While many females can see past this nonsense, some feel too intimidated by the idea of training next to “the bros” to even try. If they do begin weight training, they’re met with even more stigma: they’re wasting their time, since females don’t have nearly as much testosterone as men. The same people who jumped to the wrong conclusion in the paragraph above will then say, “well, if you don’t have enough testosterone, you’ll never build muscle anyways.”
In short, females looking to build muscle are met with discouragement at every turn. As a result, if you were to take a stroll through your local gym, you’d likely see the free weight area dominated by males, with a smaller percentage of females sticking to the cardio equipment.
Luckily, this trend appears to be (slowly) disappearing. Besides, I’m willing to bet that most of the Instagram models, celebrities or females with an “ideal body” you see today are spending much more time in a weight room than on a treadmill.
Let this guide serve as more ammunition to help tear down false conclusions and encourage women everywhere to chase the hard-earned muscle and physique they desire.
Myth: Women can’t build much muscle
As mentioned above, this likely stems from the fact that women have about 7% as much testosterone as men. So females must have 7% of the growth potential as men. Case closed.
Meanwhile, in the real world…
Females can gain the same percentage of muscle mass as men. In the literature, women are sometimes shown to gain even more strength than men. The reason women typically don’t get as big as men in the long-term boils down to men having more muscle and strength to start with. The relative increase appears to be the same.
In fact, elite female athletes carry upwards of 85% as much muscle as elite male athletes. A large portion of that 15% difference can simply be attributed to the inherent body fat differences between genders. Females typically carry ~11% more body fat than men, largely for reproductive reasons.
How do we reconcile this with the differences in testosterone? Last I checked, the body was pretty complex. Chalking everything up to one hormone is a bit short-sighted.
Interestingly, there is evidence that women don’t need testosterone for muscular development. Women also produce more growth factors, such as growth hormone, which may help pick up the slack when it comes to building new muscle.
And to top it all off, women have much higher amounts of estrogen than men. Next to cortisol, the “stress hormone,” it’s likely that no other hormone gets as bad of a rep as estrogen.
However, estrogen has a number of beneficial effects for women, including:
Sounds pretty awesome, right? Estrogen is one of the main reasons behind many of the differences between how males and females should train and eat, which will be explained in detail later.
Myth: Lifting weights will make you “bulky”
And she got into this condition by weight training daily. It's worth repeating: most females who have what is deemed to be an "ideal physique" have attained it by spending many more hours with the iron than on the treadmill.
Myth: Women just need to get “toned”
As DJ Khaled would say, “anotha one.” Let’s define what people mean by “toned.” When people say this, they’re unknowingly advocating weight training in the first place.
Achieving a “toned” physique is the result of improving your body composition. In very simple terms, your body composition is a function of the type of body mass you carry. For our purposes, this can be thought of as muscle mass and body fat mass (since organ mass and bone mass don’t change much).
In order to achieve a toned physique, one must reduce body fat and gain muscle mass. Surprise: weight training is the most optimal way to achieve both.
This holds for both genders: routine weight training will improve the way your body utilizes the nutrition you give it and increase your metabolism. These factors will lead to an improvement in body composition, provided you’re training properly and utilizing a proper diet.
When most females (or anyone for that matter) turn exclusively to cardio and very low-calorie diets to encourage weight loss, they’re setting themselves up for failure.
When you apply a calorie deficit to encourage weight loss, your body has to improvise to make up the gap between your level of intake and the level of energy you need to remain weight stable. To do this, your body breaks down its own tissue to aid the cause. If you structure your diet and training in a fashion that encourages you to maintain/gain lean mass, as I’ll explain later, your body will preferentially break down your own stored energy (I.E. body fat) to help close that gap. As a result, you will preferentially lose body fat, and it is highly likely that a good deal of the energy that was created from your body fat being broken down will help in the process of building new lean mass. Think robbing Peter to pay Paul, except Peter is a jackass & totally deserves it.
However, if you simply crash diet on very little calories for months on end, your body spares no expense. Muscle, fat and even organ tissue are all up for grabs, which is why prolonged crash-dieting is a whole new world of unhealthy. You may lose weight on the scale, but as soon as you stop restricting calories this aggressively, you're left with a BIG problem: your metabolism is in the drain because you lost so much lean mass. When you go back to eating "like normal," you're prone to regain all the weight you lost and then some, because you are actually less lean, relatively speaking, than when you started your crash diet.
