Picture this: You’re hitting up the weight room on the reg for
strength sessions, but you’re still waiting for the results. It can be so frustrating, but it’s not futile.
In a situation like this, it’s easy to resort to the tired “women aren’t as strong as men, therefore, it’s harder for us to gain muscle” stereotype. But according to Danyele Wilson, CPT and trainer for Evolve You, that claim isn’t as true as you might believe it to be.
You can get those gains with a few smart tweaks in your routine. “Women respond to strength training just as well as men,” she says. The biggest determinant of muscle mass in women comes down to three major things you can control: training, diet, and rest.
Meet the experts: Danyele Wilson, CPT, is a trainer for Evolve You. Hannah Davis, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and creator of Body By Hannah.
Of course, as Wilson notes, there are some immovable factors that can either hinder or help when it comes to muscle growth. The main one: testosterone. Overall, Wilson says, women tend to have much lower levels of testosterone, but that’s not always the case for every woman, and it’s not always true that every man will have higher levels. Rather, everyone’s hormonal makeup is entirely unique—it’s just that men tend to carry more testosterone naturally.
Sex-related differences aside, though, as far as muscle growth capacity goes, testosterone is pretty potent stuff. “It is easier to grow muscle the higher your testosterone levels are, and [those levels dip] as you age, which makes it harder,” Wilson adds.
Hormones aren’t the only factor in muscle growth. “Skeletal size and structure, plus age, can also affect a person’s ability to put on muscle,” Wilson says, noting that these genetic factors influence your body type and response to training and dieting.
Here, experts break down the best ways for women to start building muscle by tweaking your training, diet, and rest habits.
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How To Strength Train To Build Muscle
From explosive strength (think: the ability to reach a basketball hoop) to absolute strength (like the ability to deadlift 400 pounds), there are a multitude of approaches to strength training. Not all will help hit the goal of building muscle.
The kind that will, though, is called hypertrophy. Essentially, this means you’re increasing the actual size and diameter of your muscle tissue. Here’s the ideal rep/set/rest/frequency scheme to align with a hypertrophic strength training program, according to the American Council on Exercise:
- 3 to 6 sets
- 6 to 12 reps
- 30 to 90 seconds of rest in between sets
- Using a weight at 70 to 80 percent of your one-rep-maximum (IRM), or essentially, how much weight you could lift for a single rep of a particular exercise. This 1RM calculator from ACE can help if you’re unsure.
As for how often you should be training, Wilson says three to five times per week is ideal for muscle growth.
It’s important to do the exercises with purpose, says Hannah Davis, CSCS, and creator of Body By Hannah. “I have many clients who are fearful of lifting heavier, but you really need to be training at a higher intensity in order to see progress,” she says. So if you’ve been sticking with those 10-pound dumbbells for upper-body exercises, stop underestimating yourself—grab those heavier weights (as long as your form is on point!).
Best Exercises For Building Muscle
Compound movements give you the most bang for your buck muscle activation-wise, Wilson recommends. Although hypertrophy training doesn’t necessarily hinge on doing compound-only movements, as Wilson notes, these types of exercises will activate the most muscles at once (and potentially produce faster results). That being said, though, if you prefer isolated exercises (say, biceps curls or the hamstring curl machine), just make sure that you hit each muscle group (legs, back, chest, arms) at least once per week. Here are five of her favorites:
1. Goblet Squat
- Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a weight in front of chest, elbows pointing toward the floor.
- Push hips back and bend knees to lower into a squat.
- Engage your glutes and push yourself back to standing. That’s 1 rep.
2. Sumo Deadlift
- Holding two kettlebells or dumbbells, stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed out.
- Position weights in front of thighs, palms facing in.
- Keeping knees slightly bent, press hips back as you hinge at the waist and lower the weights toward the floor.
- Squeeze glutes to return to standing. That’s 1 rep.
3. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
- With your right foot, step back about one and a half times your normal stride length, landing with the ball of that foot on the ground and your heel up.
- Lower the back leg straight down until it gently grazes the ground or close to, creating a 90-degree angle in the front leg.
- Push through the heel and midfoot of the front leg to return to standing, bringing your right foot back in line with your left.
- Repeat on the left side. That’s 1 rep.
- Bring yourself into a high plank position, with your feet a bit wider than hip-width apart with hands on an elevated surface. This will give you more stability. Think about wrapping your shoulders back, but keeping your ribcage knit together. Everything is super engaged in your core.
