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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
October 18, 2022
Worries about becoming overly big and masculine have deterred far too many women away from the weight portion of the gym. And as resistance training is packed with benefits, one of the worst health decisions a woman can make is avoiding lifting for fear of "looking bulky".
Fortunately, we have good news that will put your concerns at ease and have you ready to pick up some dumbbells. First, developing a "bulky" look is extremely hard for women. Second, developing a nice lean, muscular body is quite easy if you know what to do. See? We bet after having read that you're ready to hop in your car and hit the nearest gym.
But, before you do, keep reading, because we have a ton of great muscle-building information that will help you on your strength-training journey. This article will explain what you need to do to gain muscle while retaining your feminine silhouette.
In addition, this post will cover:
This article is all about helping women get stronger. First, let's start with some myth busting.
There are several myths that can cause women to avoid lifting heavy. To make matters worse, there's a lot of false information floating around within the fitness industry, which only makes it more confusing.
Therefore, we're going to dispel three of these myths immediately so we're all on the same page. This is really important to understand as many of the pervading beliefs prevent women from training optimally.
There's a persisting idea among many women that if a female even touches a barbell, she will wake up looking like the long haired-version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration, but some women tend to think that if they lift weights, they automatically grow traps and big biceps.
This just isn't true. Think about this: If building muscle mass was that easy, why are people spending so much time and money trying to do it? It's because it's not easy.
Muscle hypertrophy, the technical term for muscle growth, is a very slow process, requiring years of dedication to see impressive results.
Don't get us wrong, after 3 months of training, you'll start looking and feeling great. However, getting "bulky" takes years.
Instead of getting "bulky," women want to be "toned." However, the term "toned" really only exists for marketing purposes. In reality, there is not a range of muscle-building types. Your muscle either grows, or it doesn't.
What dictates whether you are building toned muscle or bulky muscle will be the duration of time training and calorie intake. We want you to know this so that you don't get sucked into following a workout routine for "muscle tone".
These plans are usually more expensive while being sub-optimal due to poor exercise selection, among other variables.
Women face a ton of peer pressure from society about their body types, and as a result, many can easily end up having poor body images. This leads to a fear of seeing the numbers on the scale increase.
And while we understand this concern, much of it is unwarranted. For example, when you start weightlifting, gaining weight may occur. But weight gain isn't always a bad thing, particularly when it's an increase in muscle.
Muscle is 18% more dense than fat, meaning if you took the same volume of each, muscle weighs more. And, when comparing 1 pound of muscle and 1 pound of fat, muscle takes up less room.
To put this into perspective: Two women, one of whom has more muscle than the other, may end up wearing the same size clothing, despite the more muscular woman weighing more.
The point is to not be overly concerned with the number on the scale. Rather, judge by how you look and feel.
Both men and women get bombarded with false expectations of the perfect body image. However, women have it worst by far. As a result, it's caused a slew of aesthetic problems for women, including fears of saddlebags and hip dips.
Therefore, we wanted to spend a little time talking about realistic goals and expectations both with lifting and women's bodies in general. The main thing to keep in mind is that women have more body fat than men.
You have probably (hopefully!) heard this before, but it's good to repeat. On average, women will have anywhere from 5-12% more body fat than their male counterparts.
This is the result of several factors, including the inclusion of breasts and more fatty deposits, specifically on the glutes, hips, and thighs. Further, women have less lean muscle mass.
Therefore it's important to keep this in mind if you get your body fat percentage tested.
However much you want! As you begin your muscle-building journey, realize there's no perfect number to hit. It's dependent on you and your goals.
Let's talk about why it's important for women to be involved in strength training and achieving muscle gain. Here are the best benefits that come with training and building mass.
Sarcopenia is the term for muscle loss that occurs naturally as we age. While we can't completely stop it, regular resistance training can slow it way down and mitigate the effects.
In fact, elderly women (trained and untrained) can build muscle with appropriate resistance training following progressive overload¹⁻². Sounds like reason enough to commit to that 3-day split you've been considering.
It's no secret that women have a higher risk of osteoporosis as they get older. The good news is that performing load-bearing exercises actually strengthens your bones.
Numerous studies have shown that strength training is one of the primary means to prevent osteoporosis from occurring³.
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories used to support basic life functions such as respiration, brain function, and digestion.
One way to increase this is through building muscle. It takes more calories to support muscle tissue than fat, so more muscle means you can burn fat easier.
This effect is greatly exaggerated to sell workout programs as you only burn about 6 calories per pound of muscle. However, this adds up over time.
It also takes energy to build muscle through weight training, equating to more calories burned.
Exercise is medicine. These words should be taken seriously. Taking part in a structured resistance training program can help keep you healthy and feeling young⁴.
