Are you a woman chasing a physique that looks lean and strong, with plenty of muscle definition?
The most common problem most women run into when trying to achieve a physique like this?
They simply don’t have enough muscle.
You’ve probably spent a lot of time dieting over your lifetime… but have realized that just dieting isn’t enough.
Because it doesn’t matter how much body fat you shed while dieting – if you don’t have the pre-requisite amount of muscle needed, you still won’t look the way you want.
But most women have been very misled when it comes to how to train and eat when it comes to building lean muscle… which leaves you stuck spinning your wheels.
Today’s blog is here to help you create the exact path you need to add lean muscle to your frame, and finally achieve your goal physique.
Most training programs targeted towards women are geared towards “feeling the burn” or “getting your sweat on” (think: OrangeTheory or F45).
The problem is, training like this is not conducive to muscle growth.
See, building muscle isn’t about how many calories you burn in a workout, how much you “feel the burn”, or how sweaty a training session makes you…
It’s about applying adequate tension to the muscles that you’re trying to grow.
THE REQUIREMENTS FOR MUSCLE GROWTH (within a training session):
1. The muscle must experience time under significant tension. This often means that you’ll need to use heavier loads than you have in the past.
Doing a set of bodyweight jump squats during an OrangeTheory class might burn… but none of your muscles are actually under significant tension during this set.
So while that set of jump squats might have felt hard… it actually does very little as far as stimulating growth in the muscles of your lower body.
2. Most sets need to be taken within 3 reps or less of form failure.
There’s a concept called “effective reps” that is crucial to understand if you want to build muscle.
Basically, the closer a set gets to failure, the more muscle fibers within the muscles you’re training are recruited and fatigued.
When you reach failure, the muscle fibers within the target muscles you’re training are very close to being fully fatigued.
The recruitment and fatiguing of these muscle fibers sends your body the signal that it was not prepared to handle a stressful event like this, so your body does it’s best to build new muscle in the areas trained, so that it can be better prepared to handle taxing sets like this in the future.
The thing is, it’s thought that only the last few reps short of failure (the final ~3) are truly effective for sending a strong enough signal to your body to stimulate new muscle growth. These are the most “effective reps” of a set.
So let’s say you’re doing a high rep set of body weight squats.
Most of us could do 40-50 reps, and really “feel the burn”… but none of the muscle fibers in our lower body would actually be THAT close to true failure.
Again, this is the problem with HIIT circuits, OTF, etc. – you “feel the burn”, but these workouts are very short on effective reps.
So you’re spending a lot of time working out, but get very little benefit as far as actually stimulating new muscle growth.
LIFT CHALLENGING WEIGHTS.
From my experience coaching, this means often pushing to lift much heavier weights than you have in the past (while also making sure that you’re maintaining good form).
If you’re training lots of variations of squat, hinge, lunge, row, pulldown, press, and getting close to failure in the 5-20 rep range like our online clients do, it’s inevitable that you’ll stimulate muscle growth.
Keeping a logbook is also very important to make sure you’re progressing.
We have all of our clients keep detailed notes on weight lifted for every set, reps performed, and how the exercise felt (pump achieved, post-movement disruption, etc).
AS A CLIENT: This allows you to look back on your performance from the previous weeks, and “set the bar” that you should be attempting to beat (i.e. if you squatted 165 lbs for 8 reps on your first set of squats last week, you’re pushing for 165 for 9 on your first set this week).
This ensures that you’re continuing to push yourself in your training, and achieve effective reps as you get stronger.
AS YOUR COACH: Looking over your logbook is how we adjust your programming week to week – your notes here are what tell us how your body is progressing, and whether we need to do things like:
→ Add or decrease the number of sets you’re doing on a given movement
→ Decrease or increase how close you’re taking sets to failure
→ Change movements
Looking over your logbook in depth like this ISN’T something most coaches do… but it’s a big part of what we do differently, and why our online clients get better results.
This is one of the best ways for us to truly see how well you’re progressing, and tailor your program on a weekly basis to ensure you’re achieving the best possible results.
Finally, you need to actually be following a structured program.
A huge reason new online clients immediately see better results when they start coaching is simply because they have so much more structure than ever before with their training and nutrition.
If you’re just going into the gym 4-5x/week, and doing random things you’re hoping are effective… you’re never going to see results, because:
a.) The movements you’re doing might actually just be a poor fit for hypertrophy (muscle growth).
This is why we have most clients rate pump and disruption for each movement – you are an individual. Your biomechanics, injury history, and goals are unique to you.
This means that movements that seem to work great for that girl you follow on Instagram might actually be a very poor fit for you and your goals.
b.) If you’re constantly doing different exercises, you’ll never stimulate muscle growth.
Usually, the first few weeks of doing a new movement will yield very little muscle growth – you’ll see yourself get much stronger at a movement the first few weeks, but this isn’t because your body is adding muscle quickly – it’s because your body is getting better at the “skill” of the movement.
