The Ultimate Women’s Guide To Building Lean Muscle

Getting a lean body takes some serious effort. You need to have a solid program and you need to work that program consistently. The process can be challenging and frustrating — it can also be confusing. There is a great deal of misinformation floating around out there. Exercises and diets that promise you quick, easy results that seem too good to be true are more often than not just that — too good to be true.

Let us clear things up for you! Here are some tips, backed by science, that will clear up the confusion and misinformation and help you get that lean muscle you’ve always wanted!

lifting weights and strength training

1. Train for Muscle. Women often focus their workouts on cardio exercises aimed at fat loss. On the surface, this seems like a good idea but it’s not nearly as effective as lifting weights and strength training to shed excess body fat. Studies have shown that when women focus on cardio based exercises, they are less successful because they end up losing body fat and their lean muscle - which slows down the body’s ability to burn excess fat. Lean muscle is the body’s fat burning engine, and the more lean muscle tone that you have, the more efficient your body will be in dealing with excess body fat. There has been a massive shift in women’s fitness away from steady state cardio (like running on a treadmill or using an elliptical machine) towards strength training combined with HIIT (high intensity interval training). Study after study has proven that strength combined with HIIT is by far the most effective workout for fat loss and general fitness conditioning.  If you would like to learn this style of strength training, you can try our Beginner Bootcamp, or our Intro to Strength series on our fitness streaming platform Both of these series teach the basics of strength training, and include HIIT components to maximize fat loss. 

Another benefit to training for muscle is that the exercises you will do significantly boost your metabolism, causing you to burn more calories during your post-workout recovery period. All of this can trigger hormones that help you to burn fat and curb your appetite.

Don’t Slash Calories

2. Don’t Slash Calories. Everything in our culture seems to support the idea that women are required to starve themselves in order to look better. How many times have you seen something telling you to eat as little as possible? Plain and simple, this will not help you get the results you desire. When you drastically reduce calories, your metabolism slows down in order to preserve fuel sources, causing you to burn fewer calories. Basically, you never want to dip below your resting metabolic rate (RMR). Your RMR is the amount of calories you would burn if you did nothing and stayed in bed all day. An average woman of normal weight who doesn’t exercise has an estimated RMR of 1441 calories. This is the absolute minimum a woman should eat. If you are working out, you’ll need to eat more. Remember, this is just a rough estimate. The exact number of calories you need to consume will depend on your body composition, genetics, diet, physical activity, and the type of training you are doing. Instead of randomly slashing calories and trying to maintain a totally unsustainable low-grade starvation, get on our BodyRock Meal Plan and eat enough healthy, delicious meals and snacks that support both your active, busy life and your fat loss goals. Stop slashing. Start eating your way towards your goals. 

Don’t Obsess About Calories

3. Don’t Obsess About Calories. Obsessively counting calories is another misguided habit that many women learn to adopt by our warped diet culture. Studies have found that counting calories can create anxiety which elevates stress levels in the body. These elevated stress levels cause your body to produce more of the stress hormone cortisol. Restricting calories can also elevate your cortisol levels. So, if you are cutting calories AND counting them, you are likely compounding the problem and causing yourself unnecessary anxiety. 

Cortisol is the stress hormone that can cause you to crave high-carb foods and store fat around your midsection. The solution to this problem is to find a way to naturally reduce your calorie intake without leaving yourself feeling hungry. Try a higher protein, lower carb diet like the one in our Meal Plan. Protein can help your body release hormones that make you feel satiated and reduce hunger. Many women simply don’t get enough lean protein into their diets, which makes building and maintaining fat burning lean muscle significantly more difficult than it needs to be. 

The BodyRock Meal Plan Bundle.

The BodyRock Meal Plan Bundle ($29.99)

We have a number of best selling Meal Plans that are based on a common sense approach to food, and that will do all the heavy lifting for you when it comes to eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting in enough protein to support lean muscle development and maintenance. Our plans include grocery lists, easy to prep meals, snacks and deserts, and all of our plans are optimized for fat loss and to support a busy, active lifestyle. Stop counting calories, and start eating delicious foods that will support your goals. We even have an Intermittent Fasting Plan for women, in which there are no food restrictions of any kind. If you have been struggling with your diet, stop trying to navigate food on your own - get the support you need from a plan designed to deliver results. 

Don’t Obsess About Calories

4. Don’t be afraid of dietary fatFor women, low-fat diets can be problematic. When women avoid dietary fat, they have a tendency to eat more carbs. This causes fluctuations in blood sugar levels which raises insulin and reduces fat burning capabilities. Not getting enough fat can also create hormone imbalances because the body uses the cholesterol from fat to manufacture hormones.

