You heard that the best way to achieve that desirable toned, feminine look is through strength training.
Day in and day out, you head to the weight room and perform dumbbell curls and triceps kickbacks with 1 kg dumbbells. But after several months, you find that your body looks no different than what it looked like before you started strength training. Where did it all go wrong?
Well, wonder no more: with this ultimate guide on lean muscle building for women, you’ll find all you need to know so you can achieve your dream body.
Busting Common Female Fitness Myths
Before that, however, it’s important to address three female muscle building myths, so you have the confidence to train the way you want to.
Women Shouldn’t Train Like Men
Wait, what does ‘training like men’ even mean? Are men and women supposed to train in radically different ways because of biological differences? Are there exercises that women should avoid? The truth is: men and women can train in the same way.
What’s important is that your training program supports your desired outcome – if you want more muscle around your arms, you have to include more triceps and biceps work in your routine. If you want a perkier butt, put more work into glute exercises. This holds true for both men and women.
Here’s the deal:
You can however you like – as long as it’s aligned with your goals. Toss out the idea that men and women should train differently.
Lifting Makes Women Look Bulky
Ah yes – the one myth that seems as old as time and just wouldn’t disappear. Many women fear that weight training will make them so well-muscled they wake up looking like Thor, right out of an Avengers movie – well, it doesn’t work that way.
Testosterone, a male hormone, is responsible for stimulating muscle growth. And women simply do not have enough hormonal support to gain as much muscle mass like men.
Once you start weight-lifting, you’ll realize just how difficult it is to pack on more muscles, especially after the ‘newbie-gains’ period.
I know what you’re thinking: what about the female bodybuilders who are so incredibly muscular that they have a man’s physique?
Given that women are biologically-limited in testosterone levels, certain female bodybuilders may resort to exogenous testosterone injections and/or other muscle-stimulating steroids to look the way they do.
Here’s the point: unless you’re taking in external sources of testosterone or other anabolic steroids, it’s unlikely that you will get bulky, even if for some reason, you really wanted to.
Strength Training is Dangerous
Yes, strength training can be dangerous. But only if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you end up lifting way too heavy weights without proper technique and form. This is why it’s so important to go slow with the weight-plates.
Start out with weights you’re comfortable with, even if you have to use the tiniest dumbbells available on the rack. No one will judge you – they’re too busy focusing on their own workouts.
You can slowly increase the weights once you’re 100 percent sure that your form and execution of the exercise is perfect. Adding on weights when you’re not ready can injure you and take you out of the gym for a few weeks – you wouldn’t want that now, would you?
The best way for women to build muscle is consistent, serious weight-lifting in the gym. The main reason why you might not be making the progress you desire might be because you are aimlessly performing exercises in the gym.
Not to worry though – here’s the complete guide to nearly all the major body parts you can train, and their respective exercises.
The Upper Body
Do not let the omnipresent fitness influencers on Instagram convince you that all you need to train is your lower body (glutes, in particular) – overall muscle development is essential if you want that complete fit look. In the following section, I’ll be detailing the anatomy and function of our upper extremities.
Did I just hear you yawn? Bear with me: an in-depth understanding of your body’s anatomy leads to a better understanding of why certain muscle groups are targeted by specific exercises.
You’ll never have to put up with that guy in the gym who’s always mansplaining all his workouts to you, ever again.
Want to get rid of the jiggly parts on your arms? Well, then you’ve got to get acquainted with two major muscle groups of the arm: the biceps brachii, and the triceps brachii.
The biceps brachii has two main functions:
- Elbow flexion – when you bring your wrist closer to your face
- Forearm supination – when you rotate the forearm
In Latin, ‘biceps’ refers to ‘two-heads,’ while ‘brachii’ refers to ‘of the arm.’ And, as the name implies, the biceps brachii has two heads – the short head, and the long head. The long head of the biceps is the outer portion of the muscle, while the short head is – yes, of course – the inner portion of the muscle.
The short head is best worked with arms in front of the body (e.g., preacher curls, high cable curls, and lying concentration curls). On the contrary, the long head is best worked with arms at the side (e.g., incline dumbbell curl, hammer curl).
The triceps brachii acts as the primary extensor of the elbow – this means that it functions to straighten the arm.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that ‘biceps’ refers to ‘two-heads’ in Latin. So naturally, ‘triceps’ means ‘three-heads,’ and triceps brachii is a three-headed muscle structure!
The triceps consist of the:
As the long head is the largest of the three triceps heads, it is the most important to build up if you want that toned, muscular look for your arms. The long head is best targeted by skull crushers and triceps dumbbell kickbacks.
