It's one of the most frequent questions we get asked: how to build muscle as a woman. For many of us with the XX chromosome, building muscle mass can seem like an impossible task. For one, we often want to build muscle while also losing fat. Also, we 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 muscle as a women.
- How Muscle Grows
- How Long Does it Take to See Growth
- The Best Kinds of Resistance Training for Women
- How Often Should Women Resistance Train?
- Why Women Won't Get Bulky From Resistance Training
- The Diet Crux: How to Gain Muscle, But Lose Fat
- Lifestyle Factors that Influence Lean Muscle Growth (and Fat Loss)
How Muscle Grows
When you lift heavy weights, the tiny fibres in your muscles get stressed out and tear. These tears are why you experience pain after a solid workout. It's all part of the process. When your body starts to repair the tears, the muscle grows back stronger. This is called muscle hypertrophy, and it starts within two hours of a workout and lasts, on average, for seven to eleven days.
How Long Does it Take to See Growth
Everyone will see changes at a different pace, and really noticeable visual changes are usually detected at lower body fat percentages. So, if you're 80 pounds overweight, you'll likely feel the changes before you'll see them, because fat will cover the muscle. This said, when you put on muscle mass, you burn more fat, so the fat will start melting away eventually.
Muscle growth for beginners is measurable around eight weeks of starting a new routine. If you're at an intermediate or advanced fitness level, you can see results in as little as three weeks. This is because your body is already adept at building muscle and is operating more effectively.
The Best Kinds of Resistance Training For Women
Let's get this out of the way: there is no best kind of resistance training for women. The best kind of resistance training for you will be whichever kind you like, that encourages you to keep training. Let's take a look at two of the most common and universally liked forms of resistance training.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
By allowing you to torch major calories during your workout while building muscle, HIIT is, arguably, the fastest and most effective way to build muscle as a women. HIIT has been shown to be more effective at cardio conditioning and muscle building than steady state cardio and unstructured weight training alone.
Here's how it works: you work as hard as you can doing a certain move (example: jump squats) for a short period of time (example: 50 seconds), then you take a shorter rest (example: 10 seconds). You do this for anywhere for a few rounds (usually, three to five) 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, every single round.
As little as 12 minutes of HIIT a day three times a week has been shown to deliver serious, measurable results.
Don't believe us?
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Classic Bodybuilding. HIIT isn't the only way to learn how to build muscle as a woman. Classic bodybuilding can also deliver some beautiful lean gains.
Classic bodybuilding routines usually use specified repetitions, as opposed to timed intervals. So, you'd do 12-15 reps, for examples, instead of 50 seconds. And usually, the moves aren't 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.
Because HIIT workouts are aimed at getting your heart rate up while also building muscle mass and classic bodybuilding is only focused on building muscle mass, you will often be lifting heavier when you do body building, since your energy will not be divided between fueling explosive movements and lifting weights—you only need to focus on the weight.
Another thing: bodybuilding workouts are more likely to hone in on isolation training. For example, body builders will have days that are just shoulders, or just glutes. With HIIT, again, you need to get your heart rate maxed, and this isn't likely to happen if you're just training a single muscle group.
This said, body building can include many of the multi-joint, multi-muscle compound movements of HIIT, so there is some crossover.
Bodybuilding workouts can last anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour, depending on your goals. However, 20 minutes of solid body building anywhere from two to five times a week (depending on how you break up training your muscle groups) can yield incredible results.
Start your bodybuilding on BodyRock+. In this beginner-friendly video below, Jess Shaw teaches the fundamentals of resistance training, showing you some of the most classic bodybuilding moves for lean muscle gain and fat loss. Broken up into different muscle groups for different days, you'll learn how to structure your bodybuilding routine for amazing gains.
Check out this FREE workout, then sign up for BR+ to try a full Bootcamp!
How Often Should Women Resistance Train?
Good question. Training each muscle group two times a week is all it takes to see results. So, if you're a beginner, you could do two full body resistance based workouts a week and notice changes. As you become more fit and your body more effective, you'll need to avoid fitness plateaus (where you stop seeing results because your body is no longer challenged) by leveling up.
To avoid plateaus and keep your resistance training delivering results, follow these tips:
1) Add more resistance—but make sure you can lift it properly to prevent injury. Again, this is where proper training comes in, so be sure to check out BodyRock+ if you're new to lifting. Our trainers guide you every step of the way.
2) Do a challenge. BodyRock+ has tons of them, and these challenges offer safe and effective ways to up your gains 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 bored lifting the same gear. Make it heave something new. Grab some Dumbbells, or a Sculpt Bar. These pieces of gear are among our top recommended when it comes to resistance training because they are equipment that can grow with your gains. Just add more plates as you get stronger.
