So, you’ve been hitting the gym regularly, killing your workouts, and watching what you eat…but you’re still not seeing the muscular definition you’re after. It can be really frustrating to feel stuck when you’re working so hard!
As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That means it’s probably time to switch up something in your routine. Here, experts break down a few of the most meaningful things women can do to build more muscle.
1. Take a hard look at your workout routine
Outdated ideas about exercise still have many women opting for treadmills and ellipticals over dumbbells and weight machines—and while cardio is certainly important for overall health, overprioritizing it won’t lead to much when it comes to muscle. If cardio dominates your routine, consider this your invitation to flip the script.
“Weightlifting is the best way for women to build muscle,” says trainer Brittany Simon, C.P.T., owner of RackFit Total Body Fitness in Scottsdale. If you’re not currently strength training, it’s time to start! Considering strength training as the foundation of your fitness program is a must for finally seeing those muscles start to pop.
Of course, how you lift (the right number of sessions per week and using a progressive training program) is also key. To build muscle, you should ideally hit all the major muscle groups at least twice a week, if not more, according to Simon. It’s also important to regularly switch up your exercises and increase the amount of weight you use.
2. go Big or Go Home
About those 10-pounders you’ve been lifting with… They’re probably not enough, especially if you’ve been lifting weights for a while. “Contrary to what you might have been taught growing up, lighter weights and higher reps all the time isn’t gonna cut it. That’s great for muscle endurance, but not true strength or muscle gain,” says physical therapist and trainer Megan Daley, D.P.T., CF-L1.
You also want to focus on bigger movements. “While muscle isolation exercises like biceps curls and glute machines have their place, you also need to be incorporating the ‘big lifts’—overhead presses, squats, deadlifts, and so forth,” Daley says. “If you aren’t familiar with these lifts and are worried about safety or an old injury, find a trainer or a therapist to do an initial session for you.”
Not sure how to plan out your sets, reps, and resistance level? Daley has you covered: “An easy ‘guide’ that fits for just about any lift is five sets of five reps at a weight you can’t physically lift for more than seven or eight reps with, plus two minutes of rest between sets,” she says. And while you can throw some ab work or a quick burst of cardio into your rest periods, don’t overdo it; you’ll sacrifice the energy you need to keep lifting through your full set and rep sequence.
3. Pay attention to your calorie intake
It’s very common for women to cut, cut, cut calories in hopes of leaning out and seeing more definition. But this tactic isn’t really sufficient if your goal is to gain muscle. “Women frequently under-consume calories when trying to gain muscle,” says clinical nutritionist and chiropractor Laura DeCesaris, D.C. “The reality is that most women need to tack on some extra calories to build muscle; it’s very difficult to do it while dieting or in a calorie deficit.” So even if your ultimate goal is to lean out after building muscle, you may need to start by adding extra calories to your diet—otherwise, you’ll struggle to build muscle in the first place.
How many calories is enough, though? Of course, it varies from person to person, but take Daley as an example: “I’m 5’2”, 125 pounds, and just to maintain—not to build—strength, I consume 2,200 calories a day. This takes into account that I do CrossFit four to five days a week, hike or run once a week, and have a job where I’m on my feet,” she says. “In order to build strength, then, my total daily intake would gradually increase to close to 2,600 to 2,800 calories.” Yes, that’s a significant increase in calorie intake, but it takes energy to build new muscle tissue!
Exactly how many calories you may need to add to see the results you’re looking for varies from person to person based on factors like age, height, weight, current body composition, and activity status. Look out for these common signs you’re not consuming enough calories and consider working with a credentialed nutritionist or dietitian to make sure your eats match your fitness goals. (Click here to learn more about scheduling a free consultation with one of The Vitamin Shoppe’s nutritionists.)
4. Pay attention to your protein intake
It’s not just your overall calories that are likely to need an adjustment, but your protein intake, too. “Protein intake is underestimated by most women I work with. They think they are consuming a lot, but when we add it up, it’s like 50 grams or so per day,” says DeCesaris. Though exactly how much you need depends on your height, weight, and activity level, chances are you need more like 100 grams per day to build muscle.