- As you lower yourself down, elbows should point out slightly.
- Push into your entire hand and press yourself back up. That’s 1 rep.
5. Dumbbell Chest Press
- Lie on a bench or Bosu ball with your knees bent and feet placed flat on the floor.
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand and extend your arms upward, palms facing toward your feet.
- Slowly bend your arms and lower your them to the side, parallel with your shoulders, until your elbows nearly touch the ground.
- Slowly reverse the movement and return to start. That’s 1 rep.
Try this total-body strength workout:
Best Training Plan For Building Muscle
Picking bang-for-your-buck moves and training with hypertrophy-focused reps is a solid start when it comes to packing on muscle, but according to Wilson, those gains will fizzle out if you’re not continuously challenging your muscles. That is, if you’re grabbing the same weights and doing the same moves on repeat.
Enter: progressive overload. It simply means increasing the intensity of your strength exercises through increased volume (or weight), reps and sets, frequency, or even time-under-tension (or how long it takes to complete a single rep, further challenging your muscles).
Why’s this important? “Your body is always in a state of adaptation, and eventually you’ll notice that the same set and rep scheme is no longer difficult to complete,” says Wilson. “Progressive overload adds stress to your muscles, allowing them to break down, rebuild, and get stronger.”
But how much (and when) should you up the ante when training for progressive overload? Aiming for a five to 10 percent increase each week, for any given variable, is a solid start, Wilson notes. An increase beyond that amount could up your risk for injury, she explains (say, going in for a 30-pound dumbbell chest press for six reps when the week prior you were hitting 15 pounds for that same number of reps).
How To Eat To Build Muscle
All those muscle-building workouts require quality fuel. “If your goal is to build muscle, it’s important that you’re getting sufficient amounts of protein, as well as balanced amounts of the other macronutrients, carbohydrates, and fats,” notes Wilson. “A common recommendation for gaining muscle is 1 gram of protein per pound (or 2.2 grams per kilogram) of body weight per day.”
And save the calorie skimping, Wilson says. “Increasing your daily caloric intake by 10 percent is often sufficient for promoting lean muscle growth,” she explains.
Davis says she often sees clients who barely eat all day long, and then eat a big meal before bed. “Not eating enough will prevent you from building muscle—you need protein and carbs to get stronger,” she says. You don’t necessarily need to fuel right before a workout (although if you do, Davis says an apple is her go-to), but you do need to eat enough to keep your body energized, and promote muscle-building.
Prioritize Rest For Building Muscle, Too
While this step might seem like the least-important factor in packing on muscle, according to Wilson, it’s absolutely paramount. “Rest is essential for muscle growth,” she explains, noting that your muscles need roughly 48 to 72 hours of rest in between strength sessions. (FYI: Dividing up training days based on lower- and upper-body moves can help keep you at three to five days of training per week!)
Sleep plays an important role too, she says. “Your muscles and tissues are replenished and restored during your sleep phase. Your brain is resting with very little activity, so your blood supply available to your muscles increases, delivering extra oxygen and nutrients so they can heal and grow.”
Davis recommends putting screens away an hour before bed and keeping your room dark and cool. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night. That means, don’t cut out a few hours of sleep to make time for a morning workout: “Skipping sleep is only going to hurt your progress.”
Fitness & Wellness Editor
Kristine Thomason is the fitness & wellness editor at Women’s Health, where she edits, writes, and helps oversee the food and fitness sections of the website and magazine. She’s also a NASM-certified personal trainer. Kristine has spent her editorial career focused on health and wellness—that includes teaming up with certified trainers to create workout routines, reporting on fitness trends, and interviewing experts about the latest health and wellness research. She’s an NYU graduate with a degree in journalism and psychology. In the past, her work has also appeared in Health, Men’s Health, Greatist, Refinery29, and more.
Julia Sullivan, CPT, is a New York City-based writer, indoor rowing instructor, outdoor enthusiast, newbie powerlifter, and devoted cat mother. Her work has been published in Women’s Health, SELF, Health, Huffington Post, and more. She holds a B.A. in journalism and gender studies from Arizona State University and a personal training certificate from the American Council on Exercise. When she’s not covering the latest health and wellness trends, you can find her hitting the hiking trails, working toward her deadlift goal of 400 pounds, and forcefully hugging her cat, Jeeves, against his will.