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Before I begin, this article was inspired by a lady I had the wonderful opportunity to converse with a few weeks back. I hope this helps answer all of your questions and thanks for the inspiration.
While I understand most women aren’t training with the hopes of becoming a competitive bodybuilder, I know many would like to tighten up their physique and achieve that coveted, athletic look – the look you might see on the cover of Oxygen Magazine or in many of the mainstream fitness advertisements. Then, in the rare case, there are ladies who desire the full blown, big and ripped physique similar to those who’ve obviously been taking plenty of androgenic drugs.
Regardless of the look you’re after, both groups got from point A to point B in a similar fashion. They took their time and did things right. Building muscle, especially for women, takes years of hard work; therefore, regardless of taking drugs or not, both groups busted their ass, watched their diet, and set goals they thought to be reachable and acceptable (realistic).
So now, let’s take a look at exactly what it’s going to take for the women who wish to build muscle in a sensible and practical manner.
1. Focus On Strength Training – For the most part, increased strength will result in increased muscle mass for women (as well as men). I’ve yet to meet a person who lifted baby-weights and became enormous as a result. Gains in strength with relative gains in bodyweight will result in an increased amount of lean muscle mass.
Strength training also offers benefits such as increased bone density, healthy joints and a heightened self-esteem. I’ve found that those who set specific and measurable goals for strength gains are often much more focused and satisfied than those who fail to set such goals.
2. Women Can Build Muscle Using Safe and Comfortable Compounds – There is no ancient rule in stone proclaiming you must do the bench, squat and deadlift in order to build the most muscle possible. It’s just not true. I always encourage an individual to choose a movement that is comfortable and safe for them. An example is the person whose shoulders are not in the best of shape. A safe alternative to the bench press could be a neutral grip machine press or one of the Hammer Strength variations. Someone who lacks flexibility to do full squats can always opt for the leg press.
The most important factor when selecting a certain muscle building movement is that you can progress for a lengthy period of time. Compound movements are usually best for long-term progression as opposed to isolation movements. Plus, you have more muscles involved which will cut down on training time. Who doesn’t like to be both efficient and effective?
3. Automate Your Training – When I refer to automation, I mean to choose a training program and simply stick with your decision. There should be no weekly or daily changes to your routine; everything, for the most part, should remain static. The goal is to measure progress over a period of time and there is no way to measure how far you’ve come when the variables are constantly changing. This means you’ve no need to change up your routine every other week or so to “shock” the muscles. This ideology is pure nonsense.
If changes need to be made for whatever reason (injury, discomfort, schedule etc), fine, just ensure you keep variables as consistent as possible.
4. Don’t Train Like a Bodybuilder – Not the ones on the pharmaceutical cocktail, at least. Research, along with plenty of anecdotal evidence has proven that high(er) frequency training(hitting each body part 2-3x per week) as opposed to low frequency training(hitting each body part once every 6-7 days), is superior for muscle gains and improvements in strength. Look at all the tried and true programs. They hit each body part 2-3x per week. This is no different for women looking to build as much muscle as possible. The rules don’t change.
So, in light of this, I recommend women start off with a full body routine such as NROL4W, Starting Strength or something similar. After a few months of full body training and respectable strength and muscle gains, one can always switch to an upper/lower split. Also, my course LGN365 is chock-full of info that will help you set up you diet, and training for many, many months.
5. Remember to Rest – On your off days, make sure you relax. Intense training sessions should be kept to a maximum of 3-4x per week. It’s imperative to use the other days to rest and recoup. Is it okay to insert some low intensity cardio if you so wish? Sure. But you needn’t do it daily. If you’re training hard on the weights 3x per week, I’d say you should do no more than 2 cardio sessions for the week. Always take 1-2 days for complete rest; sit on your rump and chill out a bit.
1. Protein – Protein, among other nutrients is the primary building block of muscle tissue. Without protein, there is no special training program or diet that will yield the muscle gains you’re so desperately after. According to Lyle McDonald’s research from the Protein Book, optimal muscle gains are going to be present when one’s intake is roughly between 1 and 1.5g protein per pound of body weight (3.3kg/kg body weight).
2. Caloric Intake – Without excess calories, no muscle building plan will ever work. Read that again. You must eat enough to grow.
I understand this might be scary news to most females. I assure you, I’m not crazy; so please stay with me here. Since muscle gains for women, genetically, are roughly half of what a man will accomplish (more on this in a bit), their diets needn’t be so aggressive.
Since I am positive no female wishes to pack on an excess amount of weight for the sake of muscle gain, I recommend we take things slowly. I always suggest females eat over maintenance on training days by about 300-400 kcals and consume their maintenance allotment on off days. A good starting point for finding your maintenance intake is to multiply your body weight (bw for later use) in pounds by 14, monitor your weight for a few weeks and adjust if need be.
As far as your intake goes, I always recommend a diet full of lean protein, plenty of fruit and veggies with a healthy dose of fat. Setting up your intake is easy if you follow these simple guidelines. I actually stole them from Lyle or Alan, I cannot remember who came up with them first.
Multiply BW by 1-1.5 to get your protein intake.
Multiply BW x .4-.5 to get your fat intake.
After you’ve come up with calories for these 2 macronutrients fill in the rest of your intake with carbs*.
Take 3-5g fish oil per day and make sure to get plenty of vitamins and minerals in the form of food or a pill.
*Of course your intake will require an increase in carbohydrates on training days.
Let’s Be Real About Women and Muscle Gain
The maximum rate of muscle gain for men is roughly 35-50lbs of lean body mass, over their lifetime from beginner to advanced, according to Lyle’s brilliant article aptly titled What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential?
So while men and women barely differ in terms of anatomy (muscles, bone, etc) our hormonal profiles differ tremendously (mainly testosterone and estrogen levels). As a result of such differences, a woman’s genetic potential will be roughly half that of a man.
If we take a woman who weighs 110lbs and is untrained, meaning she has gained no appreciable amount of muscle mass, she can theoretically gain anywhere from 17-25lbs of muscle mass over her lifespan. This is assuming she trains sensibly and correctly while all other variables (rest, nutrition, stress) are optimal as well.
So, if said female reaches the end of her genetic rope at the same body fat, she will weigh between 127 and 135lbs. While this may sound horrific to gain that much weight, 20lbs of muscle on a woman appears much different than 20lbs of adipose tissue.
There is one more thing I want all women reading this to remember. Due to the lack of testosterone, you have no need to worry about getting big and bulky. Also, there is no need to “shape and sculpt” the muscles with high reps and light weights. All of that is non-sense and wastes time. Women looking to build an appreciable amount of muscle are going to have to train intense and fairly often (like I discussed earlier). While you may not wish to be huge and bulky, if you want to attain that Oxygen-like physique, you must train like you’re heading for the Arnold!
Remember to Have Fun
If you’re the anxious lady out there who’s recently discovered fitness and strength training, remember this muscle building hobby takes commitment and patience. Have a good time setting and reaching your goals, because the joy is in the journey, not the destination.
Give yourself room to make some mistakes and don’t be upset if you’re not perfect all of the time. I’m confident all of you can and will reach your goals if you put these principles into place, set some goals and bust your ass.
Nothing worth having ever comes easy; and if it does, it’s likely not worth having. Go out there and make it happen.
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