The lateral head lies on the outside of your upper arm and is often called the ‘horseshoe’ due to its appearance. The lateral head can be worked through triceps pushdowns with the rope attachment, and diamond pushups.
Even though the medial head is the smallest out of all three triceps heads, it is still essential and should not be neglected. Try triceps pushdown with a straight bar and an underhand grip to ensure its growth on the next arms-day you have planned.
If you’re a fan of cute, sleeveless tops, you need to train your shoulders! Nothing compliments tank tops, tube tops, and hot black dresses better than a good pair of solid, capped shoulders.
And besides, it is the one body part that will make your waist look smaller if it’s well-developed – score!
The shoulder (also known as deltoid) muscle comprises of three distinct sets of fibers which serve different functions:
The primary joint function of the front deltoid is shoulder flexion, or raising your arm up in front of you in a front raise. Build it up through dumbbell front raises, and dumbbell presses.
The lateral deltoid primarily acts in shoulder abduction, which is the raising of your arms away from your body from the side, like in a lateral raise. Target the side deltoid through dumbbell lateral raises, and lateral machine raises.
The rear deltoid performs horizontal shoulder abduction, which refers to the moving apart of your arms horizontally, like in a bent-over reverse fly. Train the often-neglected rear deltoid with cable face pulls and seated bent-over lateral raises.
Many women lack the desire to train chest because they’re afraid that this will shrink the size of their breasts. I know: I used to think that way too.
Chest exercises are actually the best way to tone, shape, and boost the ‘perkiness’ of the entire bust area – sounds good, right?
The chest comprises of two primary chest muscles, which both respond well to more or less the same exercises:
The pectoralis major is a large fan-shaped muscle which is in turn comprised of two parts: an upper portion (clavicular head), and the lower portion (sternal head).
The upper portion of the chest can be targeted through incline movements, such as the incline bench-press. And of course, decline movements, such as the decline bench-press, hit the lower portion more.
The pectoralis minor is a thin, flat muscle found underneath the pectoralis major.
The chest muscles control any movements which involve moving your arms across the body, as well as other movements like flexion, adduction, and even rotation. This means that most chest exercises will require you pushing the arms away from the body, or the body away from the arms.
The best way for women to build muscle in the chest area is through exercises like barbell bench presses, and cable crossovers.
If you want to achieve that desirable, v-tapered appearance, you need to train the muscles of your back. And it’s not all aesthetics: a well-developed back provides functional strength in everyday movements and corrects your slouching posture!
The back comprises of three major muscles:
Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
The lats contribute mostly to back width and have two main functions.
The first function is shoulder adduction, which is the bringing of your arms closer to the body when they’re out to the side. Shoulder extension is the lats’ second function, and it refers to the bringing of your arms closer to the body when it’s out to the front.
Straight-arm pulldowns, underhand cable pulldowns, and lat pulldowns are excellent exercises that help develop the lats.
The traps contribute mostly to the appearance of back thickness and are further segregated into three: the upper traps, mid traps, and the lower traps.
Upper traps are responsible for the raising of the shoulder bone, such as the performance of a shrug. The mid traps and lower traps perform the same primary movement of shoulder bone retraction, such as that of rowing motions.
Shrugs, deadlifts, cable face pulls, barbell rows, and seated cable rows are fantastic exercises that help build thickness in the back.
Erector Spinae (Lower Back)
The Erector Spinae line the muscle columns from the lower to the upper back and allows you to flex and extend your back in any given direction. As they are not seen as a major muscle group, the Erector Spinae is often overlooked in body-building programs.
But they shouldn’t be: they’re the first line of protection for your backbone!
Ensure the health of your lower back by adding in deadlifts and back extensions into your workouts.
The Lower Body
Nothing showcases femininity better than a tight pair of glutes, a sweeping set of thighs, and full hamstrings which connect to toned, round calves!
We’ll focus on getting you those great legs in this section.
The glutes are not just one juicy, individual muscle – it actually comprises of three muscles which work together to rotate, abduct, and adduct the hips externally:
The Maximus is the largest and most superficial muscle of the three, and it covers the central part of the rear. Essentially, this is the muscle which gives your butt that desired, perky shape!
Build a round butt with reverse hack squats, seated leg presses, and barbell hip thrusts.
The medius is roughly half the size of Maximus and is located on the upper and outer portion of the rear. It is a functional muscle that helps with general stability and is especially useful when it comes to single-leg movements.
