A Realistic Look at Progress: Fat Loss and Mass Gain

by Jordan Syatt August 5, 2011

I can’t help but notice that the majority of people are always looking for a quicker, faster, and easier way to make progress. It doesn’t matter if they’re on a diet and consistently losing fat or on a strength training routine and steadily getting stronger; they want drastic results and they want them now.

To be honest, who wouldn’t want instant gratification? Given the choice, how many of us would choose hard work and dedication if the same result could be achieved through easier and less time consuming methods?

It’s not a bad thing to want to find “the easy way out.” In fact, from an evolutionary perspective it makes complete and utter sense. Why spend time and energy on something that can be easily accomplished? Do you really think that, given the option, our ancestors would choose to hunt in the absolute worst weather conditions with nothing but a crappy handmade spear and risk getting mauled by a freakin mountain lion if they could hop in their new Audi A7, drive to the nearest steak house, enjoy a filet mignon grilled to sheer perfection, and top it all off with a massive slice of hot chocolate lava cake for dessert? Yea…I didn’t think so.

My point is everyone wants to make progress and, naturally, they want to achieve it as quickly and painlessly as possible.

In the fitness industry, this innate desire for instant and radical gains is compounded by supplement companies advertising “scientifically proven formulas guaranteed to produce the results you want in 72 hours or less!!!” While it would certainly be fantastic to drop $50 on a bottle filled with “instant gratification pills,” more often than not the supplement doesn’t work, you’ve made little to no progress, and worst of all you’re out $50 that would have been better spent on beer and Chex Mix…those pumpernickel chips are so damn tasty!

The fact of the matter is that in order to reach your ultimate goals, be it in fitness or anything else in life, you will need to dedicate a considerable amount of time, effort, and hard work to the process. That being said, knowing the amount of progress you can realistically make in a certain time frame can be of great benefit and aid in long-term success.

This article will briefly outline the necessities of effective fat loss and mass gain programs, and provide a realistic overview of how much progress one can expect to make over time.

Mass Gain

First let’s briefly cover the necessities of an effective mass gain program:

1) A Calorie Surplus

2)Sufficient Protein Intake

3)Adequate Training Stimulus For Muscle Growth

In a future article I will go into depth discussing each of the above mentioned necessities. In the meantime, the following summary will suffice:

1) A Calorie Surplus:

In order to build muscle you must provide your body with an adequate amount of energy (calories). If you aren’t eating more than your maintenance caloric intake (the amount of energy your body requires in order to remain weight stable) you simply cannot gain muscle.*

To determine an appropriate calorie intake to aid in muscle growth, multiply your body weight by 16-18 and you will get a general idea of how many calories you need to eat on a daily basis to effectively gain muscle mass.

To illustrate, let’s say we have a 185lb male:

185 x 16 = 2960kcal/day

On average, this guy should be eating about 3000kcal per day in order to promote muscle growth. Please note this is an example and by no means an absolute recommendation. That being said, for the general population it tends to work extremely well.

2) Sufficient Protein Intake

In addition to a calorie surplus, you must be consuming enough protein. To learn more about protein in detail be sure to read this article. In the meantime, a general recommendation of 1.5g/lb per pound of lean body mass should be plenty to support muscle growth.*

3) Adequate Training Stimulus For Muscle Growth

Additionally, if you want your muscles to grow you need to provide your body with an adequate training stimulus. An intelligently planned training routine focused on progressively overloading your muscles (lifting heavier weight) is absolutely essential.

*It’s worth noting the exceptions to these rules are rank beginners and “unnatural” trainees. Beginners and anabolic steroid users can experience muscle growth in sub-optimal conditions. However, beginners must be aware that their radical gains WILL eventually slow down, and sooner or later they will need to eat and train properly.

O.K. so we have a basic understanding of what’s necessary in order to build muscle and we know that a variety of individual factors such as genetics, age, and training status affect how quickly each person will see progress. Knowing all of this, how much muscle can you realistically expect to gain per year?

The McDonald Model and The Aragon Model

My personal favorite tables showing the maximal amount of muscle gain possible based on training status were created by Lyle McDonald and Alan Aragon. Below is a copy of each table and clearly depicts the yearly rate of muscle gain that an average, drug-free lifter with proper training and nutrition can expect.