“A simple, easy goal that most women can aim for is to get 25 to 30 grams of protein at each of the three meals of the day,” DeCesaris says. “Then you can increase as needed based on how you’re feeling during workouts or the progress you’re making.”
It can also be helpful to make sure you have easy protein sources on-hand for snacking. “I personally like to keep high-protein snacks in the fridge or pantry,” Simon says. “Cottage cheese, beef jerky, hard-boiled eggs, and Greek yogurt are good examples.” When you need the convenience (or are struggling to get that intake up), having protein bars and protein supplements for shakes and smoothies can go a long way.
5. Allow time for rest, recovery, and sleep
Yes, you need to focus on your workouts in order to build muscle, but that muscle actually “builds” on your recovery days and as you sleep…not during your workouts. Your strength-training sessions actually damage your muscles by placing stress on the muscle fibers and connective tissue. That may sound like a bad thing, but as your muscles repair outside of the gym, they become bigger and stronger so as to better handle the stress of the same workout in the future. “You don’t need to lift seven days a week,” says Simon. “Longer rest periods and quality sleep are so important. If you aren’t resting and recovering those muscles, you simply won’t grow and progress.”
A few rules of thumb to keep in mind: First, always allow at least one day of rest after working a particular muscle group. (If you lifted legs on Monday, don’t target them again until Wednesday or Thursday.) You’ll also want to preserve at least one full rest day per week. Sure, you can still walk, stretch, do yoga, or enjoy recreational physical activity, but hold off on intense workouts to give your body a chance to recover. Finally, if you’re completely new to exercise, start with exercising two or three days per week and gradually add sessions so you don’t overtax your system right out of the gates.
When it comes to sleep, prioritize the recommended seven to eight hours per night; that’s when the recovery magic really happens! Try these tactics to score better sleep (even when you’re stressed!).
6. Get Real ABout Managing stress
The effects of stress—especially chronic stress—take a toll on your body in every way imaginable. When stress is rampant, it can affect your hormones, energy, and ability to recover, all of which can interfere with the success of your workouts and ultimately your muscle-building goals. “Women may not realize all of the stress they have in their lives because they only equate emotional stress as stress,” says DeCesaris. “However, if you’re trying to build muscle but you’re chronically dieting, don’t prioritize sleep and recovery, do intense workouts daily without letting your body recover, work a demanding job and/or are raising a family…not to mention world events and unexpected stressors…it’s a lot.” Understandably, when there’s that much going on, building muscle isn’t your body’s top priority.
Taking an honest inventory of the stressors in your life—and how you might manage them—goes a long way in creating the space for your body to prioritize your physique goals. If you don’t have a clue where to start with bringing stress levels down, down, down, check out these acts of self-care that take five minutes or less, or how to practice self-care without spending a dime.
7. Don’t underestimate the impact of your hormones
Hormones play a significant role in your ability to build and maintain muscle. And given that hormones fluctuate throughout the course of your monthly cycle, as well as throughout your life cycle, the ease with which you can build muscle also fluctuates.
In fact, trainer Rosi Reeves, C.S.C.S., C.K.T., owner of FittLivinFitness, recommends adjusting your workouts based on your menstrual cycle. “The first two weeks of your cycle are a great opportunity to hit PRs and make gains in performance,” she says. “Use this time to your advantage and throw in more challenging or powerful workouts.” This is because your estrogen levels rise in those first two weeks, helping you feel more energetic and powerful.
But it’s not just your monthly cycle you should be conscientious of. “As women, we have shifting hormone profiles throughout every menstrual cycle, but also throughout the decades,” says DeCesaris. “It gets more challenging to build and maintain muscle as we start to lose estrogen and progesterone throughout perimenopause and menopause. Making sure women are lifting heavy, not overdoing cardio, and increasing protein intake even more are important parts of these hormonal transitions.” This phase of life is a great time to check in with a trainer and nutritionist to address your changing needs.