There are a couple of “misconceptions” that women have with seeing results and starting their nutrition journey.
The first is having opposite goals but wanting them simultaneously. “I want to lose weight and build muscle.” Sound familiar? This is one of the most common answers I receive from almost anyone when I ask what their nutrition goal is. Most of the time, these answers are coming from women who have been told their entire lives to just be smaller and that everything comes from losing weight. At the same time, they want definition and “toning up” as I often hear and therefore feel like they should probably have some muscle as well. Truth of the matter is that these are entirely different goals and need entirely different approaches and that unless you’re a very novice athletes, it’s very difficult to achieve BOTH a muscular/toned physique and weight loss at the same time.
The second issue is the constant and sole need for weight loss, when the obvious and necessary answer is just the opposite. I think it’s a common misconception that the answer to everything is losing weight and going into a deficit. That, in order to achieve a muscular physique, all you have to do is lose the fat covering it. While this may be true for SOME people, it’s not the case for everyone, especially females, who’ve never put their muscles under any sort of progressive overloading stimulus to grow and develop. Most women grow up living on the cardio train...which although has numerous benefits, doesn’t provide much of a suitable environment for muscle growth. In order to have a defined/lean/toned body comp, you need muscle, which requires putting your muscles in the right environment to grow....and that environment is NOT a weight loss phase.
The best example is the body type “skinny-fat”. Now, I hate that word, but it does provoke the right image. You know exactly what I’m talking about, either from having that exact body image or knowing someone who does. It’s the person who is thin...but still could be deemed as “overweight” by having a relatively high bodyfat percentage or a lack of definition. Most females, especially having lived on the cardio train for years, are in this position where they are thin and realistically don’t have much (if any) weight at all to lose...but still desire body comp changes like a more lean and defined physique. The solution for anyone who is “skinny-fat” is 100% muscle gain all the way.
The overlying theme of this is that, for most females, there comes a time where losing weight isn’t going to bring all of one’s desired results. Especially nowadays where “thicc” is desired and people are trying to get bigger proportions, adding on size is entirely necessary and GOOD for you!
Today’s article is all about the time where women should forego losing weight and instead, do just the opposite...gain weight and build muscle.
The reason this is catered specifically to women is that nutrition for females during a gaining phase is slightly different compared to their male counterparts. Most males don’t struggle with building muscle, at least mentally. Physically, they may struggle until they start following a suitable nutrition plan, but once they’re on that plan, it really isn’t all that difficult. The attachment to the scale isn’t as big and most look forward to adding size and building strength. This isn’t to say that everything is easy for males, just different. Females, most at least, have some sort of attachment to the scale and to the connotation of “building muscle.” Most have fears related to building muscle, lifting weights, and gaining weight, so it takes an experienced coach to guide them and support them through the process. Today’s article hopefully teaches you an approach suitable to building muscle as a female.
This is how I put all of my female clients through gaining phases to ensure they’re seeing results but also staying in a positive and rewarding mindset. One of the biggest myths about gaining weight is that you have to be miserable when gaining weight...this is 100% not the case!
So without further ado, let’s dive into it!
For nutrition, this is similar to all articles and methods I’ve suggested before, but with a bit of an extra flair or consideration!
The FIRST, and maybe even only, step is going to eat at maintenance. Most females are NOT eating at maintenance...so that is going to be the first step. Maintenance is determined by multiplying your bodyweight by 13-15 OR by calculating your BMR (can find online with any calculator) and multiplying it by an activity factor (x1.35-1.45). This gives you the number of calories you need to eat to fuel all the amazing processes going on in your body. Your body does a ton of stuff...if you’re not fueling it, you’re never going to be in a suitable environment to build muscle.
What’s different here than with a generic “bulk” you could find on the internet or bulking macro calculator?? A generic approach is going to put anyone in a surplus...as you can see, this may not even be necessary. Seeing that most females aren’t even eating at maintenance, we don’t even need to worry about eating more than that. Especially if you’re following a good training program, you don’t need to worry about going into a surplus. If maintenance is the most you’ve ever eaten, let that do the trick FIRST before worrying about throwing in a ton of extra calories that’s going to make you feel like garbage.
