It’s a “man’s world” they say, and nowhere can this phrase be summed up more succinctly than when it comes to female muscle growth and training as a woman. Let’s face it, there is no shortage of advice out there about how to build muscle, but you would be hard-pressed to find actionable tips that work for women in an effective, and of course, replicable manner.
As a woman, you or your trainer (especially if you have a male trainer) need to be aware that there are important fundamental differences between the male and female physique, both at a biochemical and endocrinological level. What does this all mean? Simple – that a woman will not respond to training stimuli the exact way a man would.
But regardless of the seemingly unfair hand that you may have been dealt, the reality is that you can still forge a world class physique by taking advantage of principles that save you time and spinning wheels. Information is seemingly everywhere, making it easy to become overloaded with things that don’t work.
The best approach that works? Not trying too many different things at once. You will without a doubt experience different results from other women, based on genetic variables and the fact that no two people are exactly the same.
Where do we come in? Today’s your lucky day. Outlined below you will find time-tested and proven principles that can keep you progressing for years to come, whether your goals be bodybuilding specific or even if you’re just looking to initiate body recomposition.
Are you ready? Then let’s go!
1. The Hormonal Difference Between Women And Men
Growing up you probably found out that testosterone is the primary hormone found in men, while estrogen is the female hormone. This is also likely as much as you did learn, which doesn’t do much in terms of telling you how you should be training as a woman.
There are very important differences in these hormones that dictate primary and secondary sexual characteristics, explaining subtle differences such as why women retain more fat regardless of how hard you try to get rid of it, and how men can sit on the couch all day and lose weight by flipping channels!
As it turns out, testosterone gives men the advantage in terms of how much muscle they can build, enhancing metabolism in the process. In women, there is a mere fraction of the amount of testosterone circulating in men, which means that it is an uphill battle (but not so much of a bad thing) when trying to accomplish body recomposition.
By and far, one of the major reservations women have about training for muscle growth is the fear of becoming too muscular, or too “bulky”. As it turns out, it is extremely difficult for a woman to achieve the level of musculature a man can without resorting to the use of anabolic steroids, as a woman’s body simply does not produce enough testosterone to do so.
The small amount it does produce is optimal for eliciting just moderate muscle growth, enough so that visible changes to the body can be seen, but in a way pleasing to both genders.
However, it is important to realize that testosterone is far from the only hormone involved in muscle growth. Other hormones such as growth hormone, insulin, and insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) all possess anabolic (tissue building) properties and can contribute to lean muscle gain. Even estrogen itself plays a small role in helping to prevent muscle breakdown (catabolism) in turn safeguarding the lean muscle already earned.
So things aren’t as bad as you may have been led to believe, as there are many other hormones found in the female body that can promote female muscle growth and help transform your body.
2. Refine Your Diet Strategy
Without a doubt one of the variables female athletes, or women in general, struggle to get a grip of is their diet.
Without figuring out what a good muscle gain diet looks like you may just spin gears incessantly for years without actually going anywhere (poor hamster).
So what should you do? Starting right now, the first thing that you need to do is figure out your daily caloric requirements. This is important to ensure that you are fueling your body enough to support muscle growth, while at the same time not excessively to cause unwanted fat gain either.
You can manually calculate the number of calories your body uses for maintenance (also known as BMR or Basal Metabolic Rate), though this can become tedious and complicated if you’re not careful. Or, you can save yourself the trouble and use one of the many available online calculators.
After figuring out the number of calories needed to support your BMR, by simply consuming an additional 300-500 calories per day you are well poised to see an average of one pound of muscle gain per week.
But is that the end? It hardly is. Now armed with knowing how many calories you need to consume daily to support muscle gain, the next order of business is establishing the ratio of macro nutrients you need to eat. This is just as important, and arguably even more so, otherwise getting a fit and sexy body would be as easy as eating a box of donuts!
Since we are primarily interested in muscle gain for this discussion, a macronutrient split that consists of about 25-35% protein, 15-25% fat and between 40-60 % carbohydrates1 strikes a good balance to achieve this. While modifications can be made to this ratio (such as reducing carbs in keto diets), they are less than optimal and can stall your progress.
