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What to Expect When You Start Lifting Weights

Some people come to strength training as a way to firm up after losing weight. Some dream of getting “ripped” with six-pack abs and bulging biceps. Some people want to lose 50 pounds while others hope to gain 20.

Every body is different, and many variables come into play as you work toward your goals. So it’s good to know how regular strength training changes your body, especially when it is part of an overall fitness routine.

1-2 months

The first thing someone new to weight training will notice is an increase in strength. Normal activities like carrying a heavy package up stairs or doing yard work will feel less taxing. And yes, that classic strength test of “opening the hard-to-open jar” will involve less effort too.

What’s happening: Your nervous system is adapting to your body engaging in more forceful actions by building stronger links to your muscles. This is a kind of  “muscle memory” that stays with you. Your body is learning to be strong, even before your muscles actually increase in size.

Remember: With training you are pushing your muscles to work harder, and with that extra use they are stretching and tearing. The soreness you feel a day or two later is the muscle repairing itself, which is how it begins to grow. But don’t overdo it!

“You can achieve a lot without pushing your body to its maximum,” says Robert Townsend, Tennessee State Director for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.  “You don’t need to push yourself so hard that you can’t lift your arms to wash your hair, or you groan at the effort of simply lowering your body onto a chair.”

3-4 months

Your body will likely look more toned, but only if you are sticking to a healthy diet and including aerobic exercise in your workout routine.

The formula for losing fat and gaining muscle requires all three:

  • Weight lost by dieting alone includes some percentage of muscle loss.
  • Throw cardio in with the dieting and you get less muscle loss and more fat loss.
  • Now add strength training and the bulk of weight loss comes from fat.

That’s why this is often the point when you hear somebody marvel that “the pounds just started coming off.”

What’s happening: You are changing your metabolism by building muscle. Your body expends more energy maintaining muscle than fat. As lean muscle mass increases, you burn more calories — even when you aren’t moving.

Remember: Consistency is key. You should be strength training two to three times a week, eating a nutritious diet with healthy portions and doing aerobic exercises regularly as well. Your appetite may increase with exercise, so if your goal is weight loss, be aware of what you are eating and how much. An apple with some almond butter will satisfy your hunger; a single slice of pizza probably won’t.

6 months+

At this point, your workout and diet habits have taken hold. The changes will be obvious to you and others, even if you have not reached your ultimate goal. Beyond physical appearance, some important invisible transformations are also occurring.

  1. Bone density is increasing, lowering the risk of osteoporosis.
  2. Your blood sugar may be lower, decreasing your risk for diabetes and high blood pressure.
  3. The production of serotonin goes up, which could help you feel less anxious or irritable.
  4. You sleep better, too.

What’s happening: Strength training stimulates neural mechanisms related to positive feelings. You have more oxygen going to the brain, which is also related to good moods. You are on a path of improvement that you can see and feel, and that inspires you to keep going.

Remember: To continue to see progress, you must increase the weight you lift or the repetitions you do. For maintenance, do strength training twice a week. And mix it up.

“You need variety in your exercise selection as well as the weights you are using,” says Townsend. “Change what you do from month to month so that you are performing different kinds of movements that stress the body differently. If you stick with the same routine, your progress will slow as your body adapts to the movements. And changing eliminates mental boredom with workouts, which is one of the main reasons people quit.”

A healthier you

As your body goes through all these changes, so does your attitude. Instead of dreading exercise, you might dread missing a workout. You might crave steak and broccoli over fried chicken and mashed potatoes. It’s not unusual to indulge in favorite foods, or get distracted and miss some workouts — but when that happens all you need to do is get back on track. In fact, you will likely find the motivation to reset within yourself. If you don’t exercise, you may feel cranky, and if you eat too much fried chicken, you may feel uncomfortably bloated.

“When you start putting all the pieces of the health puzzle together, you move toward making better health decisions,” Townsend says. “It’s a form of mental discipline that’s almost subconscious, to keep yourself feeling good.”

For tips on getting a great workout at home, click here.

Nancy Henderson

Nancy Henderson

Nancy Henderson, a writer and editor originally from New York, moved to Nashville more than 25 years ago and considers herself more Tennessean than Yankee these days. As Editor at Parthenon Publishing since 2005, she has written about health care and wellness for a variety of publications.

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