Muscle growth is a delicate subject for many women.
In a culture that isn’t exactly kind about beauty standards and body image, few people want yet another reason to be self-critical.
But if you can get past any potential hang-ups, a legitimate muscle-building routine has plenty to offer.
With the correct program and nutritional approach to building lean muscle, you can get in your best shape ever, stay healthy and fit for life, and reduce the risk of injuries — all without going to the gym every day (unless you want to).
In this article, we’ll cut through all the myths, misconceptions, mistakes, and machismo that surround this topic.
By the time you finish, you’ll have all the information you need to make intelligent decisions and take action towards getting stronger and building muscle.
A lot of the muscle-building advice you can find online and elsewhere is intended for men.
For women who are interested in learning about muscle growth for any reason, it can be a challenge to find quality info.
The biggest physical differences between men and women are that men have significantly more strength and muscle on average.
Male testosterone levels are approximately fifteen- to twenty-fold higher, which leads to greater strength and muscular development beginning around puberty and lasting for life[*].
But that doesn’t mean women are unable to build muscle.
And women don’t need fundamentally different approaches to training or nutrition, either.
However, women should not necessarily follow muscle training programs designed for typical men’s goals, at least not without some adjustments.
Most women probably don’t want a “Biceps Cure,” “Killer Pecs,” or a “Thick Upper Back” (these are from actual headlines on popular fitness websites).
Instead, here are some good reasons you may want to build muscle as a woman.
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Reasons to Build Muscle as a Woman
- Aesthetics: Looking good is far from the only reason to build muscle, but it may be the most popular one. In contrast to most men, many women value developing their glutes, thighs, and shoulders for an hourglass figure.
- Injury resistance: Training for hypertrophy (muscle growth) also helps build stronger connective tissues, which may reduce your risk of injury[*]. One study of young female athletes also found that a stronger lower body can decrease the risk of knee injuries (which are more common in women than men) by nearly ten-fold[*].
- Quality of life and healthy aging: For older people, higher levels of lean muscle mass reduce the risk of serious falls and are also associated with lower risk of dying from heart attacks and other causes[*].
- Bone health: Resistance training exposes your muscles and joints to heavier weights than you normally lift in daily life, which can help prevent bone conditions affecting women like bone loss and osteoporosis[*].
Myths About Building Muscle for Women
Don’t let these myths and misunderstandings about building muscle for women get in your way.
- Myth: “Muscle turns into fat.” If you stop working out and eating healthy, you might simultaneously gain fat and lose muscle, but there’s no evidence that muscle somehow converts to fat. Actually, when you have more muscle mass, your metabolism is faster and burns more calories, which may help prevent fat gain[*].
- Myth: “Women should use high reps and low weights.” Some studies suggest women have more Type I slow-twitch endurance muscle fibers than men, but there’s no evidence they should use exclusively high reps[*]. Instead, the most effective training strategy is to get stronger and fitter, which requires a variety of techniques.
- Myth: “Women shouldn’t lift heavy.” Lifting heavy, safely and within your abilities, is one of the keys to getting strong and building muscle regardless of gender.
- Myth: “Building ‘long, lean muscles’ and ’toning’” There’s no special technique for building muscles that look more feminine. Instead, the trick is to develop the right amount of muscle in the proper areas for the look you want to achieve. And the only way to “tone up” is to lose fat (if needed).
- Myth: “Don’t worry about building too much muscle.” Remember that women are equally capable at building muscle compared to men, and sometimes moreso. It’s 100% your choice how much muscle you build (and where you build it), so set your goals accordingly.
Before you change your diet or venture to the weight room, the best place to begin is with an honest self-assessment and realistic goals.
For your self-assessment, using a combination of observation and measurement works best.
You can begin casually, right now. Observe your current body shape. Where would you like to see more healthy muscle, or less fat?
Now visualize the changes you’d like to see.Later on, you can measure those same areas. For example, if you’d like a narrower waist and glutes that are more round, put a tape measure around your waist and glutes and note the measurements.
Along with taking measurements, step on a scale and take a simple photo with gym clothes or similar (a mirror selfie will do).