Diets that are considered hypocaloric only end up stalling progress, especially when muscle growth is the primary goal. Coupled with the fact that catabolic (or muscle breakdown) processes are more likely to occur as the need to meet energy requirements are not met, and you end up setting yourself up for failure. To be clear, if you restrict calories while attempting to build muscle it MAY APPEAR as though you are gaining muscle mass, though it is likely that you are preserving what you have while simultaneously reducing bodyfat (which equals to greater prominence and visibility of muscle).
In order to build lean mass (and given that you are not overweight or new to training) it is exceedingly difficult to gain muscle on caloric restriction. Extra calories in the form of primarily protein2 and a little additional fat and carbohydrate are necessary to meet the requirements for increased protein synthesis.
Training naïve women may exhibit a degree of muscle gain, but it is far from sustainable and not recommended for long term gains in athletes with substantial experience.
One of the laws of thermodynamics puts it best- energy is not destroyed, but can be transferred from one medium to another. Building muscle comes down to some amount of math as well, since you must increase energy consumption in the form of the amino acids you need in order to synthesize new muscle tissue.
Since we are primarily interested in muscle gain for this discussion, a macronutrient split that consists of about 25-35% protein, 15-25% fat and between 40-60 % carbohydrates strikes a good balance to achieve this. While modifications can be made to this ratio (such as reducing carbs in keto diets), they are less than optimal and can stall your progress.
Diets that are considered hypocaloric only end up stalling progress, especially when female muscle growth is the primary goal. Coupled with the fact that catabolic (or muscle breakdown) processes are more likely to occur as the need to meet energy requirements are not met, and you end up setting yourself up for failure.
3. You Must Incorporate Strength Training Exercise
Have you ever thought about how muscle growth actually occurs? It doesn’t happen perchance, since it is an adaptive mechanism which the body performs in order to handle what it anticipates. This is the body’s way of preparing to handle the load it needs to bear subsequently, as it may have experienced the stimulus that placed it in an unfamiliar environment.
If you are new to working out, during the first few sessions anything will do. A brief walk on the treadmill, or even a few calisthenics or yoga movements are likely to leave you in pain for days afterwards, since at this point in time it was an unfamiliar stimulus.
However, the body is smart. It will not respond to the same stimulus over and over, and the result is stalled progression. So while pain is a good indication of an effective workout, it should not be what you rely on to determine if you had a good workout.
Do you know what many of the fittest, aesthetic women have in common? An intense weight training regimen. Women that have bodies which are worshiped usually put in the time and effort required to get it, and that usually means a lot of weightlifting. When it comes to lifting weights there really is no substitute.
If your results thus far have been underwhelming when it comes to the amount of muscle growth you have experienced, there are easy ways to apply a fix. For instance, women’s bodies simply cannot accommodate the same amount of muscle mass that a man can, nor in the exact areas. This is why you do not often see fit women with massive arms and broad shoulders, but rather a very muscular bottom half and toned upper body.
Adjusting your workouts in line with these truths tend to yield the best results time and time again. If you are dissatisfied with what your current plan looks like, try to make your workout lower body centric over a period of 12 weeks and see the magic.
Not sure what you should be doing? Here are some great exercises so you can hit the ground running:
Nothing targets the entire lower body region (and the entire body) as effectively as rear squats do, which is why it is a core of many women’s workouts programs. The back squat is a favorite of women everywhere since it emphasizes the quadriceps, to a lesser extent hamstrings, and the ever important glutes. Not a fan of squats? That’s okay, you will learn to love them. If, however, you are not yet able to perform full squats there are reasonable alternatives to rely on in the meanwhile. Which brings us to our second exercise.
Leg presses are a great alternative for women not yet comfortable with performing squats, as it still emphasizes recruitment of the quadriceps, though it is less stimulating to the hamstrings and glutes than full squats are. Once you have built up a moderate amount of strength, it is important to progress to squats to continue progression.
Glute kickbacks are important movements to add mass to, as the name suggests, glutes! While leg presses and squats to moderate job of stimulating this muscle group, the isolating nature of glute kickbacks make it perfect for adding mass where it counts (and where we know you want it!). A bigger butt never hurt anybody, right?
Lying/Standing Leg Curls
These primarily emphasize training of the hamstrings, important muscle groups that act as counters to the quadriceps and support overall development of the posterior lower body region. They are also exceptionally good for adding dimension to the glute-ham tie-in region, giving the lower butt region an important lift and added mass.