The first few weeks of a movement, you don’t often “fail” towards the end of a set because we’ve fully fatigued the associated muscle fibers, but rather because your body is still very unskilled/uncoordinated at the movement.
So the quick progress you’re seeing the first few weeks is simply your body mastering the “skill” of the movement, and becoming more coordinated.
After these first few weeks, as you get the skill of a movement mastered, you’re much better at recruiting and fatiguing the associated muscle fibers – after this is when you really start to be able to stimulate new muscle growth.
You need to be consistently following a structured program designed to push you to progress the same movements for multiple weeks in order to actually build muscle.
The best training program on paper won’t yield muscle growth if you’re not executing the prescribed movements in the manner intended.
Let’s say that I’ve prescribed you a Glute Emphasis Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat.
You see “Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat” in your program, and do it like you always have: torso upright, driving the front knee forward, and dropping your back knee to the floor.
This won’t create the intended effect.
To truly make this a great movement for building your glutes, we need you to: initiate the movement by pushing your hips back into the movement. You should be achieving a lot of hip flexion as you push your hips back into the movement (your ribcage should be getting closer to your thigh), and your back knee probably shouldn’t be touching the floor.
This is why we require online clients to consistently send us form videos.
You likely haven’t been executing your movements in the most optimal manner to stimulate growth in the target muscle tissue. And realize that “just doing movements like you’ve always done them” will likely yield more of the same results you’ve achieved in the past.
Better execution of the movements within your training is one of the most overlooked keys to seeing better results than you have in the past.
Some exercises are inherently better than others for hypertrophy (building muscle).
When the goal is building lean muscle, you want the “rate limiter” (the thing that forces you to eventually stop a movement) to be the specific muscle group(s) you’re targeting.
Let’s say you’re doing heavy Farmers Carries to train your core, and refuse to wear wrist straps.
As a result, your grip always gives out long before core fatigue would cause you to stop the movement.
Thus, this has become a pretty shit exercise for actually building a stronger core… but if the goal was building grip strength, it’d be a great fit.
Some common examples of rate limiters on exercises that are stopping you from building lean muscle:
→ Grip strength: See example above.
→ Unstable exercises: The classic example of doing squats on a bosu ball applies here. You don’t “fail” the movement because of fatigue in your quads, you fail due to a lack of stability.
→ Core strength: Let’s look at the Bird Dog Row:
Great movement for core stability? Sure.
But if you were programming this as one of your primary rowing variations, it just wouldn’t make sense. The rate limiter is your core, not your lats or rhomboids.
→ Cardiovascular Fatigue: The most common example of this is simply cutting rest periods too short between sets, or stringing together too many exercises in a row with inadequate rest (this is a big part of why we always prescribe specific rest periods for our online clients).
All of our online clients track their macros.
This is because building lean muscle requires more than just training hard/smart.
It also requires giving your body enough (and the right kind) of fuel.
Most people will track their macros in a fat loss phase, and stop doing so when their goal is building muscle. That’s a big mistake.
Imagine your training being like the gas pedal, while your nutrition is the fuel in the tank.
It doesn’t matter how hard you push the pedal – without enough (or the right kind) of fuel in the tank, you still won’t get anywhere.
For most women we coach, this typically means that we need to initially increase the amount of protein and carbs you’re eating.
No matter how hard you train, you won’t be able to build muscle without adequate protein. If you have no protein, you can’t build muscle.
Protein is the only macronutrient that has nitrogen, which is essential to building muscle. So no matter how many carbs and fats you eat, without adequate nitrogen/protein, your body won’t have the raw materials it needs to build muscle.
As far as carbs go:
If you look closely at the energy system that creates energy for the majority of intense activity from ~15-60 seconds (the anaerobic-lactic system), you’ll see that it’s fueled by carbs.
If your goal is to build your leanest, strongest body composition, a good amount of your training will be fueled by this energy system. A lower carb approach means that this energy system will essentially be “short on fuel” – your ability to train intensely will suffer.
As a result, you’ll struggle achieving the levels of performance & adding the lean muscle needed for the physique you want.
This is a common mistake made by both women and men, and is exactly why most of our online clients undergoing the physique transformation process are typically following a higher carb approach.
Not only are carbs are your body’s preferred fuel source for training, but they also aids your recovery and ability to build more lean muscle.
Carbs stimulate the release of the hormone insulin in your body. Insulin has an inverse relationship with cortisol (the stress hormone), meaning that as insulin increases, cortisol decreases. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone – its primary role is breaking things down for energy.
Now, while cortisol isn’t “bad” (like all things, it’s very context dependent), spending too much time in a catabolic state will of course hinder your ability to build lean muscle.
Due to the insulin and cortisol relationship, adding more carbs to your diet can help get your body out of a catabolic state, and recovering better/quicker.
Unless you’re new to science-based training and nutrition practices like our online clients follow, building muscle is much harder when you’re underfeeding your body.
So while you probably noticed a dramatic transformation the first 6-12 months you got into training and nutrition… you’ve noticed your physique hasn’t changed much (if at all) over the last 1-2 years.
