In general, the male body produces far more testosterone than the female body. And since testosterone is what helps gain muscle building into high gear, you might wonder if it’s even possible for a woman to gain an appreciable amount of muscle.
Many women gravitate to the cardio machines due to a fear of getting bulky if they incorporate too much weight into their workout. However, strength training is often the solution to the aesthetic look so many women chase. As a trainer, it is important to understand the benefits of muscle and how to help your female clients build lean muscle as you help them achieve their goals.
Functionally, muscles protect your bones, organs, and tissues—and even help you heal quickly. Muscles can also be an important factor in maintaining your weight. Muscle requires more energy and therefore burns more calories than fat. The more muscle mass you have, the faster your metabolism is. More muscle means burning more at rest, plus being able to work harder during your workouts. Double-win.
Of course, just as with weight loss, gain muscle isn’t *all* about what you do in the gym. It also comes down to caloric intake, sleep, hydration, and recovery. Ready to build more? Follow this two-part plan for how to gain muscle both inside and out of the gym.
But to get these results, you need to do it the right way. And for that we are here to give you tips on gaining muscle
A common fitness goal for both men and women is gaining muscle. Not only does muscle make you look and feel stronger, it reduces the risk of many chronic conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.
Eating for muscle development is different from simply trying to reduce body fat. Muscle is a highly active metabolic tissue that requires substantial nutrients for repair and growth, especially after progressively difficult workouts.
Because most women naturally have less testosterone than their male counterparts, muscle-building can feel like a slower process. Men are also more likely to eat for muscle growth, while some women shy away from this approach due to concerns about gaining body fat. This misconception can translate to restrictive dieting that fails to provide enough calories or nutrients to support muscle growth and definition.
It’s not only possible, it’s one of the best things that you can do for yourself! Building lean muscle increases a woman’s functional strength, metabolism, and insulin sensitivity—and it’ll help her resist fat gain in the future. All in all, gaining weight in the form of muscle can be a far better way to go about achieving the body you desire then simply trying to lose weight.
How to Train to Gain Muscle
Hit the Weights
Muscles respond to the demands we place on them. So, if a client’s goal is muscle hypertrophy (increase the size of the muscle), they need to increase the amount of stress on the muscle.
Heavy lifting creates micro-tears in the muscle which trigger the body’s repair system. Cells, hormones, and nutrients are activated and sent to muscle to help repair the tears. Overtime, this process helps create bigger, stronger muscles equipped to meet the demands consistently placed on them.
The recommended number reps for muscle growth is typically 6-12 reps and ideally 3-4 sets. So, in alignment with lifting heavy, the weight needs to be heavy enough that your client cannot complete more than 12 reps each set.
It is important to ensure your client uses proper form throughout all sets. Heavy weight isn’t the only goal. If the exercise cannot be done properly with heavy weights, decrease the weight. If your client is lifting improperly, they may not be engaging the proper muscles and they are much more likely to get injured.
Do Compound Strength Exercises
Strength training is a huge factor when it comes to how to gain muscle mass. But not every move is created equal. Jaclyn Sklaver, a functional sports nutritionist and trainer based in New York favors compound movements (think: total-body exercises). They burn more calories. “Full-body workouts are ideal for maximum muscle growth,” she says. “The more a body part is used, the more hypertrophy that occurs.”
Focus on working the largest muscle groups in your body: your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Exercises include squats, lunges, deadlifts, cleans, burpees, walking lunges, and plyometric moves like jump squats and box jumps with or without weights. (Related: How to Build the Perfect Circuit Training Workout)
And PS: Don’t be afraid to lift heavy. (Read: How Often You Should Do Heavy Weight Lifting Workouts) You can start small and build up. If you’re doing eight to 10 reps of any move comfortably, for example, increase your weight. For bodyweight moves? Simply do more reps (if you can—some bodyweight exercises are challenging enough!)