The only exercise that truly rivals the squat in overall intensity has to be the deadlift. In fact, during the first few months of your training program you should not hazard combining both of these exercises in the same training session, as it is a recipe for burnout and immense pain afterwards. Perform deadlifts on alternating days to squats and you will ignite serious muscle growth.
Of course, by making those exercises your mainstay we are in no way recommending that you absolutely neglect training of other body parts. You are still to make use of movements such as chess presses, rope pressdowns, dumbbell curls rows and lateral putdowns to name a few.
By strength training infrequently, you set your body up for great progress and also allow sufficient time for rest and muscle recovery to occur. It is important to avoid strength training on consecutive days too often, as this is a recipe for overtraining and will negatively affect muscle growth.
How Much Strength Training?
Based on how new you are to strength training, you can expect to spend on average between 30 to 60 minutes in the gym lifting weights. During the first 12 weeks or so of training it is much more about getting your body familiarized to the stressors placed on it, and then slowly ramping up your intensity.
Aim for between 2-5 working sets per exercise, performed at rep ranges varying from 5-12. It is important to use a mix of lower and moderate rep ranges to support strength gains while also meeting your muscle growth objective.
4. Don’t Forget About Cardio
Cardio has a place in every workout, but should not be made into the core exercise you perform. So what’s the deal with cardio exactly? We’re glad you asked!
Cardio, or rather cardiovascular exercise, is important for more than one reason, even though most women just perform cardio for its ability to help burn calories. While this is good as well, the primary function of cardiovascular exercise is to enhance the efficiency of the heart in pumping blood, as well as the rate at which the lungs oxygenate blood.
Under normal circumstances our heart can supply enough oxygen-rich blood to meet the demands of working muscles and other cells, but occasionally a shortfall is created. This shortfall may result from poor fitness levels, or not training the heart to improve its efficiency (keep in mind the heart is also a muscle), and in turn you may feel winded or out of breath easily after a period of exertion.
Regularly scheduled cardio sessions increase the efficiency of your cardiopulmonary system as a whole, so that not only is oxygen and nutrient rich blood delivered to the cells that need them, when they need them, but also to assist with removal of byproducts of metabolism that accumulate during activity and which may impair the ability of muscle cells to contract, for example.
This is why performing cardiovascular exercise also translates to the ability to lift heavier weights and perform more reps, since ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the body’s primary energy currency, is produced more rapidly. ATP may be produced several ways, but the most common is via the action of oxygen on glucose within structural units known as the mitochondria in muscle cells.
This mechanism can be compared to the way your car’s engine combusts gasoline (or other fuel) in the presence of oxygen, facilitating tiny explosions that propel your car forward.
So how often is considered too much when it comes to cardio? The exact number of times per week you can or should perform cardio can vary quite widely, based on factors such as your overall fitness, relative amount of body fat or your training goals. Since you are after muscle growth, performing cardio about 2 to 3 times weekly is a moderate number to shoot for, keeping sessions to a maximum of 60 minutes if performing low to moderate intensity exercise. The longer the exercise session, the greater the likelihood of muscle being broken down to help produce fuel for the body.
5. Thou Must Sleep For Muscle
Even though human beings are supposedly at the top of the food chain when it comes intelligence, we have a tendency to over complicate things. When you are trying to initiate muscle growth, you may try all sorts of things, ranging from the trendiest diet, to the latest groundbreaking supplement and workouts that attempt to mix things up.
While these variables can contribute to your progress somewhat, far too many people underestimate how unnecessary and important sleep is, so much so that it is likely the singular factor that determines whether you gain muscle or not. And to be quite clear, there is no way around getting sleep. If you do not you will never experience the muscle growth you deserve, even if your diet and training are on point.
But what exactly does sleep do to promote muscle growth? As a woman, you are dealt a different hand from men, and even though sleep is critically important to both genders, there is an added urgency in women.
During sleep, the body releases its highest pulse of growth hormone, coinciding with our natural circadian cycle (also known as our sleep-wake cycle). Growth hormone is also produced at various other intervals throughout the day, but a nocturnal spike is the strongest one that occurs daily. Growth hormone is one of the most potent anabolic hormones found in the human body, and plays an important role in helping to support female muscle growth, especially important as testosterone and other androgens are associated with many undesirable side effects in women (especially in higher amounts).