Also, the Dumbbells and Sculpt Bar are super versatile, so you can use them in totally different ways for the rest of your life and your body will never get bored. For example, you can use dumbbells for unilateral training (one side of the body at a time, like with single leg kick-backs).
Learning how to build muscle as a woman is all about learning how to make the most from every workout. We're busy. We don't have a ton of time. The best way to make sure you stay focused is to make sure you stay interested. Fun gear and workouts that are short and effective are among the best ways to keep the love of lifting alive.
Why Women Won't Get Bulky From Resistance Training
Women don't have it in them to get huge from lifting—not unless they use tons of supplements and even drugs. We lack the amount of testosterone it takes to bulk up the way men do. Hell, even some men can't get the mass they want naturally.
This said, women can get super strong from resistance training. We're talking strength to rival many jacked up dudes. How? Easy. Muscle size is not indicative of muscle strength. Muscle size and how well we develop muscle (and lose fat) in certain areas of our bodies is up to 60% predetermined. This means you can have an insanely strong core, but still have some fat around your midsection if that is simply where your body has a genetic disposition to store it. You can have arms that are strong and ripped, but comparatively small, but still be able to bench a Buick.
The point is this: one of the best things about learning how to build muscle as a woman is that it also builds your confidence. Strength training takes your focus away from how you can look, to what you can do. And you can do a lot more than you think.
The Diet Crux: How to Gain Muscle, But Lose Fat
People who want to see changes in their body usually want to achieve two things simultaneously: they want to lose fat and gain muscle. The best way to achieve both of these things is to cycle your macronutrients—or macro cycle.
By cycling between high calorie and higher carb and low calorie and lower carb days you can maximize muscle building and fat loss. You already know this: the more muscle you have, the more energy is needed to support that muscle. In other words, the more muscle you have the more calories you torch. So even though you are eating more on the days you are building muscle (i.e. getting in your HIIT sessions or body building), by virtue of actually building this muscle and then cycling these building days with low calorie, fat-burning rest days, you’re putting yourself at an overall calorie deficit.
In addition to a higher amount of carbs, on your higher calorie days you will eat a moderate amount of protein and comparatively less fat. Think whole grains, lean cuts of meat, high-protein beans, protein shakes and smoothies, eggs, tofu, non-fatty fish, fruits, starchy vegetables. In total, you will be eating about 20% more than what is required to maintain your current weight.
Here’s a percentage breakdown of your macros for high calorie/high carb days:
On lower calorie days, you are going to eat a lower percentage of carbs, a high percentage of protein and a moderate amount of fat. In total, this breakdown of your macros is going to be about 20% less than your daily energy requirements to maintain your current weight. Think fatty fish (like salmon), ribs, chicken legs, nuts, green vegetables, protein shakes, cheese, milk, a little fruit, avocado olive/coconut oils. Because more of your daily calorie requirements will be coming from protein — especially slow releasing protein — you will stay satiated for longer, even though you are eating less.
Here’s a percentage breakdown of your macros for low calorie/low carb days:
These percentages are NOT set in stone, so don’t start obsessing over exact numbers. You should just have a general understanding of your daily energy requirements, and where your macros are coming from on high cal/carb and low cal/carb days.
If you still need help with nutrition, check our our guides. From plant-based nutrition to nutrition for those who intermittent fast to a general nutrition guide and meal plan, we've got all the nutritional guidance you need to get the gains you want.
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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 an otherwise healthy lifestyle. In addition to getting your diet on track, here are the other major lifestyle factors that influence lean muscle growth and fat loss.
Sleep. 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. The reason is simple: your body sees alcohol as a toxin, so while it’s busy processing that, it’s not processing anything else. Energy (i.e. food) is not being used, but is being stored. As fat.
In moderation and as an occasional indulgence, alcohol may not inhibit your fat loss goals, but if you’re tippling several times a week and cling to some unwanted weight, it may be time to put the booze on ice.
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. Thirst is often confused with hunger, making people eat more food than they need to when they really just need a drink of H2O.
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 time after a workout, and 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.
Example: If you’re 160 pounds, you need to drink 80 ounces of water.
Stress. You likely know by now that stress causes fat storage, especially around the midsection. But it can also inhibit your muscle gains because cortisol results in your body accelerating the breakdown of protein into sugar and amino acids. This results in your system using your hardwon muscle as its energy source.
Do your best to manage your stress levels by getting enough sleep, eating clean foods, making sure you don’t overtrain, doing relaxing activities like yoga and walking.
Learn more about how to reduce stress in Stress Reduction Made Easy.
Now you know how to build muscle as a woman, let’s get to it. Check out our Beginner Bootcamp on BodyRock+ for sweet, sweaty lean muscle gains!
You got this!