The next step is to set realistic goals, such as losing 1-2 inches off your waist and adding 2-3 inches to your hip circumference.
It doesn’t matter how long it would take to achieve your goals, only that you feel good about them and they motivate you.
If you prefer not to set concrete goals based on measurements, at least form a clear mental picture of what you’d like to achieve with your muscle-building plan.
Strength goals are another excellent way to push yourself and build muscle. Achieving a squat or deadlift with your body weight on the bar, or performing your first real pushup or pullup, automatically requires your body to add some lean muscle as you get stronger.
You can also set process goals to help stay on track, like sticking to a specific, healthy nutrition plan for the next eight weeks, or lifting weights at home or at the gym twice a week every week.
Lastly, write down your self-assessment stats and any goals somewhere permanent, then review and update them at least once each month. Writing everything down gives you more accountability and helps you follow through on achieving your goals.
The most important aspects of your diet for gaining lean muscle are calories and macronutrients.
Any diet can work for building muscle as long as you eat enough calories and protein (see the specific recommendations below).
Beyond that, different popular diets have their own advantages and disadvantages, so there’s no clear winner that works for everyone.
For instance, the keto diet can help prevent fat gain, but the lack of carbs could lead to sluggishness during workouts and slower muscle growth[*]. It would be a good choice for women who are prone to gaining unwanted body fat, but could be less than ideal for others.
You can experiment with different eating patterns or use one that’s worked for you in the past, preferably with healthy food choices.
Even if you’d like to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time (body recomposition) or primarily want to lose weight, you can use the diet tips below paired with weight training to build muscle.
Diet Tips for Women to Build Lean Muscle
- Eat a calorie surplus on lifting days, even if your goals include fat loss. Multiply your current body weight times 12-15 to calculate calories for those days if you aren’t sure how much to eat.
- Consume at least 25% of your daily calories from protein or 1 to 1.6 grams per pound of body weight, especially on days you lift weights, to reduce fat gain and support recovery and muscle-building[*][*][*].
- Increase your carb intake prior to weight training for optimal performance, then cut carbs to burn more fat at other times. As a starting point, consume 1-2 grams of carbs per pound of body weight before you lift to support your strength levels.
- If you want to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, or don’t want to gain any weight, make sure to weigh yourself each week and decrease calorie intake on days you don’t lift weights if you notice weight gain. Try eating no more than 10 multiplied by your bodyweight in daily calories on non-lifting days and reduce further if necessary.
- Refeed days or a metabolic confusion approach are both highly effective strategies to minimize fat gain and maximize performance and muscle building[*].
Think of supplements as an extension of your diet.
If you have the basics of nutrition down, high-quality supplements can enhance your muscle building results.
Here are the top picks for women who want to gain lean muscle.
- Whey Protein: Whey is the highest-quality protein, and the perfect choice for a post-workout recovery shake (25-50 grams) or boosting your daily protein intake between meals[*].
- BCAAs or Leucine: BCAAs, especially leucine, are the specific amino acids in whey protein that are responsible for triggering muscle protein synthesis. Evidence shows older adults especially benefit from increased BCAA or leucine intake[*]. Sip them before or during your workout for reduced soreness and increased muscle-building[*].
- Collagen Peptides: Hydrolyzed collagen protein can reduce joint soreness and speed recovery in active people[*]. As a bonus, it also helps hydrate your skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles[*].
- Creatine: Creatine helps you perform more reps in the 5-10 rep range, leading to increased muscle-building[*]. It doesn’t cause fat gain — that’s a myth.
- Casein: Casein protein is a slow-digesting “time release” protein you can use before bed to support muscle-building.
Similar to nutrition, there's a universal workout plan that works equally well for all women to gain muscle.
Instead, the best approach is follow the principles below while fitting them to your individual needs and goals.
The basic formula is simple: focus on the muscle groups you want to build up, using appropriate volume (sets and reps), and get stronger and more fit over time.
As long as you eat and train correctly, muscle growth is the natural result of getting stronger at your exercise routine within the correct rep ranges.
Most women should use 2-5 sets of 5-15 reps per exercise to build muscle, and at least one to three exercises per muscle group per training day.