Even though this alone should be more than enough reason to demonstrate the importance of getting sleep, much more goes on at night while we are sleeping. For instance, protein synthesis can be amplified several fold during sleep, especially if a protein rich meal is consumed just before bed. Metabolic rate also decreases during the night, which equates to a lower probability of calories being used to support metabolism, and instead can be lent to support muscle growth.
So how much sleep should you shoot for every night? The exact requirements for how much sleep you need nightly is not set in stone, as some people do great with six hours, while others need as much as 10. A good medium is about 7 to 9 hours every night.
As much as possible try to also determine an appropriate bedtime and stick to it. This helps to support predictable growth hormone release patterns while you sleep and is more likely to translate to muscle gain.
6. Workout Nutrition
You’re probably wondering why this section is separate from diet, and that is because it is extremely important and deserves undivided attention. So what exactly comprises good workout nutrition? Collectively, the period of time ranging from 90 minutes before your workout starts, throughout your session and up to 90 minutes after it ends is referred to as the peri-workout interval.
Within this window, there are three distinct phases during which nutritional needs are quite different. For instance, during the pre-workout phase, which is classified as about 90 minutes before your session begins, the primary needs of your muscles at this time are to ensure that they will have enough fuel to sustain a complete training session. It is advised for you to consume a fair amount of healthy fats, such as an avocado, along with slower digesting carbohydrates and a moderate amount of protein.
After your workout starts, and lasting for the next 30 to 90 minutes is the intra-workout phase. At this point in time your muscles are actively working, depleting their sources of energy and becoming less willing to contract. Intra-work out nutrition usually comprises of powders made into drinks which supply electrolytes, a bit of glucose and an optional shot of amino acids to shut down possible muscle breakdown.
Finally comes the post workout phase, arguably the most important part of workout nutrition. After your session has been completed, your muscles have undergone a significant amount of damage from loadbearing. This “damage”, as it is called, is necessary for muscles to rebuild stronger and bigger in order to handle what they anticipate is coming up sequentially. It is important to shut down excessive breakdown of muscle fibers during the post workout window, a feat that can be easily accomplished via the consumption of protein and carbohydrates beverage.
By ensuring that your workout nutrition is on point, you set your body up for continuous muscle and strength gains.
To many women supplements are regarded as mandatory in order to achieve the results they are after, when in reality that is only half true.
Supplements can take your game to the next level, and when used judiciously can make the process of muscle growth easier.
So is there such a thing as taking a supplement for the wrong reason? Absolutely.
There are many women that erroneously believe that supplements can compensate for deficiencies present in other parts of their fitness arsenal, whether that be to fortify a weak diet or even make a missed workout feel less awful.
But in the long run this is not a good approach, and one which only complicates matters down the road.
To put it succinctly; supplements are best reserved for usage when you have your bases covered. If you skip eating your veggies, using a multimineral and multi vitamin supplement won’t magically make everything better. But when used in conjunction with a diet rich in nutrients you have a formula for success.
But how do you determine when the time is right to add supplements to your training arsenal? There really isn’t a right and wrong way to approach supplementation, but a general rule of thumb is to not start relying on them from the get-go. Starting too early forges a bad relationship with them and an unrealistic reliance and expectation of what they can do.
Start by modifying your eating habits first, and then see how it goes.
All set? Then let’s move on to what supplements you should consider when the time comes to fire on all cylinders.
Protein powders have come a far way in a few decades, from the days when they were notorious for tasting like wet cardboard. Luckily, we don’t have to endure this anymore as there are now more flavor varieties than we will ever be able to taste in our lifetime.
When it comes to protein powders there are several different types available for purchase on the market, each with their unique advantages and disadvantages.
We will not be addressing all of them, since they are way too many and some are relatively obscure. Let’s check out what your best options are:
Whey Protein Powder
Considered the gold standard of protein powders and possibly even all supplements, if there is only one product you can invest in, be sure to make it whey protein. Regardless of the specific type of whey protein you opt for – concentrate, isolate or hydrolysate, the purity is unmatched.
