We all want to get stronger but there’s a difference between feeling and looking more powerful. The questions is: which comes first?
Everyone trains for a reason and for the majority of us, it’s to feel more powerful, perform better and to score some serious physical gains. Although strength looks and feels different for everyone, the question still stands: Which comes first – feeling or looking stronger?
First off, let’s be absolutely clear: there is no one way to look or feel when it comes to fitness. What one person considers feeling or looking strong may not be the same as the next, and there’s no right or wrong way to feel about your own body. Saying that, strength training is a physical activity and therefore, it’s natural to aim for a change in the way our bodies move and look if we stick to a plan. But do those mental and physical changes happen at the same time or does one happen before the other?
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A few years ago, I took part in a four-month bodybuilding challenge. The aim was to build more lean muscle mass which would enable me to lift heavier, run faster and look stronger. But as well as all the physical effects, the programme was also set on improving my mood, sleep and body image. I was told then that it would take eight weeks to feel different and 12 weeks to look different. Within a few weeks of eating more, prioritising recovery and focussing on getting eight hours sleep, I was already feeling different – proving that there’s so much more that goes into gains than simply lifting heavy. By the end of the 16 weeks, I definitely looked stronger but more importantly, my goals had become long-term plans to move better for life.
While it’s “totally normal for us to want a timeline to work towards,” according to Laura Hoggins, author, legend and PT at The Foundry, our rate of progress depends on so many things. The only certainty is that “anyone who tries to tell you that developing strength or changing your body composition is a quick fix is probably unqualified or trying to sell you a diet tea bag!”
Laura says that if you’re just getting started, you could expect to feel the benefits in a matter of days. “Lifting weights is so empowering and you will be telling all your mates about your deadlift PB for years to come!” And Sammy Harper, founder and head trainer of We Are Team Blitz, agrees: “From the moment that you make the decision to follow a workout programme, you’ve created action by deciding to try something new – and that in itself should make you feel stronger. Strength training is proven to boost our mood, increase our self-esteem and improve our overall wellbeing. From your very first session, you should feel more positive, motivated and stronger in knowing you’re working towards a better you.”
It’s worth saying that whatever stage you’re at on your strength training journey, training can be empowering. Sammy recommends “simply taking the time to reflect on your journey,” if you want to chart your progress. “Often we don’t realise how much stronger we feel (physically and mentally) until we look back and think about how far we’ve come.”
On a more practical basis, a few weeks of strength training is all it takes to notice changes if you’re at the start of your journey. You may notice increased confidence in how you move, reps start to feel smoother and you might find that you’re moving from modifications to progressions quicker. Constant training for a month, for example, might see you going from a half burpee to a full one. If you’re a runner who has just started strength training, you might start to notice that you’re running your tempo sessions quicker and easier in a matter of weeks.
“In the first few weeks of strength training people tend to feel stronger as even though muscles may not have grown, the brain responds to the new hobby by recruiting more pre-existing muscle fibers to help lift more weight. The muscles were always there, you just never asked them to do this much work,” explains Cory Wharton-Malcolm, CEO of TrackMafia and Head Coach of Nike Running. “Signs of getting stronger can vary from being able to lift a heavier weight, doing more reps of a strength exercise and feeling more comfortable during or recovering more quickly. Signs of getting stronger can also be felt in day-to-day life from picking up shopping to playing with your kids or quite simply moving your own body.”
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If you’re new to strength training, you’ll go through a period of general physical preparedness (GPP) for the first 6-12 months of working out. It’s during that time that you may experience what Laura calls “newbie gains” – learning the movement patterns, unlocking your current potential, and developing strength and stability. “If you have a particularly ‘sporty’ background, you may find that you already have a strong foundation to work with, and all of this has to be taken into account when considering when your new training might prompt change and progress.”
Of course, aesthetics and performance potential are only two parts of a bigger fitness puzzle. Laura says that we’ve got to look at our lifestyles in a more holistic fashion if we want to prime our bodies to reap results. “You could train as many times as you want and still not see results – you’d probably just knacker yourself out!”
Other factors that feed into progress include:
“It takes around 6-8 weeks for people to look stronger after following a plan, but this can vary due to how much sleep and rest you’re getting, the food you’re eating and of course genetics,” explains Cory. Sammy agrees with Laura that in fitness, there is no “quick-fix”. She tells her Blitz members that by following a well-structured, consistent training programme, they can expect to notice results in as little as six weeks. However, she stresses that it’s always more important to focus on how you feel rather than how you look. “Often we get so caught up in seeing results that we often stop ourselves from enjoying the process. Following a workout programme should be enjoyable, sustainable and something that you look forward to. I guarantee that the more you enjoy your training, the more likely you are to keep turning up and give 100% to every session, and without you even realising, the results will come.”
