“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:
Due to our natural hormones, it’s generally more difficult for people with typical female anatomy to gain muscle than people with typical male anatomy.
We have a lot of factors (such as hormonal birth control) that have been proven to make it even harder as well.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible!
It just means we have to work harder for it.
Ugh, I know.
Now, one thing I want to touch on quick: if you see a woman who is absolutely jacked and at an extremely low body fat percentage, I guarantee she has been working her butt off for a very long time with the goal of building muscle.
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:
As we point out in that body fat percentage guide, we women can look very different at any weight depending on our body shape and how much muscle we have. It comes down to our own personal goals!
This guide is going to primarily focus on two things:
How to eat to gain weight and build muscle.
How to strength train to build muscle.
We’ve helped thousands of women with our online coaching program, many of whom are trying to gain weight and strength train for the first time in their lives.
Everybody is on their own journey, at their own pace, and everybody will end up with different results too!
Should women build muscle? (7 Reasons Women should Grow Muscle)
If it can be harder for women to gain muscle (compared to men), why go through the trouble?
I’m glad you asked!
Here are the top 7 reasons why women should strength train:
#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.
#2) Less injury risk – when you build strong muscles, you’re also building stronger bones, ligaments, and tendons, making you less prone to injury doing things you love (like playing in a quidditch league).
#3) Helps combat age-related muscle loss, 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) Reduce pain – having a strong body makes living easier on your joints, as well as allows you to hold better posture, and reduce back / hip pain.
#6) Appearance – this is a personal preference! Some women like to have a lot of muscle, and some don’t. While you can’t spot reduce fat, you can choose to build more muscle in specific areas, changing your body shape. Growing up, I was an extreme pear shape, but due to strength training, I now have more of an hourglass shape.
#7) Live longer – want to spend more time on Earth? Strength training and growing muscle will help you do just that.
How to Eat to Gain Muscle as a Woman
As we said above, gaining weight comes down to thermodynamics and science.
Every day, we burn a certain number of calories just existing, which is called our BMR (basal metabolic rate). We then factor in our daily activity level, and get a number that is called our “total daily energy expenditure.” You can calculate yours below:
(Note: we have used The Mifflin-St Jeor Equation to create this calculator! ).
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 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, and 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.
As we cover in our “Healthy Eating Guide,” we’re going to build muscle by consuming the three big macros in the correct quantities:
Protein: rebuilds muscle after you break it down.
Carbohydrates: provides your muscle with fuel and body with energy.
Fat: helps your bodily functions and can also be burned as fuel in the absence of carbs.
Let’s look at each of these individually:
PRIORITY #1: PROTEIN
Protein can come from any number of sources, including:
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. Once completely vilified, but now considered okay for moderate consumption.
Saturated fats can come from things like:
Full fat dairy
Fatty cuts of meat
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.
PRIORITY #4: VEGETABLES!
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:
Consume 1-1.5g per pound (2.2-3.3g per kg) of bodyweight in protein every day.
Consume the rest of your calories from foods composed of carbs and fats.
Always eat vegetables so that your body can actually PROCESS all this extra food. I like to aim for half of my plate of vegetables.
If you are not gaining weight, (and you’re hitting your protein goals), add more carbs and/or fats to your meal.
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!
Whenever we work with coaching clients who struggle to build muscle, this is the area we target: adding more carbs and fats to each meal.
8 Strength Training Exercises For Women to Build Muscle
Years from now, you’ll look back and thank “Past You” for starting strength training today.
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.
If you don’t do any exercise, your body will choose to store the extra calories as fat for later.
However, when you strength train, your muscles are broken down and then they’ll use the extra calories to rebuild themselves bigger and stronger over the next 48 hours!
“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:
“Movement of any weight against “resistance” (including your body weight) – Doing ANY exercise that pushes your muscles outside of their comfort zone, forcing them to rebuild stronger to prepare for the next challenge.
Progressive overload: doing slightly more than last time (lift a heavier weight or do 1 more rep) consistently. Your muscles will have to constantly adapt and rebuild themselves stronger. This is called “progressive overload.”
This means if you drop down and do ONE push-up or knee push-up right now…
Here’s what you need to know about strength training:
Strength training is one of the BEST things you can do for yourself.
Strength training will help you put on muscle while eating in a surplus.
While you can’t spot reduce fat, you can focus on building more muscle in specific areas, which can help you attain a specific look you’re going for.
If you don’t like the gym, you don’t need to go, ever. But I hope you do. Because that’s the easiest way to start training with weights.
Regardless of your fitness level, body fat percentage, strength level, or gender, you have every right to be in the free weights section in the gym, training with heavy weights, with everybody else. The people in the gym who are very strong with a lot of muscle started somewhere, too!
I used to be a CrossFit instructor, and my favorite thing about CrossFit was that it destigmatized barbell training and heavy lifting for many women.
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.
Do our workouts quickly and get out of there. The workout should take no longer than 45-60 minutes.
This is how we efficiently build muscle in the minimum amount of time. What are the exercises that we’re going to target?
1) The Push-Up: The best exercise you could ever do for yourself when it comes to using your bodyweight for push muscles (your chest, shoulders, and triceps):
2) The Bodyweight Squat: This exercise serves a dual purpose: it is the foundation for building strength AND helps build proper mobility. If you are going to ever do barbell squats, you need to work on hitting proper depth with a bodyweight squat first!
3) The Inverted Bodyweight Row: Until you can get your first pull-up or chin-up, these exercises are GREAT to start building your pull-muscle strength (your back, biceps, and forearms).
7) The Barbell Bench Press. Lie on a bench, squeeze your shoulder blades to keep your back tight, and then lower a barbell until it almost touches your chest. Pause, and then press it back up towards the sky. Repeat! And get strong.
8) Barbell Overhead Press: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and lean back by pushing your hips forward. While keeping your entire body tight, press the bar overhead.
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:
Commit to trying ONE of these movements in the next week. Use 20 seconds of courage, recruit a friend who has lifted or trained before, and try your best.
I have three options for you next:
Select one of the muscle-building routines for women in the next section.
“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.
Still overwhelmed? Check out our coaching program. We get to learn your story, and then build a program and strategy around your goals that you CAN do.
10 Tips for building muscle as a Woman
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.
Speaking of testosterone – I know you may think of this as a “male” hormone, but it plays a huge part in women muscle building, fat loss, increase bone mass, and many other health-related issues(remember: estrogen is made from testosterone).
Men make about ten to fifteen times what we make naturally, 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).
Steve drinks two smoothies a day to reach his protein goals and you can check out our Guide to Protein Shakes for his personal recipe.
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!
Tip #9: Get more sleep! When you build muscle, your body is working overtime, burning extra calories. It’s going to need some time to recover. Remember, muscle is built when you rest, not when you actually lift.
Go to bed!
Tip #10: Start today!
Gaining muscle comes down to eating right and strength training. Let’s get you lifting today!