Now if you are eating at maintenance, then to optimize your lean muscle gains and to promote and encourage muscle growth, you will then need to bump up calories 50-100 calories. For females, I generally start at 50 calorie increases. Bump up 50 calories and monitor your weight. If you see a steady increase (even by as little as 0.2lb), then hold there until the weight stops increasing or drops. Then increase another 50 calories. This prevents significant amounts of fat gains and prioritizes lean muscle gains a little bit more.
Where is this food coming from?
By now, you should know you should be eating bodyweight of protein. Fats should be at a minimum of 0.2g/lb bodyweight. The rest will come from your carbohydrates. If you’ve never calculated your macro intake, then download my nutrition guide that is going to teach you just how to do that. To download the guide for free, enter the promocode “NomNom” when you check out. When you add in calories, the majority of that addition should be calories coming from extra carbohydrates. Surplus of fats likely results in those fats being stored as body fat whereas carbs will primarily go towards replenishing muscle glycogen, promoting muscle growth!
The last note on nutrition is to make sure you’re eating starchy carbs!!! Don’t JUST eat fruits and veggies. Starches and grains are GOOD FOR YOU. Gluten is fine. Potatoes are fine. Bread and bagels are fine!!!
Usually when building muscle, 80/20 whole foods to processed foods can sometimes mean you’re eating a bit too much food...so feel free to drop that to 70/30 or 75/25 so you can eat the carbs necessary to encourage lean muscle gains.
It is 100% imperative that women lift weights. For a full complete guide to training, check out a recent blog post I wrote detailing how to write the most effective training program.
Your best to follow a 4-5 day lifting program, where you’re lifting exclusively 4-5 days out of the week and working in 4-6-week blocks or training cycles. The key on muscle growth is focusing on progressive overload, meaning you’re progressing on your training each week, building on either the weight or the reps you did the prior week. This is the key to building muscle and strength. Going to the gym and hitting the same lift for the same reps at the same weight isn’t the key to building muscle. You have to increase the stimulus to encourage muscle growth and definition. Make sure to deload after each cycle/block!
The keys here for a training program is to hit a major compound lift each day. For example, a 5-day training program could look like: squat – bench – deadlift – press – total. If you enjoy some Olympic lifting, instead you could organize your week as such: snatch – squat – clean & jerk – deadlift – press. You’re then going to want some accessory work specific to each movement or muscle group. Most of this is detailed in my guide to writing your own training program in addition to examples for exercises.
Now for the female flair. Adding in metabolic finishers and utilizing circuits in your training.
Females tend to respond better to training programs and workout routines that have a bit higher intensity and get the heart pumping. There are physiological reasons for this and societal reasons. Especially for women coming off the cardio train, these are great additions to your training to help women feel like they’re still “doing cardio” without actually doing cardio. Most males don’t care or even want to do a post-lifting HIIT session, whereas most females are more inclined and actually enjoy those quick additions.
There are a couple ways to do this...
The simplest way is adding a 5-15 minute HIIT finisher on a cardio machine of your choosing. For the 5-15 minutes (you choose), you will go all out 110% effort for 15-20s then recover for 60-90s at a 20-30% effort. The key is that you have enough time to feel ~90% recovered. I would only do this 2-3 days/week, not after every training session.
Another way is to incorporate some “CrossFit-esque” metcons (“metabolic conditioning”) at the end of your training. This could be 3-4 rounds @ 80% effort of 150m row followed by 20 wall balls or DB thrusters or a 10 minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible in 10 minutes) of 100 jump ropes/mountain climbers + 10 burpees + 10 box jumps/step ups + 1’ plank. The key is you’re varying the exercises and utilizing some cardio through these mini workouts.
Circuits are a great way to save time and increase the intensity of your training without having to add in cardio.
Circuits combine your primers or your accessory/isolated exercises into one big working set. You generally want to leave the compound lift (what you’re lifting the heaviest) outside of your circuit. Say you’re on a squat day and your accessory movements are Bulgarian split squats, hip thrusts, and seated box jumps. Instead of doing your 3 sets of split squats, followed by your 3 sets of hip thrusts, then your box jumps, you’d do 3 big working sets of your split squats, hip thrusts, and box jumps all bunched together.
