What is the true secret to building muscle?
The Secret to Building Muscles for Women
Are you a woman and do you want to build muscle? You’re not the only one! More and more women are taking charge of their fitness journeys, by working on strong and healthy bodies. So, it’s no surprise that many women are also keen on getting toned and building muscle. A strong body feels good, speeds up your metabolism and keeps you fit.
But how do you train in an effective way as a woman? And why are your male friends hitting their goals sooner than you? All good things to know so you can reach your goal of having a strong (looking) body. Let’s dive in and uncover the secret to building muscles for women!
Why is it harder for women to build muscle?
Let’s first address the elephant in the room: compared to men, it is harder for women to build muscle. Why is that?
Hormones: there is a difference in hormone levels between men and women. Men have higher levels of testosterone, the hormone that creates muscle growth. Because women have lower levels of testosterone, it takes longer for them to build muscle. Next to that, the menstrual cycles of women also have an effect on the capacity to build muscles. We’ll talk more about this later in this blog.
Body composition: women typically have a higher percentage of body fat and less muscle mass compared to men. This has to do with the fact that women can bear children and men can’t. But this also means that women have less muscle to build upon, and that makes it more difficult to create visible muscle growth.
The good news is that there are enough things that women can do to train effectively and get the strong body of their dreams. Let’s have a closer look at those muscle building secrets.
THE SECRET TO BUILDING MUSCLE FOR WOMEN
1 Train with your menstrual cycle
Your menstrual cycle can affect the results in the gym: one week you feel like you can take on the world, while a week later you’d rather stay on the couch. This is because your hormone levels fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle. This can impact your energy levels, strength, and recovery. That’s why it’s smart to keep your cycle in mind in your strength training.
Here’s what you need to know:
During day 1 to 14 of your cycle (the follicular phase) your estrogen levels rise. In this phase you feel strong and have all the energy of the world. This is the perfect time to go all out on your workouts, and train strong, because it’s easier for the body to build muscle.
During day 15 to 28 of your cycle (the luteal phase) your progesterone levels increase. In this phase you can feel tired and bloated. Be kind to yourself, and do more gentle workouts like low-intensity cardio, yoga, and light weight training.
Understanding your hormonal cycle and adjusting your training to it, will help to feel good and reach your muscle building goals faster.
2 Have a plan
Having a workout routine that matches your goals is the first step toward building muscles. Patience and consistency is key! Your muscles won’t grow after one sesh (or two). Create a routine that works for you and try to go to the gym at least two times a week. Are you next level dedicated? Then have one of our personal trainers to create a plan for you and keep you motivated.
But whatever you do: stick to your workout plan for 6-8 weeks. After that, increase the weight, switch up the exercises and repeat. Not sure where to start? Check out our beginner workout plan here.
And remember, the best routine is one that you can keep up! Make sure you’re having fun in your trainings. That’ll make it a lot easier to turn them into habits ;).
3 Don’t shy away from heavy weights
It’s an open door but, strength training is essential for building muscle. When you lift weights or perform resistance exercises, you create micro-tears in your muscle fibers. Your body then repairs these tears when you rest, and this is what let’s your muscles grow. If you want to build muscles, you need to increase your training weight over time and add more challenging exercises. So, don’t shy away from those heavy weights, challenge yourself, and you’ll see growth in no time.
4 Load Up On Proteins & Calories
The number one secret to building muscles are PROTEIN and CALORIES (yes, calories)! Protein is important for repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue. Calories give the energy your body needs to fuel your workouts and repair the muscle tissue. You need a balanced diet in which you have both if you want to get results.
Eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight a day for the best results. You can get your proteins out of meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and vegan options like tofu and tempeh. Of course, you can also support your diet with protein powders and protein bars.
Don’t forget to drink lots of water, and to healthy fats. You need those to keep your hormones at bay and stay energised.
5 Sleep, sleep, and sleep
It can be tempting to think that you need to hit the gym 24/7 if you want to build a strong body, but that is not true. Getting strong takes more than just lifting weights and eating protein. Rest is just as important for muscle growth.
So, chill in between workouts by taking a rest days or doing recovery exercises like yoga or light cardio. Never train the same muscle group two days in a row, because they need time to recover for your next workout. And of course, sleep! Become religious about sleeping 7 – 9 hours a night, so your muscles can grow and rest.