This problem is compounded when people do cardio for hours on end to “increase their calorie burn.” While this is true in the short term, cardio has no lasting effect on your metabolism. Doing cardio is roughly the equivalent of not eating that second apple at lunch.
Excessive cardio can also really do a number on your hormones, namely cortisol and testosterone. Exhaustive endurance exercise has been shown to double your cortisol while simultaneously decreasing testosterone by over 30%. For an more in-depth look at the effects of cardio, click here.
Elevating cortisol via endurance exercise is not all that different from elevating cortisol by any other means. While it may not be a form of psychological stress, you still respond to it all the same by putting your body in a predominantly catabolic (tissue breakdown) state.
This has a number of negative outcomes, including but not limited to: reduced nutrient partitioning, reduced strength and muscle gains, reduced recovery and higher risk of injury. All of these things strongly contradict the goal of losing fat and improving body composition, in case you’re wondering.
It should be clear by now that getting “toned” is not simply a matter of starving yourself and slogging away on the treadmill for hours on end.
Now that we covered what doesn’t work, let’s talk about what will really get the results you want to see.
The Best Way for Women to Build Muscle
In order to get a better understanding of your energy balance and learn how to calculate your calories, click here. I’ll use an example to illustrate the process: Jane is new to weight training, weighs 140 lbs and has about 25% body fat, a relatively “average” value for females. If Jane wants to start training 4 times per week for an hour at a time, she’d plug these values into the calculator and find that her average intake per day might be somewhere close to 2200 calories. That is, if she wants to maintain her weight.
But we’re not exactly interested in staying the same, are we?
In order to encourage a positive change in body composition, which will come from gaining muscle and losing fat, we need to change calorie intake in a way that will cause this to happen. Since “dirty bulking” and “crash dieting” can set you up for the dreaded Yo-Yo Dieting cycle, we can instead take the middle ground and accomplish both goals at the same time.
You can gain muscle in a deficit, despite what many people think. The slight energy deficit created by the diet will encourage the fat loss; the weight training will encourage the process of building new lean mass.
Before we start cutting calories from the diet, we have to understand that changing this value is simply a means to an end. The true end goal lies in how your weight changes from week to week. We’ve already established that we want to take things slow, and studies suggest the idea of an “optimal” rate of weight change when trying to maintain/gain muscle mass.
For most females interested in gaining muscle, a weight loss rate of roughly .5-.7% per week is a very safe target.
At this point, you may be confused: why do we want to lose weight if we’re trying to gain muscle? Think about it this way: if you’re staying close to weight stable or losing a little bit of weight each week while also losing body fat, you’re actually gaining muscle at the same time.
If Jane starts at 140 lbs at 25% body fat, that means she’s currently carrying 35 lbs of fat and 105 lbs of lean mass (including organs, bone, etc.). After four weeks of a moderate deficit, she’s able to hit the target of losing .5% body weight per week and is now at 137 lbs. That may not seem like much, but we have to consider where that weight loss came from. In an ideal scenario, Jane could have lost .5% body fat per week as well, which means she’s now down to 23% body fat. She’s now carrying 31.5 lbs of fat (down 3.5 lbs), which means she’s added half a pound of muscle.
This is obviously just an example to illustrate the point, but two thoughts should be pretty clear by now: slow and steady wins the race, and having a reliable way to measure your body composition (like DEXA scans or skinfold calipers) can give you some very important information.
So how do we encourage this “ideal” rate of weight loss? In the literature, a .5-.7% rate of weight change per week roughly corresponds with a 5-10% energy deficit. If Jane is averaging about 2100 calories per day, that means reducing her daily intake anywhere from 105-210 calories. On a weekly level, this means 14,700 calories would keep her weight stable, and a reduction of 5-10% would be anywhere in the range of 735-1,470 calories. Anywhere in that range would be acceptable, with the larger deficit leading to a bit more fat loss. But either way, the deficit won’t be drastic enough to prevent gaining muscle, which is the real goal.
Once you have a grasp on your weekly energy intake, that value can be further broken down into daily intake. Since you burn less energy on days away from the gym, it’s prudent to eat less on those day to save more for days where you train.