Another great way of utilizing circuit training is putting opposite movement patters and muscle groups together. Push/pull is a great example. Have a circuit of tempo push ups with pull ups or ring rows!
There are a number of mental challenges and obstacles when it comes to eating enough food and lifting weights. If this is a massive struggle, then I would highly consider hiring a coach to 1. keep you accountable and 2. guide you through the process so you’re not second guessing everything you’re doing!
Now for some of the obstacles to push through:
LIFTING WILL NOT MAKE YOU BULKY.
Getting “bulky” requires some serious food, heavy weights (and by heavy...I mean heavy), and some fantastic genetics. It’s something that takes YEARS to do.
There are two very amazing and skilled athletes who prove this point: Mattie Rogers and Katherine Nye. Both are Olympic weightlifters who were forced to switch from the 69kg category to the 76kg category (the 69kg category was removed from the Olympics weight classes). For the best chance to medal, they both have had to gain weight over the past year to 76kg. Both have been inhaling food over the past year or so...and have only managed to increase to 71kg. They now have to undertake a massive job of increasing their weight by Tokyo 2020 to that 76kg weight class.
What are the lessons you can learn from these two women??? Kate Nye won Worlds this year with a 246lb snatch (world record) and a 300lb clean and jerk. Now you may not know what those lifts mean...but simply just let the numbers I just said sink in...Now go look them up...both are incredibly lean and by no means what would be classified as “bulky”...and this is after A YEAR of massive amounts of food to build weight!!!! Take this as your proof that eating food and lifting weights is going to make you look manly. Here are two women who lift more than 99% of males who are still incredibly lean with incredible body comps...and they’re TRYING to add weight and it’s taken them a full year to add just a few pounds.
You can lift your weights and not gain weight or become bulky...I promise. IF you don’t believe me, send Mattie Rogers a DM on Instagram and ask her how hard it’s been to add weight to 71kg.
Lifting weights won’t explode those muscles of yours...instead, they’ll just actually define those muscles and give you the body comp YOU want to have!
FOCUS ON OTHER WINS
The scale isn’t your only marker of success!!!! I wish I could engrain that every woman’s mind.
So many times I receive a check in that says “I PR’d my squat, I’m sleeping through the night, I have more energy than I’ve had in years, I’m actually hungry on occasion, and my cravings are gone...but really upset I gained a lb...don’t know if I should stick with your plan anymore. I don’t think it’s for me.”
I am always left shaking my head and honestly baffled. More than that, I get incredibly upset and frustrated at the societal dependence on a scale. Society has engrained in women’s minds that their worth is their weight. They’ve caused women to fixate on a stupid number and have brainwashed them into ignoring the million other things that has changed and improved.
You might gain weight. IT MIGHT HAPPEN. You might need to gain weight...
If you are attached to the scale, then throw it out and celebrate all the other amazing wins out there...like that PR or the fact you can get through a workout or the fact that what you see in the mirror is a strong, beautiful defined woman looking back at you. Celebrate the improved energy. Celebrate the freedom you feel around food.
Who cares what a number says if all of that is going on??
STRONG IS BEAUTIFUL
Nothing makes me feel better about myself than lifting weights. I feel a sense of confidence I never used to have...and that was exclusively due to the added weight training. It's an amazing feeling knowing that I can move my furniture or help someone carry a heavy table or throw my suitcase up in the overhead bin on an airport or anything that requires strength without the help of someone.
Building strength and muscle is a very rewarding thing and looking strong and healthy is a great way to love your body and what you see in the mirror. If you've never done it, give it a shot and notice how GOOD and satisfying you feel when you do it.
If you're a female and ready to take your fitness and nutrition to the next level and TRULY change your body to its best and strongest self, hire a coach who is going to help you get there. This is the most rewarding thing I get to do with my female clients and truly is why I started my business.
Resources and Coaching:
Online Coaching here.
[Free] Nutrition Guide here.
Recipe & Macro Guide here.