If you've ever heard the expression "strong is the new skinny," then you've clearly been paying attention to the latest trends in women's health. More and more women are looking to sculpt their physique and build long, lean muscles — but what is the best workout for muscle gain and definition?
Best Workout for Muscle Definition
You may be wondering why cardio exercise is on the list. It's because unless you already have a lean physique, the natural padding of subcutaneous fat that everybody carries under their skin can keep you from seeing the muscle you've already developed.
To replace fat with lean muscle, aerobic exercise plays an important role. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day of moderate aerobic activity that gets your heart rate going. This is a good baseline for overall health — and even weight loss in some cases — but don't be discouraged if you need to add more activity to reach your goals. Once you are within the healthy weight range for your height, you'll want to keep up with this regular aerobic activity to maintain your weight over time. Remembering that being fit is a lifelong process and a commitment to this lifestyle, both now and in the future, is key.
Don’t Be Afraid to Lift Heavy
Cardio alone isn't the best workout for muscle gain and definition — you have to also work on your strength several times per week. It's a common misconception that lifting heavy weights will cause a woman to "bulk up," but according to the Office on Women's Health, the chances of this are quite slim. This is because women don't possess the same levels of testosterone as men, so lifting heavy dumbbells will lead only to lean muscles and more definition.
As a general rule of thumb, when selecting a "heavy" set of dumbbells to lift, you'll want to pick weights that allow you to reach fatigue, with good form, by the time you reach eight to 12 repetitions. You can choose to do full-body strength days where you target various muscle groups head-to-toe, or alternate upper body and lower body days. Either way is effective, as long as you are not lifting feathers.
According to the American Council on Exercise, another one of the most important elements to achieving muscle gains is consistency. The fitness organization recommends women weight train four to five days a week, if possible. Just be sure you are giving at least one full day of rest between working specific muscle groups. Write down your exercises and weight selections to track gains.
When strength training four or five days a week, be sure to add ample rest (48 hours) between working out that same muscle group. Doing "splits" — or working the upper body one day and the lower body the next — is a great method for strength training.
Muscle Definition Diet
While doing regular aerobic exercise and lifting heavy weights is definitely a big part of gaining muscle, diet also plays an important role in establishing better definition. After all, if your goal is to replace fat with long, lean muscle, it's going to be very hard to do that if your diet isn't in check.
A lean muscle diet for females includes sources of lean protein. A list of lean protein sources includes eggs, salmon, chicken breast, Greek yogurt, tuna, shrimp, soybeans, turkey breast, cottage cheese, quinoa, peanuts, almonds and more — but according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, while protein is critical in building muscle mass, more is not necessarily better. Simply eating large amounts of lean protein doesn't result in a toned body. You must also work in a balanced diet and exercise.
Pair protein sources with a balanced diet of whole grains, healthy dairies and colorful, fibrous fruits and vegetables like broccoli, green beans, raspberries and apples to round out your diet. Minimize your intake of processed foods and those high in carbohydrates and added sugars. And while there are a lot of nutritious, on-the-go protein powders out there, nutritionists agree you should be able to get the nutrients you need from food alone.
- American Heart Association: “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids”
- Office on Women’s Health: “How to be Active for Health”
- Rush University Medical Center: “How Much Should I Weigh?”
- American Council on Exercise: “A Girls Guide To Gaining Muscle: Weight Training”
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Protein and the Athlete — How Much Do You Need?”