This is usually caused by constantly trying to diet and build lean muscle at the same time… but with where you are in your fitness journey, this is no longer feasible, for a few reasons:
1: Eating in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn) seems to reduce your baseline levels of muscle protein synthesis, as well as the degree to which your body increases muscle protein synthesis as a response to consuming protein. (1)(2)(3)
Being able to build muscle across any given time frame comes down to something called net protein balance.
Your muscles are essentially built from protein (or more specifically, the amino acids that you consume within protein).
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS): The process of your body repairing/adding to your current muscle protein.
After you consume protein, levels of MPS “spike” for the next 2-3 hours before returning to baseline. The size of the spike depends (to an extent) on the amount and quality of protein consumed.
Resistance training also spikes MPS.
But it’s not just as simple as eat protein, train, spike MPS, build muscle. Because there’s another sinister force at work here…
Muscle protein breakdown (MPB): The process of your body breaking down muscle protein. Your muscle proteins are stuck in a constant battle between MPS and MPB. Sometimes the rate of MPS is greater than MPB, sometimes vice-versa.
To build muscle: You need positive net protein balance (More MPS have occurred than MPB) across any given timeframe.
To lose muscle: You need negative net protein balance (more MPB than MPS must have occurred) across any given timeframe.
So understanding this, it’ll clearly be much harder for your body to add lean muscle if you’re constantly under eating/dieting, and why eating more food in a building phase will put you as an online client in a much more advantageous position to add some physique-transforming lean muscle.
2: You ability to train hard will suffer if you’re under-eating
Calories are energy. So when you’re eating in a calorie deficit for fat loss, you’re literally in an “energy deficit”, and thus have less energy to freely spend on things like pushing hard in your training.
Lifting challenging weights is the primary signal to your body that adding muscle is important. So if training performance is suffering because you’re under-eating/dieting (which is very common), building muscle while losing fat is much less likely.
3: Calories are your body’s primary recovery resources
Building muscle is more than just training hard… to actually grow new lean muscle tissue from what you’re doing in the gym, your body needs to be able to fully recover from all of the fatigue you generated in a training session.
As you can see in the above, muscle growth doesn’t actually occur until after your body has recovered from all of the fatigue that a training session created.
One of the primary resources your body uses to help your recovery is food – especially the carbs and proteins that you’re eating.
The trap that many people fall into is constantly training hard… but not providing their body enough of the recovery resources/food and sleep needed to actually adapt and build new muscle.
Thus, you’re stuck in a place where your body can just barely recover back to it’s previous baseline before you train a muscle again… a.k.a. You’re always training hard, but never actually building muscle – your body is always stuck in the same place.
When you enter a building phase where you’re consuming plenty of calories, you’re finally giving your body all of the recovery resources it needs to actually fully recover and adapt to what you’re doing in the gym… so you’re able to build lean muscle at a much quicker rate than before.
4. Your body is more likely to use protein as a fuel source when you’re under-eating
When plenty of energy (calories) is available, your body prefers to use carbs and fats (as its fuel sources, as the process of converting protein to a usable energy source for your body) is very inefficient.
That said, when dieting and short on available energy, your body just doesn’t have enough energy coming in (in the form of carbs and fats) to fuel itself, so it can potentially start breaking down more muscle protein as a fuel source.
It’s pretty obvious why this is suboptimal for building muscle.
So in a building phase, our online clients are focusing on properly fueling their bodies to be able to train hard, fully recover, and maximize lean muscle tissue growth.
If you’ve been dieting for a long period of time (as most of our new online clients have), the reality is, your hormones are not going to be in an optimal place for muscle growth.
It can take up to six months post-diet for your hormones to return to their normal, healthy levels.
When your hormones are down-regulated, it doesn’t make sense for your body to prioritize muscle growth.
You’re sending your body the signal that the amount of energy (a.k.a. calories) it needs for optimal health aren’t available.
When your body is in this place of “scarcity”, it doesn’t want to do “energy expensive” things like reproduce or add costly lean muscle tissue to your frame… it simply wants to survive.
Thus, things like your sex hormones and thyroid are suppressed, along with your body’s willingness to add new muscle.
Very similar to Key #5, the most common reason for hormonal downregulation is simply not eating enough (both carbohydrates and total calories), or for long enough.
This is another reason constant dieting is such an obstacle to building lean muscle – you need long periods of time dedicated to giving your body all of the fuel it needs (a.k.a. building phases) to restore your hormonal health, and allow your body to add lean muscle.
And those are the 6 key components to building muscle as a woman. If you’ve been struggling to build muscle and achieve the physique you’ve always wanted (despite the fact that you’re always pushing hard in the gym), click here now to apply for coaching with our team.
We’ll create a fully individualized training & nutrition protocol, tailored specifically to you and your goals, and be here to guide you with the support and accountability you need through every step of the transformation process.
I love simplifying the mysterious art and science of training and looking like it. I’ve been on my own journey, and I share what I’ve learned so you can get there faster, on my Podcast and on Instagram.