Although there is still a misconception that women will get big and bulky, most women are aware of the incredible benefits of training for muscle. Nonetheless, even women who want to build muscle are often undertraining, making fatal flaws with their workouts that are obstacles to success. This article will tell you what you need to do to increase muscle and provide a quick rundown why training this way is so important.
What Can Building A Little Muscle Do For You?
Many people (both men and women alike) are looking to transform their bodies through exercise. They want to lose fat and look svelte and lean. They often turn to aerobic exercise and focus on burning calories. Although this seems like a good approach, it often produces poor results because the body responds by increasing appetite and lowering metabolic rate when it senses a sustained calorie deficit.
More effective is to perform a properly designed strength training program aimed at increasing muscle because this will raise metabolic rate and improve movement economy, which pays off in helping women have more energy. Weight training also leads to adaptations that are helpful for weight management—increasing insulin sensitivity, demand for glucose, and fat burning.
Another great thing about building muscle is that it strengthens bone, increasing bone density and lowering risk of osteoporosis, which is a big danger for women as they age. Muscle is well known to be protective against chronic disease as well, lowering risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and early death.
Emerging research even shows that building muscle improves brain health and cognition: Recent studies show having more muscle is associated with a healthier mental outlook and lower risk of depression. Muscle also appears to safeguard against mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Other benefits of muscle for women include better functional mobility (you’ll move with greater ease and grace), less pain (especially back and knee pain), better hormone balance (fewer PMS or menopausal symptoms), and lower stress (better cortisol balance and greater resilience).
How To Train For Muscle
When training to increase lean muscle, you want to make sure you incorporate the following elements into your workout:
A high volume.
Volume refers to the amount of work performed and it is defined as the number of reps done in a workout. A high volume is important for building muscle because it causes metabolic stress, which stimulates protein synthesis, or the process by which the body repairs tissue and builds muscle.
For novice women, using a moderate volume of 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps is great for building muscle. More advanced women will benefit from a higher volume in the 4 to 5 set range with a similar rep scheme.
One of the biggest pitfalls to building muscle for women is undertraining, or using weights that are too light. For example, one study found that women routinely lifted loads that were between 42 and 51 percent of their 1RMs—an intensity that was not high enough to produce overload, meaning they were wasting their time.
When training to put on muscle, you want the majority of your workouts to use weights that allow you to perform 8 to 15 reps per set (65 to 85 percent of your 1 RM). The weight should be challenging to the point where you are near failure on your final rep. You should also include heavier load training on occasion to stimulate new muscle fibers and ensure you keep gaining strength.
Multi-joint exercises recruit more muscles and engage more than one joint at a time. Squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, lunges, step-ups, Olympic lifts, chin-ups, and pull-downs are all multi-joint exercises. Single-joint exercises hit smaller muscles and use only one joint, such as bicep curls (training the bicep muscle) or lateral raises (hitting the deltoids), and should mainly be used for pre-hab exercises and overcoming weak links.
Instead of targeting specific body parts with single-joint exercises, you will get much better results by favoring multi-joint lifts that train the whole body. Multi-joint training promotes structural balance and allows you to maximize recovery and have a higher training frequency. Frequent workouts (hitting each muscle group two to three times a week) lead to a greater total volume and correlate with more muscle, especially for more advanced trainees.
Tempo refers to the cadence of the exercise or the amount of time it takes you to perform the up and down motion. Compared to short tempos in which you raise the weight quickly and let it fall with gravity, longer tempos are more effective for building muscle and increasing strength.
In prescribing tempo, four numbers are used like this: 4210.
The first number dictates the seconds it takes for the eccentric motion (the down motion in most exercises); the second number is the pause before the concentric motion, which is the third number; and the fourth number is the pause before the repetition repeats.
In the case of a 4210 tempo in the squat, it takes 4 seconds to lower the weight, there is a 2-second pause at the bottom position, and then the weight is rapidly pushed up in 1 second and the exercise starts over immediately.
When training for muscle, use longer eccentric tempos in the 3 to 4 second range. For example, 4010 is the most commonly used tempo when training for muscle, though you could extend the eccentric tempo to 6 or even 10 seconds for an even greater stimulus to the muscle.
Shorter rest periods.
Most people time rest periods based on the length of time it takes to check Instagram, but this is a bad approach. Rest plays a primary role in the training stimulus because it impacts metabolic stress—a primary factor in building muscle. Shorter rest intervals in the 30 seconds to 2 minute range are also great for producing growth hormone, a major muscle-building, fat-burning hormone that is released in larger quantities in women than men.
Novices benefit from rest intervals in the 1 to 2 minute range because this allows for recovery and takes into account lower conditioning levels. As you get fitter, try shortening your rest intervals to the 30-second range. You can also incorporate body part splits in which you train a lower body exercise followed by an upper body lift with little to no rest in between exercises.
Train to failure.
Training to failure occurs when you train to the point where you can’t lift another rep without cheating. Training to failure is based on the principle of progressive overload that ensures you don’t sell yourself short. It works like this: If your program tells you to do 8 to 10 squats at 100 pounds but you can do 11, you are no longer effectively overloading your body and results will stagnate. You need to increase your weight so that you reach failure by the 10th rep.
Final Words: When it comes to health and aesthetics, muscle is the great equalizer for women. With these ground rules, you have all the tools necessary to increase lean muscle. For more training tips, check out our new book that gives women everything they need to get the most out of their workouts, The Women’s Essential Guide To Strength Training.
Fry, Andrew. The Role of Resistance Exercise Intensity on Muscle Fiber Adaptations. Sports Medicine. 2007. 34(10), 663-679.
Mitchell, C., et al. Muscular and Systemic Correlates of Resistance Training-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy. PLOS One. 2013. 8(10) e78636.
Sziejf, C., et al. Depression is Associated With Sarcopenia Due to Low Muscle Strength: Results From the ELSA-Brasil Study. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association. 2018. Published Ahead of Print.