With everyone obsessed with getting lean, losing weight, and burning fat, having the opposite goal can be challenging.
When you say you want to build muscle mass, people look at you like you have two heads. While men seem to know everything about gaining mass and building muscle, women typically don’t—but they should.
Because men produce far more testosterone than women, it’s easy for them to kick muscle growth into high gear. But you might wonder if lean muscle gain is possible with such a different hormonal profile. Not only is muscle growth possible, but it’s one of the best things you can do for your health.
Building lean muscle helps with functional strength, metabolism, and insulin sensitivity, which can help to prevent fat gain in the future. Still trying to figure out where to start?
We’re giving you our best tips for building muscle and achieving your dream physique.
Let’s get started.
Why Is It Harder For Women To Gain Muscle?
Have you ever wondered why it seems so easy for men to lose fat and build muscle? They step into the gym, and somehow, they’re just shredded.
It may not be that simple, but different hormonal profiles between men and women do alter how muscle and fat accumulate in the body.
But regardless of whether you’re male or female, the principle behind muscle growth is the same:
To gain weight, you need to eat more than you burn. If you want to gain muscle, you need to exercise the right way, too.
For most women, cardio is the go-to exercise choice at the gym solely to lose weight. It’s an easy way to burn calories and reduce body fat—but it doesn't come with many muscle-building benefits.
Women shy away from lifting weights for fear that they will get gain weight and get bulky, but it’s the furthest thing from the truth. Sure, if you’re taking a bunch of testosterone, you might increase muscle building and start to bulk up.
But for the average woman with normal hormone levels, the body doesn’t produce enough testosterone for women to get bodybuilding-size muscles.
So, why is it difficult for most women to build lean muscle? Simply put - hormones 1.
Women have higher levels of progesterone and estrogen, essential for reproduction, while men have higher testosterone levels. By nature, testosterone and growth hormone are the two key hormones involved in muscle growth.
But just because women don’t have high testosterone levels doesn’t mean it’s impossible to gain muscle—you just have to work harder for it.
So, if you want to increase lean muscle mass, you don’t have to worry about looking like a female bodybuilder (that takes a lot of work and is not something that happens by accident).
Should Women Build Muscle?
While building muscle has always been something associated with men, it’s time women stop fearing muscle growth and strength and get on board—it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Here are seven reasons why:
- Makes daily activities easier: Whether you’re bending down to pick up something heavy, bringing in grocery bags, or simply hiking with your dog, building strength makes everything easier.
- Reduced risk of injury: Let’s face it, torn ligaments and broken bones aren’t fun, but when you build muscle strength, it can reduce the risk of injury significantly—especially for anyone involved in sports 2. And for women reaching menopause, low estrogen levels aren’t great for bone health, but thanks to the positive stress of weights on the skeletal system, resistance training can enhance bone strength and reduce the risk of falls and fractures.
- Prevents age-related muscle loss: Muscle loss is a natural part of aging, but it doesn’t have to be. Remaining active by participating in cardiovascular exercises and weight training helps to increase or maintain muscle mass as we age. This is also important for staying independent during old age3.
- Reduces pain and stiffness: While you don’t have to be in your 50s and 60s to experience pain and stiffness, being active and building muscle can help keep your body strong and limber, meaning you’ll likely experience less pain in areas like the lower back and hips, as well as improve posture 4.
- Improve physical appearance: While not every woman wants to be super muscular, building muscle can help change your physical appearance and define your body shape. Remember that spot-reducing isn’t a thing—getting rid of fat in one area means reducing your overall body fat percentage.
- Improve longevity: If you’re striving to live well into your 90s, picking up a set of weights might do that. Strength training and muscle growth have been shown to ward off chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer 5.
- Boost metabolism: The benefits of weight training extend beyond just physical—it can also help increase metabolic rate to burn fat and speed up weight loss.
Apart from these, weight training is also a great way to improve mood and reduce stress! That’s because exercise stimulates the release of endorphins—natural compounds that play a role in mood and pain perception 6.
6 Steps To Maximize Muscle Gain
Ready to say goodbye to chronic cardio and build some muscle? While putting on mass might not be as easy for women as it is for men, use these tips to help maximize muscle gain without the headache!
Lift heavy weights
If you want to build muscle, you need to give your muscles a reason to grow—and that can only be done by lifting heavy. While going high rep, low weight is great for maintaining muscle; it’s not going to build mass, which is what we want to do initially.
Manipulating variables like volume and intensity, exercise sequences, reps and sets, tempo, and rest period are all ways to challenge your body and achieve progressive overload—this is what we want to trigger muscle growth.
However, volume and intensity are two of the most basic components that directly impact muscular adaptations 7, 8.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 1−3 sets per exercise of 8−12 repetitions with 70−85% 1RM (one rep max) for beginners and 3−6 sets of 1−12 reps with 70−100% 1RM for advanced lifters 9.
If you’re not challenging your muscles with more work than they’re used to—either in the form of more volume or weight—there’s no need for them to grow. There will be minimal muscle damage and, therefore, minimal repair and adaptation, which is necessary for growth.