Exercises that target the medius would include Bulgarian split squats, single leg Romanian deadlifts, and single leg hip thrusts.
The minimus is the smallest of all three muscles, and it lies under the Maximus. Similar to the medius, the minimus plays a pivotal role in stabilization. It can be targeted with the same exercises which hit the medius.
The hamstrings are a posterior muscle group located at the back of your thigh. They are made up of three muscles: the semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris – these muscle groups work together in hip extension and bending of knees.
Strong hamstrings can be built with hamstring curls, deadlifts, and Bulgarian split squats.
The quads are comprised of four separate muscles:
- Rectus femoris – most prominent, and is located in the front middle of the thigh
- Vastus lateralis – situated on the outer thigh, and contributes to the quad’sweep.’
- Vastus medialis – teardrop-shaped muscle just above the knee
- Vastus intermedius – a non-visible muscle group of the quads
All four muscles are designed to extend the knee joint, and flex the hip joint. You can build sexy quads through barbell back squats, dumbbell lunges, and dumbbell step-ups.
Calves should not be neglected: tight, well-developed calves help balance the symmetry of the legs and highlight the overall toned look you’re going for.
The calves consist of two main muscles: the gastrocnemius, and the soleus. Together, they help to flex the ankle and knee joints.
Growth of your calf muscles would be stimulated by any type of calf raises – seated, or standing.
Put It All Together
Wow – look at you! You now have a complete understanding of the muscles anatomy of the human body, and the reasoning behind specific exercises we do in the gym.
All we need to do now is put together an actionable training plan for you.
If You Train 2 Times per Week
If you only have time to head to the gym two times a week, you can maximize your muscle growth potential by performing full-body workouts for all sessions.
Here’s a great example of a total-body circuit workout you can follow along:
If You Train 3 Times per Week
If you can train three times a week, that’s great! This means you can further segregate your body’s muscles and pay extra attention to each of them.
You can follow the training format and their examples such as this Push Day workout.
Follow this video and you will find similar examples for Pull Day and Legs Dat as well.
If You Train 5 Times per Week
If you are lucky and have the luxury to train five times a week, you’ll benefit from further splitting your workout days.
As usual, you can follow the training format and video examples below:
This one is a great Legs Day workout routine to start your week off.
Again, you can find similar tutorials for Chest, Back and Shoulders days.
Here is another example for your Arms Day workout:
Did you know that all the time and effort you spent going to the gym would be for nothing if you don’t get your diet right? Well, now you do, and you can rectify the situation.
In this section, we’ll first cover the number of calories you need to hit daily. We’ll then deep-dive into the percentages of specific macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fats – within your diet to optimize muscle building.
Excited? Me too.
Many of us throw the term “calories” around freely when we talk about our foods, but it turns out that most of us have very little understanding of what the word really means.
Indeed: what are calories?
Well, the calorie can simply be thought of as energy. Your body uses calories to make high energy molecules called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), which drives numerous essential bodily functions. Basically, you’d be dead if you don’t consume calories.
If you eat too little calories, you lose weight. On the contrary: if you eat too many calories, you will become fat.
Is there such a thing as a ‘just right’ amount of calories?
Yes, and that happens to be your maintenance calories – the number of calories you need to consume within a day to maintain your weight. I know what you’re thinking: how would you know your very own maintenance calories, right?
Simple: you can just Google for it! There are so many free online calculators that help derive your maintenance calories.
Bear in mind that the number you get from an online calculator is only an estimate – the body, as an incredibly complex and fascinating entity, will almost certainly behave differently from the prediction of a Mathematical equation.
The best way moving forward is simply to consume the number of calculated calories and monitor to see if you are indeed maintaining your weight. If you lose weight, you need to eat more. And of course, if you gain weight, you need to eat less.
Keep fine-tuning the number until you find one which maintains your weight. Already have it?
Excellent – we can now move on and calculate your macronutrients.
Protein – 4 Calories per Gram
Consuming sufficient dietary protein is essential in building muscle, improving recovery, and increasing lean body mass. When it comes to fat loss, high-protein diets have shown superiority over low-carb diets when calories are equated.
This is likely due to its satiating effects, and the fact that it takes more energy to digest protein than it does to extract energy from carbohydrates.
To give you a clearer picture of what this means:
I weigh 60 kg, and that means I need to hit 120 grams of protein daily if I choose to go with the recommendation of 2g/kg of body weight.
I know: 120 grams of protein sounds so abstract, right?
Let me put it this way: a chicken breast roughly weighs 200 grams and contains 60 grams of protein. It just means I need to eat two chicken breasts if I want to hit my daily protein intake. Yum!