Aim for 25-50 total reps for each muscle group you’re training that day, minimum, for the muscles you want to grow.
If you’ve never lifted before, you’re in your 50s or older, or you weigh more than average, start off easy and gradually increase volume and weight to avoid injury.
But if you’ve never lifted weights before, the good news is that you’ll get stronger surprisingly fast — as long as you use proper form and avoid injuries.
You’ll also get more sore when you first start out, which will get better after a few weeks (and also diminish faster if you follow the diet and supplement advice we covered previously, especially taking protein and BCAAs).
Regular training is necessary for gaining muscle.
You can lift anywhere from one to six times each week, but the ideal frequency for most women is around 2-4 days each week. Deload for a week every 4-12 weeks, but only if you work out hard.
Another factor that’s related to training frequency is your split, which is how you arrange your workouts each week.
The most popular training splits are full-body training, upper-lower splits, and body part splits.
Full-body training (a combination of upper body and lower body movements each training session) is more time-efficient and the best choice for beginners.
The exercise selection for your workout is partly dictated by what equipment you have available.
Going to a gym grants you access to a wide range of free weights and machines, but it can be inconvenient.
Bodyweight-only training isn’t as effective as using weights, but works in a pinch.
You can get a much better workout at home using minimal equipment. If possible, purchase a few kettlebells or dumbbells and some resistance bands of various tension levels.
Compound lifts that involve more than one joint are the most efficient and effective way to build muscle, but single-joint and isolation movements that stimulate smaller muscle groups are sometimes helpful, too.
When it comes to muscle growth, remember to perform more reps and lift heavier whenever you’re targeting the specific areas you want to grow.
That means if you want to increase the lean muscle in your glutes and thighs but not your upper body, for example, you’d perform squats and deadlifts with a higher intensity than upper body movements.
But rather than altogether avoiding training areas you don’t want to grow, you should still dedicate some of your training to them to keep your body in balance.
Regardless of your muscle growth goals, include at least one movement from each of the first four categories in the list below every week to ensure you don’t develop muscular imbalances or become injured.
Never attempt an exercise until you’re sure you understand the correct form, and be sure to pay attention any time you add weight to the bar or become fatigued.
Now, here are the best exercises for women to build muscle, plus the muscle groups they target.
Upper body pushing movements (deltoids, pectoral muscles, and triceps):
- One- or two-handed dumbbell or kettlebell overhead presses
- Standing barbell overhead presses
- Pushups, pushups from knees, or 45-degree elevated pushups (using a chair seat as a hand support with your feet on the floor, for example)
- Dumbbell bench presses
- Machine chest presses
Upper body pulling movements (upper back, postural muscles, lower back, and biceps):
- Bent-over barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell rows
- One-arm supported dumbbell or kettlebell rows
- Cable or machine rows
- Pullups or chinups (bodyweight or assisted by band, partner, or machine)
- Cable or machine pulldowns
Hinge movements (glutes, hamstrings, lower back):
- One- or two-handed kettlebell sumo deadlifts
- Barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell romanian deadlifts
- One- or two-handed kettlebell swings
- Barbell deadlifts
- Barbell sumo deadlifts
- Good mornings
Squat movements (quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, lower back):
- Dumbbell or kettlebell goblet squats
- Barbell back squats
- Barbell front squats
- Low box squats
- Machine squats
- Low split squats
- Bodyweight squats facing a wall
Accessory and isolation movements:
- Glute bridges or glute thrusts
- Machine glute raises
- Lateral raises (lateral deltoids)
- Leg press (quadriceps)
- Hamstring curls
- Calf raises
- Hip abductor and adductor machines
- Biceps curls
- Triceps pushdowns or triceps extensions
Most people today understand the value of staying fit and limiting excess body fat, but the advantages of building lean muscle mass are highly underrated, especially for women.
And aside from looking great and making you healthier and more resilient, another benefit of gaining muscle is that seeing all your hard work at the gym pay off simply feels fantastic.
If you’re brand new to the world of fitness, building lean muscle is an excellent place to start.
And if you’re already in the habit of eating right and exercising, you can easily add muscle by pairing adequate calories and protein with a couple of resistance training sessions per week.