You know that feeling when you look in the mirror after weeks of killing it in the gym and…err…you can’t really tell? You feel stronger — but each time you flex, those biceps look pretty much the same as they did a month ago. Yeah, frustrating.
And if you feel a little jealous every time you see someone’s amazing gains on #TransformationTuesday, well, we’ve got a little secret for you. Muscle definition isn’t about which Instagram filter you use — it’s all about patience and consistency. “If you work out regularly and eat healthy, you’ll start seeing definition in four to six weeks,” says Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist and certified personal trainer for the American Council on Exercise. “It’s important to set realistic expectations because with all the selfies today, sometimes you can get discouraged — but you can do this.”
Wondering how, exactly? Read on to learn what you’ll need to do to start seeing more definition.
5 Steps to Better Muscle Definition
1. Snap progress. First things first: Put those selfies to good use, suggests McCall. “Take a picture the first day, and then every seven to 10 days, take another one,” he says. “You’ll notice the differences when you scroll through them on your phone, and that can help keep you motivated.”
2. Know your macros. Ever heard “Abs are made in the kitchen?” It’s true: Healthy eating plays a critical role in seeing muscle definition. You’ll need to fuel up with the right foods to help your muscles become bigger and stronger. “During exercise, your muscle fibers are being damaged,” explains McCall, and that’s all part of the growth process.
In other words, don’t avoid carbs or start cutting calories if you want to increase your muscle definition. “Doing that basically makes your muscles say, ‘Wow, you just beat me up and now you’re not going to fix me?’” says McCall. “It’s important to have a protein-filled snack or shake within 30 minutes of exercise because that’s the most effective time to replace the carbs you just used and start the repair process,” he says. Reach for something that has a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein, as that’ll help replace your glycogen stores (the carbs you used to burn fat), he explains. Bonus: You’ll satiate hunger and help prevent overeating later.
“Getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night can help speed the muscle building process.”
3. Be thankful for that T. Meaning testosterone, a hormone that plays a large role in muscle growth. “Testosterone promotes protein to repair muscles,” says McCall. “Women produce some in the ovaries and adrenal cortex, but not as much [as men].” So ladies, don’t be discouraged if you notice your guy friends get results faster than you do. The good news: Getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night can help speed the muscle building process for men and women, McCall says, since the body undergoes important changes during the REM portions of your sleep cycle.
4. Hit the weights, not the pavement. OK, now it’s time to start training — the right way. Going for a long run (and other endurance activities) will deplete your body of the carbs your muscles need to store for recovery. Instead, focus on activating your larger, fast-twitch muscle fibers in your glutes, back and hamstrings. “They’re the ones responsible for strength, and they provide the definition of the muscle size and shape,” he says.
5. Work ‘til failure. “You need to work those muscles to fatigue,” says McCall. “If you can do another rep, then you haven’t exhausted all the muscle fibers and you’re not going to see the maximum results.” So, zero in on an exercise — say, forward lunges — and bust out quality reps until you can literally do no more (always with good form). Now you can take a rest.
If circuit training is your jam, move on to another exercise that works a different major muscle — like pull-ups to target your back — and go again until the targeted muscle is completely fatigued.
As for intensity, you want to go hard — high-intensity training is ideal for improving definition — but not every single day. “Three high-intensity workouts a week is ideal, and every second or third day should be more low-key,” says McCall. “If you go high-intensity all the time, you’re not giving your body enough time to recover, and that’s when the magic happens.”
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So…How Long Does It Actually Take?
“Some people might see definition in their arms, shoulders or legs in a relatively short time (like three or four weeks),” McCall says. But if you tend to store excess fat in your belly, then it’ll take longer to see a flatter tummy.
Not sure how to measure your progress? “Pick a routine that’s your ‘tester’ workout, and evaluate how well you do in the very first one,” he says. (Confused? Pick one of these five standard tests.) Record how many reps you can do or how much weight you can lift. Then, do the exact same workout every few weeks. If you can lift more weight or complete more reps in the same amount of time, then you’re well on your way to stronger, more toned muscles.
And remember: Don’t feel bad if you never get those washboard abs that grace magazine covers. Every body is different, and you should celebrate each victory even if you can’t see it on the scale or in the mirror — like the fact that your back feels hella good when you pull on a tank top. (And hey, there are benefits to strength training that go way beyond buff arms.)
“As soon as you’ve done your first workout, your body starts the process toward giving you more muscle definition,” says McCall. So regardless of how you look, you’re making sustainable changes for a healthy lifestyle — and that’s way more important than getting ripped.