So you decided you want to build some beautiful feminine muscle?
That is awesome!
The argument that women should stay away from lifting weights and build muscle is in my opinion BS, but I think that the idea is mostly a thing of the past.
A lot of female Hollywood actors you see in movies with sexy feminine curves have 100 % sure had their proportions enhanced by building a decent amount of muscle in the right proportion.
And you know what, so can you!
If you are reading this and you are a complete beginner, then I want to encourage you by letting you know that gaining muscle is not that hard.
It is even easier for a beginner.
In order to gain some lean muscle you obviously have to lift some weights (although any kind of resistance training could work), but you will most likely also have to make some changes to your diet.
How to build muscle for women is in many ways no different from men, but there are some differences which I will be covering below.
Differences Between Men And Women
The physiological differences between men and women do have an impact when it comes to how the muscle grow and look.
After all, men and women do have a different body.
However, women will gain muscle just as well as men do but perhaps with a bit different training.
Different Hormones – But Same Relative Muscle Growth
Women have much lower testosterone but much higher estrogen compared to men.
The difference in hormone levels have a big impact on the biology of the muscle building itself, but it does not have a big effect on the actual muscle growth that can occur.
In other words, just because women have much lower testosterone doesn’t mean they can only gain little muscle mass.
The explanation is that testosterone plays a much less significant role for muscle growth in the female body. Actually, research shows that women gain the same relative amount of muscles as men.
Additionally, the high estrogen actually has some benefits to muscle recovery.
The same relative muscle growth simply means that the increase in muscle mass is the same, but because women generally have a smaller body and have a higher body fat percentage genetically the absolute growth is not the same.
You could say that women have a lower starting point in terms of the muscle mass compared to men.
Different Muscle Fiber Distribution
The actual muscle mass in the human body consists of different types of muscle fiber.
There are two main types which conveniently are called type I muscle fiber and type II muscle fiber.
I talk about the differences in this article on muscle growth.
In general, women tend to carry more type I muscle fiber and less type II muscle fiber than men.
The super short and simplified explanation is that women are generally less well-equipped for lifting close to their maximum but are more resilient to fatigue.
Some experts say that the difference is usually seen when men and women lift somewhere around 85 – 90 % of 1 rep max (the maximum of weight you can lift for 1 rep).
When lifting this weight, men can complete more reps. However, when going lower than that the trend reverses and women can usually complete more reps than men.
Because women are more resilient to fatigue they can naturally handle a larger training volume and/or have a faster recovery.
Training volume is a term that covers the total work being done. This includes reps, sets, and exercises.
Training To Build Muscle For Women
As you should be able to understand now, the physiological difference between men and does have an impact on how they respond to training.
Both estrogen and more type I muscle fibers make women fatigue less and recover faster.
Compared to men, women can handle more training volume but less explosiveness. Explosiveness being in general training at maximum capacity or close to that.
However, focusing on heavy weight training still remains a very efficient way for women to build muscle. It is arguably one of the best ways to provide the stimulus for muscle growth because it is time-efficient and easier to do progressive overload while putting relatively less strain on your body.
And in case you are wondering, you should include a lot of compound movements. These are lifts that work for the major muscle groups and involve movements of multiple joints.
Compounds lifts are proven to provide a great muscle growth stimulus and examples of these are bench or dumbbell presses, overhead presses, squats, deadlifts, rows.
Larger Volume With Less Explosiveness
In order to stimulate those type I muscle fibers, women could benefit from training with a larger volume but less explosive / high-intensity training.
In practical terms, training volume can easily be increased by adding reps or sets.
This doesn’t mean you should do 20-25 reps or 10 sets per exercise. Of course, if that is what you prefer you can do that.
But for compound lifts you could put your focus on a weight you can lift for 8 – 10 reps or a bit higher. For isolation movements, you could do even higher.
Lifting more reps or sets will obviously take more time, but as women recover faster they on average don’t need a long rest in between sets as men.
You could aim for 1-2 minutes rest in between sets as long as you can perform the next set well.
Cardio training is a little off-topic when we are talking about muscle growth.
But as I mentioned above, women can probably benefit from train less close to their maximum capacity. Consequently, this probably also man that women respond better to lower intense cardio / steady state cardio than high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
That doesn’t mean HIIT is a bad idea, but if you are doing a lot of cardio you might want to think about balancing low-intense cardio with HIIT.
In other words, don’t overdo HIIT.
Rest And Recovery
Your actual muscle growth happens during the recovery period after you have done your workout.
This means you become stronger during your recovery that sometimes can take up to 48 hours or more depending on intensity and volume of your training.
As I have mentioned women have a faster recovery, but that doesn’t mean rest is not important.
Also, as you increase volume you are already taking advantage of your faster recovery.
If you want some serious muscle growth you still need to take your rest serious so don’t ignore rest days!
A very simple way to have a decent amount of rest is just avoiding doing heavy compound lifts on consecutive days.
Muscle Building Diet For Women
In order to take full advantage of the time you spend lifting weights you should ensure that you provide the right nutrients to your body.
