It's one of the most frequent questions we get asked: how to build lean, fat burning, athletic looking muscle as a woman. For many of us with the XX chromosome, building lean muscle mass can seem like an impossible task. As women, we often want to build lean muscle while also losing excess body fat. Also, as women, we tend to want to lean out, not bulk up.
Rest assured: it can be done, and it can be done easily. Keep reading. Here's the ultimate guide on how to build lean muscle tone for women.
- How Lean Muscle Grows
- How Long Does it Take to See Lean Muscle Growth?
- The Best Kinds of Resistance Training for Women
- How Often Should Women Resistance Train?
- Why Women Won't Get Bulky From Strength Training
- The Diet Crux: How to Gain Muscle, But Lose Fat
- Lifestyle Factors that Influence Lean Muscle Growth (and Fat Loss)
How Lean Muscle Grows. When you lift heavy weights, the tiny fibres in your muscles get placed under tension and tear. These micro-tears are part of why you experience muscle soreness after a solid workout. It's all part of the process. When your body starts to repair these tears, the muscle fibre grows back stronger. This is called muscle hypertrophy, and it starts within two hours after a workout and lasts, on average, for seven to eleven days afterwards.
How Long Does it Take to See Lean Muscle Growth? Everyone will see changes at a different pace, and noticeable, visible changes will be easier to detect in people with lower body fat percentages. So, for example, if you're 80 pounds overweight, you'll likely feel the changes before you see them, because body fat will cover the new lean muscle. That said, when you put on lean muscle mass, your body will burn more body fat, so the fat that is covering your lean muscle will start melting away at a faster rate.
Muscle growth for beginners starts to be measurable around six to eight weeks after starting a new routine. If you're at an intermediate or advanced fitness level, you can start to see results in as little as three weeks. This article goes into greater detail on how quickly you can expect to see results from strength training.
The Best Kinds of Resistance Training For Women. Please note, that resistance training and strength training can be used interchangeably to describe the same type of workout. The most effective and efficient strength training for women is HIIT (high intensity interval training) or HIRT (high intensity resistance training). These two types of workouts are related to each other, but focus on slightly different approaches. HIIT workouts leverage resistance, but the exercises are more dynamic and are cardio based. So think more high-impact jumping around while you lift. HIRT workouts, are low-impact (so less jumping around) and focus less on cardio moves and more on full-body lifting exercises. Here is a great article that explains the benefits of HIRT workouts in more detail.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). By allowing you to torch major calories during your workout while at the same time helping you to build lean muscle tone, HIIT workouts have been proven to be the fastest and most effective way for women (and men) to build lean muscle and shed unwanted body fat. HIIT has been shown to be more effective at general conditioning and lean muscle development than steady state cardio (like running on a treadmill, cycling or using a cardio machine like an elliptical trainer) and classic weight training.
Here's how HIIT works: you work as hard as you can doing a certain exercise (example: jump squats) for a short period of time (example: 50 seconds), then you take a short rest (example: 10 seconds). You follow this tempo, alternating between 3-4 exercises for anywhere between 12-20 rounds and poof: that's it. You can combine the HIIT exercises into supersets, circuits, or smash them as singles. The point is to take yourself to your max - whatever that happens to look like for your fitness level, every single round.
As little as 12 minutes of HIIT a day three times a week has been shown to deliver serious, measurable results.
The power of HIIT is that it’s been proven in study after study to be the fastest way to get in the best shape of your life. No other form of exercise even comes close to it’s incredible effectiveness at burning away excess body fat, dropping weight and re-shaping the body.
Most people that start to exercise want to tackle fat loss and general physical conditioning, and nothing beats HIIT for this. The challenge comes when you haven’t exercised in a while - maybe you haven’t purposefully trained your body in years or even decades. If you are at a beginner level, jumping straight into an advanced level HIIT workout is going to feel overwhelming. Here at BodyRock, our mission is to help people get into the best shape of their lives at home, or anywhere that they feel comfortable exercising. Part of how we do this is by taking the most efficient fat burning workouts - like HIIT - and making them accessible at the beginner level - so that people just starting out have the benefit of being able to do the types of workouts that will best help them achieve their fitness and weight loss goals. We do this by programming these workouts at a beginner level - making them accessible - even if it’s been years since you last exercised. People trying to do workouts that are simply too hard for them cause a lot of the confusion, frustration and injuries that keep people on the sidelines of their fitness goals. To that end we created our 30 day Beginner Bootcamp, which brings strength training and HIIT / HIRT together in a workout that is achievable at the beginner level. If it’s been a while since you’ve exercised or followed a workout program, there is a great article here that covers getting started again - just remember, being a beginner is nothing to feel self-conscious about - it just means that you are starting something new, and that takes courage.