A short list of benefits includes:
Training is literally the healthiest thing you can do for yourself and one of the best ways to prevent disease.
Now that we've dispelled some common fears and myths, let's talk about how you can gain muscle.
The first thing you'll need to do is differentiate between your training and how men train. When it comes to resistance training, you will train exactly like men! That's right. The main physiological systems of men and women, in terms of muscle, are the same.
Of course, there are differences in the response to weight training, but the mechanisms are the same. Think about going to the gas station with a 4X4 Jeep Wrangler and a Maserati. Even though these cars perform differently, both require you to fill the gas tanks similarly.
Here are a few differences between building muscle for men and women.
The primary difference that causes a difference in response to resistance training is in our hormonal profiles. Men's sex hormone, testosterone, is the primary anabolic hormone responsible for muscle synthesis and muscle recovery⁵.
This explains why a young girl may often be bigger and stronger than a boy of the same age until they hit puberty. At this point, the boy's body is flooded with testosterone, which encourages muscle building, among other key sex differences.
Regardless, women's lack of testosterone will decrease the effect of strength training on muscle gain.
Every person has two types of muscle fibers, Type I and Type II. Type I is more associated with endurance, while Type II is associated with muscle size. Studies have shown that, on average, women can have 20-30% more Type I muscle fibers than men⁶. As a result, women will have less muscle tissue.
Generally, women are indeed weaker than men. However, this is due to having less lean muscle rather than their muscle being of lesser quality.
Women, in general, also don't lift weights as often as men, which explains muscle mass differences. But if women weight train, they can grow just as strong relative to their body weight, particularly in the lower body.
It's important to note that women are weaker in the upper body compared to men. In other words, women can squat 2 times their body weight just as easily as men, but pull-ups and bench presses will be tougher.
Interested in a tool that may help you lift harder, increasing your mass and strength? Check out our guide to pre-workout for women!
As mentioned in the beginning, women should be lifting weights in the same manner as men, with minor nuances. We'll first review proper training principles that women should follow to get their best results.
The driving factor of muscle growth is volume⁷. This refers to the total amount of weight that is placed on the muscle. You don't need to calculate the volume for all of your exercises, but here is how you'd find it.
In short, to build muscle, your main goal is to place more volume on your muscles. We suggest checking out this workout program for women to hit your ideal weekly volume. And if you're short on time, a full body workout for women is a great way to build muscle without spending hours in the gym!
Progressive overload is the most important aspect of muscle hypertrophy. It basically states that for muscle growth to continue, you must consistently place a load on the muscle of greater mass than the time before.
Fear of getting too bulky can hinder a woman's progressive overload. If you're afraid to use more weight, you're simply not going to gain muscle.
When applying progressive overload, aim to add the smallest amount of weight possible. Here are suggestions for weight increases:
Another error that plagues many women in the gym is using an appropriate load. This stems from wanting to build "toned muscle" and not bulky muscles and then using overly light weights.
As mentioned, muscle growth is muscle growth. There's no such thing as toned muscle and bulky muscle.
To target your Type II muscle fibers, the ones you think of when "building muscle," the load needs to be heavy enough to activate them. This is why when women want to gain muscle mass, it's crucial they use heavy weights.
While you may be able to do this with a load equal to 60% of your 1RM when you first start lifting weights, research is pretty specific that a load equal to 70-80% 1RM is optimal for growth. This will be in the 8-12 rep range.
If you use loads smaller than this, you won't be building muscle significantly, especially long-term. Still, if you're using progressive overload in your workout program, this won't be an issue as you'll eventually work into the right weight.
You should also include some strength training using a load of at least 85%. Check out our bicep workouts for women for an idea of how to mix your reps, sets, and loads.
This frequency allows maximum load and volume while providing enough muscle recovery.
The basic structure of workout routines for women should look similar for men. However, there are some special considerations.
Women tend to have weaker upper bodies. On top of this, training-wise ladies are often more concerned with their lower bodies. Between these two factors, women are less likely to do things like an overhead press or bench press.
Unfortunately, this only exacerbates the problem of having weaker arms. Therefore, train your upper body muscle groups just as much as the lower.
We just stated that women are generally more concerned with their lower body and core. This includes the hips, waist, glutes, and legs.
There's nothing wrong with this. We all enjoy training certain body parts. That said, we want to make two points:
In general, women suffer from weaker hamstrings when compared to men. This can cause a decrease in performance and is also one factor leading to higher ACL injuries in women.
To prevent this, add hamstring isolation exercises into your leg workout. This is obviously in addition to the other compound exercises you should be focusing on.
We went over this above, but we want to reiterate it. Women are more prone to osteoporosis, especially with aging. To mitigate this, you need to strain your bones and muscles.
