Ladies, All Aboard the Gain Train!
In recent years I’ve noticed more and more women interested in gaining muscle. Some with the intention to compete in physique sports and others because they feel a sense of empowerment or want to improve the way they feel in their bodies. Whatever your reason for gaining muscle, I think it’s awesome. No matter your reasoning, you’re here because you’re most likely looking for information to help you build muscle. In this article, I outline my most important top five muscle gain tips for women. So hop on board the gain train to learn more!
1. The Holy Grail
Lifting heavy at a high effort is the holy grail to all your muscle building dreams. Forget about using limited resistance, such as light dumbbells and banded exercises that barely make you break a sweat. Videos like this run rampant on social media with promises to “tone” your glutes, legs, abs or promise to “tone” that stubborn area that has literally been a part of you since puberty hit. Insert the biggest eye roll of my life here.
This is the truth. If you use the term “tone” then what you’re really after is muscle gain, body fat reduction or a combination of both. For muscle growth, a weight that challenges you and falls within a 6-20 rep range is optimal. How challenging do these need to be? Those last reps should be close to or even reach muscular failure. That means we’re after a HARD set; it means we break a sweat, we grunt, and we make ugly faces. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean throwing around 5lb pink dumbbells and looking pretty will help us reach our goals. Women need to train intensely enough to cause adaptations to the muscle. Those pink dumbbells will result in insufficient stimulus, which means minimal benefits.
Not quite sure if you’re putting in enough effort on those last reps? A helpful tool is recording your sets. After your warm up sets have been completed, record your working sets. Pay attention to what the last few reps looked like. Were they just as easy to complete as the previous reps? Did your speed slow down as you fought for those last few reps? If they felt and looked as easy as your first rep, but you’re falling within the prescribed rep range, you can increase the weight and effort. Making sure your form looks just as good as your first rep is important here. We never want to compromise form for a heavier load. Stay safe but train hard.
2. Eat to GROW
An issue that I see often is women aren’t eating enough to support their muscle building goals. Time after time, I see women spending more time in a calorie deficit than a surplus wondering why they’re not growing. To support muscle gain and strength, eating a balanced, nutrient-dense diet with the right amount of proteins, carbs and fats is a must. These amounts will vary based on the volume of individuals' exercise, age, body composition, total energy intake and training status.
While eating in a surplus you can expect the scale weight to increase, but don’t obsess over it. Aim for a 0.5% body weight increase every 2-3 weeks. If you’re not gaining weight, chances are you’re eating at a maintenance level and need to increase calorie intake. If weight gain is happening at a more rapid speed, you’re probably eating in an excessive surplus and need to decrease calories to slow body fat gain. Just remember, while pursuing muscle gain, some body fat may accumulate. This is normal and to be expected. Since gaining muscle is the goal, it’s so important to remember that unless you’re a genetically lean individual, you will not be lean and shredded during a growth phase. Embracing a little extra softness in exchange for the long term goal of muscle gain is well worth it.
4. Think Beyond the Gym
Muscle gain isn’t just about smashing weights and eating food. Allowing our bodies to recover is an essential part of muscle growth. I know it’s easy to fall into the “more is better” mentality. But there are advantages to taking regular rest days. Advantages Include:
- Time for Recovery - During exercise we’re creating microscopic tears in our muscle tissue. During rest, cells called fibroblasts repair it. Rest is when our muscles build, heal, and GROW.
- Reduces the Risk of Injury - Strength training has a slew of advantages, but it also puts stress on our bodies. Excessive amounts increase risk of overuse injuries.
- Performance Improvement - I touched on effort during training earlier in this article; when you don’t get enough rest, it will be hard to put forth the effort needed for muscle growth to happen. Without rest, motivation and physical performance will eventually decline.
Just like rest days, getting an adequate amount of sleep is essential to muscle growth. In fact, I like to think of sleep as a muscle building tool. NREM Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep accounts for approximately 40% of our total sleep time. During this stage, breathing becomes slower and deeper, blood pressure drops, your brain is at rest, and activity slows. The blood supply to your muscles also increases, delivering extra oxygen and nutrients to help your muscles grow while you sleep. Growth hormone during this time increases which helps facilitate muscle repair and growth. Not getting enough sleep can cause a decline in growth hormone secretion, which means fewer gains. So make sure to get your zzzzz!
Did you know, as female athletes, we are more likely to suffer from nutritional deficiencies compared to our male counterparts? It’s believed that around 30 percent of all women are deficient in one or more vitamins and minerals. Even more concerning is that it’s estimated that about 75 percent of women would likely develop nutrient deficiencies without supplemental multivitamins. This statistic encompasses the general population of women. It would be interesting to see how these percentages would change based on female athletes since we have such rigid diets and exercise regimens. Filling in nutritional “gaps” is a good idea to keep us functioning optimally and reaching for those muscle gains. Supplements to keep in mind:
- Creatine - This workout supplement doesn’t fall into the category of you to be deficient in, but it is worth noting since it has proven benefits. Benefits include, increasing high-intensity exercise capacity, lean body mass, muscle strength, bone mass and helping to speed recovery. Put simply; Creatine works by replenishing the fuel (ATP) within muscle cells. Take 3 to 5 grams of creatine per day to take advantage of these benefits. The new ANIMAL Creatine XL offers 5 grams per serving in great-tasting flavors. Or if you’re really in the mood to sauce it up, ANIMAL Creatine Chews come in Fruit Punch or Grape tablets, delivering 5 grams per serving in a chewable tablet. They’re like Sweet Tarts for meat heads, lol.
- Vitamin D - This is essential to our bone health, immune, heart, and lung functions, and inflammatory modulation, which impacts athletic performance. The amount of Vitamin D needed may vary from person to person to keep you at an adequate level. The Endocrinology Society recommends an intake of 1500-2200 IU per day for those who do not have adequate sun exposure. I personally take 5000 IU per day based on my serum levels, and that has been enough to keep my levels within the optimal range.
- Calcium - Calcium and Vitamin D go hand in hand. Vitamin D increases the Calcium absorption required for normal bone metabolism. Reports suggest that a whopping 90 percent of female athletes fall short of adequate calcium intake. This is risky business since this deficiency can put us at risk for bone stress fractures and osteoporosis later in life. Calcium also plays a vital role in muscle contraction and relaxation. For adult females, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for Calcium is 1000mg per day. For female athletes who have amenorrhea or low body mass index, this amount increases to the recommended 1500mg of calcium per day.
Keep in mind this is the (very) shortlist. To keep our bodies working optimally, it’s always a good idea to check serum levels periodically to make sure levels are adequate and determine your supplement needs.
A Heavy Dose of Patience
Last but definitely not least, be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your dream physique won’t be either. Staying consistent and not losing sight of your goal will be a key player in muscle gain. It will take time for you to grow and for your physique to take shape. Don’t expect to see drastic changes after a week or even a few months. When you feel like you’re straying off course, let these takeaways guide you back to your goals:
- Don’t be afraid to lift heavy, and remember effort and intensity are of the utmost importance.
- Eat to grow and embrace the softer physique that comes with it.
- Think beyond the gym; rest and sleep are just as important as smashing weights.
- Supplementation can help fill in any nutritional gaps and support gym performance, putting you on the most optimal track for muscle gains.