The Best Secret…
The secret to building muscles for women goes hand in hand with training, knowing the female body, nutrition, rest and dedication. The best secret? Have fun! At TrainMore you’ll find your biggest cheerleaders who will celebrate and support you on every step of your way. Keep showing up, and before you know it, you’ll have the strong and fit body of your dreams.
Grab your free gym session
Did you know that you can get a free day pass at TrainMore? After reading this blog you’re more than ready to hit the gym, so this free day will come in handy. Grab your free day pass here.
The Complete Guide To Building Muscle For Women From Trainers
Picture this: You’re hitting up the weight room on the reg for strength sessions, but you’re still waiting for the results. It can be so frustrating, but it’s not futile.
In a situation like this, it’s easy to resort to the tired “women aren’t as strong as men, therefore, it’s harder for us to gain muscle” stereotype. But according to Danyele Wilson, CPT and trainer for Evolve You, that claim isn’t as true as you might believe it to be.
You can get those gains with a few smart tweaks in your routine. “Women respond to strength training just as well as men,” she says. The biggest determinant of muscle mass in women comes down to three major things you can control: training, diet, and rest.
Meet the experts: Danyele Wilson, CPT, is a trainer for Evolve You. Hannah Davis, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and creator of Body By Hannah.
Of course, as Wilson notes, there are some immovable factors that can either hinder or help when it comes to muscle growth. The main one: testosterone. Overall, Wilson says, women tend to have much lower levels of testosterone, but that’s not always the case for every woman, and it’s not always true that every man will have higher levels. Rather, everyone’s hormonal makeup is entirely unique—it’s just that men tend to carry more testosterone naturally.
Sex-related differences aside, though, as far as muscle growth capacity goes, testosterone is pretty potent stuff. “It is easier to grow muscle the higher your testosterone levels are, and [those levels dip] as you age, which makes it harder,” Wilson adds.
Hormones aren’t the only factor in muscle growth. “Skeletal size and structure, plus age, can also affect a person’s ability to put on muscle,” Wilson says, noting that these genetic factors influence your body type and response to training and dieting.
Here, experts break down the best ways for women to start building muscle by tweaking your training, diet, and rest habits.
How To Strength Train To Build Muscle
From explosive strength (think: the ability to reach a basketball hoop) to absolute strength (like the ability to deadlift 400 pounds), there are a multitude of approaches to strength training. Not all will help hit the goal of building muscle.
The kind that will, though, is called hypertrophy. Essentially, this means you’re increasing the actual size and diameter of your muscle tissue. Here’s the ideal rep/set/rest/frequency scheme to align with a hypertrophic strength training program, according to the American Council on Exercise:
- 3 to 6 sets
- 6 to 12 reps
- 30 to 90 seconds of rest in between sets
- Using a weight at 70 to 80 percent of your one-rep-maximum (IRM), or essentially, how much weight you could lift for a single rep of a particular exercise. This 1RM calculator from ACE can help if you’re unsure.
As for how often you should be training, Wilson says three to five times per week is ideal for muscle growth.
It’s important to do the exercises with purpose, says Hannah Davis, CSCS, and creator of Body By Hannah. «I have many clients who are fearful of lifting heavier, but you really need to be training at a higher intensity in order to see progress,» she says. So if you’ve been sticking with those 10-pound dumbbells for upper-body exercises, stop underestimating yourself—grab those heavier weights (as long as your form is on point!).
Best Exercises For Building Muscle
Compound movements give you the most bang for your buck muscle activation-wise, Wilson recommends. Although hypertrophy training doesn’t necessarily hinge on doing compound-only movements, as Wilson notes, these types of exercises will activate the most muscles at once (and potentially produce faster results). That being said, though, if you prefer isolated exercises (say, biceps curls or the hamstring curl machine), just make sure that you hit each muscle group (legs, back, chest, arms) at least once per week. Here are five of her favorites:
1. Goblet Squat
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a weight in front of chest, elbows pointing toward the floor.
- Push hips back and bend knees to lower into a squat.
- Engage your glutes and push yourself back to standing. That’s 1 rep.
2. Sumo Deadlift
- Holding two kettlebells or dumbbells, stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed out.
- Position weights in front of thighs, palms facing in.
- Keeping knees slightly bent, press hips back as you hinge at the waist and lower the weights toward the floor.