If Jane decides to reduce calories by 1,000 per week (for simplicity's sake), she’ll be left with 13,700 to play with. Let’s say she sets her calorie target on rest days to 1370, which would be even lower than her Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR, your baseline needs for bodily functions). This isn’t a great idea if you’re going to eat 1370 calories every day, but this now frees up a lot more calories for her training days.
1370 x 3 = 4110, meaning she’ll have 10,590 calories left for her four training days, roughly 2648 calories per training day. Suddenly doesn't seem like dieting anymore, does it?
This type of calorie fluctuation will not only aid performance and recovery, but it has also been shown to keep people more compliant in the long term. Dieting no longer seems like one long, starvation-inducing marathon.
These values can be fine-tuned even further, but the main take away is that fluctuating calories won’t just lead to better results, it will lead to better peace of mind.
Finally, we can break down your intake into macronutrient targets. In practice, a sound diet for females will look similar to that of a male looking to gain muscle, with one key difference.
Females have what’s known as a “glycogen sparing metabolism.” This means females utilize less carbs as fuel throughout the day as well as in response to training than men do. Accordingly, females need less carbohydrate from their diet, since they simply aren't utilizing as much on a day-to-day basis in relation to males. It's prudent for females to favor fat as their preferred source of energy.
In practice, this means that females should aim to get about 40% of their total intake in fat across the week. Going back to Jane, this means that 40% of 13,700 calories = 5480 calories per week should come from fat. Since fat has nine calories per gram, this equates to about 609 grams of fat per week.
Next in line protein. A safe recommendation for both genders is .82 grams per pound of bodyweight per day. For Jane, this equates to about 115 grams of protein per day, which accounts for another 460 calories per day and therefore 3,220 calories per week. Note that the protein target should stay the same whether you're training or resting that day in order to maintain the most muscle mass.
The remaining calories can come from carbohydrates. With 8700 of Jane’s daily calories already accounted for, that leaves 5000 calories per week to be allotted to carbs. Since carbs have four calories per gram, this means Jane can afford about 1250 grams of carbs per week.
To recap, Jane’s weekly intake may look something like this:
Again, this is just a starting point, and according to the calorie fluctuation method presented above, these values would be spread differently across training days vs rest days. This is true fine-tuning of the diet, and if you're interested in seeing how to apply this method of calorie fluctuation to yourself, you can apply for a free consultation with me by clicking here. For now, let's assume that Jane will be able to follow these recommendations for the time being and hit her weekly targets.
Fiber is also a crucial component of the diet, particularly when it comes to staying full and increasing the Thermic Effect of Food. This value should also remain stable across all days. According to Applied Nutrition & Human Metabolism, 6th Edition, females should aim for at least 25 grams of fiber per day, if not more.
Since fiber isn’t digested the same way as other carbohydrates, it should not count the same way towards your carb target. There's an argument to be made that fiber does have a caloric value, but for simplicity's sake once again, let's assume that value is zero.
For females who are already very lean and exclusively want to gain muscle, the same “mild” logic can be applied in the opposite direction. Instead of a 5-10% reduction in calories, they can afford a 5-10% increase in calories per week. Remember: keep an eye on the weight change rates and adjust accordingly. This mild surplus should lead to a .5-1% increase in scale weight per week; any higher, and you’re likely gaining some unneeded fat.
There are major inherent differences when it comes to comparing how females should train versus how males should train.
The first is a difference we touched on earlier: females have a much different hormonal profile, and estrogen in particular has many implications on how women recover from training.
As noted earlier, estrogen is anti-catabolic for women. It prevents protein breakdown during exercise and helps protect against muscle damage. Less damage from one session means you’ll be ready for the next one much sooner.
The second major difference is literally within the muscles themselves. Everybody, male or female, has their own specific muscle fiber profile. Without getting too nerdy, muscle fibers (the constituent parts of muscle) roughly break down into two categories. You may have heard of this distinction before when comparing endurance athletes and power/explosive athletes. For our purposes, muscle fibers are either “slow-twitch dominant” or “fast twitch dominant.” Slow-twitch, Type-1 muscle fibers are better suited for less explosive, more sustained output. Fast-twitch, Type-2 muscle fibers are better suited for powerful movements lasting only a few seconds.
In general, when females begin following a training program, a higher percentage of their muscle fibers convert to slow-twitch, Type-1 muscle fibers than men. This is a result of evolution; throughout history, women have traditionally been tasked with more endurance-type activities (think walking long distances while carrying babies, foraging, etc.).