HIRT workouts. HIIT isn't the only way to build lean muscle as a woman. HIRT training can also deliver some beautiful lean muscle gains. HIRT routines usually follow a specified number repetitions, as opposed to timed intervals. So in a HIRT workout, you'd do 12-15 reps of an exercise for example, instead of repeating reps for 50 seconds. The exercises in HIRT workouts aren't typically plyometric movements (explosive, power movements) like jump squats, but rather focus on lifting as heavy as you can safely and properly, for the specified rep range. HIRT is strength training for fat loss.
Because HIIT workouts are aimed at getting your heart rate up while also building lean muscle mass, and HIRT is only focused on building lean muscle mass, you will often be lifting slightly heavier weights when you do a HIRT training workout, since your energy will not be divided between fueling explosive movements and lifting weights—you will only need to focus on lifting the weight.
HIRT workouts can last anywhere from 10-15 minutes to over an hour, depending on your goals and fitness level. Just 10-15 minutes of HIRT anywhere from two to five times a week can yield incredible results.
If you are looking for a place to get started with HIRT, our 30 Day Beginner Bootcamp, our Intro to Strength Series or our Kick Start series are all great, beginner level programs that will get you started with HIRT at a level that is achievable. Our 30 Day Beginner Bootcamp teaches the fundamentals of resistance training, taking you through some of the most classic strength training exercises for lean muscle gain and fat loss.
How Often Should Women Strength Train? Good question. Training each muscle group a few times a week is all that it takes to start seeing results. So, if you're a beginner, following a program like our Beginner Bootcamp workout series will provide you with 5 full body resistance based workouts a week - enough to start noticing visible changes in as little as a few weeks. Each workout on our Beginner Bootcamp series is between 10-15 minutes in duration. As you become fitter over time, and your body becomes stronger, you'll need to avoid fitness plateaus (you stop seeing results because your body is no longer challenged by the intensity level of your workout) by levelling up. The best thing about following a workout program like the Beginner Bootcamp, is that all of this has been figured out and programmed in for you, so you just need to focus on showing up and pressing ‘play’ on the video and giving each 10-15 minute workout your best effort. The program is designed to progress you as you move through it, and you will notice that you feel stronger into the second and third week.
To avoid plateaus and keep your resistance training delivering results, follow these tips:
1) Add more resistance to your workouts —with Strength Training, you should be lifting as much weight as you can safely. If you can power through each exercise with little to no difficulty, you know that it’s time to level up your resistance by going heavier with your dumbbells or weight plates. Pay close attention to this balance - your body will let you know when it’s time to add more resistance to your workouts. You can also start by adding hands free resistance to your workouts by strapping on a weighted vest.
2) Do a challenge. BodyRockPlus.com has tons of them, and these challenges offer safe and effective ways to up your lean muscle game. Often the challenges are mere minutes, so you can just add them to the end of a workout, or, if you're short on time, smash them out on their own.
3) Lift something different. Your body gets accustom to lifting the same weights over and over again. Make it heft something new. Grab some Dumbbells, or a Sculpt Bar. These pieces of gear are among our top recommended strength training tools when it comes to resistance training because they can grow with your gains. Just add more weight plates as you get stronger.
Dumbbells and the Sculpt Bar are super versatile, so you can use them in totally different ways for the rest of your fitness journey and your body will never adapt into a plateau. For example, you can use dumbbells for unilateral training (one side of the body at a time, like with single leg kick-backs).
Dynamic fitness gear and fresh workouts that are short and effective are among the best ways to keep the love of lifting alive and your motivation on track.
Why Women Won't Get Bulky From Strength Training. The vast majority of women simply can’t get bulky from lifting weights—not unless they use very specific supplements and follow a diet that has been programmed for female bodybuilding. Women simply lack the amount of testosterone it takes to bulk up (to put this into perspective, Men often find bulking up and adding muscle to their frames extremely challenging).