Fats – 9 Calories per Gram
The next macronutrient to consider is fats.
Fats are efficient energy storage because they contain 9 calories per gram – over double of both carbohydrates and protein. Now, before you ban fats from your diet because they are, well, making you fat, you should know that we need fats to perform a variety of essential processes in the body.
So no – you cannot cut fats out from your diet completely.
You should allocate roughly 15 to 20 percent of your daily calories to fat. So, for example, if my current daily calorie intake is at 2300, I should consume 460 calories of fat if I follow the 20% guideline. In turn, this means I have to eat roughly 51.1 grams of fat every day.
Carbohydrates – 4 Calories per Gram
The last macronutrient to consider is carbohydrates.
While you don’t technically need carbohydrates to survive, they are incredibly tasty – I’m salivating as I think about bread, pasta, and pizza!
Interestingly, while carbohydrates have been purported to be ‘fattening,’ carbs themselves contribute very little to body fat stores. Under normal diet conditions, carbs are rarely converted into fat stores.
When calories are equated, researchers found similar weight loss effects between high-carb, low-fat diets and low-carb, high-fat diets. This suggests the calorie balance really is the most crucial factor when it comes to fat loss.
So – how much carbohydrates should you eat?
At this point in time, you know how much protein and fats you need to consume in a day. All you need to do now is just subtract the number of calories from your dietary protein and fats from your total daily calorie intake.
Let’s take my current numbers as an example:
- Maintenance calories: 2300 calories
- Protein intake: 120 grams, or 480 calories
- Fat intake: 51.1 grams, or 460 calories
I should, therefore, be eating 1360 calories worth of carbohydrates in a day. And basically, that’s 340 grams of carbs.
You must be pretty serious about female muscle growth if you’ve stuck with me all the way here!
If you’re planning on really hitting the gym and lifting heavy frequently, you may need proper supplementation for a little extra boost in recovery and muscle synthesis.
But which supplements, exactly?
We’ll briefly cover the three essential supplements you’d benefit most from:
Creatine is possibly the best muscle building supplement for women.
Here’s the deal:
The supplementation of creatine increases the availability of creatine and phosphocreatine within the muscle and has muscle-building and power-enhancing properties. Creatine also carries the potential to increase water content in your muscle cells: this causes your muscle cells to swell, and produce signals for muscle growth.
Overall, creatine has been studied extensively, and current research supports its high safety profile.
You can best increase muscle creatine stores through following the loading method of 20 grams per day for 5-7 days and then tapering down to the maintenance dose of 5 grams per day.
If you have patience and are opposed to the standard 2-4 pound weight gain commonly observed with a loading protocol, a less aggressive method can be employed. A lower dose of 5 grams for 28 days is also useful in increasing creatine stores.
Yes, caffeine – the compound that is available from your daily cup of coffee. It is the most widely used stimulant in the world for its anti-fatigue properties.
But does its beneficial effect extend to the gym?
Turns out it does: research has consistently shown support for its ability to boost performance in high-intensity exercises! Don’t merely take caffeine if you are seeking strength gains though: the effects of caffeine, when it comes to strength performance, is still inconclusive.
If you find yourself in need of a pick-me-up before you crush the weights in the gym, you can consume 150-300 milligrams a half hour, or an hour before your workout.
Be sure to ease your dosage up slowly: you don’t want to be trembling and suffering from heart palpitations all the way through your sets!
Getting enough protein is critical for female muscle growth.
You need to consume more protein than the amount your body breaks down in natural processes, and the heavy lifting sessions you subject your body to. While it’s possible to get all the protein you need from your diet, some people struggle to do so.
Do you happen to be one of them?
No worries – protein supplements are here to help. There are many different protein supplements available, and whey, casein, and soy protein are just three of the more popular variations.
Do you prefer that your protein comes from natural sources? I hear you: there are also supplements that contain protein isolated from eggs, beef, or chicken!
You’re probably wondering how much protein you should eat daily.
Wait, you are?
That means you probably skimmed through the nutrition portion of this article. Go back and read it through! It’s vital. Meanwhile, I’ll just let you know that a range between 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight would be ideal in building muscle for women.
Hopefully, you’ve learned a whole lot on muscle building for women from this comprehensive beginner’s guide.
Ultimately, when it comes to gaining lean muscle mass, you must make sure that you train hard in the gym, and provide your body with the proper nutrition. If you’re looking to enhance your gains further, you can try supplementation.
However, that’s optional and entirely up to you.
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