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How Long Does It Take to Get in Shape?

Whatever the answer, I will not give up tortilla chips

Without question, Bryan Keyes was one of my favorite personal training clients. Our introduction and contract signing was as straightforward as a client-trainer interaction has ever been. While I was filling in for 15 minutes at the front desk of the Bally Total Fitness Executive Club, Bryan walked through the front door of the club and straight up to the desk. “Hi, I’m looking for a personal trainer,” he announced.

“I’m a personal trainer,” I told him.

“Great,” he responded, giving me a once over, “I’d like to hire you.”

Boom. Done. Contract signed.

As remarkably simple as that exchange was, the heart of what Bryan was hoping to accomplish during his training time was a far more ephemeral concept to latch onto. “My dad is a member here, and he wants me to get in better shape,” continued Brian.

“I can help with that,” I assured him. “But what does ‘getting in better shape’ mean to you? Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to build muscle?”

Brian just kind of smirked and shrugged. “All of that would be great,” he answered back. “It would just be helpful for me to do something. Any improvement would be good.”

I’ll say this: Brian was absolutely delightful to talk to, and he taught me more about music (I’d sadly never listened to a single Zeppelin, Stones or AC/DC album before meeting him) than anyone else ever has in my life. However, he made my job as a trainer far too easy, because all I had to do to claim success was to inch him somewhat closer to an ill-defined, amorphous concept of “shape” without ever having him define what that meant from his perspective.

Well, what exactly does it mean to be in shape?

The definition of what it means to be in shape varies from activity to activity and from person to person depending on what the individual’s goals are. If someone wants to get in shape to run a marathon, merely being in 5K shape isn’t going to cut it. If someone wants to secure a spot on the Mr. Olympia stage, merely being in the sensational shape required to win the event’s classic physique competition won’t come close to getting it done.

Setting aside those somewhat extreme examples for the time being, if we think of the construct of being in shape relative to what an average man considers being in shape, maybe we can come up with a working definition. The average American man stands about 5-foot-9 and weighs 198 pounds. If we take a man that already matches this description who performs exercises at a level commensurate with the average man, and we try to figure out how long it would take them to reach the fitness level of the average physically fit man in several oft-cited categories — e.g., cardiovascular fitness, strength level and healthy weight — we should have a metric that serves our purposes.

That sounds pretty well-reasoned. So what specific fitness-measurement tools did you have in mind? 

Let’s start with the measurement of conditioning. An average noncompetitive runner who is considered to be in shape can run one mile in nine to 10 minutes, while an average man with no experience running will typically cover that same distance in 12 to 15 minutes. Elite runners generally say they don’t fully begin to feel the benefits of their workouts until 10 days after the initial training takes place, whereas novice runners usually don’t feel the clear benefits of their workouts for up to four weeks. 

This is an important time to make a distinction between the fat-burning benefits of a workout and its performance-boosting benefits. There’s no mistaking the fact that a one-hour run requires an hour’s worth of caloric fuel. But the burning of those calories doesn’t have a great deal to do with elevating your conditioning to a higher plane. Remember, walking at a snail’s pace for 12 miles will burn plenty of calories for you, but it won’t upgrade your VO2 max, build beneficial muscle fibers or otherwise enhance your body in a way that will boost its capacity for cardiovascular performance.

Taking all of this into consideration, it’s a safe bet that a person of average size training regularly with the intent to improve their conditioning — three to four times a week — will safely place themself into the above-average class of runners in roughly two to three months’ time.

How about if I want to get in above-average muscular shape?

It’s been scientifically proven that a person exercising diligently can gain three to four pounds of muscle in a month if they’ve never trained before. On average, the distance between the bench-pressing peak of an untrained man and the maximum bench-pressing number of an intermediate lifter is a weight increase of around 50 percent. If someone new to lifting can reconstitute their body composition by replacing body fat with muscle mass, they could remain the same weight while adding about seven pounds of productive muscle mass to their bodies in two month, and theoretically transition from the ranks of the untrained to the ranks of the intermediate.

Studies have demonstrated that most of the strength gains enjoyed by previously untrained individuals during the first four to eight weeks of training are primarily neurological, and that these guys can expect to achieve strength gains in the vicinity of 40 percent over that time. This two-month power increase almost perfectly covers the spread between the benching number of the average untrained lifter and the average trained lifter.

It’s starting to sound like two to three months is the answer here. But what if I have weight to lose? How long will it take to lose that?

Different guys are carting around different quantities of mass, but again, the average weight of an American man over the age of 20 is around 198 pounds. Meanwhile, the range of ceilings provided for the healthy weights of men taller than 5-foot-8 in most age groups is between 170 and 185 pounds. 

Depending upon the amount of muscle a man carries, the definition of a healthy weight can vary drastically. However, let’s presume that the test-case scenario we’ve posited of a man who is making the transition from being an average out-of-shape man to an average in-shape man necessitates that he takes a holistic approach to fitness, meaning he’s gonna be gaining muscle mass while losing body fat. 

The general rule of thumb for losing body fat is that most people reducing calories and increasing cardio will position themselves to lose one to two pounds per week, which translates into anywhere from 12 to 24 pounds of body fat lost over a three-month period. Despite concerns that such an endeavor is difficult, it is reasonably possible to restructure your body through the process of body recomposition, meaning that you’re simultaneously losing body fat while gaining muscle, but this also means paying very close attention to the contents of your diet and being sure to ingest adequate amounts of protein.

So, taking all of this into consideration, a normal untrained individual of average strength and athleticism, who is overweight by the typical number of pounds that such people tend to be overweight by, can speculatively move into the in-shape category by conditioning and power metrics and according to the all-important eyeball test over the course of two to three months of diligent exercising and dieting.  

Impressive! It sounds like I’m only two months away from being fit whenever I feel like it!

True enough. Just realize that this is both a blessing and a curse. If you know that you’re only two months away from being in shape, it might provoke the kind of lethargy that puts you out of the average American man category into something a bit larger, at which point you’re two months away just from being average again — let alone in shape.