Laura says that “training age” is a big factor in how quickly we can see progress. “Some more advanced lifters find it extremely tough to make progress and can hit several plateaus as they work towards tiny and meaningful progressions.” The aesthetic change, however, “may take a little longer depending on your goals”. She reminds us that our bodies become the result of what we do most often so if you skip the odd workout, it’s not the end of the world. “Enjoy the progress as it comes, don’t compare to others, remember it is not linear and don’t forget to check how far you have come! Go strong and take your time!”
So what kinds of physical changes can we look forward to? Well, it depends on how you train and what your body is like. Ideally, you want to focus on strengthening up the entire body rather than honing in on just one area, which is why lots of training programmes focus on compound movements like squats, deadlifts and lunges which help to build a solid foundation while strengthening multiple key areas.
UNDERSTANDING WHAT GOALS MEAN
There are different kinds of physical gains but perhaps the one most of us are concerned with (and arguably a mentally and physically healthier one to go for) is building lean muscle mass. That’s what we want to increase when we’re squatting and lifting heavy. If your goal is to increase your amount of lean muscle mass, you’ve got to find the right balance between nutrition and resistance or strength training. Laura explains that it’s a balancing act between working out and eating well, “with a particular focus on getting enough protein to support lean muscle development. For some, that’s a tough balance to find.” That may mean eating more food to really fuel recovery and growth.
To throw another spanner in the works, Laura flags that “developing pure maximal strength doesn’t necessarily lead to muscle size, especially for us women. It is very challenging given our lower testosterone levels.” It all depends on your training experience and particular goals. Lifting heavy probably won’t change your body – only doing a high volume of strength training and eating a regular calorie surplus that focuses on protein can actually make you “bigger” (i.e more muscly).
TRAINING FOR LIFE
“The incredible thing about strength training is that is really is for life,” says Laura. Unless you’re an Olympic Athlete in training, “there really is no end goal and as we learn and grow, we may find our lifestyle, experience and goals evolve.”
We might start of hoping to build cut-glass abs or bubble glutes but after a while, don’t be surprised if those goals change and develop more toward performance. Neither is wrong but it is often the case that the more you enjoy doing that workout for the sake of improving, the more likely it is that your goals become fitness – rather than aesthetics –based.
A large part of getting stronger is to be functionally fit. That means being able to carry your own luggage through an airport, lifting heavy boxes when you move house, carrying your bike above your shoulders when you get locked in a park (it happens!). And undoubtedly, getting stronger is a mental challenge too; we need to be able to translate the resilience we build in the gym to everyday situations at work, in our relationships and home lives. “It’s a lot harder to get strong than it is to maintain the strength once you’ve got it,” Cory says, explaining that once you’ve built a standard of fitness, the way to keep it is to:
- Train consistently and follow a plan
- Keep your form tight to avoid injury
- Prioritise resting and recovering
- Make sure that you are enjoying training
- Embrace body weight exercises
- Lift heavy things – not just weights
4 TIPS FOR STAYING STRONG
Let’s be real for a moment: sometimes we just don’t feel like working out. That’s OK – motivation isn’t always going to be there every day but as Laura pointed out earlier, it’s about having sustainable habits that eventually do help us to make a change. One missed workout here or there won’t make a difference.
Once you start to notice a difference in how you feel, you’re going to find that it’s a lot easier to commit to the process. To get to that point, however, you’re going to have to stick with whatever programme or routine you’ve decided on for at least two months. After that, it’s up to you how far you want to push it. In the meantime, here are four simple tips for staying strong once you’ve started
- Find an accountability buddy. Pick a mate, parent, partner or work colleague to talk to about your goals, progress and plans. That outsourcing of commitment and encouragement can be really useful for staying on track when the going gets tough. Sign up to the SWTC Facebook page to find lots of potential buddies.
- Keep a diary. Sammy suggests writing down all the dates, times and places that you intend to train for the week on a Sunday, making the entries as specific as possible. “There’s no room for ambiguity when it comes to your goals – be specific. It’s proven that if you write down your goals for the week, you’ll have a 42% greater chance of achieving them.”
- Believe in yourself. It might sound obvious but how often do we doubt that we can do hard things? Be kind to yourself – take rest days when you need them and acknowledge when you’ve lifted heavier, lasted longer or moved better than before.
- Join an online community. Laura is one of the brilliant trainers at Foundry Fit, while Sammy runs live Zoom workouts for her members (both of which are offering free online trials at the moment). Here at SWTC, we have training plans, a Facebook community, workout videos and more to keep you committed and connected. Remember, there’s strength in numbers.
Develop a stronger upper body with this bicep and shoulder-blasting compound move.
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.