- Squeeze glutes to return to standing. That’s 1 rep.
3. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
- With your right foot, step back about one and a half times your normal stride length, landing with the ball of that foot on the ground and your heel up.
- Lower the back leg straight down until it gently grazes the ground or close to, creating a 90-degree angle in the front leg.
- Push through the heel and midfoot of the front leg to return to standing, bringing your right foot back in line with your left.
- Repeat on the left side. That’s 1 rep.
- Bring yourself into a high plank position, with your feet a bit wider than hip-width apart with hands on an elevated surface. This will give you more stability. Think about wrapping your shoulders back, but keeping your ribcage knit together. Everything is super engaged in your core.
- As you lower yourself down, elbows should point out slightly.
- Push into your entire hand and press yourself back up. That’s 1 rep.
5. Dumbbell Chest Press
- Lie on a bench or Bosu ball with your knees bent and feet placed flat on the floor.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms upward, palms facing toward your feet.
- Slowly bend your arms and lower your them to the side, parallel with your shoulders, until your elbows nearly touch the ground.
- Slowly reverse the movement and return to start. That’s 1 rep.
Try this total-body strength workout:
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Best Training Plan For Building Muscle
Picking bang-for-your-buck moves and training with hypertrophy-focused reps is a solid start when it comes to packing on muscle, but according to Wilson, those gains will fizzle out if you’re not continuously challenging your muscles. That is, if you’re grabbing the same weights and doing the same moves on repeat.
Enter: progressive overload. It simply means increasing the intensity of your strength exercises through increased volume (or weight), reps and sets, frequency, or even time-under-tension (or how long it takes to complete a single rep, further challenging your muscles).
«Progressive overload adds stress to your muscles, allowing them to break down, rebuild, and get stronger.»
Why’s this important? “Your body is always in a state of adaptation, and eventually you’ll notice that the same set and rep scheme is no longer difficult to complete,” says Wilson. “Progressive overload adds stress to your muscles, allowing them to break down, rebuild, and get stronger.”
But how much (and when) should you up the ante when training for progressive overload? Aiming for a five to 10 percent increase each week, for any given variable, is a solid start, Wilson notes. An increase beyond that amount could up your risk for injury, she explains (say, going in for a 30-pound dumbbell chest press for six reps when the week prior you were hitting 15 pounds for that same number of reps).
How To Eat To Build Muscle
All those muscle-building workouts require quality fuel. “If your goal is to build muscle, it’s important that you’re getting sufficient amounts of protein, as well as balanced amounts of the other macronutrients, carbohydrates, and fats,” notes Wilson. “A common recommendation for gaining muscle is 1 gram of protein per pound (or 2.2 grams per kilogram) of body weight per day.”
And save the calorie skimping, Wilson says. “Increasing your daily caloric intake by 10 percent is often sufficient for promoting lean muscle growth,” she explains.
Davis says she often sees clients who barely eat all day long, and then eat a big meal before bed. «Not eating enough will prevent you from building muscle—you need protein and carbs to get stronger,» she says. You don’t necessarily need to fuel right before a workout (although if you do, Davis says an apple is her go-to), but you do need to eat enough to keep your body energized, and promote muscle-building.
Prioritize Rest For Building Muscle, Too
While this step might seem like the least-important factor in packing on muscle, according to Wilson, it’s absolutely paramount. “Rest is essential for muscle growth,” she explains, noting that your muscles need roughly 48 to 72 hours of rest in between strength sessions. (FYI: Dividing up training days based on lower- and upper-body moves can help keep you at three to five days of training per week!)
Sleep plays an important role too, she says. “Your muscles and tissues are replenished and restored during your sleep phase. Your brain is resting with very little activity, so your blood supply available to your muscles increases, delivering extra oxygen and nutrients so they can heal and grow.”
Davis recommends putting screens away an hour before bed and keeping your room dark and cool. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night. That means, don’t cut out a few hours of sleep to make time for a morning workout: «Skipping sleep is only going to hurt your progress.»
Fitness & Wellness Editor
Kristine Thomason is the fitness & wellness editor at Women’s Health, where she edits, writes, and helps oversee the food and fitness sections of the website and magazine. She’s also a NASM-certified personal trainer. Kristine has spent her editorial career focused on health and wellness—that includes teaming up with certified trainers to create workout routines, reporting on fitness trends, and interviewing experts about the latest health and wellness research. She’s an NYU graduate with a degree in journalism and psychology. In the past, her work has also appeared in Health, Men’s Health, Greatist, Refinery29, and more.
