A properly-designed women's muscle building workout routine and diet can build strength and size. A program to gain weight and muscles should focus on resistance training. The diet should provide enough calories and protein for the body to grow.
Weight Loss vs. Weight Gain
Much of fitness is geared towards weight loss. However, not everyone wants to lose weight. Whether you need to perform better for a sport or you simply want to change your appearance, getting bigger and more muscular requires a different strategy than weight loss.
To lose weight, you need to burn more calories and eat fewer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Exercising regularly, particularly doing aerobic exercise, helps you burn calories. Healthy eating, such as eating more fiber and less sugar, helps you cut your energy intake.
While your strategy to gain weight and muscle should involve healthy eating and activity, the details will be different. Your goal in the gym is not to burn more calories, but to build muscle. Your goal when eating is not to reduce your energy intake, but to find ways to increase total nutrition intake. In many instances, you'll do the opposite of what weight loss experts advise.
Women's Muscle Building Workout Routine
A training plan for women doesn't necessarily need to be different from one designed for men. In fact, the difference in how men and women respond to resistance training might not be as large as you think.
A February 2016 study published in PeerJ investigated how men and women respond to upper-body resistance training. Over the course of the 10-week study, men and women saw similar increases in strength. This study shows that you probably don't need specific exercises to gain weight for females; the same exercises work for any gender.
According to a January 2016 study published in AGE, there are many factors, other than age and sex, which determine how your body responds to resistance training. The researchers found that men and women vary widely, in terms of the amount of muscle and strength they gained from a weight training program, but also that the differences couldn't be pinned down to age or gender.
Resistance vs. Aerobic Training
When you set up your training plan, the first thing you should figure out is the type of exercise you're going to undertake. There are two basic types of exercise: aerobic training and resistance training. Each type has many variations, but those are the two general categories.
An October 2018 research review published in Sports Medicine found that aerobic training doesn't promote the same amount of muscle growth as weight lifting. The research was mainly conducted in the leg muscles, but the results are likely the same for the rest of the body, according to the researchers.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has basic recommendations to get you started, if you're new to strength training. Each muscle group should be trained twice per week. That means you can do two full-body workouts per week, or split them up over the course of the week.
For each muscle group you should do one set of 8 to 12 reps. If you don't feel that you're getting results from this amount of weight training, you can increase either sets or reps. However, adding extra work will make your workouts last longer. If you can't spare the extra time, it'll be difficult to add more of anything to your workout.
When you set up your training plan, there are a few variables you can play with. You can increase sets, reps, weight or the number of workouts you do per week. To build muscle, your priority should be something specific: increasing volume.
Training Volume Builds Muscle
Training volume is a number you get by multiplying the number of sets and reps you do, and the weight you use, in a given exercise. For example, if you do three sets of 10 reps, with 10 pounds for a dumbbell bicep curl, your volume is 300.
You can calculate your training volume for almost any exercise. Bodyweight exercises will be difficult to calculate, because you can't figure out exactly how much weight you're lifting. Keep track of your volume for each exercise, because it should increase over time.
A February 2018 study published in Sports Medicine looked at volume, frequency and muscle growth. The researchers wanted to see if training frequency, which is the number of times you workout per week, was a factor in muscle growth.
They found that people who trained more frequently built more muscle, but that wasn't necessarily because of the increased workout frequency. It all comes back to volume, as the researchers found. As long as volume was equal, training frequency didn't make a difference.
This is important to know, because in order to increase your training volume and gain more muscle you need to increase either reps, sets, weight or a combination of all three of these factors. The easiest way to do this is by increasing the number of times you workout per week. Going back to the example of the bicep curls, if you do that exercise twice in a week, your volume doubles, from 300 to 600.
Read more: Amount of Muscle Mass in Men versus Women
Train More Frequently
An October 2016 study published in Sports Medicine confirmed that training more frequently helped build more muscle. In the study, researchers allowed at least 48 hours of rest between training sessions for each muscle group. Training the muscles more often led to increased protein synthesis, which is a sign that the muscles are building up mass.
This style of training is sometimes referred to as split training. Instead of doing full-body workouts, you do a few muscle groups per workout, and repeat muscle groups every few days. This gives the muscles at least 48 hours to recover between workouts.
