What Happens After Your Newbie Gainz Stall (and when under-eating no longer works)
Written by: Coach Slater
When you first start at Derby City, it’s almost a guarantee to PR every time you step in the gym. In the first 8 months, you’re gaining muscle and losing body fat at a crazy pace. You’re exposing your body to new stimulus, learning new techniques every single day, and your body is physiologically adapting as a result. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of thinking that these gainz will continue in a linear fashion forever. You’re going to clean a gazillion pounds in six months, or you’re going to win the CrossFit Games in two years.
What’s happening in this newbie phase is called neurological adaptation, which means that you are causing a large number of neurons to fire rapidly in a more synchronized way, enabling you to rapidly lift heavier weights. So, your muscles aren’t necessarily growing yet, you’re just training your nervous system to create more efficient pathways. After your body begins to cement the neurological adaptations, then you’re able to push yourself harder and harder, triggering muscular adaptations, which is when muscles grow and get stronger. That’s why it’s important to focus on technique when just beginning, so you’re not neurologically adapted in poor positions. You want to give your body the ideal opportunity for future growth when those newbie gainz slow, to not create muscular imbalances by recruiting the wrong muscles in a particular movement.
So, when your typical neurological adaptations slow (aka, your newbie gainz stall), you begin to rely on muscular adaptations. This is the phase where discipline and dedication are needed, because you’re no longer setting new PR’s every time you walk in the gym. It “feels” like you’re flat-lining, but you’re not. You’ve just progressed to the next inevitable step in your training evolution. Now is when you need to find discipline to stay consistent with your workout frequency, nutrition, sleep, and stress reduction. Whereas you were once focused on achievement every time you first walked in the door… “first pullup, first bodyweight back squat, first snatch over whatever pounds”… you need to discipline yourself to focus on “progress” now. Achievement is so ingrained in our culture that we often ignore progress. But, you’re in this for the long haul, right? Now’s when you prove it with discipline and consistency. That’s what you do when you newbie gainz stall.
Ruining Your Newbie Gainz
Let’s go back to the beginner phase I mentioned earlier to talk about how you could be hurting your future progress by undereating. You can make gainz in that neurological adaptation / beginner phase while in a caloric deficit. You could come into Derby City, undereating because you think that’s what you have to do to maintain the body you want, while actually doing damage to yourself, and still make gainz. You could eat only 500 calories a day and still PR your back squat every week because your brain is just learning to do the movements efficiently. You haven’t really hit overload yet. But… when you finally do hit that point, you’re going to regress and you’re not going to like it. Now you’re under-recovered and going into a negative hormone state. Maybe you’re wondering why that awesomeness couldn’t last forever? Well, you have to adapt. What works today isn’t going to work next year.
This is the first time your body has done this kind of training, and your body doesn’t know any better than to adapt. Now the next bikini season rolls around and you think, “Well, 1,000 calories worked last year. Let’s do 800 calories this year.” But, you find that you can’t lose weight, or worse yet, you gain weight. Your body learned to create homeostasis at 1,000 calories, so there’s no longer a caloric deficit which will work. Your body is going to remember the stimulus that took you into adrenal fatigue and it’s not going to allow you to get there again. So, typically, you dig harder and add more volume via running or extra “cardio” outside of the gym, without fixing the real issue related to your recovery/nutrition. You’ve metabolically adapted to undereating and now you have to start from scratch to reteach your body how to eat and produce.
So, using this theoretical 1,000 calorie human, they can’t just start eating 2,200 calories tomorrow, like maybe they should have been doing the entire time. What if they’ve been eating 1,000 calories/daily for years now? Well, if they start eating 2,200 calories now, they’re going to gain weight incredibly quickly and lose trust in the process. Instead, they need to slowly adjust by gradually increasing calories, basically starting a metabolic repair program. Specifically, I suggest keeping your protein intake constant at around 0.8g/lb of bodyweight and adding 5-10% to your total carbs and total fats each week until you get to a “more reasonable” total number of macronutrients based on your lean muscle mass, body fat, and activity level. I like to suggest Carbs at 0.5g/lb of bodyweight for Off Days, 1.0g/lb for Easy Days where you’re moving slowly just trying to get loose for the day, and 1.5g/lb for Moderate Days at Derby City where you’re working hard, getting in a good sweat, etc… I typically hold beginners and intermediate athletes to “Moderate Days” and never progress to Heavy Days or something higher, because honestly, most people overestimate how hard they’re working.
Bringing It Home
To summarize, let me say that you needn’t be disappointed when those newbie gainz slow. It’s a natural part of your progress, and it marks the point in your fitness development where you need to learn discipline. Working out, eating right, and sleeping well should become a part of your daily regiment, just like brushing your teeth, showering, and going to work. I included “eating right” because you could be harming your future progress by messing up your nutrition during this beginner phase. In reality, I should have said “eating right” before anything else, because nutrition should be at the base of your fitness pyramid. It’s importance can’t be overstated. If your newbie gainz stall completely, the answer is always the same: you’re not eating enough, and you’re not recovering. Recovery is made possible by food and sleep. Set yourself on a path for future success.
“Predicting metabolic adaptation, body weight change, and energy intake in humans”, Hall, Kevin.
“Changes in Energy Expenditure with Weight Gain and Weight Loss in Humans”, Muller, MJ.
“The Truth About Metabolic Damage”, Teta, Dr. Jade.