Lyle’s Model:

Years of Proper Training Potential Rate of Muscle Gain per Year
1 20 – 25lbs
2 10 – 12lbs
3 5 – 6lbs
4+ 2 – 3lbs

Alan’s Model:

Category Rate of Muscle Gain
Beginner 1 – 1.5% total body weight per month
Intermediate 0.5 – 1% total body weight per month
Advanced 0.25 – 0.5% total body weight per month

As you can see, the rate of possible muscle gain significantly diminishes as training status improves. According to Lyle’s model, a male with 1 year of proper training may gain up to 20-25lbs of muscle in a year which roughly translates to 2lbs per month.  A trainee with 2 solid years of proper training might gain 10-12lbs of muscle in a year or 1lb per month. Compare these figures with the supplement companies promises of gaining “10lbs of muscle in 4 weeks!” and you’ll begin to understand why most supplements are bull shit.

Now I want to bring up a very important and commonly misunderstood aspect of training. You may or may not have noticed, but Lyle made it a point to label his first category “Years of Proper Training,” and not simply “Years of Training.” The use of the word “Proper” is extraordinarily important especially in the context of muscle gain.

While many people “work out” and go to the gym, the (sad) reality is that most people are utterly clueless as to what constitutes proper training and never progress passed a beginner level. For some odd reason, despite being weak and skinny-fat, a large number of  “bro’s”  consider themselves advanced after 7 years of following the same split of Back/Bi’s and Chest/Tri’s. Sorry to inform you, brah, but you’re an idiot.

The point I’m trying to make is that the majority of you reading this still have the capacity to see radical gains very quickly. If your nutrition is in check with an ample amount of protein and you’re following an intelligently programmed training routine with an emphasis on strength and compound movements, you have the potential to see pretty damn impressive results in a relatively short period of time.

Before I end this section on mass gain I want to clear up on more thing: As Lyle and Alan’s models show, a beginner trainee with proper training and nutrition can expect a gain of about 2lbs per month. However, the gains described are strictly in regard to muscle. As I briefly touched upon earlier, in order to gain mass you must be in some form of a calorie surplus meaning that some fat gain is inevitable.

Before you have a panic attack and decide you never want to follow a mass gaining program, this does not imply that you have to become morbidly obese. There are numerous strategies to limit how much fat you put on during a mass gain program, one of which I briefly outline below. To be honest, unless you’re an idiot with your diet or are intentionally trying to Get Fucking Huge (GFH, it’s a technical term…look it up), you can effectively gain muscle without becoming fat.

As a general recommendation, tracking and maintaining a 1:1 ratio of fat gain to muscle gain should significantly diminish any unnecessary fat gain. For example, if you’re a beginner and have the potential to gain 2lbs of muscle per month, a total monthly weight gain of about 4lbs would be ideal. Likewise, if you’re an intermediate trainee and can gain about 1lb of muscle per month, a total monthly weight gain of roughly 2lbs would be a good target.

Regardless of how hard you try to keep fat gain to a minimum, some fat will almost inevitably accompany muscle gain. That being said, assuming you don’t let yourself get out of control, losing excess fat from a successful mass gaining program shouldn’t take very long; 10-12 weeks on average depending on your starting body fat percentage. If you’re reluctant to go on a mass gain program because you’re concerned with slightly increasing your body fat percentage, you either need to reevaluate your goals or you have some deep-seated issues far beyond the scope of this article.

Fat Loss

So we have a good idea of what constitutes realistic progress in terms of muscle gain, but how much fat loss can realistically be accomplished without compromising strength and muscle mass or making life completely miserable?

Much of this information has been covered in detail in my article Back To The Basics: Creating An Effective Fat Loss Program, but some of it bears repeating here.

Three of the most important aspects of any fat loss program are:

1)      A Calorie Deficit

2)      Sufficient Protein Intake

3)      A Strength Training Program with Reduced Volume and Increased Intensity

1) A Calorie Deficit

If you’re not in some form of a calorie deficit, be it through nutrition, exercise, or a combination of the two, you will not lose fat.

2) Sufficient Protein Intake

In addition to proteins hunger blunting effect on satiety, if you’re not eating enough protein (at least 1g/lb per pound of lean body mass) I can say with utmost certainty that you will lose muscle mass…(which is exactly the opposite of what you want to do while dieting).

3) A Strength Training Program with Reduced Volume and Increased Intensity

When the goal is fat loss, maintaining muscle mass must be an absolute priority. By reducing total volume in the gym and increasing intensity* you will be providing your body the necessary stimulus in order to build/maintain muscle.

*Intensity: in the context of this article, intensity is referring to the total amount of weight being used in regard to your 1 repetition maximum (1RM). More weight = higher intensity, less weight = lower intensity.