Julia Sullivan, CPT, is a New York City-based writer, indoor rowing instructor, outdoor enthusiast, newbie powerlifter, and devoted cat mother. Her work has been published in Women’s Health, SELF, Health, Huffington Post, and more. She holds a B.A. in journalism and gender studies from Arizona State University and a personal training certificate from the American Council on Exercise. When she’s not covering the latest health and wellness trends, you can find her hitting the hiking trails, working toward her deadlift goal of 400 pounds, and forcefully hugging her cat, Jeeves, against his will.
How to Build Muscle Fast & Safely: A Foolproof Guide
Looking to boost metabolism or fight age-related weight gain? The secret might just be building and sustaining muscle—here’s how to do it fast and safely!
Looking to boost metabolism or fight age-related weight gain? The answer to losing weight, increasing athletic performance, or staying toned throughout adulthood is at least partly tied to building and maintaining muscle. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and unrealistic promises online and from supplements for building muscle. Read on to discover the truth about how to build muscle, along with clearing up confusion about how many calories and protein are needed for muscle growth.
7 Fundamentals to Build Muscle
There are many muscle-building factors and how long it takes to build muscle can vary. Be wary of claims suggesting building muscle can be done quickly or with minimal effort. Instead, focus on these fundamentals for consistent and sustained muscle growth. 1. Be Patient The best way to build muscle mass is slowly over time, as overdoing it on calories and training increases the risk of fat gain and injury, respectively. Ultimately, be patient with the process detailed below and stay consistent! Stick with a workout program and healthy lifestyle choices even if gains are not seen immediately. Though it takes time to build muscle, it is nothing short of worth it! 2. Eat Enough Calories If you are cutting calorie intake too low in worry of gaining fat, you are doing yourself a disservice. In fact, undereating can lead to many undesirable consequences, including loss of muscle mass, a plummeted metabolic rate and immune system, and possible disruption of menstrual cycles and reproductive functions related to hormone imbalances. So disclosure: Gaining weight and building muscle is best accomplished in a caloric surplus. Now, this of course does not give a green light to eat as much as you want without thought to what you are eating. Focus on eating foods to help build muscle. Think of it like this: If you want to build a strong house, you need enough materials to build it. Not giving the body the supplies—especially protein and calories—it needs makes it next to impossible to build muscle and strength.
How Many Calories Should You Eat to Build Muscle?
Unfortunately, there is no simple number for everyone. Daily calorie needs are based on gender, age, activity levels, and other factors. To figure out how to build muscle, you first need to determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or an approximated amount of calories the body burns if you were idle for 24 hours. You then need to multiply an estimated BMR by an activity factor: • BMR x 1.2 if you are sedentary (low-intensity and leisurely activities)
• BMR x 1.375 if you are lightly active (light exercise and sports 1 to 3 days/week)
• BMR x 1.55 if you are moderately active (moderate exercise/sports 3 to 5 days/week)
• BMR x 1.725 if you are very active (moderate- to high-intensity exercise/sports 6 to 7 days/week)
• BMR x 1.9 if you are extremely active (very hard exercise/sports for 6 to 7 days/week and a physical job) To this new number, add an approximate 250 to 500 calories to your day to be in a caloric surplus and add muscle. Keep track of calories consumed and weight patterns. If you do not see any weight gain, increase calorie needs by 250 calories a day and track progress. A Registered Dietitian can also help determine calorie needs. Example: Based on this BMR calculator, a 30-year-old male weighing 150 pounds and standing tall at 6’1″ would need about 1724 calories/day purely to sustain himself. If he participates in moderate exercise three to five times a week, his BMR would be multiplied by the activity factor 1.55 and raise calorie needs to 2,672 a day. For weight gain and muscle growth, a daily range of 2,947 and 3,172 calories is likely suitable but it’s still important to track progress and adjust accordingly. 3. Consume Ample Protein Protein is the building block for muscle synthesis and can be thought of as the bricks of the house. Lean meats, poultry, dairy products, beans, nuts, and seeds are all valuable protein options to include in the diet. So, how much protein to build muscle? Whereas athletes’ protein needs are greater than non-athletes, they are not as high as commonly perceived. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, athletes should consume between 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (g/kg) per day. Most people do not need to get more than this amount of protein per day, although some elite athletes have higher protein needs than these levels. Keep in mind, more is not always better with protein for building muscle. It is possible to get too much protein by cutting out important foods that have carbs and healthy fats needed for building muscle (see below). Evidence also shows the timing of protein intake may be more beneficial for building lean muscle mass rather than quantity, as the body can only absorb about 30 grams of protein at a time. Three to four ounces of meat, a cup of cottage cheese, or one to one and a half cups of tofu are examples of foods that have around 30 grams of protein. Eating a high protein food at meals in addition to healthy high-protein snacks can be a way to meet protein needs for building muscle. Protein powders can also help meet protein needs, but they are not necessary for muscle gain. Ultimately, protein intake should be spaced evenly throughout the day and consumed within an hour or two following workouts. 4. Don’t Skimp Out on Carbs While protein is often thought to be the sole driver of muscle growth, we must not undermine the impact of carbs. Eating enough carbs is important to spare using protein for energy and keeping the protein used for building muscle. Carbs help deliver a steady dose of energy to the working muscles while exercising and help stabilize blood sugars. Carbs also spare glycogen (stored glucose) in the muscle cells, helping to prevent muscle fatigue that tends to follow as muscle glycogen begins to fall. Focus attention on healthy complex carbs such as whole grains, cereals, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products that are rich in nutrients. Also pair with protein sources following a workout, which may include Greek yogurt and berries and cottage cheese and pineapple chunks. 5. Don’t Fear the Fat Fearing the fat in worry to gain it can be harmful to your progress. Those so-called «healthy fats,» including monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, can assist processes used for muscle growth and recovery, including immune and hormonal functions. Complement protein and carb sources with healthy fats, including fatty fish, avocado, walnuts, almonds, olive, and canola oils. Furthermore, limit the consumption of saturated and trans fats, including processed meats and convenient snack foods. Since fats supply nine calories per gram (compared to four from carb and protein sources), their inclusion can help increase caloric needs if struggling to sustain a caloric surplus needed to build muscle. 6. Lift Weights Muscle protein synthesis (building muscle) is stimulated by strength training either at home or at a gym. Not only can a hyper-caloric diet without such training simply promote weight gain, but results in fat gain. Therefore, both diet and lifting weights are key for faster and more sustainable muscle growth. To start, include weight and strength training at least twice a week and focus on the major muscle groups, including the back, chest, arms, and legs. As a general reference, complete two or three sets of eight to 12 repetitions, with a minute or two of rest between sets. Especially if a beginner to strength training, start slow and consider a personal trainer. They can help create an effective and individualized exercise plan to meet personal needs, along with demonstrating proper form and technique to ensure safety and lower the risk of injury. As you progress with familiarity and comfort with your strength training, gradually increasing in amount and/or time for strength training can help build muscle over time. Adding in aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, jogging, etc., can also add health benefits and benefit muscle endurance. It should not be excluded from a workout routine, but strength training is the focus when building muscle is your main goal. 7. Rest and Recover «Work hard» is often the name of the game when it comes to building muscle mass. But eager drives and motivations can cause us to sleep on an integral component of muscle growth. Resistance training breaks down body tissues and causes microscopic tears within the muscle. Rest days allow your muscles, nerves, bones, and connective tissue time to rebuild themselves, especially when paired with a nutritious diet. An effective and safe workout regimen strategizes rest days, as recovery is just as critical as the workout itself and lowers the risk of injury. So along with training each major muscle group two or three days per week, allot at least 48 hours for recovery between each training session and aim for seven to nine hours of adequate sleep on a nightly basis.
Recap: How to Build Muscle
Increasing muscle can be an important piece of resisting weight gain and keeping metabolism high throughout adulthood. While there is no tried and true “quick fix” to build muscle, it can be done most efficiently with consistency in the proper balance of strength training and eating a healthy, balanced diet. Protein is often highlighted as the main star for building muscle quickly, and it is true protein plays an important role. However, getting enough total calories, carbohydrates, and healthy fats is just as important for muscle. Rest and recovery are often overlooked for building muscle, but they are an important piece of the puzzle. They allow time for the muscle to repair and actually build itself back up stronger after being broken down from exercise.
Written by Sydney Lappe. Updated on January 11, 2023.