One of the most important elements to achieving muscle gains is consistency, so aim to weight train four to five days a week, if possible. Recording your exercises and weights in a journal is a great way to track gains. You can have good intentions to lift heavy, but the only way you will know if you are getting stronger is by writing down the sets, reps and weights used during each workout. Another thing to consider is the breakdown of your weight-training sessions. Will you perform total-body workouts or focus exclusively on upper- or lower-body exercises? Or maybe two body parts per workout? Whatever you end up deciding, the key is consistency and overload.
What to Eat to Gain Muscle
Consume Enough Protein
Protein is one of the most essential macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) for building muscle. Protein is made up amino acids that help repair and build the micro tears that occur during heavy lifting. This helps rebuild the muscle bigger and stronger. For building muscle, research suggests women need 1.6-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day (1). And, more isn’t necessarily better. Much more protein than that may not provide any value in regard to muscle growth (2). Good sources of protein include poultry, fish, eggs, hemp seed, and red meat.
Consume Enough Calories
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, women should typically eat between 1,600 and 2,400 calories a day. However, the actual number of calories your client needs varies based on age, height, metabolism, weight, physical activity level, etc. A client should first determine how many calories they need daily with their current level of activity.
The question then becomes: How many additional calories do they need to build muscle?
This can be a delicate balance. Too many calories can add fat weight. Not enough calories may not be sufficient for muscle growth. Many fitness professionals suggest the magic number is somewhere between 250-500 extra calories per day as it takes somewhere around 2,500 calories to build a pound of muscle.
Fad diets: The billion-dollar fad diet industry is filled with empty promises and fake health foods. Many people follow these expensive diets and are still unable to reach and maintain fitness goals. Overtraining combined with undereating is a futile cycle that’s more likely to inhibit muscle gains than support them.2
Food guilt: If you get down on yourself and allow slip-ups to define you, you may be more susceptible to unhealthy exercise practices or giving up. While some people can enjoy a cheeseburger and move on, others struggle for days falsely believing that all of their muscle-building efforts are ruined by one less-than-perfect meal. Spoiler alert: They’re not.
Restricting carbs and fats: Both carbohydrates and fats have been blamed as a reason for excess body fat. However, eliminating these macronutrients deprives lean tissue of essential nutrients for muscle growth making it harder to get the results you’ve been working towards.
Use Supplements Wisely
You can see great results by combining your multivitamin and fish oil in the morning at breakfast, then taking a pre-workout product and creatine before your workout to amplify your performance. Then, you can follow up your daily workout with a whey blend and glutamine for a speedier recovery, and finish your day by taking ZMA (an acronym for zinc, magnesium, and aspartate) right before bed to improve sleep and speed recovery.
This daily supplement protocol is just another step you can take to reach your goal of adding lean mass to feel stronger and more confident!
Rest Time Between Workouts
A client can lift hard and eat well all they want. But, if they don’t allow the muscles the time to recover and rebuild themselves, muscle growth will be slow or non-existent. Not only does muscle tissue need rest for building and recovery but, without it, the body may become more susceptible to injury.
Lack of sleep can hinder muscle growth. One study found a substantial difference in muscle mass when comparing subjects that slept 5.5 hours verses 8.5 hours each night (3). The amount of sleep that each individual needs can vary. However, experts typically recommend 7-9 hours of sleep each night for overall health.
It will take time for the body to grow and change. Clients shouldn’t expect to see changes after one workout in the weight room. Depending on your client, it may take 1-2 months to see visible signs of muscle hypertrophy.
When it comes to staying consistent with frequency, one study found that the major muscle groups should be worked at least twice a week to maximize muscle growth (4). And, it isn’t ideal to have those two days back to back. Remember, there should be rest in between. Help clients develop a regimen that puts enough stress on the muscle to create change and enough rest time to allow it to build back up. And, encourage them to stick to it.
Read more How to Build Muscle and Grow Muscle Fast