For example, a training program with reduced volume and increased intensity should follow these general guidelines:

–          Weight train no more than 3-4x/week

–          Emphasize compound movements (i.e. Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Overhead Press)

–          For your main move, use maximal weights within your 4-8 repetition maximum (4-8RM)

–          Limit accessory work to 2-3 movements consisting of 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions

For a more detailed explanation of the necessary components in an effective fat loss program make sure you read this article.

How much!?!?

Before I start throwing out any numbers it’s important to understand the difference between fat loss and weight loss. At first glance the distinction might seem inconsequential, but upon closer inspection you’ll realize why understanding the difference between the two is necessary.

Weight: When you step on a scale the number displays your entire body weight. This includes everything: organs, muscles, bones, water, stomach content, and body fat are all being measured. Your weight is the sum total of everything you are composed of.

Fat: Fat is…well, it’s fat. The amount of fat a person carries depends on a variety of factors including age, gender, and genetics. An extremely lean male may have a total of 6% body fat meaning only 6% of his entire weight is fat tissue. On the other hand, a morbidly obese individual may have upwards of 40% body fat meaning 40% of his total weight is made up of fat tissue.

It’s imperative to understand the distinction between weight and fat because a bathroom scale only displays total weight.* Depending on your total body fat percentage, the early stages of a diet may show a weight loss of 5+ pounds in a single week. However, the majority of rapid weight loss experienced at the beginning of a diet has more to do with water loss and reduced stomach content than a significant drop in body fat. As time goes on progress will appear to stall as scale weight begins to drop at a slower pace, but this slower rate of progress generally means that the majority of weight being lost from that point forward is fat.

*I’ll note that some bathroom scales are capable of measuring body fat but they tend to be relatively inaccurate. However, if you have a scale that measures body fat feel free to use it as a reference.

O.K. so how much fat can you realistically expect to lose over a given time? To figure this out, we’re going to have to do some math:

The laws of physics state that in order to lose 1lb of body fat one must burn 3500 calories. Therefore, if a person were to create a daily caloric deficit of 500 calories they would roughly be losing 1lb of fat per week (-500 x 7 = -3500). Similarly, if a person created a daily caloric deficit of 1000 calories they would be losing about 2lbs of fat per week (-1000 x 7 = -7000).

So what does this mean for the average dieter? Can everybody expect a weekly fat loss of 1-2lbs? Well…it depends.

Generally speaking, a larger person will have a higher maintenance caloric intake than a smaller person which makes creating a calorie deficit significantly easier. To illustrate, let’s pretend we have two individuals, Bill and Pete: Bill’s naturally a large guy with a maintenance calorie intake of 3000kcal/day. Pete on the other hand is relatively small and has a maintenance calorie intake of only 1900kcal/day. In order for each man to lose 2lbs of fat per week, Bill and Pete would need to limit their daily intake to 2000 and 900 calories respectively. As you can see, even though both calorie deficits are technically equal, Pete’s diet of 900 calories per day is hardly sustainable.

On another note, it’s important to be aware that regardless of size, a relatively lean individual will lose fat at a slower rate than their fatter counterpart. Furthermore, as unfair as it may be, women naturally have a higher body fat percentage than men and tend to lose fat about half as quickly.

Everything taken into consideration, I have found that a weekly fat loss of anywhere between 0.25lbs (for extremely lean individuals) and 3.0lbs (for the obese dieter) is ideal. Keep in mind that these are simply recommendations and are by no means definitive. That being said, I have found a “moderate” fat loss of anywhere between 0.25lbs and 3.0lbs per week allows for consistent progress while maintaining muscle mass, in addition to the added benefit of having enough flexibility to remain sane throughout the entirety of the diet.

In an attempt to make things as clear as possible, below I have outlined a basic table describing the general guidelines recommended above. Please note these are simply guidelines and are not the end-all-be-all of fat loss.*

Body Type Amount of Fat Loss per Week
Lean 0.25lbs – 0.85lbs/week
Moderate 0.85lbs – 1.5lbs/week
Overweight 1.5lbs – 3.0lbs/week

*Women should note the guidelines above are for men; females may only be capable of losing fat half as quickly.

Wrapping Up

To be honest, this article was pretty damn long so I’ll spare you the witty concluding paragraph and leave you with one final thought:

I’m a huge fan of setting goals. Simply creating a list of specific and realistic goals is one of the easiest ways to promote consistent progress. However, when setting goals many people make the mistake of not educating themselves thoroughly enough to understand what is realistically achievable.

Before you start blindly chasing an ambition, be sure to educate yourself properly in order to come up with a realistic time frame and plan of action to achieve it.

Once you’ve done that, if you have the will… you’ll find a way.

Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.


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