Choose the correct number of reps and sets for muscle gain
While lifting heavy is the priority for muscle gain, we also want to pay attention to how many reps and sets we complete for each exercise.
If you’re not completing enough reps (or taking your sets to failure), you’re likely not getting enough stimulation to trigger adaptation.
Generally speaking, the 8-12 rep range is ideal for muscle growth, with 3-4 sets. So, when choosing a weight, you want it to be heavy enough that you can complete these.
Use proper form when you lift
Muscle growth is all about targeting the muscles you want to grow.
If you’re performing a compound movement like a deadlift with incorrect form, you’re not hitting the posterior chain muscles (the correct muscle groups)—you’re likely using too much of the lower back, drastically increasing your risk of lower back injuries.
Regardless of what movement you’re doing, ensure you’re executing it with impeccable technique before you increase the weight.
It's essential to hit the correct muscle groups. Form and technique always come before weight in any good workout program.
Eat to gain muscle mass
Training is only half the equation—if you want to build muscle, you must eat to support muscle growth, and that means eating enough calories and enough protein.
Gaining weight boils down to thermodynamics and science. Your body burns a certain number of calories daily (called BMR or basal metabolic rate) regardless of activity; this is how much you would burn sitting on the couch all day doing nothing.
Since our goal is to gain weight (in the form of muscle), you want your calories in to exceed your calories out.
Yes, any extra calories will result in weight gain, but we want the right kind of weight gain—muscle mass. As such, we focus our eating habits on building muscle.
There are three components to a muscle-building diet:
- Protein: The foundation of muscle tissue and stimulate muscle growth and repair after lifting weights
- Carbohydrates: Replenishes glycogen stores and supplies energy for muscle recovery
- Fat: Supports bodily functions and hormone production; can be used as fuel in the absence of carbohydrates
If you're healthy, active, and set on building muscle, aim for at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (2.2g/kg). Intake for lean muscle gain can even be as high as 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day 10.
For carbs, you want to choose complex carbs like rice, quinoa, oats, beans and legumes, sweet potatoes, and other root vegetables over simple carbs like white potatoes and bread.
This helps mitigate rapid blood sugar spikes and dips and provides a more stable energy supply. Aim for about a 2:1 ratio of carbs:protein, especially around workout times, but this may differ based on your goals.
While fat is not directly needed for muscle growth, it’s the macronutrient that will help you reach your calorie goals while supporting hormone production. Avoid unhealthy fats found in vegetable oils.
Instead, choose things like avocado, nuts, and seeds, full-fat dairy (if tolerable), fattier cuts of meat, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter.
- Consume 1-1.5g of protein per pound (2.2-3.3g per kg) of body weight daily
- Consume the rest of your calories from carbs and fat
- Eat vegetables for micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)
If you are not gaining weight and you’re hitting your protein goals, increase your carbs/fat intake
Don't forget about supplements
The body needs protein, carbs, and fat to build muscle, but it also requires the essential vitamins and minerals that support muscle protein synthesis. Food is the preferable choice, but supplements can also be beneficial.
If you’re trying to make your perfect muscle-growth stack, you’ll want to ensure you have a good multivitamin, but what about a solid low-stim pre-workout like Pre Lab Pro to help push you through the most demanding training sessions?
Stacked with the most powerful ingredients, PLP encourages laser focus and stable energy while accelerating recovery to help you lose weight, reduce body fat, and build muscle.
Get enough sleep
Exercise and diet are two key components of muscle growth, but if you’re not sleeping enough, you will not see the results you want. Sleep deprivation is a massive hindrance to muscle growth.
Studies find sleep deprivation blunts skeletal muscle protein synthesis and encourages a catabolic environment 11. The gym is where the damage happens, but sleep is where repair and growth occur.
- Alexander SE, Pollock AC, Lamon S. The effect of sex hormones on skeletal muscle adaptation in females. Eur J Sport Sci. 2022;22(7):1035-1045.
- Fleck SJ, Falkel JE. Value of resistance training for the reduction of sports injuries. Sports Med. 1986;3(1):61-68.
- Giallauria F, Cittadini A, Smart NA, Vigorito C. Resistance training and sarcopenia. Monaldi Arch Chest Dis. 2016;84(1-2):738.
- Geneen LJ, Moore RA, Clarke C, Martin D, Colvin LA, Smith BH. Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults: an overview of Cochrane Reviews. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;4(4):CD011279.
- Kamada M, Shiroma EJ, Buring JE, Miyachi M, Lee IM. Strength Training and All-Cause, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer Mortality in Older Women: A Cohort Study. J Am Heart Assoc. 2017;6(11):e007677.
- Harber VJ, Sutton JR. Endorphins and exercise. Sports Med. 1984;1(2):154-171.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(10):2954-2963.
- Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2017;35(11):1073-1082.
- American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(3):687-708.
- Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007;4:8.
- Lamon S, Morabito A, Arentson-Lantz E, et al. The effect of acute sleep deprivation on skeletal muscle protein synthesis and the hormonal environment. Physiol Rep. 2021;9(1):e14660.