How to Build Muscle as a Woman: The Ultimate Guide for Gaining Weight the Right Way

My name is Staci Ardison.

I overcame an eating disorder, discovered a love for heavy strength training, and now I help women like you get stronger for a living.

Believe it or not, I’m 50 pounds heavier in the photo on the right (and WAY stronger, and healthier, and happier!).

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Speaking of picking up heavy weights, here I am deadlifting 455 pounds:

This is what I LOVE to do.

In this Ultimate Guide to Building Muscle as a Woman, I’m going to be covering:

Alright, let’s do this.

“If you want to gain weight, eat more calories than you burn regularly. Want to put on the right KIND of weight? Exercise and eat the right way too.”

Now, there’s plenty of nuance to this when comparing men and women:

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible!

It just means we have to work harder for it.

Ugh, I know.

It’s not something that happens overnight, or by mistake.

In addition, some women with larger amounts of muscle mass choose to take steroids to help assist them in gaining muscle, because we simply don’t have the hormones naturally to get to that size.

So if you’d like to build muscle, but not as much as a professional bodybuilder – don’t worry, it’s not something that happens by accident.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about body fat and body types:

This guide is going to primarily focus on two things:

Everybody is on their own journey, at their own pace, and everybody will end up with different results too!

If it can be harder for women to gain muscle (compared to men), why go through the trouble?

I’m glad you asked!

#1) When you’re stronger – everyday life is easier. No need to call for help to get that 50lb bag of dog food off the top shelf, or carrying an air conditioner unit up a flight of stairs. LIFE is easier when you’re stronger. 

#3) Helps combat age-related muscle loss,[4] allowing us to remain independent longer as we age:

#4) Muscle is harder to maintain, which means you need to eat more just to hold on to it.[5]

#5) Reduce pain – having a strong body makes living easier on your joints, as well as allows you to hold a better posture, and reduce back / hip pain.[6]

#7) Live longer – want to spend more time on Earth? Strength training and growing muscle will help you do just that.[7]

As we said above, gaining weight comes down to thermodynamics and science.

(Note: we have used The Mifflin-St Jeor Equation to create this calculator! [8]).

Since we want to gain weight, we want to take our TDEE and add 250 calories to it to get our daily goal. This should result in gaining about half a pound per week.

Now, although eating ANY EXTRA calories from any source will result in weight gain, our goal is to gain the RIGHT kind of weight, in a healthy way.

And thus, we’ll be focusing our efforts on a “healthy muscle building” strategy.

We could easily add more calories each day, and gain weight quicker, however, the slow method gives you the best chances at gaining mostly muscle, with minimal fat. The faster you try to gain weight, the higher the percentage that will likely be fat – so starting off at half a pound per week is a great place to start!

In addition to the number of calories we’ll be adding, we also want to pay attention to the type of foods we’re eating.

Let’s look at each of these individually:

Protein can come from any number of sources, including:

Here is our recommendation:

Let me simplify it for you:

“To build muscle, target at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (2.2 grams per kg).”

Here’s how much protein is in a serving of food:

After protein, we’ll be filling up our plate with calories from carbs (and fats).

Here are foods full of carbohydrates you can prioritize:

To help you get better at serving sizes:

1 serving of a starchy carbohydrate is 1 cupped hand (uncooked), or your two hands forming a cup (cooked).

In addition to consuming carbohydrates from these sources, it’s okay to consume plenty of fruit while trying to build muscle!

Fat is a macronutrient that can help you reach your calorie goals (in the right quantity), as fat can be high in calories. Plus, you can eat lots of it without feeling full. Helpful if you’re trying to put on weight.

Healthy fat can be found in foods like:

Science has recently come around on saturated fat too.[10] Once completely vilified, but now considered okay for moderate consumption.

Saturated fats can come from things like:

To help you gauge: a serving size of fat is roughly the size of your thumb!

For reference, this is a single serving of almonds (162 calories):

THIS is a serving of olive oil (119 calories):

As you can see, you can eat an extra 500 calories of “healthy fats” by eating lots of “heart-healthy” fats like nuts or adding more olive oil to your meals.

Last but not least, you need vegetables in your diet.

As you start to eat more food, your stomach, intestines, and other bodily functions will thank you for consuming more high-fiber vegetables! 

A serving of veggies is about the size of your fist.

Here’s a quick, non-complete list of high-fiber veggies that can fill your plate:

This plate and serving size stuff above is just to help you get started thinking about healthy food differently and in proper portion sizes.

It really does come down to the following:

If you are not gaining weight fast enough, you’re not eating enough. Increase your portions of carbs and fats!

And don’t worry, I’m going to tell you exactly what to do so you can start strength training TODAY!

Here’s why strength training is so important: when you eat a caloric surplus (more calories than your body needs each day), the extra calories have to go somewhere.

“Staci that sounds great, but I’ve never strength trained before, and I don’t know what I’m doing…Halp!” You might be saying into your computer or phone.

Fear not! I’ll help. Strength training doesn’t need to be scary or overly complicated.

Simply put, “strength training” means two things:

Coach Jim breaks down different strategies for progressive overload in this video:

This means if you drop down and do ONE push-up or knee push-up right now…

Technically, you’ve strength trained.

Now do that and then do a bodyweight squat…

Here’s what you need to know about strength training:

In order for us to strength train and build muscle, we’re going to approach this intelligently. 

We’re not going to pick up small dumbbells and do lots of reps.

We’re not going to sit down at various machines and scroll through our phones while doing leg curls.