Natural fat sources like eggs, butter, and fish, provide essential nutrients that the body can readily absorb. When women are not getting enough of these nutrients, it may elevate hunger cues and lead to overeating.  A solution to this problem is to include a variety of healthy fats in your diet. You can get omega-3s from fish and grass-fed meat, monounsaturated fats from nuts, seeds and avocados, and saturated fats from eggs, butter and coconut oil. It is best to avoid processed fats like vegetable oils and trans-fats which are often hidden as hydrogenated oils in packaged foods.

Improve Estrogen Metabolism.

5. Improve Estrogen MetabolismWhen in balance with other hormones and androgens, estrogen can be beneficial for female body composition and health. But, too much estrogen can lead to fat storage. So where does all this extra estrogen come from?

Chemical estrogens found in plastics may be one source while poor estrogen metabolism is another possibility. Poor estrogen metabolism is caused by a poor diet, lack of exercise and lack of muscle mass.

Improving your estrogen balances involves a multi-pronged approach. First, cut down on toxic estrogen exposure by eliminating plastics. Second, make sure you get plenty of exercise and begin training with weights to improve your body composition. Finally, shift your diet. Eat more protein and be sure to include plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables — cruciferous vegetables in particular like, broccoli and cauliflower.

Improve Estrogen Metabolism.

6. Cut Unhealthy Carbs in Favour of Fruits and Vegetables. It can be easy to lose track of how many refined carbs you are consuming. Breads, cereals and packaged low-fat foods contain carbs that will spike insulin and raise blood sugar levels. Any of that sugar your body doesn’t burn off right away will be stored as fat. The more of these foods you eat, the more resistant your body becomes to insulin and the more fat it will store.

Healthy, whole carbs work differently. These healthy carbs slowly raise blood sugar and provide important nutrients that actually increase your body’s insulin sensitivity. Found in foods like vegetables, these carbs also contain fiber which slows digestion and leaves you feeling fuller, longer. Boiled grains and fruit are also healthy sources of carbs but since they are more calorie dense than vegetables, it is important to be mindful of your portion size and consume them when your body is most sensitive to insulin like after an intense workout.

If you struggle with area and feel like you need more support with cutting down on high sugar carbs, we have our “Low Carb Lifestyle” support guide which can help you balance out your carb intake. 

Try Intermittent Fasting

7. Try Intermittent Fasting. One thing that will help you get lean is to establish an eating pattern within a set window or period of time. Intermittent Fasting is a game changer if you are accustomed to more traditional diets that are focused mainly on limiting food choices and restricting calories and food choice options. Intermittent Fasting breaks away from traditional diets by shifting the focus entirely away from what you are eating to when you are eating. As mentioned above, there are no restrictions on what you can eat (but obviously you should do your best to make healthy choices), there is no calorie counting, points based rules, or any other complicated protocols. That said, fasting plans for women are different from fasting plans for men, plans for women need to account for hormonal differences and other specific requirements that a woman’s body has to be both safe and effective. Fasting can be timed to coincide with sleep, which makes this approach one of the easiest and most flexible ways to support lean muscle development and fat loss. You can read more about the incredible health and weight loss benefits of fasting for women here. You can also check out our Intermittent Fasting Plan ($24.99) specifically designed for women here.

Get Metabolically Flexible.

8. Get Metabolically FlexibleBeing metabolically flexible means your body is able to burn both fat and carbohydrates for energy. This helps you to reduce fat while maintaining energy levels.

When you are not in this state, you will have a difficult time burning fat and you will need to boost your energy by eating carbs every few hours. Without this carb boost, you will experience a blood sugar dip which can make you feel cranky and tired. Fuelling your body with carbs raises insulin levels and makes it virtually impossible to get lean.

The solution is to find a balance between your energy sources. There are two ways you can improve your metabolic flexibility. First, reduce the number of calories you are getting from carbohydrates in favour of calories from protein and fat. For example, if you are getting 55% of your calories from carbs, cut that back to 40% and increase your protein calories to 25% and your fat calories to 35%. Just make sure the carbs you are eating are healthy, complex carbs. Second, increase your exercise! Fat burning increases during exercise and this helps your metabolism! Any of our BodyRock Meal Plans will take care of balancing all of this out for you so that your meals are optimized for fat loss

Train Your Full Body

9. Train your Full BodyWomen often find themselves sidetracked at the gym by doing isolation exercises and small movements that target specific body parts. These types of exercises are not efficient metabolism boosters and do little to create an after-burn when compared to full body exercises. In our BodyRockPlus workouts, our coaches include full body exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, because these movements target multiple muscle groups at the same time, making the exercise more efficient, while also tightening and toning core muscles. To increase these results further, consider adding some extra resistance to your movements. Wearing a weighted vest, for example, is a great way to add extra weight without hindering your movements. The vest makes your body work harder without you having to change your routine. Need a vest? Get one here!

Combine Strength and HIIT training together for maximum results.

