Did you know that although women have less natural muscle mass than men, they can produce the same relative changes in their musculature? In other words, although women start with less muscle mass, there’s nothing impeding their ability to gain muscle. That said, putting on muscle is a long and difficult road especially when you’re starting with a biological disadvantage due to your gender.
However, whether you dream of being a female bodybuilder or of just toning up and getting stronger, you can benefit from learning how to build lean muscle mass. With that in mind, we’ve compiled this manual for building muscle as a woman. Read on to learn more!
The Benefits of Lean Muscle
Competing in the bodybuilding sport is an incredibly rewarding undertaking for women. But, even if you don’t have ambitions on the stage, building muscle has a host of mental and physical health benefits, making it one of the best things to do for your body.
Recent studies have found that muscle mass is the greatest predictor of metabolism. While many people think that your metabolism slows down as you age and that women have inherently lower metabolisms, this is a misconception. In fact, it becomes more difficult to maintain muscle mass as you age and women have less muscle mass on average than men.
Your actual base metabolism changes very little on its own, it’s all just a function of muscle mass. So, gaining muscle mass can give your metabolism a healthy boost. Then, maintaining that muscle mass can keep your metabolism high even while you age.
Osteoporosis is the weakening of the skeleton, resulting in porous, brittle bones. Women are especially susceptible to osteoporosis which means a high risk of bone fractures and injury.
The best defense against osteoporosis is loading your bones so that they become stronger, a principle called Wolff’s law. In addition, strengthening your muscles can help reinforce your bones.
Weight training and building your muscles is the best way to load your bones and stave off osteoporosis.
Improved Overall Health
The American Heart Association recommends strength training at least twice a week because of the benefits to your heart and overall health. No matter what part of your body you’re training, your heart also gets a workout. This means you’ll experience better cardiovascular health and a lower risk of heart disease.
In addition, regular exercise has a host of mental health benefits, including increased confidence as you finally start seeing the results you’re looking for.
The term lean muscle mass is actually a bit of a misnomer. There’s no such thing as lean muscle mass and there’s certainly no such thing as bulky muscle mass. What we really mean when we talk about having a lot of lean muscle mass is that you have a significant amount of muscle and not much fat.
But, these are two different metrics and two different processes are involved. One process is gaining muscle, and the other is losing fat.
If you’ve been training a ton but eating very little in the hopes of gaining muscle without gaining fat, this is likely one of the reasons why you feel you’re not getting the results you’re looking for. It takes the right balance of diet and exercise.
This is why you often hear bodybuilders talking about cutting and bulking cycles. The bulking cycles are where they put on muscle. During this time, they also put on fat as it is very slow and difficult to gain muscle without gaining fat.
The cutting cycle is where the bodybuilder sheds the fat they gained during the bulking cycle, while still maintaining the muscle they’ve built.
Effective Strength Training
While it’s not the only factor in muscle growth, how you spend your time in the gym is easily the most important aspect. If you’re not strength training properly you’re just wasting time and postponing your results.
When you’re training for muscle growth, you’re attempting to achieve hypertrophy. The American Council of Exercise reports that the best routine for hypertrophy is 3 to 6 sets of 6 to 12 repetitions, with about a minute rest between sets.
You should be lifting about 70 to 80 percent of your single rep maximum. This strains your muscles enough to cause growth while allowing them enough time to rest between sets. As you get stronger, you can keep increasing the weight you lift.
In addition, you don’t want to overdo it. You want to split your week up into a four-day split, focusing on different muscle groups each time. If you spend too much time on one specific muscle group, you’ll essentially be training that area for endurance rather than pure strength and will be slowing your muscle growth.
Many people, when they aren’t seeing immediate results, assume they aren’t working hard enough and start doubling their efforts in the gym. This can be a mistake. You want to work at the limits of your capabilities without overstressing your muscles.
Muscles that are perpetually overworked don’t grow.
Don’t Forget to Rest
Athletes need more sleep than the rest of the population because they demand more from their bodies. Sleep is the key to recovery. Not getting enough sleep means your muscles aren’t rebuilding and you’ll have a worse performance in the gym the following day.
In addition, not getting enough sleep can make you feel hungrier, causing you to graze more, and put on more unnecessary weight.
Studies have found that athletes that sleep ten hours every night experience far better performances in the gym and have better physical compositions. So, if you find yourself staying up late scrolling through Instagram or watching TV, it’s time to consider adjusting your sleep schedule.
