Walking into the weight room and seeing a woman lift a barbell with heavy weight plates and crush 150-pound squats is incredibly inspiring. As women continue to lift heavy and crush it in the gym, some may be wondering how to train to build muscle. And while some women are afraid of looking “bulky” (cue eye-roll), you can add muscle tone and definition with strategic training and nutrition.
If you’re looking to build lean muscle ASAP, know that it takes hard work and won’t happen overnight; ACSM-certified personal trainer and registered dietitian Jim White, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios, said the average beginner can expect to gain two to four pounds of muscle in her first two months of training. To achieve these results and hit your goals, follow this advice from these two experts, who are both registered dietitians and certified personal trainers.
How to Train to Gain Muscle
Although getting muscle gains is equal parts diet and exercise, how you train makes a big difference. Jim said that women should strength train with full-body workouts three times a week. “For muscle growth, they could benefit from an eight- to 12-rep range, which promotes muscle hypertrophy (maximal muscle growth),” he told POPSUGAR.
Experiment with lifting dumbbells and kettlebells; pick a weight where you can complete the eight- to 12-rep sets but it’s a challenge (if it feels too easy, go heavier; if it feels too hard to complete only a few reps, go lighter). Some exercises that build muscle include plank rows, kettlebell squats and swings, dumbbell deadlifts, and weight machine single-leg extensions. If you’re looking to get started, check out this beginner’s four-week strength-training program.
What to Eat to Gain Muscle
Nutrition is also key when it comes to building muscle. You want to make sure you’re fueling your body properly to see gains and support your rigorous workouts. Jim recommends eating enough protein — about 1.2-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight each day (for a 150-pound person, that’s about 82 to 136 grams of protein a day). Registered dietitian and certified personal trainer Marisa Michael, MS, NCCPT, told POPSUGAR that eating about 20 grams of protein every four hours or so will stimulate muscle building and repair. She says to opt for protein that contains high amounts of leucine, an essential amino acid that plays an important role in synthesizing protein. It can be found in whey, dairy, meat, and eggs, and for vegans in soy, white beans, kidney beans, lentils, and peanuts.
You also need to be eating in a calorie surplus to see those gains. Marisa said that you need those extra calories to build new muscle tissue. “Women sometimes don’t eat enough overall calories,” she said. “When they are trying to build muscle, calorie intake is important!” She added that when you train hard but don’t get enough calories, it makes you less likely to hit your goals and is more likely to have a negative impact on your bone density and lead to decreased immunity and mood disturbances.
And while protein gets all the attention for building muscle, carbs are just as, if not more, important. Marisa said carbs help fuel your powerful workouts and will give you energy to store for your next workout. Plus, your body uses carbs for energy for everyday activity, which means the protein can then be used for muscle building and repair, rather than as an energy source. Jim previously told POPSUGAR that your body processes protein better if carbs are available and that carbs are important for a muscle-repair process called “muscle glycogen resynthesis.”
Although you should meet with a registered dietitian to find out your exact calorie target for gains, Jim said about 300 calories more than your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is a good place to start to see muscle growth. As for your macros, he recommends focusing on carbs, with a general macro breakdown of 50 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 20 percent fat.
Other Lifestyle Factors to Consider
Although working out is important, you should be mindful of taking rest days, especially as you’re just starting out. If you are strength training three days a week, spread out those days to every other day and throw in some cardio days or active recovery days in between. Rest days give your muscles time to rebuild and repair.
Also, sleep is crucial. Make sure you are logging an average of seven hours a night; this also gives your body time to repair and recover. And if you’re well-rested, you’re more likely to head to the gym with energy and crush your workouts.
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