Because I know most people only stick around for a minute or so, I’m splitting this article into the short answer and the long answer.
Lift heavy weights, close to failure, 3–4 times a week
Follow a progressive overload training protocol
Eat 1.6–2.2g protein per kg body weight daily
Eat 20–30g servings of protein at a time
Emphasise food high in leucine (dairy, meat, pea, hemp)
Eat about 200kcal over maintenance
Eat plenty of carbs
Get between 7–10 hours sleep a night (especially after training)
Supplement with daily creatine — 5g
Women are generally still quite under-represented in the research when it comes to strength training — though this is slowly changing — so there’s still a lot of misconceptions about what strength training for women should be (and if they should even be doing it).
So let’s set the record straight: Yes. Women should do it. Lift the damn weights. Make them heavy.
Lifting weights and building muscle can help with self-esteem, self-efficacy and reduce the risk of osteoporosis — so it’s a big deal.
There’s this misconception that women who lift weights will either injure themselves or bulk up — neither are based in anything other than misogyny and scare tactics.
Firstly: if it was easy to get big, everybody would be big; and secondly, if you’re a woman, no matter how much muscle you build you’ll still look like a woman. So just relax yourself, and build as much muscle as your heart desires.
And be patient, because it’s going to take longer than you think.
What doesn’t actually take as long to start seeing is strength gains. Interestingly, relative strength gains tend to be larger in women compared to men (at least in the short term) — especially when it comes to younger women and upper body strength gains.
This means, you’ll find yourself getting stronger quite quickly when you start, which is incredibly satisfying and a great motivator for you to continue along this path of strength gains.
Long-term these relative rates of strength gains balance out between men and women, but women actually make larger gains relative to their starting points. So next time someone tells you lifting weights is only for the boys, tell them to sit down. Because you were born to be strong.
So where do you start and what should you do?
Firstly, if you want to build muscle (and also strong bones) you need to lift weights. And it needs to be hard. A lot of women walk into the gym and grab some tiny weights and bash out 15–20 reps of a given exercise — stopping more from boredom than muscle fatigue.
You need to make it heavier.
Generally speaking, muscle growth is similar in low-load and high-load training so long as you’re always going to failure — but low-load training is BORING and will take you much longer to get enough reps in to actually stimulate growth.
And, actually, one study comparing high and low-load training found that women gained way more muscle when following a high-load (6–10RM) protocol compared to a low-load (20–30RM) protocol.
What does this mean practically? It means you need to be lifting heavy weights. Aiming for repeatable sets of 5–8, where you only have 1–2 left in the tank — and resting for long enough to do it again. If you’re only resting for 30 seconds before you’re ready to go — make it heavier.
While training for women is pretty much the same as training for men for the most part, there are a few differences you should be aware of. Women tend to be less acutely fatiguable than men — so you can do usually do more reps per set at a given percentage of 1RM, do more sets with a fixed number of reps at a given percentage 1RM or both.
In practical terms, what this means if you’re following a percentage-based programme that doesn’t seem hard enough for you (because it was written more geared at guys), is that you can probably either do more reps/sets than stated at the % in the programme, or you can probably up the % slightly and do the planned number of reps/sets a bit heavier.
Another thing to note is that women may recover from training faster than men — one theory for why might be that oestrogen has a protective effect on muscles, which might be accelerating recovery and repair from training.
In practical terms, this means you probably don’t need five minutes between sets and also you probably don’t need as many rest days. But you’ll have to figure this out on a personal level, as only you know how long you need to recover from anything.
To make progress, you need to follow a progressive overload protocol. This just means that overtime, you gradually increase the level of stress on the muscles. There are a number of ways to do this:
- Increased weight, for same amount of reps
- Increased reps, for same amount of weight
- Increased range of motion for same reps/weight
- Increased total volume
- Increased training frequency
- Reduced rest between sets
Diet side of building muscle
When it comes to building muscle, training comes first.
But if you want to make the most out of all the lifting you’ve been doing, you’re going to want to get your diet on point, too.
To build muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus. This means eating more calories than your body needs to maintain its current state. A good ballpark to aim for is 200 extra calories a day. But there’ll be an element of trial and error, where you can adjust your calories upways as you go as necessary.
Now, building muscle takes time. So you need to stick to it for a substantial period of time. You can’t “bulk” for six weeks and then decide to “cut” again — it’s a waste of all your efforts. Give yourself a chance to really grow first!
As well as making sure you’re eating enough calories, you also need to get enough protein. Aim for between 1.6–2.2g/kg bodyweight. So if you weigh 60kg, aim for between 96–132g protein/day.
Protein is important for supporting muscle protein synthesis, increasing lean body mass, repairing muscle damage, as well as loads of other functions in your body.
Aim for 20–30g servings every three or so hours. If you’re a vegan, it’s worth always getting mixed sources of protein, as most plant sources are incomplete — meaning they don’t have all the essential amino acids. If you’re not a vegan, whey shakes are a really easy win. Especially for breakfast or after a workout, when maybe you can’t quite face eating a proper meal yet.
Spacing your protein feedings out throughout the day will lead to better protein synthesis than having it all in one go — in fact, this study from 2014 showed that on average, 24 hour protein synthesis rates are about 25% higher if you space them out rather than have most protein in one meal.
This means that when it comes to building muscle, intermittent fasting isn’t as helpful as it can be when it comes to cutting. If you are someone who likes to skip breakfast, this is a good time to throw in that whey shake. You can get some lean ones that are under 200kcal for 30g that mean you still have plenty of calories left for when you’re ready to eat.
There’s this idea that you need to get loads of protein in after a workout, but it doesn’t actually need to be anything massive. Just another normal sized serving will do.
The only supplement you really need to worry about is creatine. It’s been shown to increase body mass and improve performance in the gym. The recommended dose is 5g per day.
If you get a powdered version you can either add it into your daily protein shake or spoon it straight into your mouth and wash it down with water.
If you’re mixing it with your shake either drink it straight away or keep it in the fridge until it’s time to drink it.
Creatine monohydrate is the typical form of the supplement and the type that has been most widely studied.
Sleep is so important — and yet it’s something so many people skimp on in favour of other things.
Not getting enough sleep will have a direct impact on your ability to grow muscle and build strength. One of the reasons for this is that sleep deprivation reduces circulating levels of two of your primary anabolic hormones, which leads to a reduction in muscle protein synthesis.
Sleep deprivation also increases cortisol levels. Chronic elevations of cortisol can block protein synthesis by inhibiting certain pathways — while activating others that lead to protein breakdown.
This essentially means that if you’re not getting enough sleep, you’ll find it harder to build lean muscle and hold on to it than you would otherwise.
Good sleep also means you’ll be able to train harder and find it easier to stick to your diet, as well as finding it easier to learn new skills.
The takeaways here are train hard, eat enough food and get enough sleep.
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