Nutrition for the Female Bodybuilder
Body composition is earned both in the gym and in the kitchen. What you feed your body has as much to do with it as what you put your body through in the gym.
When you lift weights, your muscles are actually getting microtears and sustaining both damage and stress. They need food to recover. So, your priority during bulking periods is a balanced diet and lots of protein.
A good rule of thumb is to eat one gram of protein per pound of body weight every day. This can be difficult to achieve without the help of protein powders. You can also focus on protein-rich foods like egg whites, fish, and chicken breast.
Bodybuilders love these sources of lean protein as they provide all the protein your muscles need without bringing your daily calories too far out of control.
During bulking periods, your goal is to maximize muscle growth which cannot be accomplished without fat growth, but this is expected and normal. After you’ve put on more muscle, the fat will come off easily and quickly thanks to your new metabolism.
That said, you don’t want to gain too much weight if you want your cutting period to go smoothly. So put down the chocolate bar! Instead, try to increase your calories by just 10 percent with healthy foods, as this will build the perfect amount of muscle without too much overall weight gain.
In addition, you should make sure you’re getting enough carbs during this time. If you skip carbs, you’re losing out on energy for your workout and are making yourself miserable. So, be sure to eat plenty of slow-burning carbs like oatmeal, grains, and rice.
Cutting periods are primarily intended to drop the fat that has accumulated while bulking. For competitive bodybuilding, this is when your diet is the most important.
During this time, you’ll have to cut your calorie intake, reduce your carbs and sugars, and increase your cardio and water. Your goal is to burn fat and reduce water bloating to get as lean as possible.
You’ll still continue to lift heavy weights with low repetitions in order to keep your muscles active and maintain your muscle mass.
Correctly alternating between bulking and cutting periods will help you ultimately build and maintain lean muscle mass.
While women are able to build muscle just as well as men, there are a few hormonal issues to tackle that can make it more difficult. We’ll be discussing some common hormonal issues and speaking in averages, so be aware that your individual hormonal makeup will vary.
The biggest problem for female fitness enthusiasts is testosterone. Women tend to have far lower levels of testosterone than men, which is one of the reasons why men are stronger and have more natural muscle mass.
Testosterone makes it easier to build and maintain muscle mass, which is why falling levels of testosterone result in a loss of muscle as we age. After age 30, the average person loses about 3 to 5 percent of their muscle mass every decade.
Artificially boosting testosterone levels in female athletes has been proven to increase both athletic performance and muscle mass. Some studies have found that using a topical testosterone cream can boost running performance and make it easier to put on muscle.
It can be difficult to combat these types of hormonal struggles, but you can naturally boost your testosterone by lifting heavier, reducing your rest between sets, and keeping your workout shorter than one hour. In addition, focusing on your legs stimulates your body’s largest muscles and can help in testosterone production.
Some athletes also buy SARMs in order to give their testosterone a bit of a boost, making it easier to get stronger and recover after a difficult workout.
The Menstrual Cycle
It can be difficult to find the motivation to get to the gym when you’re on your period. Not only are you crampy and achy, but you can also experience fatigue and a lack of motivation. However, the fluctuating cycle of hormones during your period can be used to your advantage!
Your period can be broken up into two parts: the follicular phase, from the first day of your period to ovulation, and the luteal phase, from ovulation until your period.
During the follicular phase, strength training has been proven to result in high levels of muscular growth when compared to the luteal phase. In other words, although you might not feel like exercising during your period, this is the time when your work in the gym will result in the biggest physical gains.
However, when you’re in the luteal phase, you’ll find you have less endurance and less strength. You may also feel more tired and your max lifts might become more difficult. So, if you’re experiencing PMS symptoms and just can’t seem to make it to the gym, don’t beat yourself up.
In addition, don’t judge the status of your training based on the lifts you’re performing during your luteal phase. You’re actually capable of lifting heavier and training for longer. With that in mind, you may want to schedule deloading weeks and vacations during your luteal phase, while using your follicular phase to maximize your time in the gym.
But of course, not every woman’s body is the same. It’s worth tracking your period for a few cycles and seeing if you notice any patterns in your weight training. Then, you can schedule your training around your period for the best results.
Achieve Your Best Physique Yet
If you’ve been hitting the gym regularly and just aren’t making the progress you’d like, you’re probably making one of the common mistakes discussed in this article. With a bit of planning, discipline, and know-how, you can start gaining the muscle growth you’re looking for. Now that you’ve got this guide, you’ve got the know-how so all that’s left to do is get in the gym and put it into practice!
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