Women can get incredibly lean, toned and strong from resistance training - but bulking up and turning into a body builder is not something that the average woman ever has to worry about when they are strength training.
One of the best things about learning how to build lean muscle as a woman is that it also builds your confidence. Strength training does wonders to improve how you look - helping to achieve the much sought after athletic silhouette, but it also goes beyond just how you look. Strength training will make you more physically capable than you have ever been - both in your endurance and agility - and those are changes that will will be able to feel in all areas of your daily life.
The beauty of lean muscles. The more lean muscle you have on your body, the more energy is needed to support those muscles. In other words, the more lean muscle you have the more calories your body burns. Lean muscle is significantly more metabolically active than fat, hence why we want to build more of it. One pound of lean muscle on your body burns between 3.5-5x more calories that one pound of body fat burns. One pound of lean muscle also takes up significantly less room under your skin, which is why you can lose inches or dress sizes and not see much of a difference on the scale. Building lean muscle is the equivalent of being in a body that is burning 3.5-5x more calories 24/7 - it’s perhaps the biggest advantage you can give yourself if you are serious about weight loss.
To build lean muscle, you need to follow a Meal Plan that ensures you are getting enough lean protein. Women often struggle to get enough protein into their diets to support lean muscle development. To save yourself a lot of time and frustration, follow a meal plan that is optimized for fat loss while at the same time delivering a healthy balance of proteins and other vitamins and nutrients that support your fitness goals. No meal plan is sustainable if it’s too complicated to follow or the meals taste terrible. Thats why we took the time to create a Meal Plan that takes an easy to follow, common sense approach to food, while also delivering great tasting, family approved meals, snacks and deserts.
If you need help with nutrition, check our our meal plans. From plant-based nutrition plans for vegans and vegetarians to intermittent fasting plans specifically for women, to a general nutrition guide and meal plan, we've got all the nutritional guidance you need to support lean muscle tone development and fat loss.
The BodyRock Meal Plan Bundle ($29.99). Includes the meal plan, cookbook and nutrition guide.
Lifestyle Factors that Influence Lean Muscle Growth (and Fat Loss). Train like a beast, and you won't see a lick of difference if you don’t have the rest of your lifestyle aligned with your goals. In addition to getting your diet on track, here are the other major lifestyle factors that influence lean muscle growth and fat loss.
Sleep. A lack of sleep has been shown to result in a weight gain and/or difficulty losing weight. Aim for 7-9 hours a night, at least most nights. If you want to make muscle gain and fat loss and priority, then sleep needs to be a priority too.
Alcohol. In addition to interfering with sleep, which can lead to weight gain, alcohol stalls your fat burning engines. In moderation and as an occasional indulgence, alcohol may not inhibit your fat loss goals - but if you’re drinking several times a week, and are struggling with some unwanted weight, it may be time to cut back on those empty alcohol calories.
Water. Getting enough water is part of proper nutrition, but we’re going to give it it’s own mention here because people still aren’t getting enough water into their systems. Thirst is often confused by the body with hunger, leading people to over-eat when what they really need to do is hydrate more.
Adequate water consumption will also help flush your body of metabolic waste, which will help your fat burning engines run more smoothly while also facilitating better muscle recovery after a workout, and better performance during a workout.
How much water do you need? Take your body weight in pounds and divide it by two. That number, in ounces, is how much water you need to drink every day, minimum. If you’re 160 pounds, you need to drink 80 ounces of water.
Stress. Stress causes fat storage, especially around the midsection. Stress can also inhibit your lean muscle gains because the stress hormone cortisol triggers your body to accelerate the breakdown of protein into sugar and amino acids. This results in your system using your hard won lean muscle as an energy source and not your preferred fuel source - body fat.
Do your best to manage your stress levels by getting enough sleep, eating clean foods, making sure you don’t overtrain, and taking the time to do relaxing activities like yoga and walking for pleasure.
Learn more about how to reduce stress in Stress Reduction Made Easy.
A shot from the BodyRock 30 Day Beginner Bootcamp.
Now you know how to build lean muscle, let’s get to it! Check out our Beginner Bootcamp on our fitness streaming platform BodyRockPlus.com. For a limited time we are offering a full year of unlimited access to all of our beginner level muscle building workout programs like our Beginner Bootcamp series or our Intro to Strength program for just $69 with code NY22.
You got this!