But if you think you need to eat a ton of protein you are wrong.
Women don’t only genetically carry more fat than men, but they also generally burn more fat.
They also burn less carbohydrate and less protein when exercising compared to men.
So you don’t have to go extreme on the protein. You could aim for somewhere around 20 % of your calories.
Studies show that women need approximately 10 % less protein than men.
Learn more in my nutrition guide which you can get for free as a welcome bonus when you join my email list.
Higher Fat Diet Seems To Be The Best
In addition to a lower protein requirement, research seems to suggest that on average women do better on a higher fat diet.
So you are likely better off including a “good amount of fat.”
What that means is different from person to person, but in order to ensure optimal performance, you should perhaps not go lower than 25 % of calories from fat.
That is just a good guess and you will have to try different percentages yourself and take notice of how you feel.
Also, you might want to be more cautious with maintaining a very low-fat diet as default.
If you like to do that I would encourage you to see for yourself if you notice any difference in your mood, sleep and training performance when you include more fat.
What I mean by maintaining such a diet as default is eating very low fat as a lifestyle as opposed to doing that in a limited time for fat loss.
If you want to know more about high-carb and low-fat vs. low-carb and high-fat for fat loss you can check out something cool I wrote here.
For a much more in-depth explanation of the differences between men and women in terms of optimal training and diet, you can check out this excellent article by Menno Henselmans from Bayesian Bodybuilding.
Much of what I have written here is based on that article in particular and some of Menno’s other work.
The Biggest Concern Women Have About Muscle Building
One major concern many women have is becoming too big and bulky by doing weight training.
I have seen different opinions and responses to this concern.
On one side, you have some people who completely dismiss it. They say it is nonsense and that women don’t become big and bulky unless they take steroids or train hardcore dedicated for 10+ years.
On the other side, some will say that it is completely true and tell women to refrain from lifting any heavy weight. They recommend doing tons of cardio and to lift super light dumbells like the pink dumbbells you see in the pin I created and posted in the top.
How Most Women Want To Look
In the light of my own humble estimate of what most women are interested in, I believe the truth lies somewhere in between the two polar opposites mentioned above.
There is a concern of becoming a bit big and too bulky, but it is often exaggerated.
And just to make sure we are on the same page here, I think most women are interested in being slim with feminine “hourglass” curves and have some “muscle-tone”.
To give you an example, it is a body that is more in the in the direction of a Hollywood actor or even a Victoria’s Secret model than a professional female CrossFit or bodybuilding competitor.
I am saying this with absolutely no disregard to any these body/physique types, I am simply stating what I believe the majority of women are interested in.
And for you women reading this, getting the body of a bodybuilder takes extreme dedication so you will probably never look like that unless you really want it and put up the work.
Additionally, professional CrossFit competitors train a crazy amount of hours each week. I know that because I myself was really into CrossFit several years ago.
But I still think my example is decent and proves the point because you can definitely go either direction with different training approaches.
The trick is to know how to combine different exercises and manipulate the right variables.
If you feel a muscle is growing too fast or already have become too big you should probably change things.
If you like my wife also want to be slim with feminine hourglass curves and have some muscle-tone, then you might be interested in this premium workout and nutrition program.
You can also check out this post on workouts for women.
What To Do If Your Muscle Grow Too Big?
My wife responds very well to squats and I have seen myself first-hand how incredible fast her legs could grow from honestly not that much squatting.
She was doing heavy squats for 8-10 reps for 3 sets and her legs grew considerably in just 3-4 months (she didn’t like that growth rate).
I don’t want to make you afraid of getting big legs and I don’t think it will happen to you at such a fast rate as my wife.
Just know that there are techniques to avoid this and even lose muscle mass if that is what you are interested in.
The extreme reaction would be to completely stop leg training, but that would make you slowly lose muscle mass and muscle tone/definition.
If you want to keep the muscle as it is what could work instead is to increase the tension in the muscle with less volume.
E.g. you take the weight you would be able to complete 8-10 reps with and instead do 4-5 reps.
Thank you for the informative article!!! I have found myself getting back into bodybuilding after 20 years away from the gym. A few things have definitely changed, like the diets. I am loving the new way of eating and training. I found it interesting about how women can do larger volume and recover faster, great news! Also, not to do too much cardio after lifting for fear of less muscle. I am NOT afraid of muscle gains, in fact, I welcome it with open arms:) There has been some new lingo like “macros”, I had to look it up but had a pretty good idea that it was a fancier word for calories, lol! Also, loved reading about how hiit might be too much intensity. I had been doing hiit at home but it was really making me so tired that I was exhausted. I actually had to stop due to spurs in my hips, I was in a lot of pain from running in the past, kick boxing and heavy weight training. I got a right and left hip replacements last year and doing awesome!!
Thanks again for the read, I really enjoyed it!!
I am happy you liked it. Also, great to hear that you found your way back to bodybuilding 😉
Think I have an idea of what you mean with the change of lingo. My father has been lifting on and off for 30 years, and he is still using the same lingo as 30 years ago haha.