So what does this mean in the gym? Females are more resistant to fatigue thanks to more Type-1 fibers. This means they can often benefit from training with higher reps, taking shorter rest periods between sets and lifting with a slower tempo than men. It also works hand in hand with estrogen to explain why women can tolerate higher volumes and a higher training frequency.
When females train with higher percentages of their 1-Rep Max, this advantage disappears. This is partially due to females having a “less efficient” motor cortex, which not only results in poorer performance for explosive exercises, but also leads to less recovery.
Females also have a higher tolerance for metabolic stress. Women are much less susceptible to “feeling the burn” from exercise, since less metabolic byproducts accumulate in their blood during training. When most men would tap out from the pain, females can keep on keepin’ on.
Faster recovery from training and better stress tolerance mean females can train more often and with a higher volume than men can to encourage optimal results. Maybe Jane from the example earlier should think about increasing her number of training days…
Before selecting exercises, it’s worth noting that hypertrophy (muscle growth) is a local process, and the muscles you train the most, grow the most (duh). Many females don’t want bigger arms, but they want to emphasize their glutes and shoulders to evoke an “hourglass” figure. If this is your goal, then you would prioritize exercises that target these muscles, such as hip thrusts, wide-stance squats and overhead presses, and perform these exercises more often than any others.
It’s advisable for females to rest 60-90 seconds between sets and to keep their rep tempo slightly below an all-out explosive effort. Most females seem to find this cadence intuitively, so don’t put too much though into it.
We’ve already touched on cardio a bit earlier, and it should be clear that cardio is simply a tool one can use to burn a bit more energy instead of being the holy grail of fat loss. Excessive cardio has many downsides, including drastic elevations of cortisol, high injury risk and something known as the Interference Effect [2, 3].
You may have heard of the Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID) principle before, which states that you will gain specific skills and adapt in specific ways to any task you repeatedly do. Unfortunately, the adaptations you get from endurance training (like cardio) and the adaptations you get from strength training are so different that they “interfere” with one another; they prevent you from fully adapting to one or the other so long as you’re doing both at the same time (called “concurrent training”).
Think about it: by doing both types of training, you’re essentially asking your muscles, cardiovascular system and genes to become better at long, low intensity efforts and short, high intensity efforts at the same time. The more cardio you do, the less adaptations will be made following strength training. If you do this without having any endurance-based goals, you’re self-sabotaging your efforts in the gym, and THOSE are the efforts that are much more likely to get you to your goal.
However, at a certain point, cardio may embody the lesser of two evils when it comes to energy balance. If you have been in a deficit for a while to try to lose fat while building muscle, you may find yourself in a position where you are no longer losing fat despite eating very few calories. At a certain point, you risk lowering your calories to the point where your recovery from exercise is greatly compromised, as well as risking the development of nutrient deficiencies thanks to an unreasonably restricted diet.
In this scenario, you need to continue to increase your deficit to continue progressing, and any further caloric reductions pose a greater risk than an equivalent deficit created by cardio. As a rough barometer, most females shouldn’t go below 1500 calories per day on average. When you’re approaching these values, it’s time to consider cardio.
If you are considering cardio, be aware that females don’t respond very well to High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) due to the same rationale above: a less efficient motor cortex means highly intense efforts won’t be the most prudent option here. If you’re considering cardio, choose a piece of equipment that will keep muscle damage low, such as a stationary bike or an elliptical machine. Cardio should be spaced as far away from strength training as possible to minimize the Interference Effect, and you should aim to complete the “minimal effective dose” for your particular situation.
In most cases, burning an extra 150-300 calories per week will be enough to encourage additional fat loss, which can often be accomplished with as little as three, 20-minute low-intensity cardio sessions per week.
Just as with the diet, if you’re already lean and exclusively looking to gain muscle, then the game changes. Cardio should be an afterthought until further notice.
What About Supplements?
What about them?
In the grand scheme of things, supplements might give you a 1-2% benefit if you're lucky. That's if (and only if) all of the other factors in your fitness lifestyle are already on point. This includes stress management and, more importantly, sleep quality. I'll be releasing more content detailing how proper sleep can provide way more benefits to your progress than any legal supplement ever could, but for a brief primer of the benefits, read this (scroll down to the third tip).
However, targeted supplementation may be able to fix common problems or enhance your progress when combined with proper diet, training and lifestyle modifications. Just don't expect to see any miraculous results from any single supplement; there's no magic pill (and I'll let you know when I find one).
