Nowadays, many women are leaving behind the notion of achieving a skinny frame and are instead switching to the “strong not skinny” mindset.
While this is still a difficult body standard to achieve, it still encourages women to feel more empowered and confident to venture into male-dominated free weight corners of the gym to work on their desired physique, with more of a focus on health, strength, and muscle building as opposed to solely appearance.
Though muscle gains (for anyone) can only occur when an effective training strategy is paired with optimal nutrition. This is all the more difficult for women who have additional needs to address due to the physiological differences compared to men.
And unfortunately, much of the muscle-building advice and recommendations available are largely tailored towards men. But, we’re here to change up the advice, so have put together this short guide for women wanting to take on a bulking phase and achieve some serious muscle gains!
Let’s delve in!
Women and Muscle Building: Myths and Misconceptions
Firstly, it’s important to clear up some initial misconceptions about women and building muscle - misconceptions that actually put women off the idea of lifting weights.
Here are three of the most common myths:
#1 Women shouldn’t lift weights because it’s dangerous
Women can and do excel at weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding. While lifting weights at any capacity is often stereotyped as a man’s sport, there are plenty of elite female athletes who are some of the strongest people in the world.
In fact, men may lift more weight in total pounds, but when it comes to contests of strength relative to body weight, women can outlift the guys any day of the week.
Any weightlifting-based sport is simply not dangerous for women, provided whoever is taking part is lifting correctly with proper form. Anything done incorrectly is dangerous.
#2 Women who lift weights will get too “bulky”
Another common myth is that weightlifting will make women look too “bulky”. Firstly, it’s not fully understood why this would be a bad thing in the first place. Remember, it is actually completely ok to not follow typical societal body standards. You can look however you want to look - bulky or otherwise.
Additionally, if a woman did want to look “bulky”, this wouldn’t be an easy thing to achieve as it would for a man due to the physiological differences.
While you would gain muscle over time, you would have to train hard for a very long time to achieve a bulky physique. The lack of testosterone would make it much more difficult to build muscle and shed fat, so more time and effort would have to be put in.
This isn’t to say it’s unachievable though, and definitely should not be seen as a negative to want to achieve this look!
#3 Women should lift lightweight to “tone”
Workout routines for women are often focused on lightweight and bodyweight exercises with lots of reps. This is supported by the notion of “toning” your muscles as opposed to making them bigger.
Toning is already a misleading term, as to achieve a more “toned” look, you would be gaining muscle and losing fat simultaneously to look leaner.
You can’t change the shape of the muscle, it either grows bigger or gets smaller. So, “toning” isn’t really an evidence-based concept.
Instead, following a muscle-building program that actually focuses on the principles of muscle building will be more beneficial for achieving the muscular, strong, and healthy physique you're striving to achieve.
A Female Guide to Muscle Building
When embarking on a muscle-building journey, it’s important to apply the 5 key principles:
1) Progressive overload
Progressive overload is the requirement to keep progressing in terms of training volume so we can consistently force our muscles to adapt and grow. The more we train, the more adapted our bodies become, so we must introduce constant stimulus to push us to grow and develop.
The load on the bar is the only variable we must manipulate to create a higher training volume week after week, so it’s key to keep pushing towards new personal bests with increased weight in order to grow!
2) Training volume
This goes hand in hand with the above. You can increase training volume by increasing the number of sets of a certain exercise, increasing the frequency of the exercise each week, adding extra movements to sessions, and implementing training methods such as drop sets, supersets, and pyramid sets.
Though, there must be a suitable stimulus to create muscle growth. This means that you cannot go through sessions doing lots of reps at a lightweight. This is not enough to force muscle adaptations and growth. Reps must be in the ranges of around 8-20 at a reasonable yet challenging weight.
Plenty of training volume is needed for muscle growth, so ensure you are really pushing challenging weights, training to near-failure, and introducing small increases in volume each week.
3) Training style
Remember when we mentioned “toning”? This training style will not trigger effective muscle growth, nor will isolation movements such as bicep curls.
While there is a place for these movements in any training program, they are only really effective when you have developed the foundations of basic fitness and physique.
You must include movements in your program that are efficient for all-around muscular development. Compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, military press, and bench press are absolutely foundational to any muscle-building program.
These movements will help strengthen stabilizing muscles, reduce the risk of injury, and stimulate the release of growth hormone in the body, helping with muscle growth.
As we have established, progression is key to creating muscle adaptations. Though, in order to progress, we must address recovery protocols.
Without adequate rest and the right nutrients, our body will suffer and be unable to efficiently recover. You may find yourself overreaching at some point during your program, which is a strong indicator that you should take a few days off to allow your body to fully recover.
Ensure you have plenty of rest days programmed in during the training phase, and even consider a deload week where you back off the weight and prioritize lighter weights and higher reps to allow recovery to take place.
Going hand in hand with recovery and performance is nutrition. Without a suitable nutrition plan, your training and gains overall will suffer.
To really optimize your health, performance, recovery, and gains, nutrition must be dialed in.
Firstly, your body needs adequate energy to grow muscle. Calories must be considered here, consuming food in a slight surplus to allow for the process to take place effectively.
Secondly, consuming around 2.0g of protein per kg of body weight is key for muscle building. Consuming parts of your daily protein intake in regular intervals throughout the day will ensure you’re maximizing muscle protein synthesis.
Translated into simpler advice: consuming enough food to support muscle growth, in regular meals that center around a good quality protein source, is absolutely key.
Ideally, each meal should also contain adequate carbohydrates and fats, which will provide your body with the energy and key nutrients needed for muscle growth and general health.
Additionally, consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole foods will ensure you’re taking in the right nutrients in the right amounts to support health, immunity, and muscle growth.
Supplements may also play a big role in your nutrition plan, particularly if you follow a certain diet or way of eating that excludes some foods. A multivitamin, fish oils, whey protein powder, vitamin D, and creatine are among some of the most useful supplements for bodybuilding.
There are many misconceptions about women and muscle-building. Women can build muscle and get strong as well as men can. While it is definitely more challenging for women, it’s still doable and encouraged!
To build muscle, we must consider the 5 key principles:
- Progressive overload
- Training volume
- Training style
If any of these principles are missing, it will make the process longer and more difficult. Consume the right amount of food, eat enough protein, carbohydrates, and fat, consume plenty of micronutrients, consider supplements to fill any gaps, and follow an effective training program.
Do all this and you can achieve your body goals!