“I saw great results in just 6 weeks!” “My strength doubled in just 3 months!” These are common phrases I hear people utter when they begin a strength-training program. This leads to 1) the trainee thinking they are “special” and 2) the trainer thinking they are a programming genius. Both conclusions, while not completely false, are far from accurate. The truth is the trainee is enjoying what I like to call the “honeymoon” period of strength gains. This happens once in a blue moon and will likely never happen again. Understanding why this happens will help you do two things: understand and not be discouraged by smaller gains in strength after the first year and help figure out if the program you’re following is long-term strength program.
There are 4 reasons you strength jumps rather quickly when you start a strength-training program.
INCREASE IN INTERMUSULAR COORDINATION
This stage occurs during the first 2-3 weeks of training. Intermuscular coordination is the process by which large and small muscle groups learn to work together in synergy. For example, when you do a pull-up many people focus on puling with their arms. However, muscles on the back on the primary movers for pull-ups. Knowing how to activate your back muscles, along with your arm muscles, will help you perform the exercise correctly. This is part of the neural pathway that enables your brain to tell your muscles to work together. The reason good programs have you repeat the same movements over and over is to enhance this neural connection to your muscles. The more signals you can send the harder the muscles can work together.
INCREASE IN INTRAMUSCULAR COORDIATION
Similar to intermuscular coordination, intramuscular coordination is the enhancement of muscle fibers working together within a single muscle. This process takes an additional 4-6 weeks after you’ve established intermuscular coordination. Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous “thinking” about a muscle group as he trained it in order to make sure every muscle fiber was stimulated during an exercise. Decades later, research proved him correct. The more you think about a muscle group when you train it the more activation within the muscle belly occurs. More muscles worked, the more weight you can move.
INCREASE IN MUSCLE HYPERTROHPY
Once you’ve begun firing all of your muscle correctly you will, finally, begin the first stages of muscle hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth). This process can last from 6 to 12 weeks depending on training regimen, diet, genetics, sex, etc. Specifically, size of the actin and myosin (the cross sectional parts of a muscle fiber) grow and as they grow they can handle more weight. The only way to continue increasing their size is to gradually increase the load placed on the muscle fibers. Good programs will have you gradually increase the weight you use versus drastic jumps.
Finally, we hit a plateau. Most people hit this point between 7-12 months (some up to 2 years if extremely weak). This is when most people become frustrated with a program, abandon it, and move onto something completely new. Jumping from program to program is arguably the biggest and most common mistake people do when it comes to strength training. That is not to say the program you were following would’ve continued to work but there are 2 important factors to consider before moving on. First, did your strength stop increasing because of structural/functional issues? In other words, were you performing the movements correctly? Were you undertraining? Overtraining? This is where it pays to have a good trainer who knows how to design good programs. Second, did you hit a plateau due to nutrient deficiencies? Are you eating enough protein? Carbohydrates? Getting enough sleep? Again, this is where is pays to have a good nutrition coach to help you dissect your diet and figure out where changes need to be made for more growth.
STAY FIT MY FRIENDS!