Why else should you choose whey protein? For its sheer speed. At the post workout interval when speed matters you want to use a source of protein that rapidly releases amino acids into circulation following speedy absorption.
Whey hydrolysate is the fastest of the batch as its proteins are already partially broken down into amino acids that can rapidly enter circulation to shut down muscle breakdown.
Whey is a dairy based protein, and even though it does contain significantly less lactose than milk it is still worth keeping in mind if you possess lactose intolerances.
Considered a relative of whey protein, both being dairy based and containing traces of lactose, Casein is also indispensable in the quest for muscle as it possesses the same, or even greater anabolic potency than whey. Considered a “slow”, protein, Casein is not best for when speed is needed. Whereas whey is perfect for the post and even pre workout intervals, Casein is an excellent option when you want/need a steady but sustained stream of amino acids released.
Nowhere is this more important than before bed, as this protein shuts down muscle catabolism and fires up protein synthesis.
Second only to whey, Casein has its eyes on the long game when it comes to muscle growth.
Don’t want two different powders? Then opt for a blended version containing both. This way you can take when needed and still experience the best of both worlds.
Soy Protein Powder
Soy protein powder’s utility has been misunderstood for a number of reasons. One time it seemed bad, then it was good, so which is it really? When it comes to women, soy isn’t bad. A lot of the bad press surrounding soy protein had to do with its phytoestrogens – plant based compounds which have effects that mimic the actions of the true female hormone. You can see why this is bad news for men, but not so much for women.
Soy protein is also considered complete in the sense that it supplies all the essential amino acids the human body needs. If you are vegan or a vegetarian and cannot use dairy-based protein powders, supplements made from soy are right up your alley.
A Complete Multi-Nutrient Supplement
Otherwise known as just a multivitamin supplement, formulations nowadays contain much more than only vitamins. Micronutrient deficiencies tend to fly under the radar quite often, as they may be difficult to spot or only manifest when your diet has been lacking for quite some time.
As previously alluded to, you should not make multi-nutrient supplements a crutch, since you should have a solid nutritional base established that supplies the majority of what you need. A well-timed multi-nutrient supplement pill designed especially for hard training athletes can help ensure your performance remains at its peak, along with your ability to gain muscle.
You should keep an eye on supplement’s zinc content, as a significant amount of this mineral is lost in sweat while you exercise. It is estimated that as much as two thirds of all adults in the United States have some degree of zinc deficiency.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
All fats are not created equal, as you are bound to learn if trying to justify having that double whopper as opposed to half of an avocado. Omega-3 fatty acids are a bit different, being classified as polyunsaturated in nature and found primarily in deep-sea fatty fish. How often do you go for tuna, swordfish or salmon? If you’re like most people, not often enough to remember.
This is why supplementing with a fish oil product is an important investment. But what makes Omega 3 fatty acids special anyway? It has to do with their anti-inflammatory nature. Many of the fats we consume, whether that be from vegetable cooking oils, farm raised meat, or packaged goods, they all contain some form of pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fats. The body ideally needs to maintain a ratio of Omega-3to 6 fats to regulate the amount and direction that chemical processes can go. A deficiency of Omega-6 fats shifts the body into a pro-inflammatory state, which is not good over the long haul.
Inflammation has been implicated in everything from premature aging, to cancer and cognitive decline. Not to mention the fact that it can delay and impair muscle recovery following a workout, causing a period of undue pain when muscle synthesis should be in high gear.
So while this seemingly unimportant nutrient may be overlooked for the latest shiny object, its importance in female muscle growth is unquestionable.
Are there other supplements you can take advantage of? Absolutely! While many of these are regarded as “male”, it is important that you rubbish such claims from the inception. These supplements are fair game for the fairer sex and should be used when the time comes.
Nitric Oxide Boosters
Nitric oxide boosters aren’t that complicated when you think about it; they primarily work to enhance the production of endogenous nitric oxide by blood vessels, which support the delivery of nutrients and oxygen to muscles.
Of course, this also means that the delivery of nutrients post-workout is also improved, lending a hand in your quest for lean muscle. Products containing L-citrulline are amongst the best in class for supporting circulation.
Yes, women use Creatine as well. Creatine is one of the most researched supplements of all time, possessing a large margin of safety and efficacy. Creatine works to enhance the short term production of ATP, which means that your ability to work out longer without becoming fatigued is improved.
