More and more women are realizing the benefits — both physically and aesthetically — of building lean muscle mass. Not only does it make you stronger, but having more muscle also increases your metabolic rate to help you burn fat. If you've decided to get lean and mean, 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.
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.
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.
Do the Right Workout
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, multijoint 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.
Squat — one of the best exercises for building all the muscles of the legs — the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves.
Dead lift — the ultimate lower-body exercise that also works the back muscles.
Hip thrust — a girl's best friend for building sexy glutes.
Pullup — a difficult move for many women but a challenging upper-body exercise that builds the lats and biceps.
Bench press — bench pressing isn't just for men. It's the best way for women to progressively and measurably challenge the pectoral muscles and triceps.
Bent-over row — a total back builder that also works the biceps.
Military press — with a barbell or dumbbells, the overhead press builds shapely shoulders.
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 six to 10 range, lifting a weight that maxes you out but still allows you to use proper form on the last rep.
Note: This is not the kind of lifting where you're going to be able to look cute. 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 Rest Breaks
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 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, participants were assigned to a short-rest group (one minute) or a long-rest group (three 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 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis published 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.
Get 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.
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.
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 gram per pound of body weight. But that recommendation is for the average person who is not 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 keto diet if you're interested in training to build a lot of 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
Do not eat 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 gram 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
- Built Lean: How Do Muscles Grow? The Science of Muscle Growth
- Muscle for Life: The Ultimate Guide to Female Muscle Growth
- 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