More and more women are realizing the benefits — both physically and aesthetically — of building muscle mass. Not only does it make you stronger, but having more muscle also increases your metabolic rate to help you burn fat.
An increase in muscle mass, or hypertrophy, is a result of consistent participation in a specific weight-training program. As you overload and break down your muscle cells with weight training, during your rest periods between training sessions, your body responds by regenerating at an increased size.
If you've decided to get stronger, you probably want to know how you can get the fastest results. The answer is hard work, determination, quite a bit of gym time and a proper diet.
With an aggressive training program and proper fueling of your muscles, a common rate of muscle gain is 1/2 pound of muscle per week. Although hormonal limitations will may affect this rate of absolute muscle gain in women, women are able to increase their relative strength at the same rate as men, according to Women in Sport.
Lifting heavy weights and sticking to a diet that includes enough calories, protein and carbs promotes muscle gain for women.
Understand Female Muscle Growth
Muscle growth occurs when the muscles are placed under increasingly greater amounts of stress. This causes damage to the muscle fibers which the body must then repair. Each successive time the muscles go through the repair and recovery process, the tensile strength and thickness of the muscle fibers increase. This is your body's way of adapting to the stress, so it's better able to handle future loads.
Women do not gain muscle mass as quickly as men because they don't possess the same levels of muscle-building hormones, such as testosterone and growth hormone. However, hormone levels are shown to increase when women train regularly with a program designed for muscle building.
Significant increases in muscle mass are still shown in women, and the American Council on Exercise states that women will see about a 20 to 40 percent increase in muscle strength after a few months of weight training.
Progressive lifting of heavy weights is the best way to tax the muscles and encourage muscle growth. You also need to eat the right number of calories and the right amount of each of the macronutrients — protein, carbohydrate and fat. The more effective you are in each of these areas, the faster you'll see muscle growth.
Work Out to Gain Muscle Mass
More often than not, people talk about "toning" when they talk about female strength-training exercises. Many fitness magazines promote toning yoga moves, ballet workouts and full-body workouts with 5-pound dumbbells. Although these exercises are effective ways to build a foundation of functional strength, they will not build a lot of muscle.
The best exercises for building muscle are compound, multi-joint moves that activate a lot of muscle tissue at once. With these moves, you're able to lift heavier weights for each rep than you are with isolation exercises, such as biceps curls, that only activate a single muscle group.
Which Exercises Should You Do?
Figuring out which exercises to do is often what confuses women the most when they want to build muscle fast. But it's actually pretty simple. There are a handful of very effective compound exercises that, if done correctly, can get you to your goals as soon as possible.
- Hold a barbell across your chest or two dumbbells at your shoulders.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Adjust your position, if necessary, so that you're stable and balanced.
- Bend your knees as you move your hips back and down, as if you were sitting in a chair placed behind you. Keep your chest up, your back straight and your knees over your toes.
- Lower until your thighs are parallel with the ground (or as low as you can comfortably squat while maintaining good form).
- Press through your feet to reverse the motion and return to standing.
Squats are one of the best exercises for building all the muscles of the legs — the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves.
- Fix the weight plates on your barbell and position it on the floor in front of you. If needed, position it on an elevated platform to allow for a reduced range of motion.
- Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
- Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
- Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you push your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
- Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
- Return the bar by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the bar travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.
3. Hip Thrust
- Start seated on the ground with the bottom of your shoulder blades on the edge of an exercise bench or box.
- Extend your legs out in front of you and roll a barbell up over your hips, placing a cushion underneath the bar for comfort if needed.
- Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the ground.
- Keeping your neck long, press into your heels and raise your hips off the ground, lifting the barbell up. As you bridge up, your neck and shoulders should move onto the bench.
- Pause here for a moment, then lower back down.
4. Bench Press
- Lie on a flat bench, facing up and gripping the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Press your feet into the ground and your hips into the bench as you lift the barbell off the rack.
- Slowly lower the barbell to your chest, bending at the elbows.
- Once the barbell reaches chest height and your elbows dip slightly below the bench, press your heels into the ground to raise the barbell back up.
- Return the barbell to starting position, elbows extended but not locked.
Bench pressing isn't just for men. It's the best way for women to progressively and measurably challenge the pectoral muscles and triceps.
5. Bent-Over Row
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs. Shoot your hips back and hinge forward at least 45 degrees (as much as 90 degrees), keeping your back flat. Start with your arms extended toward the ground, palms facing each other.
- Draw your elbows up toward your ribs and pull the weights up alongside your lower abdomen.
- As you lift the weights, focus on squeezing the shoulder blades together.
- Lower back down to the start with control.
6. Shoulder Press
- Begin standing or seated with a flat back, feet rooted in the ground, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Lift the weights above your shoulders with your elbows bent at 90 degrees.
- On an exhale, brace your core and press both dumbbells overhead.
- Lower the weights back to the starting position with control.
