Muscle Building For Women

Muscle Building Tips For Women

It used to be necessary to reassure women that they wouldn’t get “big and bulky” from weight training. The tide is turning: Women are excited about building muscle and getting strong. Whether it’s the understanding that muscle is protective against disease, or that building muscle makes women feel powerful, training for muscle is the way to go.

Muscle Building For Women

With the increased visibility of muscular women in popular sports from CrossFit to gymnastics, many women are seeking out muscle as a goal of their training. They want to lift heavier weights and achieve as much lean mass as genetically possible.

The one difficulty is there is a lack of reliable information on the best way for women to build muscle. Although we know a lot about muscle hypertrophy (the technical term for muscle growth) in males, research into female muscle building is in the early stages. The same general principles apply to both sexes, but there is some evidence that women can benefit from fine tuning workouts to their unique physiology.

This article will highlight recent studies on muscle building for women and give you tips for getting the most muscle out of your training.

Tip #1: Train With A High Volume

Volume refers to the amount of work performed. It is defined as the number of reps done in a workout. A high volume is important for women to build muscle because it causes metabolic stress. Metabolic stress stimulates protein synthesis, or the process by which the body builds muscle.

For novice women, using a moderate volume of 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps is great for building muscle. More advanced women will benefit from a higher volume in the 4 to 5 set range with a similar rep scheme. Occasionally including even more sets in the 6 to 8 range can pay off. Going higher in reps into the 15 to 30 range for certain body parts, such as the glutes or quads, can also help maximize muscle growth.

Tip #2: Train With A High Frequency

Training frequency refers to the number of days per week you train. Common sense tells us that the more often you train a muscle, the more it will grow. Studies show that while novices can experience significant increases in strength from training just two days a week, women with more experience will benefit from 4-plus days a week.

A recent review of 24 studies that tested muscle building in women involved in a strength training program found that frequency correlated with greater strength and muscle in both the lower and upper body. Consistency was the key to success.

One approach to maximize frequency is to use a training split in which you divide the body into upper and lower body exercises. Train each body part 2 to 3 days a week. This allows for rest and recovery of one body part when you are training the other. If you train lower body Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, those muscles can recover when you are training upper body on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Tip #3: Include Heavy Weights

One of the biggest pitfalls to building muscle for women is undertraining, or using weights that are too light. One study found that women routinely lifted loads that were between 42 and 51 percent of their 1RMs. This is an intensity that is too low to produce overload, meaning the women were wasting their time.

When training to put on muscle, you want the majority of your workouts to use weights that allow you to perform 8 to 15 reps per set (65 to 80 percent of your 1 RM). The weight should be challenging to the point where you are near failure on your final rep. You should also include heavier load training (in the 3 to 7 rep range) on occasion to stimulate new muscle fibers.

Tip #4: Use Longer Tempos

Tempo refers to the cadence of the exercise or the amount of time it takes you to perform the up and down motion. Compared to when you raise the weight quickly and let it fall with gravity, longer, controlled tempos are more effective for building muscle and increasing strength.

Women find that muscle building is maximized when you emphasize the eccentric motion of an exercise. This is the phase of a lift when the muscle lengthens. In exercises like the squat and bench press, this is the down motion. In most cable exercises, such as pull downs or rows, it is the “up” motion in which the weight stack returns to rest. When training for muscle, use longer eccentric tempos in the 3 to 4 second range, performing a powerful “fast” tempo for the concentric motion.

Tip #5: Use Short Rest Periods

One advantage women have over men is that they recover more quickly. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why this is. They think it has to do with hormonal differences. In practical terms, it means that women need shorter recovery windows than their male counterparts. This is important because rest impacts metabolic stress—a primary factor in building muscle.

Shorter rest intervals in the 30-second to 1-minute range are also great for producing growth hormone, a major muscle-building, fat-burning hormone that is released in larger quantities in women than men.

Novices benefit from rest intervals in the 1 to 2 minute range. This allows for recovery and takes into account lower conditioning levels. As you get fitter, try shortening your rest intervals to the 30-second range. You can also incorporate body part splits in which you train a lower body exercise followed by an upper body lift with little to no rest in between exercises.

Tip #6: Use Multi-Joint Exercises

Instead of targeting specific body parts with single-joint exercises, you will get better results by favoring multi-joint lifts that train the whole body. Multi-joint exercises recruit more muscle and engage more than one joint at a time. They include squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, lunges, step-ups, Olympic lifts, chin-ups, and pull-downs. Single-joint exercises hit smaller muscles and use only one joint. They include bicep curls (training the bicep muscle) or lateral raises (hitting the deltoids).

Tip #7: Get A Training Partner or Coach

As mentioned above, one of the biggest pitfalls to female muscle building is undertraining, or selecting weights that are too light. One way to overcome this is to get a coach who can push you and keep you honest. Research shows that women train at a higher percentage of their one-repetition maximum when a trainer selects their weights. Getting an experienced training partner can also help provide accountability and instill a sense of friendly competition so that you push your limits during workouts.

Tip #8: Use Periodization

Periodization is another way of saying that you have a plan for your workouts. It ensures that the body is continuously stimulated to adapt. Programs are often periodized to produce body composition changes with a higher volume for the first 3- to 4-week training phase.

Then, training variables (sets, reps, rest periods) are modified to focus on performance. In this 3- to 4-week phase, train with a higher intensity and heavier weights. The key is to modify the training variables to ensure continued and gradual adaptations.

Recent studies show that women may benefit from incorporating what is known as undulating periodization. You modify reps and loads each week. One study of fit women found that increasing the intensity and decreasing the volume over the course of five weeks led to greater increases in muscle and strength than a traditional block periodization program. The women progressed from training aimed at building muscle with loads of 70 percent during week 1 to a strength-focused workout at 93 percent in week 4. Week 5 was a return to lighter weights and lower total volume to allow for recovery.

Here is a summary of the entire 10 week program:
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Week 10
Sets 5 5 5 5 3 5 5 5 5 3
Reps 10 8 5 3 6 10 8 5 3 6
Intensity % 1RM 70 75 88 93 65 70 75 88 93 65
Rest (minutes) 1 1 3 3 2 1 1 3 3 2

Results showed that the undulating program led to a 5.8 percent greater increase in lower body muscle growth compared to the traditional block program. Strength also increased significantly more with the women increasing their maximal squat by 25 kg compared to 11 kg.

The take away is that women benefit from mixing things up in an organized fashion. Building new muscle with higher volume, lighter load workouts will lay the groundwork for strength gains once you shift to heavier weights and lower reps. By continually pushing yourself in every workout, you will ensure continued growth for an amazing, muscular body.

Tip #9: Get Your Protein In

There are two ways for women to build muscle: Lifting weights and eating protein. Anytime you replenish the muscles with amino acids, you stimulate muscle building for greater growth and recovery from training.

Studies show adequate protein pays off in terms of muscle and strength gains: A review found that trainees who took protein supplements after training had a 38 percent greater increase in muscle and a 33 percent greater increase in strength than those who did not.

Scientists recommend a baseline intake of 1.5 g/kg of protein daily for women who are building muscle, with benefits of up to 2 g/kg in certain situations.

Final Words:

Building muscle for women doesn’t have to be complicated but you do need a plan. Hopefully, the tips listed here will allow you to develop a training program aimed at maximizing muscle and physical performance. For more training strategies, including exercise descriptions and programmed workouts, check out our book, The Women’s Essential Guide To Strength Training.




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