What can you actually achieve in 4 weeks?
“4 weeks to massive muscle program!”
“Gain 10 lbs of muscle in 4 weeks!”
“Get lean in 4 weeks”
“How to lose 20 lbs in one month!”
These are all genuine headlines I’ve pulled from fitness magazines and a quick Google. I think we’re all familiar with the style: a quite big number (lbs of fat or muscle) followed by a small number (time to achieve goal).
As you can see from above the time element is often quoted in weeks, namely around 4, although you’ll no doubt be accustomed to seeing 6, 8 or 10 week programs as well.
It’s the perfect attention-grabbing formula designed to attract either the non-exerciser or the occasional dabbler in fitness: a desirably measurable goal attainable in a measurable (and importantly, short) time-frame.
I’m not actually going to go into whether these claims are legitimate or not. Instead I’m going to approach it from the other side and explain what I think is possible in 4 weeks, from a muscle-building or fat-loss perspective.
This is just my opinion formed through having spent a lot of time training, training with others and training others. You could say I’ve been evaluating my 4 week results month after month for pretty much ten years.
Before we get into that though let’s look at what is accepted as biologically possible.
What does the science say?
When you look into the studies, the general consensus is that the maximum rate of muscle growth is approximately as follows, for the average natural trainee:
- Men: Between 0.25 to 0.5 pounds of muscle per week (equating to 1-2 lbs per month)
- Women: Between 0.12-0.25 pounds of muscle per week (equating to 0.5-1 lb per month)
Please note that this is the MAXIMUM, for the average (i.e. not genetically gifted) trainee. But it means that muscle-building conditions need to be optimum, which means intense and efficient workouts, 8 hours of sleep every night, optimum nutrition, active recovery etc.
i.e. what you’re probably not doing on a monthly or even weekly basis.
Fat loss is a bit different, because you evidently can just stop eating and you’ll easily shed 10 lbs in a week. To that end there’s not really a maximum rate of fat loss but rather a number that we should aim for to lose weight safely.
Safely means in a manner that allows the body to still be sufficiently fed to continue to operate its necessary bodily functions. It also means losing fat whist preserving as much muscle tissue as possible, and essentially easing the body into a state where it is comfortable at a lower bodyfat and weight.
If we take an average person again, the recommended safe rate is usually prescribed at 1-2 lbs per week, or 4-8 lbs per month.
Related article: How much muscle can you gain naturally?
So what should you realistically expect?
From my own experience I would agree with the numbers above. Although early in my training career I really did believe the adverts when I look back over my training diaries it basically holds true.
There were plenty of times the scale said I had put on 10 lbs in a month. But that definitely wasn’t all lean muscle. Some of that is even likely to have been water weight, which can actually cause your weight to fluctuate by several lbs throughout the day.
If we’re talking lean, actual muscle then 1-2 lbs per month sounds correct, IF you’re doing everything right.
It’s not quite as attention-grabbing as 10 lbs now is it?
However there are 3 important factors that can result in a different outcome for you.
Age, training experience and genetics
Age: The number quoted above are for adults in the prime of their physical lives (let’s say 25-35). If you’re older than this then you can expect to gain less muscle and find sustainable fat loss harder, increasingly so as you age.
This is due to your testosterone levels naturally decreasing. To put it bluntly, if you train hard your whole life you will definitely NOT be more muscular at 40 than you are at 30, unless you start artificially propping up your decreasing test levels.
If you’re younger than 25 however then it is possible you could exceed these numbers, especially for boys/men, during the ‘broadening’ process that occurs after your height growth spurt from ages 18 to 25.
This is a real ‘sweet spot’ for training and muscle growth: it’s literally the ONLY time in your life where you could legitimately gain 20 lbs of real muscle in a year (without taking steroids of course).
Does that equate to anything near 10 lbs a month? Of course not, but then again, I’m not trying to sell you tickets to Never-Never land.
Training experience: The second important factor is your training level.
Beginners can look forward to seeing pretty drastic changes in the first few months of proper training, because the body is receiving a stimulus it’s never had before. Could you put on more than 2 lbs of lean muscle or safely lose more than 8 lbs of fat in a month? You definitely can, with application and effort.
However in my experience the potential of these early gains will probably be negated by the fact that as a new trainer you will still be learning the ropes and therefore not be able to train as effectively as a seasoned exerciser.
So you might still find it difficult to top the average numbers. You should still enjoy it though, because it only gets harder as you get more experienced.
If you’re advanced (5+ years or hard training) and natural you can basically forget about the 1-2 lbs per month muscle gain rule: the chances of me having gaining 12-24 lbs of muscles a year from now are longer than me becoming an astronaut by then, no matter how hard I train.
Genetics: As always, the final word come down to genetics.
Let’s make sure we have the perspective here: 12-24 lbs of lean muscle gain or 36-96 lbs of fat loss in a year is absolutely massive.
If you’re someone who is naturally thin or naturally on the bigger side don’t look at these numbers as a target, just be aware that they are what is considered biologically possible, under artificially optimised (but not enhanced) conditions.
Even if you consider yourself an ‘average’ person you will still likely not achieve these numbers.
Alternatively you could be genetically gifted, in which case you might find these numbers achievable or even surpassable.
However I very much doubt anyone has the natural genetic gifts to put on 10 lbs of real muscle when the rest of us average joe’s are busting a gut to very likely fail to achieve even 2.
As per usual, someone’s story doesn’t add up.
Related article: Blame your parents
I personally don’t think you should be aiming for x amount of muscle gain per month or x lbs of fat loss per week. That sort of thing can lead to obsessiveness as well as creating a potentially demoralising success/failure mindset dependant on some arbitrary numbers.
Fitness results shouldn’t be measured in months, weeks, years, lbs or kgs. You get sustainable results by living a fitness lifestyle, which in turn makes you feel confident and empowered. If you enjoy the process then you will eventually build that muscle or lose that weight, but it won’t fall within a 4 week, or a 6 or 8 week window.
When it’s your lifestyle, you don’t need a calendar.