Truly, this is all you need. There are many variations of each exercise and tons of other exercises that work the same muscle groups, but why get more complicated than you need to right now? Learn these moves with light weights at first and then increase the load as you get stronger.
Sets and Reps
Lifting heavy is what really stimulates the muscle growth you're looking for. So aim for reps in the 6 to 12 range, lifting a weight that maxes you out but still allows you to use proper form on the last rep, according to the American Council on Exercise.
Note: This is the kind of lifting where you might be grimacing by the last few reps of each set. You'll definitely be sweating, and you might even find yourself letting out a grunt or two. But if you want to build muscle fast, this is what it takes.
Lengthen Your Rests
Heavy lifting takes a lot out of you, and you'll need to take longer rest breaks between sets. This allows your body to replenish its energy stores so you can give the next set your all.
Typical recommendations are for rest breaks that last from one to three minutes; however, research shows that rest breaks closer to three minutes are better for building muscle.
In a July 2016 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, participants were assigned to a short-rest group (1 minute) or a long-rest group (3 minutes). Both groups did the same total-body workouts three times weekly for eight weeks. At the end of the study, muscle thickness and muscle strength were significantly greater for the long-rest group.
Workout Frequency for Building Mass
You're not going to be able get all the listed exercises done in one weekly session. Even if you could, that isn't the best way to build muscle. In fact, researchers have studied the best workout frequency for building muscle.
A November 2016 review and meta-analysis in Sports Medicine compared studies on workout frequency and found that working each muscle group twice a week is most effective for building mass. Working muscle groups three times a week may also be effective, but the researchers couldn't determine if it was any more effective than twice-weekly workouts.
There are many ways to split up your workouts effectively, and time and experience will help you determine your preference. But a good place to start is an upper/lower body split. Here's an example of a typical upper/lower body Monday through Friday split:
- Monday: upper body
- Tuesday: lower body
- Wednesday: rest/cardio/abs
- Thursday: upper body
- Friday: lower body
Sticking to this schedule will help to keep you on track and make sure you target each muscle group twice a week. If weekends are better for you, you can sub out two weekdays for your weekend days. Just make sure to leave a day in between working the same muscle group so your muscles can recover.
Eat Enough Calories
It's not just about the workout; your diet also plays a crucial role in how much muscle you gain and how quickly you gain it. If you don't get enough calories, protein and carbohydrate, your muscles won't have the energy and raw materials they need to build more muscle.
Heavy weightlifting often means slightly increasing your calorie intake — even if you want to lose fat. Because building muscle takes so much energy, you can still lose fat while in a caloric surplus if you're training hard.
But calorie needs are highly individual, and it's often tough to figure out your perfect number. Estimates are about the best you can do. Taking your age and activity level into account, you can get an idea of your daily calorie needs for weight maintenance.
For example, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, the average active 35-year-old woman needs 2,200 calories per day to maintain her weight. But to gain weight in the form of muscle mass, she'll need more than this.
But not much more. Fitness expert Michael Matthews recommends a slight 5 to 10 percent increase over your daily weight-maintenance calories for building mass. For the 35-year-old, that's a daily surplus of 110 to 220 calories — about 1 to 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.
Manage Your Macros
The composition of those calories is crucial as well. Protein is hands down the most important macronutrient for muscle building. Your muscles are made of protein; without an adequate supply of protein, your body can't build muscle.
Matthews recommends eating 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. This is almost three times the standard dietary reference intake, or DRI, of 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. But that recommendation is for the average person who isn't on a muscle-gain diet.
Make sure to choose high-quality, lean protein. Foods such as chicken, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, low-fat dairy products, nuts and seeds are all good sources of protein to include in your diet.
Carbs Are Key
You shouldn't be on a low-carb diet if you're interested in training to build muscle. Your body needs carbs for energy to power your workouts; carbs also play a role in muscle building and recovery.
However, not all carbs are created equal. Whole grains, beans and vegetables are your best sources of carbs for muscle building. Examples include:
- Leafy greens and broccoli
- Lentils and other beans
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
Steer away from refined grains, sugary foods and beverages, baked goods, candy, chips or the like. These foods are high in carbs, but they'll make you gain fat, crush your energy and limit your gains.
Figuring Out Fat
Fats are crucial for health, especially polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats from fish, nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil. But they play a more minor role in a muscle-building diet. Matthews recommends getting 0.3 grams of fat per pound of body weight each day. If you weigh 140 pounds, that's 42 grams of fat daily.
Once you've calculated your protein and fat needs, the rest of your calories should come from carbohydrates.
- University of New Mexico: "Controversies in Metabolism"
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: "Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men"
- Sports Medicine: "Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy"
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans: "Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- USDA: National Nutrient Database: "Peanut Butter, Chunk Style, With Salt"
- National Academy of Medicine: "Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients"
- American Council on Exercise: "Building Muscle for Women"
- The Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine: "An IOC Medical Commission Publication, Women in Sport"
- American Council on Exercise: "How to Select the Right Intensity and Repetitions for Your Clients"