10. Combine Strength and HIIT training together for maximum results. Doing HIIT (high intensity interval training) and Strength Training together, is the most effective way to get lean. When you combine HIIT with Strength Training you will torch calories during your workout and trigger an ‘after-burn’ that will increase the number of calories you burn for up to 24-36 hours after you’ve stopped working out! This type of training also leads to protein synthesis so you can improve lean muscle mass and keep your metabolic rate steady while you lose fat. Lastly, this type of training releases your fat burning hormones. These hormones mobilize fat for burning and add to the after-burn by increasing your post-workout energy expenditure. For example, active women who did 4-6 X 30 second HIIT exercise sprints for just 6 weeks lost an average of 3 pounds of fat (see what losing 5 pounds of body fat looks like here) and reduced their body fat by 8%! If you are overweight, you can expect even greater fat loss.

BodyRock Beginner Bootcamp

A shot from the BodyRock Beginner Bootcamp series. 

How to get started: If you are looking to get started and don’t know how to begin, we have a number of proven resources that can help you take your first steps towards your fitness and fat loss goals. Our 30 Day Beginner Bootcamp is the perfect place to get started, even if its been years or even decades since you last purposefully exercised. Our Beginner Bootcamp is challenging, but also achievable, which means that you will be able to successfully finish each day's 10-15 minute long workout - helping you not just build lean muscle and shed fat, but also establish the confidence that comes from consistently being able to complete your daily training. Over a quarter of a million women (and men) have completed the Bootcamp so far, and their results have been nothing short of a bloody miracle. If you like our vibe here at BodyRock, consider picking up a Meal Plan (why not give fasting a try) and giving the 30 Day Beginner Bootcamp a whirl. For a limited time we are offering a full year of access to our Fitness streaming platform BodyRockPlus (think NetFlix or Disney+ for workouts) for just $69 with code NY22

Have you felt confused in your attempts to get lean? Does this information help things make a little more sense? 





@Tiffany do you know if it’s better to do in the morning or at night before sleep? For better effect.

Lana July 26, 2016

Hi! I have exercised consistently since I was 15. My frustration is that I am now 53, in menopause and I have tried so many different things to drop some numbers on the scale and it will not budge. I hike 4 days a week and just started taking a body pump class at the gym 3 days a week. After my divorce I gained 18 lbs (of which I had lost because of stress) and I am now 159 lbs. I also have tried replacing meals with protein shakes and eating one healthy meal a day and nothing seems to change. One thing that hasn’t changed is that I am not willing to give up and I keep looking for a solution that will work for me.

Kathryn July 24, 2016

Hi, I just wanted to clarify in the very last section, it says: “active women who did 4-6 30 second running sprints for 6 weeks…”

Does this mean 4-6 30 second running sprints per day for six weeks? Or per week?


Jenny July 21, 2016

there are so many work outs to chose from and so much different advice. I have been bullied all of my life about my body.

Tammy Brunk July 11, 2016

Thanks for the info. I just broke my arm, in a cast for 6 weeks to my elbow. In looking to reorganize my workouts and nutrition, this info is helpful. Upping my protein for bone healing is already on the agenda but any other suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. I normally would be running but have to change the routine for a few weeks :( , trying to keep my chin up.

Linda July 10, 2016

I am doing about 30 minutes of cardio followed by 30-45 minutes of weight training. I eat healthy but I’ve hit a plateau. Any advice?

Jenn July 09, 2016

Your site rocks. I can’t wait to get bodied after I give birth!!! Thanks so much.

Racquel Charlemagne July 05, 2016

When discussing the effect of estrogen what is the beat way for women that are post menopausal. I currently take a low dose hormone to negate the effects of menopause but is that working against me adding estrogen to my body and is there a better way.

thank you

Karen Birdsall July 01, 2016

Is it better to count calories and macros or just keep track of macros? Also how do I find out what percentage of macros would help me build muscle and lower fat percentage?

Jennifer June 09, 2016

Good point, specifics are useful. The article is referring to 4-6 sets of running at full sprint speed for 30 seconds with (I’m assuming) about 10 second rests in between each set. I would personally recommend not stopping during the rest periods in between, but to slow to a jog or at least keep moving (such as walking). As for how many times a week, they seem to have completely left that out. I’m not sure if you were posing your question because you yourself wanted to know, or if you were simply providing some positive criticism to have the writer elaborate for the sake of others reading. Either way, I would say that if somebody did these at least 3-4 times a week that they should notice some sort of change. I am not a personal trainer, but I do have a bit of experience with HIIT. Hope this helps.

Tiffany June 09, 2016

When you say “active women who did 4-6 30 second running sprints for 6 weeks” could you be more specific? I’m guessing you don’t mean they sprinted for thirty seconds, once a day, 4-6 times a week for 6 weeks.

Sarah June 03, 2016

This was really great information ;-) Thanks.I actually have implemented a lot of the info you mention already.Its just nice to see I’m on the right track and this article was a great confirmation.

Nisia Hobbs May 28, 2016

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