An additional rep or two can make a big difference when it comes to stimulating hypertrophy and achieving new PRs.
You can opt for standard Creatine monohydrate at a dose of 5g daily to take advantage of this super supplement.
8. Make Meaningful Lifestyle Changes
Okay, we kept this one for last for a reason. One, these can be considered the most difficult changes to apply, and two, most people don’t want to hear them anyway. But rest assured that should you apply these meaningful changes, muscle growth will become second nature to you, helping you achieve that sexy bikini body you have always wanted.
Warning – there are no-frills here, no fake promises and no overhyped marketing claims; just the bare essentials. Here is what you need to start doing now:
Make Calories Count
While a calorie is still technically a calorie regardless of where it comes from, what throws many people off track is not knowing that calories from different foods can act significantly different once ingested. If you seem to be hitting your caloric requirements a little too easy, chances are high that you may be loading up on calories that should not be a part of your diet in the first place.
The first and most obvious change you need to make is to remove all versions of processed sugars from your diet. This includes soda and packaged treats, as well as some not so obvious culprits such as crackers and even white bread. Whole-wheat bread isn’t that much better either – it is a better option to go straight for Ezekiel bread (a biblical recipe!).
Liquid calories, even though they can help you meet your daily requirements, can be both an advantage and a hindrance. The simple fact that the body does not recognize liquid calories the same way it does solid food means that your regularly scheduled meal is unlikely to be affected (over eating, anyone?)
You Must Adhere To Mealtimes
Bodybuilders eat very often, sometimes as frequently as every three hours for a reason – it helps support a positive nitrogen balance that favors hypertrophy. Depending what your caloric needs are, you may not need to eat this frequently, but having in excess of four feedings daily is very commonplace.
To wrap your head around frequent mealtimes, it is useful to erase the notion of having three primary meals per day, and associated “snacks”. Rather, you should regard each feeding interval as an opportunity for growth and treat them as such. Each meal should contain mixed macronutrients (unless you are specifically avoiding one; such as fats before bed) which should keep you from becoming hungry at least until the next scheduled meal time.
You Booze You Lose
What is that? You have a social life? That’s cute. Say bye-bye. Okay, not as dramatic, but what is true is the need to get rid of weekend (or worse, weekday) binge sessions, as it has been shown that alcohol impairs muscle protein synthesis. What makes this even worse is the fact that your diet and training can be spot on, and that barely makes a difference to the extent at which muscle growth is blunted. In fact, things are not status quo when drinking is involved; you are likely to lose muscle as well, disrupt normal liver enzymes and possibly affect the sensitivity of insulin and natural growth hormone pulses you rely on throughout the day.
There has been research which indicates that a small amount of red wine consumed daily may be beneficial to the heart, and can help to exert anti-inflammatory actions, but still take this with a grain of salt especially if you are actively looking to add mass (studies have not been done on athletes to confirm if its benefits hold true).
Putting It Together
At this point, the overwhelm could really start to kick in. Because of this exact reason, we have put together a quick start list to place you firmly on solid ground:
- Cut out non-essential calories.
- Calculate calories, macronutrients needed and craft a simple meal plan to cover 7 days.
- Go to bed earlier and set an alarm; not too early though!
- Start cleaning your schedule of past-times you don’t need- booze and cigarettes included.
- Start strength training; aim for technique and proper form in the first few weeks, and scope out your recuperative abilities. At the same time, optimize your sleep, since this is when most of the work is done on your body.
- Be sure to perform cardio a few times weekly to support cardio-pulmonary health and keep body fat down- nothing hides muscle more than excess fat.
- Add in supplements after you have the basics covered. Of course, you can start right off the bat but it is important to learn to make progress without over-reliance on them first. Invest in a whey based protein first and foremost and watch your body start to transform.
There you have it, the not-so fast and dirty guide to making gains as a woman. Just because men may seem to have an upper hand in the muscle building department does not mean that all hope is lost.
As a woman you fundamentally have different goals from that of a man (though a number of women today are actively involved in professional bodybuilding), and can use your unique position to get what you want.
Above all, establish a consistent routine. This is the fastest way to seeing progress, so stay motivated, stay hungry and go get it!