Women tend to stay away from bodyweight exercises and calisthenic plans, especially with the upper body. Please don't do this.
When comparing men and women, women would likely be happier with a body built only using calisthenics. This is because many women are looking for a lean, athletic look, rather than a bodybuilder's figure.
This goes for everyone! Strength training is awesome, but it can't replicate the benefits of pure cardiovascular training. In fact, we recommend 2-3 sessions per week.
These sessions should include both high-intensity interval training as well as LISS cardio. Adding both will provide several benefits, including increased work output, a strong heart, and an improved cardiovascular system.
Here's a great plan to get you started. It concentrates on using compound movements with some isolation exercises toward the end of each session.
It also emphasizes hamstrings training, while providing the glutes and hips plenty of volume. You'll also train the upper body and work on body exercises to increase your athleticism.
We have also included one cardio-only day at the gym, bringing your total weekly sessions to 5. Your cardio day consists of two different cardio exercises (you can choose) as well as some extra core work.
Be sure to always use proper form and get a professional personal trainer if needed. As we mentioned, don't neglect these exercises just because you don't know how to do them. Take the time and learn.
We can not stress how important of an investment this is as it will literally save you thousands of dollars in medical fees down the road and provide you with a happier life.
Here's your 5-day workout routine:
Session 5 (Cardio):
Because muscle tissue is the same in men and women, the same principles for nutrition apply.
Calories are based on your BMR and activity level. This can easily be found using one of the many calculators online. After finding your maintenance calories, you need to decide if you want to gain muscle mass or lose weight. If your goal is weight loss, a cutting workout and diet plan may be helpful.
But as this article is about gaining muscle, we'll focus on that. For muscle gain, you need to eat enough calories to be in a slight calorie surplus. Aim for a surplus of 300 calories.
Muscle hypertrophy is an anabolic process, so your body needs this extra fuel to build muscle. However, you don't want to overeat to mitigate weight gain from excess fat.
After about a month of training, you can check your weight and make adjustments as needed.
Your top priority for muscle building is your protein intake.
Protein contains the building blocks of muscle tissue. It also triggers muscle protein synthesis and supports muscle repair. To get the best results when lifting weights, you need to eat enough protein. As for how much protein per day to build muscle, aim for no less than 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight⁹.
However, keep in mind that higher amounts may be able to mitigate any possible fat gain. Again, over the long term, this trade-off will definitely pay off.
Regarding fat intake, women may need to eat higher amounts as their body fat is naturally higher. At least 30% of your total calories should come from eating healthy fats, with 40% being the upper limit.
Now that you know your protein and fat intake, you simply fill in the rest with carbs.
Here's the deal. There is plenty of research that shows dieting is not a long-term solution nor is it sustainable. We don't recommend dieting, but rather, suggest eating a balanced diet filled with healthy food. The best thing you can do to instantly lose fat and improve your composition is to concentrate on what not to eat. Yes, it really is that simple.
Here's a quick list of very simple food changes you can make:
You can also make an effort to include high-protein foods, like these best foods for building muscle, which will help you hit your protein goals. If you follow those simple guidelines, you will see a dramatic improvement in your body. No dieting required.
Supplements are a great tool to optimize your training if your diet and workout routine are in check. In other words, they're not a magic bullet and won't be effective if your training and diet aren't honed in.
That said, if you do have your nutrition and training under control, they can definitely help.
Here are three supplements that can take your training to the next level.
Protein powder is an efficient and cost-effective way to increase your total protein intake. In addition, most are low in calories, making it easy to stay within your daily calorie goal (if you have one).
Ready to pick up some protein but unsure which to choose? Check out these best protein powders for some great options.
Creatine is the most studied and effective supplement on the market. Countless studies have shown that creatine use can improve body composition, help you gain muscle, increase performance, and provide all-around improvements to your health.
Don't worry - we've also got a best creatines list to help get you started.
Pre-workout provides you with more energy and intensity in the gym, making it a great tool for building lean muscle. A good pre-workout will give you the extra oomph needed to bust out more reps with less fatigue, resulting in more muscle growth.
Check out SET FOR SET's Always Ready Pre-Workout, packed with nothing but the best ingredients to ensure you hit all of your muscle-building goals (and then some!).
Women need to be strong. That's not hyperbole.
Neglecting strength training is one of the most dangerous decisions a woman can make. That choice can instantly increase numerous health risks while decreasing quality of life.
This is why we urge all women to follow a structured workout routine, whatever their fitness goals are. Whether you want to pack on lean muscle so you can continue carrying your kids around until they no longer let you, live a long, active, and healthy life, grace the cover of a fitness magazine, or be able to travel the world, being strong is what will get you there.
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