A protein supplement can come in handy when trying to gain lean muscle, namely if you’re the type of person who struggles to consistently reach their daily target. The amino acids found in protein provide both the signal to increase protein synthesis rates in the body (leucine) as well as the building blocks for new lean tissue (essential amino acids).
In order to ensure that you’re gaining (or at the very least, maintaining) your lean mass while losing fat, you’re going to need sources of high-quality protein at every meal to continually send an “anabolic” signal.
Aim to find products that fit the following guidelines: 20+ grams of protein per serving, high amounts of leucine and a complete amino acid profile to boot. No one can deny the convenience of a great-tasting shake, especially if you have a small appetite. Just don't resort to Branched Chain Amino Acid supplements.
The Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, namely EPA and DHA, are an important factor in anyone’s diet. But there’s good reason to suspect that our specific population at hand (females looking to gain muscle) would stand to benefit from this type of supplement.
First off, we’ve already discussed the increased importance of fat in the diet when it comes to females. The more fat women have in their diet, the more testosterone and estrogen they will produce, which are both anabolic hormones for females.
Secondly, Omega-3s appear to have the unique ability to enhance protein synthesis when added to a meal. As a result, sufficient intake of Omega-3s often leads to increased muscle growth and performance in the literature.
These two benefits are in addition to the myriad other benefits of an ample Omega-3 intake, which include reducing inflammation, increasing fat oxidation and lowering cortisol levels.
The key when it comes to fish oil and Omega-3s is optimizing your fatty acid ratio. The typical Western diet is loaded with pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids. Getting this ratio as close as possible to 1:1 will provide all of the benefits you read about above.
In practice, that often means getting at least three grams of combined EPA and DHA per day through diet (fish) and supplements (fish oil). Using a high-quality supplement in addition to consuming fish in your diet a few times a week will cover your bases.
Not everyone responds to creatine supplementation, but those who do benefit in a number of ways. Creatine is not a steroid, it's not a drug; it's literally produced by your body and can be found in a lot of food (namely meat). However, the amount we get from food is likely too little to promote a saturation of phosphocreatine levels within muscles, which is necessary for creatine to impart its primary benefit to performance: ATP resynthesis.
When we strength train, the energy that we take in through the diet gets broken down to form Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP. During intense work, such as repeated muscle contractions, cells utilize ATP for energy by taking off a phosphate group. This results in ATP becoming ADP (Adenosine Diphosphate), since one of those phosphate groups were used for energy.
This is where creatine comes to the rescue: once the overall pool of phosphocreatine is "full" due to supplementation, there are now more phosphate groups to be donated back to ADP to recreate ATP. In short, the major benefit of supplementation is the ability to regenerate ATP faster to maintain a higher rate of energy production.
One of creatine's side effects is increased cellular hydration, which many people are afraid of. The unavoidable truth is that creatine pulls water with it when absorbed into cells. People should probably stop complaining about this "water retention," since a) the aesthetic impact is very mild, if even noticeable at all, and b) this cellular swelling promotes anabolism.
If that wasn't enough, creatine supplementation has also been shown to increase levels of Dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, a metabolite of testosterone. We’ve already discussed how testosterone or its metabolites may not be as important for females as it is for males, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re anabolic.
One study has shown that creatine supplementation increases DHT, as well as the DHT:Testosterone ratio over time. A pair of studies [1, 2] have also noted that creatine can increase testosterone levels up to 15%. It's not universally clear how creatine imparts these effects: since DHT is converted from testosterone, creatine may only increase testosterone and the resulting increase in DHT may only appear in people prone to this conversion.
What is clear, is that creatine has a hormonal influence, and can boost testosterone, DHT, or maybe even both.
A steady dose of five grams of Creatine Monohydrate per day will result in full saturation of phosphocreatine over time.
The Bottom Line
Women can gain just as much size and strength as men can, and it won’t turn you into a muscle-bound cartoon character. Consistent weight training, a proper diet and judicious use of cardio has worked wonders for countless female athletes, fitness models, competitors, etc. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t work the same for you.
The techniques, strategies, and suggestions expressed in this website are intended to be used for educational and entertainment purposes only. The author is not rendering medical advice of any kind, nor is this website intended to replace medical advice, nor to diagnose, prescribe or treat any disease, condition, illness or injury.