If you have never looked for specialized training routines or diets to gain muscle mass for women, you will have noticed that almost everything related to hypertrophy is aimed at men. And is that the world of fitness, even the word “muscular” is associated only with men. For women, you have to say “tone” (which is the same with another name).
But the reality is that having a healthy body is synonymous with health and that a woman can be muscular without having to dedicate herself to bodybuilding.
Whatever the reason you want to gain muscle, you are in luck.
This article is an extensive guide that will give you all the information you need on how to gain muscle mass for women.
Table of Contents
Should Women Gain Muscle?
Although in the modern world it may seem otherwise, the truth is that for most of history (that is, approximately 95% of all generations of the human species), women showed proportions of 15% fat and 45% muscle. And this is not a chance of nature: Strong muscles are one of the main parameters of optimal health.
Not surprisingly, studies show the following results:
The More Muscular, the Greater the Probability of Survival.
And the most interesting thing about this is that the percentage of body fat does not matter if you maintain adequate muscle levels.
This does not mean that you should try to pump up your muscles with carbohydrates and water, because the most important marker in this mortality estimate is muscle strength and not volume. That is why you do not need large muscles but strong muscles.
The More Muscular, The Less Worry About Weight
As we have mentioned in our article on hypertrophy, muscle is a costly tissue to maintain, so the higher the proportion of muscle you will have a more active metabolism and a much higher caloric expenditure at rest, so the possibility of maintaining an athletic figure and well-proportioned is high and will require much less dietary effort.
The reality is that gym advertising, in which men are lifting weights and women are running on the elliptical or doing only Zumba classes, is nonsense that has created the world of marketing. They have nothing to do with it. Having proper muscle proportions is essential for human being regardless of gender. Both men and women should train both our cardiovascular system and our strength.
Why Don’t Women Gain Muscle?
Because they don’t try, and this is due in part to the aesthetic pressure that for years the industry has imposed on men and especially women.
For decades, the media and Western beauty canons have idealized unattainable and unhealthy figures.
In the end, in your quest to achieve an extremely slim body, you have no choice but to buy supplements or go on miraculous diets that will cost you a fortune, detract from your health, and are probably not very useful.
And we are not only talking about the muscles.
The aesthetic pressure is so high in modern society that many people, instead of spending a few hours in the sun, decide to dye their skin to look like they have tanned and nothing more than to take photos for Instagram.
Another big problem is that we live in a world where the success of a diet or training plan is measured using a very skewed parameter: weight.
The weight doesn’t mean anything.
Yes, it may seem drastic to you. But it is that when you measure the weight on a scale, you do not only measure your body fat, also your bones, your organs, the water in your body, and your muscles. But there is something even more critical when we gain muscle. We lose body volume, especially in the areas where we accumulate fat, but this change easily measurable on a tape measure is not necessarily reflected in weight.
If you are guided only by this artificial and little useful parameter, you may deviate from what you want to achieve: health and aesthetics.
Finally, there is the myth that it is difficult for women to gain muscle; this belief is based on the more outstanding production of testosterone by men. However, it is essential to note that testosterone affects muscle growth during childhood through adulthood more than hypertrophic growth.
For example, women who have about one-tenth of the testosterone of men have developed smaller muscles during their growth.
At the same time, women show the same relative amount of muscle hypertrophy as men after 16 weeks of strength training.
If the muscle is essential for both men and women, it is normal that its gain with the appropriate stimuli is similar.
The Two Key Factors for Gaining Muscle Mass in Women
It is time to understand the two most important points so that you can gain muscle mass with the greatest possible strength and without gaining fat at the same time.
The first factor is related to training and the second factor is related to diet, but all this based 100% on what science dedicated to sports says:
Factor 1 to Gain Muscle Mass in Women: Muscle Load
Without a doubt, the incentive for muscle growth in an adult woman is muscle loading.
This is not a discovery as these studies were conducted in the late 1980s.
After a few decades of this study, we can add a discovery that completely changes classic hypertrophy sports planning:
You do not need heavy weights to gain muscle.
Yes, both high-load and low-load strength training could boost muscle protein synthesis and hypertrophy to the same degree.
That is to say, this paradigm so ingrained in sports that we all have of having to lift heavy weights and buy a lot of material to gain muscle is not necessarily the only way to gain muscle mass.
Why Can You Gain Muscle in Women with Low Loads?
Because the key in muscle stimulation is not only in the effort but also in the number of muscle fibers recruited during an exercise.
In general, the higher the weight mobilization, the more fibers are recruited.
Imagine that you want to move a stone by pulling strings that you have tied to it. The heavier the rock, the more people will have to help you, and the more ropes you will need.
What is new is that it has been discovered that as we perform repetitions towards the failure of an exercise, more motor units are recruited until, upon failure, all motor units within the muscle are activated in an attempt to lift the weight.
