistance training. In addition, even small increments in strength can make many tasks of daily living easier.

If you get stronger, add some muscle mass, and most importantly lose some body fat, you can greatly improve your appearance and your health.

Take a couple of minutes to reflect on these data.

Many of us over the years likely have used people at the very far end of responsiveness to gauge our success. Relative to champion lifters and bodybuilders, our strength and muscle mass may seem puny. For those of us who started training at a young age, it also is hard to know how much of our strength and muscle mass gains years ago where attributable to training and how much were attributable to maturation.

If you started training as a mature adult, you may be able to estimate how much strength and muscle mass you’ve gained. If you started training earlier, you can develop a rough estimate of how much muscle mass you’ve gained by comparing yourself to a same sex parent. Consider where your body composition is today relative to the same sex parent at your age right now. For example, if you’re 40 or 50, now, what do you estimate your same-sex parent’s body composition was at 40 or 50? How different are you?

If you’re reading this piece, it’s likely you are not a top-level lifter or bodybuilder. You may have thought that your results from resistance training were limited and that you were a “hard-gainer”. But, consider that the average is about a 35-45% increase in strength and about a 5-6 lb gain in fat free mass over a training career.

You may be surprised and delighted when you calculate or estimate how much strength and muscle mass you’ve gained and then compare your figures to these average strength and muscle mass gains. You may be more responsive to training than you believed. You also may look at yourself differently and appreciate even more what you have accomplished.

1. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2005

Leave a comment

Leave a Comment