For example, you can work your legs on Monday, upper body on Tuesday, core on Wednesday, take a day off, and then repeat. That gives you six days of workouts with one day of rest per week.
Once you figure out a routine that works for you, stick to it. Consistency is important, and you should do everything you can to stay in a groove. Even if you have to workout at home using minimal equipment to stick to your training schedule, do so. Once you fall out of your routine it's hard to get back in.
The biggest drawback for increasing frequency is the amount of time it takes to complete your workouts. Going to the gym every day, or even most days of the week, can be a big hassle. If you aren't able to take those extra days to workout, you'll have to increase the sets, reps or weights in your existing workouts.
Eating to Gain Weight
While exercises to gain weight for females can stimulate your muscles to grow, it's only half the equation. The other half is your diet. You need enough protein and calories to give your muscles the resources they need to grow.
To gain weight you need to be in a positive energy balance. That means you need to consume more calories than you burn. It'll be difficult to burn fewer calories, since you need to lift weights to build muscle. However, you can cut down on any aerobic training you're doing, such as running or swimming.
An August 2019 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition examined whether or not you need to be in a calorie surplus to build muscle. They recommend increasing your calorie intake by roughly 350 to 480 calories per day, to put your body in a surplus and help build more muscle.
However, this is not a foolproof plan. Everyone's calorie needs are different, and the authors note that you don't necessarily need to be in a surplus to build muscle. They mention research that shows people who gained muscle while they were losing weight, although this may be an exception and not the rule.
Eat More Protein
Increasing calories isn't the only thing you need to do to gain weight an build muscle. You need to eat enough protein to build muscle. The Frontiers in Nutrition study recommends getting at least 15 to 25 percent of your total calorie intake from protein. That means if you increase your calories consumed, you may need to increase your protein intake as well.
A small November 2018 study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism looked at female physique athletes who wanted to build muscle over an 8-week period. One group of the athletes ate a low protein diet of .9 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. For a 130-pound woman, that comes out to about 53 grams of protein per day. The high-protein group consumed 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, which equals roughly 147 grams of protein.
The high-protein group built more muscle over the 8 weeks. While there's a large difference between the two groups in terms of protein intake, you can assume that higher protein intakes are helpful for building muscle.
Increasing your calorie intake can be challenging if you're not used to eating a lot. You can use some tricks to get more food in your stomach, without stressing your digestive system too much.
Tips for Increasing Calories
The University of California San Francisco offers tips for increasing calories and protein in a healthy way. Their first tip is to add more oils to your food, such as olive or canola oil. Adding fat to your meals quickly increases the calorie count. Fat has 9 calories per gram, whereas protein and carbohydrates each only have 4, according to the USDA.
Other sources of fats include nuts and nut butters. Avocado also contains plenty of fat. Higher-fat protein sources like salmon are recommended, but red meat might not be healthy to eat in large quantities.
Liquid calories might be easier to digest. You can make a smoothie with half a banana, frozen berries and low-fat or non-fat milk. Feel free to add a scoop of your favorite protein powder to a shake, to increase your protein intake for the day.
Eating more often can help you avoid that over-stuffed feeling that sometimes comes with eating more. Spacing out your meals and snacks so that you're eating every 3 to 4 hours can prevent your stomach from filling up too much.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "How Many Calories Are in One Gram of Fat, Carbohydrate, or Protein?"
- University of California San Francisco: "Healthy Ways to Increase Calories and Protein"
- International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism: "Effects of High Versus Low Protein Intake on Body Composition and Maximal Strength in Aspiring Female Physique Athletes Engaging in an 8-Week Resistance Training Program"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training"
- Sports Medicine: "Frequency: The Overlooked Resistance Training Variable for Inducing Muscle Hypertrophy?"
- Sports Medicine: "Effect of Resistance Training Frequency on Gains in Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- American Heart Association: "Strength and Resistance Training Exercise"
- Sports Medicine: "Does Aerobic Training Promote the Same Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy as Resistance Training? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- AGE: "Heterogeneity in Resistance Training-Induced Muscle Strength and Mass Responses in Men and Women of Different Ages"
- PeerJ: "Comparison of Upper Body Strength Gains Between Men and Women After 10 Weeks of Resistance Training"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Losing Weight"