To be clear, when your muscles are about to hit failure, they start recruiting muscle fibers from other groups. This means that the longer you are closer to lose, the more you stimulate your muscle gain.
And why is this discovery so exciting for women?
Because all tissues, not just muscle fibers, must go through a transition to lift heavy weights, and not all of them can do it at the same speed (joints, for example).
If you have a poorly adapted tissue, and you start training with high weights, the risk of injury increases dramatically. At the same time, if in the initial phases, you plan lighter exercises, but that leads to failure, you will obtain the same result and risk of injury a lot less.
This applies to both genders but is particularly important in women because, depending on the time of the menstrual cycle, ligament laxity increases, increasing the risk of injury.
Therefore, these data suggest that the greater the request for muscle fibers, the greater the gain in muscle volume and strength, and that the best way to request the maximum number of threads is not weight but training to failure.
Factor 2 to Gain Muscle Mass in Women: The Intake
The image of gym freaks eating rice and chicken every day and hundreds of salads five times a day is undoubtedly on everyone’s mind.
I am not going to lie to you, there is some truth in having to control the nutrients in our food, but it is not necessary to eat so many times a day or obsess over this issue all the time if you want to gain muscle mass.
High carbohydrate consumption will only generate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which we are not interested in.
In addition to this, research has shown that energy-restricted (hypocaloric) diets, but with adequate nutritional protein density, have the same long-term results in muscle mass gain.
This means that if you do not consume enough protein, they can already recommend the ultra-personalized plan for muscle gain in women, the muscle will not develop properly.
Therefore, protein is a key component of muscle development.
It is providing protein after exercise leads to increased myofibrillar protein synthesis and can decrease protein breakdown. That is, it dramatically increases the chances of building more muscle and significantly reduces the possibility that you will lose it.
Also, protein consumption, in conjunction with strength training, leads to more significant muscle hypertrophy than carbohydrate consumption revealing that it is amino acids (protein) that can increase muscle growth.
As you can imagine, the issue of caloric and protein intake has been studied to the millimeter the relevance of quantity, quality, and timing of inputs. These studies allow us to state that consuming ~ 0.25 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight from a leucine-rich, fast-digesting protein source every 4 to 5 hours (i.e., three times a day or four maximum) and not long after you finish your strength training, they optimize hypertrophy.
Together, these data suggest that for strength training, the provision of sufficient amino acids in an optimal range is essential for optimal load-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy.
In short, distrust those who claim that to gain muscle, you must eat like a pig because you want the body of a lioness.
Characteristic Aspects of Strength Training in Women
The Menstrual Cycle
Something particular to women is the hormonal fluctuations throughout the month.
As we already told you in this video about diet and menstrual cycle, these hormonal changes can affect training.
In general, strength training is the one that is least affected by these ups and downs, but you may still find these tips to take into account during the menstrual cycle:
- From day 25 to 11 of the cycle. It is the time when, due to the hormonal context, you tend to have more appetite, and the tendency is to use more glycogen as an energy substrate. It seems like a good time to combine strength training.
- From day 12 to 14 of the cycle (ovulatory peak). Some women feel that this is the time when they are strongest (although not all). On the contrary, the estrogenic elevation usually increases joint laxity, so you must be very rigorous with the technique if you carry weight. My suggestion is that in these days of high because estrogens improve the mood, incorporate muscle strength sessions without much load and tending to muscle failure.
- From day 14 until bleeding. At this time, it comes naturally, space meals and uses fat as the primary fuel. It is a perfect time to combine aerobic sessions with strength sessions.
The Pelvic Floor
The pelvic floor is a set of muscles and ligaments that close the lower part of the abdominal cavity.
Its function is to keep the organs located inside the pelvis (bladder, vagina, uterus, and rectum) in the proper position.
It also has the no fewer essential functions of ensuring urinary continence, helping the second stage of labor, acting together with other muscles in lumbar stability. Although it is necessary to take care of it in both men and women, due to its characteristics, it is more relevant in women.
The key is that they are soft structures, which, if subjected to too much pressure, can weaken.
Therefore, there are two essential premises that you must take into account:
- Activate this region before carrying out the effort. The easiest way to know if you are working the correct muscles is to contract the sphincters when you feel like going to the bathroom (when urinating or having a bowel movement), repeat 2 to 3 times. This activity is to position the muscles well. If you have already achieved it, do not do it again, since it is harmful to health to interrupt the physiological process of the body, you do not have to make it a habit.
- Take out the air during the effort. At the moment when you are exerting force and the pressure increases in the abdomen, the abdominals press the organs increasing the pressure on the pelvic floor.
Supplementation to Gain Muscle in Women
As we have told you in the intake section, the key to gaining muscle mass is to obtain a sufficient amount of protein. Yes, you need a little help to reach the required amounts, we recommend one of these two supplements:
Whey protein is halfway between a supplement and food. It is so important for growth that it accounts for most of the protein in human breast milk.
