How to Build Muscle for Women

STACK Expert Brian Lebo lays out a three-pronged strategy for female athletes who want to build muscle, lose fat and achieve definition.

Ladies, if your goals are to build lean muscle and get defined, here's a simple, three-part plan for you:

  • Weight/Resistance Training
  • Cardiovascular Exercise
  • Diet & Nutrition

The plan for building muscle for women is simple, but it's going to take some work. The key is, you've got to build muscle and lose fat. Strength training is great, and it will definitely help you build lean muscle. But if you don't also lose fat, your new muscle will be "stuck" under a layer of fat. You've got to reduce your body fat percentage, and that's where cardio and diet come into play.

Weight/Resistance Training

Woman bench pressing weights with assistance of trainer

For best results, strength train at least twice a week, three whenever possible. If you follow the plan, you can begin to see results—muscle gain, fat loss, improved definition—within 6 to 8 weeks. As an added benefit, weight training can boost your metabolism (muscle is thermogenic, which means it burns fat; research shows the metabolic effects of strength training persist for up to 48 hours!), helping you burn more calories throughout the day—even when you're at rest! Learn more about the benefits of weightlifting for women.

If you're looking for exercises that will maximize your return on investment, you'll want to incorporate compound exercises, those that engage multiple joints and muscle groups—like the Deadlift, Squat, and Bench Press. These exercises are terrific for building lean muscle and incinerating fat. For each exercise, find a weight that challenges you through three sets of 8-12 repetitions. If the last few reps of your last set aren't challenging (you should barely be able to complete them), it's time to increase the weight. Minimize your rest time between sets; aim for no more than 30 seconds.

How to Build Muscle for Women

Cardiovascular Exercise

How to Build Muscle for Women - Cardiovascular

Forget the slow, steady stuff. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is the way to go, and here's why: intermittent bouts of short duration, high-intensity exercise help to free fat from storage and get it into the bloodstream where it can be used as an energy source. With this strategy, you can accomplish more in less time. For an added benefit, perform your cardio after your strength training. Research shows that cardio performed after strength training burns more fat than cardio alone. Now, back to HIIT. I like a 3:1 rest to work ratio. This ensures that you have recovered enough between intervals to go hard for the next interval. Here's an example, which lends itself to any form of cardio: go as hard as you can for 30 seconds. For the next 90 seconds, maintain an easy pace. That's one (2-minute) interval. Repeat (immediately) four more times, for a total of five 2-minute intervals (10-minutes total training time). Be prepared... it'll wear you out!

Diet & Nutrition

How to Build Muscle for Women - Diet and Nutrition

It's been said that abs are made in the kitchen. Your diet is an essential part of this plan. You don't have to be extreme or fanatical about it, but you have to be disciplined and consistent. That means you've got to do your best to avoid fried, processed, and refined foods. For the most part, stick to foods that provide lean protein, clean carbs, and healthy fats. Aim for 5 or 6 evenly-spaced meals throughout the day. You need a combination of carbs and protein both before (30-90 minutes) and after (within 30 minutes) your workouts. Carbs provide energy and replenish depleted glycogen stores, and protein is essential to rebuild and repair muscle. Learn how to create an athlete meal plan.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock