Sofia recently wrote a post on eating strategies to gain muscle with an emphasis on writing for women(see here). Common dietary pitfalls for women include not eating enough protein (and food in general) to support heavy training, eating highly processed foods that just happen to provide fewer calories (overemphasizing quantity of calories v. quality), and a fear of dietary fat. However one thing we didn't address is training!
I want to discuss training because it doesn't matter if you eat well - if you don't train hard you still will not attain the physique or performance "gains" you're probably looking for. Fortunately more girls are getting into weight training, however a lot of girls still are not training properly! Training is complex. There are multiple ways to get strong stronger, leaner, etc and our bodies don't all respond the same, so compete with yourself, not others! There is no one size fits all so below I'll provide general recommendations in place of a cookie cutter program.
- Train with heavy weights (relatively heavy at least)
A lot of females tend to shy away from lifting weights that are heavy enough to ever cause any appreciable muscle gains to their bodies. You have to train with heavy (relatively heavy at least) weights using certain exercises in order to attain improvements to your strength and physique. I have trained dozens of females incorporating heavy weights in their training, and I've yet to see one ended up looking like The Hulk. While a number of studies show that resistance training with or without specific diets improve body composition and strength (1, 2, 3), women do not have to worry about getting overly bulky. Females produce several-fold less testosterone (the main muscle-building hormone) than men (4), meaning they cannot look overly masculine unless they train, eat, and possibly drug like crazy over several years. Basically for most women out there, you would have to go out of your way to do that.
- Lower body weightlifting is key
Lower body lifts should be emphasized in any good training program, especially for women. Lower body lifts involve greater muscle mass (compare the size of your upper leg to your upper arm for an easy visual). This is important is because when you exercise a larger muscle mass, you burn a greater amount of calories and can build a greater amount of muscle in contrast to exercising a smaller muscle mass(e.g. squats compared to tricep kickbacks). Women also tend to want to improve their butts. The hip thrust is an absolutely great exercise for this as it forces you to recruit your gluteals (butt muscles) without activating the quads too much (end result is a nicer butt without ballooning your thighs. (see this recent Ben Bruno article on the topic)
- Focus on compound exercises
Compound movements are exercises that require movement about multiple joints such as squat, deadlift, bench press and shoulder press. In contrast, accessory exercises isolate movement at one joint such as calf raises, strict bicep curls, or tricep push downs. In general your workouts should be focused around compound movements. Similar to the point I made above regarding lower body exercises involving the recruitment of more muscle mass than upper body lifts, compound exercises recruit more muscle mass than accessory exercises, thus compound exercises facilitate burning more calories and building more muscle. In addition compound exercises involve multiple body segments and require more skill to perform. Therefore in theory these type of exercises should provide more carry over into sports, occupational activities, and even activities of daily living like climbing stairs, running to catch a bus, etc
It is also worth noting that you should try to stick to mostly free weight exercises vs machine based exercises. Free weights generally cause a greater hormonal response to build muscle (5) in addition to having more carry over to other activities as they require more skill.
- Train multiple body parts throughout the week
I am writing this paragraph because I have witnessed numerous girls over the years do the same handful of the same exercises every time I've seen them in the gym. If you're actually training hard enough but continue to train the same movements day after day you're likely to get an overuse injury or burnout. With that said some very skilled lifters (e.g. Olympic weightlifters) perform the same lifts several times per week. For the rest of us who just seek to be healthy and fit with a good physique, variety is pretty much a necessity as it allows your body to recover between sessions and is more exciting from a psychological standpoint. A real world example of this: someone who has the time and inclination to go to the gym 4 days per week performing upper body two days per week and lower body two days per week. Someone who wants to get in more work might go an extra two days and dedicate them to conditioning or break their upper body training into three days (e.g. day 1: chest/biceps, day 2: back/triceps, day 3: shoulders/back). See the schematic below for a visual example of a 3 day per week split.
- Train based on your goals (and change your training as your goals change)
Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek wrote a book called Start With Why - I am not a fan of the book but I was inspired to buy it after watching his popular TED talk. I think "starting with why" in training is imperative. Ask yourself what you hope to attain through exercise, write down your starting point and where you would like to go, and then train for it! For example if you feel like you are scrawny and deconditioned, plan to lift heavy weights 4 days per week, perform a few days of cardio, and eat a lot of high quality, healthful foods. If you've done a lot of endurance training but you find your body composition is not quite where you would like it to be, adopt weight training 3-4 days per week with moderate weights and start monitoring your food intake. For most folks simply eating a "real foods" based diet will be enough to evoke weight loss (cutting out prepackaged and junk foods and sugary beverages=eating healthier. For some of us, monitoring average caloric intake and lowering it to a point that facilitates weight loss is a necessity. Each individual is unique in regards to how much volume, frequency, and intensity they can handle but always keep your goal in mind and modify your training as your goals change.
- Don't try to do too much in one session
I noted above that variety throughout the week is important. Changing your weekly program every so often is important as well (every 4-6 weeks is reasonable). However don't try to overdo it with too much variety in one session or you will risk adding too much meaningless volume. Strive for quality over quantity. With exercise there is a bell shaped curve meaning if you don't do enough you won't see any progress but if you do too much you're not going to see more progress. If you find you can do something crazy like 12+ exercises in one session you're probably not working with a heavy enough load, and if you are, you're going to really drive yourself into the ground and impede timely recovery for your next session. The amount trainees can handle is highly individual but I generally recommend doing a upper body/lower body split or a body part split unless you're training three or less days per week, in which case you can train whole body and just cut down on the volume (e.g. only perform 2 work sets of each exercise, only 1 or 2 exercise per body part.)
And that's all folks! For good blog posts on strength training for women that are actually written by women check out the following:
Women Strength Training: Your Guide To A Sexy & Fit Body! by Nia Shanks (here)
The Flat Butt Fix by Dani Shugart (here)
Ladies, Rethink Your Leg Workouts also by Dani Shugart (here)
Basic Strength Training Principles by Eizabeth Quinn (here)