Instead, we’re going to:

This is how we efficiently build muscle in the minimum amount of time. What are the exercises that we’re going to target?

And now we’re into the best weight training exercises:

Once the bar passes your forehead, move your body back under the bar by driving your torso forward and back into a standing position. At the top of the lift shrug your shoulders slightly and lock your elbows.

These are some of the best compound exercises you can complete in order to build muscle. Want more muscle? Great! Get stronger at these movements!

One quick note: when I first started lifting, it took a while to build up the strength to be able to bench press or overhead press with the 45-lb bar. If your gym doesn’t have a lighter bar, dumbbells are a great option!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

I have three options for you next:

I’m going to walk you through three different levels of strength training, and by the end of today, you’re going to know exactly how to get started.

My advice: do 2-3 strength training routines per week, with 1-2 days off in between. As the saying goes: “muscle isn’t built in the gym, it’s built in the kitchen!”

So your goal should be to do a strength training routine, and then make sure you eat a caloric surplus so that your body has enough calories to rebuild your muscles bigger and stronger!

We also have a downloadable worksheet of this beginner’s workout that you can print out and hang on your fridge to track your progress! Get it when you sign up below:

So your Dumbbell Workout is 3 circuits of the following:

Do 3 circuits of this Kettlebell Workout: 

If you like this Kettlebell workout and want to follow along on a worksheet, simply print out our Kettlebell Workout and bring it with you:

BARBELL BATALLION WORKOUT A:

BARBELL BATALLION WORKOUT B:

PICK A WORKOUT, GET STARTED!

The whole point is to do challenging movements that really make your muscles work, and then try to do ONE more rep, or lift a SLIGHTLY heavier weight next time! 

“Staci, that’s still too many choices! Can you just tell me what workout routine to follow?”

Okay fine! Here’s what I would do if I was you.

I interviewed multiple other coaches on our team and asked for their best advice on how to build muscle as a woman.

Here’s what they said:

Susy (Coach, BS in Psychology, Certificate III & IV in Fitness, 5+ years of experience)

Tip #1: Food is your friend when you are looking to build muscle and get stronger – your body will need fuel, so you may need to eat more on the days that you work out!

Tip #2: Strength and muscle building requires structure to your workouts – you progress through getting better at specific movements, so make sure that you enjoy the style and structure of your workouts so that you can be as consistent as possible.

Tip #3: Your progress will always be fastest if you avoid injury, so correct form and listening to your body is super important. Your muscles will fatigue and feel sore, but joint pain and sharp, stabby pain means something isn’t moving quite right.

Kerry (Coach, NASM-CPT, 6+ years of experience)

Tip #4: Fall in love with the process. Getting stronger is a journey, one that is both rewarding and challenging. So no matter where you are starting from, take the time to celebrate each small step along the way towards a more badass version of yourself!

Christy (Coach, BS in Applied Health/Fitness, National Personal Training Institute Graduate, Precision Nutrition Certification, 6+ years of experience)

Tip #5: To get strong, you gotta lift weights. When lifting weights to get strong, you gotta be okay with testing your boundaries every now and then.

After exercising with your current weight, for the next training session…stop…and try a few reps with the next weight UP to test it out! It might surprise you how much more weight you can lift!

Here are some other tips to help you build muscle.

Tip #6: Boost your testosterone naturally: Consume enough saturated and monounsaturated fats, keep your sugar intake low, and make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin D and Zinc.

These are items linked with boosting your testosterone naturally.[12]

Speaking of testosterone – I know you may think of this as a “male” hormone, but it plays a huge part in women muscle building,[13] fat loss,[14] increase bone mass,[15] and many other health-related issues[16](remember: estrogen is made from testosterone).

Men make about ten to fifteen times what we make naturally,[17] but it doesn’t mean we don’t need it too.

Another way we can help our testosterone levels is to watch our cortisol levels.

Cortisol is a hormone that is promoted by stress and reduces free testosterone levels (in addition to signaling for your body to store fat).[18]

Tip #7: Not getting bigger? Eat more food.

Focus on more fats and carbs. They are the easiest ways to increase your total calories.

Tip #8: Make sure every meal has a solid protein source.

Protein is needed for building muscle, so prioritize this above all else when you sit down to eat.

On the go with no blender? I like to keep protein powder with me in a small Ziploc bag – that way I can grab a bottle of water, rip off the corner of the Ziploc bag, and use that as a funnel to get the powder into the water bottle. Then, just replace the cap and shake and you’ve got a protein-filled snack!

Go to bed!

Tip #10: Start today!

Gaining muscle comes down to eating right and strength training. Let’s get you lifting today!

The most important step you can take today is to begin.

Let’s give you some more tips to get you going.

If I can narrow down building muscle for women, it would be three main points:

That’s it. You can do this.

If you made it this far, and you want more specific instruction and guidance, we have a few options for you:

You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and program your workouts and nutrition for you.

2) If you want an exact blueprint for growing strong, check out NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).

Try your free trial right here:

3) Join the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

Sign up in the box below to enlist and get our guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know. It’ll help you begin your journey on building muscle.

Lastly, I’d love to hear from you!

PLEASE leave your questions, eating or strength or otherwise below so we can answer them and become best friends and practice karate kicks in the garage:

How can I help you get bigger and stronger?

What part of this journey are you still struggling the most with?

What are your favorite bulking up foods!?

Share with your friends in the comments so we can all go buy it in bulk at Costco.

-Staci

PS: Make sure you check out the rest of our Strength Building Articles!

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