Leonard Cohen had worked for 5 years and filled multiple notebooks with lyrics before finalizing his version of the song “Hallelujah”.
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band spent 6 months straight in the studio working on just one song – “Born To Run”.
Bob Dylan claims that he wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin” in about 15 minutes.
All three of these songs are considered masterworks of the pop/folk/rock cannon. And while they are pretty different, it would be hard to objectively say that one is better than the other.
I very often get asked the question, “how long will it take before I see results?”
And just like the examples above, it’s hard to put a finger on a definitive answer. People are somewhat like songs in that there is a pretty set structure and list of ‘rules’ that apply (music theory, human biology) but within those rules there is enough variation to influence the outcome.
Mozart sounds about as much like Drake as I look like Mila Kunis – but, technically, these both describe music and people, respectively.
But with those caveats aside, there are some things that can predict how quickly you can get to your strength, work capacity and body composition goals.
The biggest factor is how far away you are from your goal. Losing 80 pounds will almost always take more time than losing 8 pounds. Cutting 4 minutes off your marathon time will likely take less time than cutting 40 minutes off. However there is a big exception to this “rule”. Which leads us to factor number 2.
Your training age describes the amount of time you’ve been training in a specific way. When it comes to lifting weights I have a training age of over 30 years. When it comes to distance running I have a training age of zero because it’s just not something I do. And because of this – and this may seem counterintuitive to some of you – my ability to make progress in lifting weights is going to be much slower than it would be if I started distance running.
Hell, if I started putting in the time I am sure I could see my running paces decrease by minutes per mile pretty quickly. Because my starting point is so bleak. Making the equivalent strength gains (say, add 20kg to my squat) would be a huge mountain to climb because I just don’t have as much potential left. I’ve trained it for so long that, unless I change something dramatic, I don’t have that great an upside potential.
And this is where that aforementioned exception comes in. Having an elite marathon runner take 4 minutes off her marathon time is a massive undertaking. However for someone like me to take 40 minutes off of my terrible marathon time from race one to race two probably wouldn’t be that hard because both times would be pretty terrible.
In other words, it’s all about context.
The third thing to consider would be biological age – the older you are the more difficult it is to make progress (again, with all other factors being equal). A 14 year old boy going through the thick of puberty will have a much easier time adding muscle than a 50 year old man.
While I don’t like to rely on them as an excuse, genetics most definitely play a role in progress as well. Some people have a greater propensity for putting on muscle mass. Others can shed body fat pretty easily. Simplest way to see this at work is watching an NBA game. Being 6’10” tall with long arms is not accomplished from training – it’s something you must be born with. Other fitness factors aren’t as obvious but they do exist.
Finally there is the bucket of what I like to call “x factors”. Lifestyle issues such as sleep and stress management. Use of drugs, alcohol and medications. Social support and psychological factors. Following a sensible training and nutrition program. The nice thing about these are that they are more in your control and you can affect them quickly.
Drinking 3 bottles of wine per week? Cut that intake in half.
In a relationship with someone who doesn’t support your health and fitness goals? Consider moving on.
Are you just walking into the gym and going through the motions rather than really engaging in your training? Find an environment that inspires and pushes you.
Can you expect to lose 1-2 pounds per week if you are following a solid nutrition and training plan? Sure. Should you be adding a few kilos to your deadlift training phase over training phase? Yes. But up to a point.
You will ultimately get to a level where the results are not so linear. And that is when truly controlling the factors that are in your control become super important.
So are you closer to Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan? I have no idea. And, as you can see from all the factors above, your ratio of time to progress is going to change as you accrue training experience and age.
The only thing I can say for sure is that creating a masterpiece is a lot more involved than most people give it credit for.