Without a doubt, the protein with the highest bioavailability (followed closely by the egg). It is one of the supplements that have more publications demonstrating its effectiveness not only to gain muscle, lose fat, and improve sports performance, but its anticancer properties are also quite proven. It helps in the reduction of triglycerides, improvement of the immune system, reduction of stress/cortisol, improvement of serotonin levels in the brain, lowering of blood pressure, etc.
Some detractors of whey protein argue that its rapid absorption causes it to be used mainly for energy (through gluconeogenesis) and not so much in protein synthesis.
From my point of view, the opposite occurs, because under normal conditions, the intestine uses 50% of the protein we eat, its rapid absorption is one of the reasons why I like this supplement. Remember also that good intestinal and liver health is key and that you do not have an active immune system not to happen.
Another factor to consider is that if you are very lactose intolerant, you should bear in mind that the whey concentrate still has some lactose. However, in the whey isolate, the amount is practically insignificant.
When to take this supplement:
If you plan your meals well, take your time to cook, eat after training, and rest well, you probably won’t need any supplements.
Unfortunately, lingering reality often spoils our best intentions.
Sometimes we don’t have time to make an egg scramble in the morning. Sometimes we eat a quick salad at the office, and when we get home, we find that we have had almost no protein during the day.
Sometimes we finish our training and have nothing on hand to help our body recover. Sometimes you have a craving for a snack or but you are already at the end of the week, and you have nothing healthy left in the fridge.
For all of these cases, whey protein is an excellent choice.
Another indication for protein consumption is that you have an ectomorphic phenotype.
That is, you are skinny by nature, and you have a hard time gaining weight.
We have prepared a guide to body phenotypes, how to identify which one you are in, and recommendations to achieve the best results in each case. Still, I anticipate that if you are an ectomorph, I would recommend a post-workout whey consumption regardless of whether you achieve the appropriate protein level through feeding.
How much to take:
The recommended amounts depend a lot on how much protein you have stopped eating at meals, but a good dose is usually 25 grams
BCAA: The Branched Amino Acids are 3. Leucine, Isoleucine, Valine.
In general, BCAAs are a more processed supplement than whey protein (they look less like real food).
This makes it more out of body control and less retained in the intestine and liver and more effective in elevating amino acids in the blood.
The problem is that it can lead to an increase in ammonia and negatively affect muscle performance.
When to take this supplement:
In times where the catabolic stimulus increases: you are under stress, or you feel that you work much better with only two meals a day. In these cases, a BCAA supplement can help you.
How much to take:
About 4 grams a day is recommended. In this case, it is better to choose a 2: 1: 1 ratio of Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine because it is much more similar to the ratio of amino acids that you can find in foods of animal origin.
Keep in mind that:
Under normal conditions, these supplements are not necessary. As long as we lead a minimally calm life and manage to follow the nutritional plan, they will not be required.
We recommend using whey protein if you ever run short of protein or have an endomorphic phenotype.
We recommend using BCAAs if you are fasting for a long time or are experiencing significant stress.
Model Training Session for Gaining Muscle Mass in Women
A training session for women should include the essential muscle groups so that no part is out of balance.
Just as many men choose to skip leg workouts to focus on their upper body, women tend to do the exact opposite, offsetting their leg strength with their arm weakness.
So, in this model session, we include the most important muscle groups:
Session type: Superset for intermediate level
Description: Perform the number of repetitions of each exercise and rest at the end of each series for 30 seconds.
1. Superset 1: 3 laps to the next circuit
- Squats x 25 reps
- Bridge x 25 reps
- Walking lunges x 25 reps
2. Superset 2: 2 laps to the next circuit
- Iron or plank x 40 seconds
- Twist Crunches x 30 reps
3. Superset 3: 3 laps to the next circuit
- Dips or dips x 15 reps
- Deadlift x 20 reps
- Classic push-ups x 15 reps
- Swing x 20 reps
As you might imagine, doing the same session every day can be not only dull but counterproductive because your body will stop progressing if you train with the same stimulus every day.
Conclusions on the Gain of Muscle Mass in Women
Muscle is essential to achieve the health and aesthetic goals that we seek with physical activity in both men and women
The erroneous paradigm has been established that women should not strength train, and at most use a pair of weights (pink in all sports stores) for their aerobics class.
Weight is a dire marker of whether or not you are improving.
The two most important parameters for gaining muscle mass are achieving muscle failure and consuming enough protein
In the case of women, it is worth knowing the small nuances of hormonal fluctuations and paying attention to the protection of the pelvic floor.
In short, give your body what it expects of you, which is that 45% of body weight is muscle. If someone tells you that it should not be like that, they have no idea of human physiology and evolution.