Are you a woman who wants to get strong, build muscle, and gain weight?
I’m not talking about “toning up” or “getting lean.” I’m talking about lifting heavy things and eating in a caloric surplus to pack on the muscle.
Now, before you freak out thinking you’re going to go from skinny chick to the Hulk, chill. Due to female hormones — namely less testosterone than men — it’s going to be rather difficult for you to build muscle, but not impossible!
That’s where this guide comes in — let’s get started.
The Foundation Of Every Weight & Muscle Gain Program
We will dig deep into each of these aspects in this article, but here are the basics.
Lift Heavy Stuff
To build muscle, you have to lift heavy things. Period. You can start with your bodyweight (especially if you’re a complete beginner), but in general, you’re going to need equipment at some point to build the kind of muscle we’re talking about.
Why? Because lifting weights creates microscopic tears in your muscle fibers.
Your body then repairs this damage, adding fibers — and thus strength and size — to the muscles so you can do the workout again.
Your body is amazing at adapting to stimulus. More on that later, but for now, get ready to pick up heavy things and put them back down again.
TL;DR: To build muscle, you need to be lifting heavy. Duh!
Eat Enough & Properly
The nutrition portion of this article might just be the most difficult to deal with, ladies.
For many women, our entire lives, we’ve heard and internalized messages about how we should be dieting, eating less, and always trying to be smaller. (If I could get my hands on whoever started the rumor that women should only eat 1200 calories per day….)
The truth is, to build muscle and gain weight, you need to eat enough. Many women have no idea what “enough” actually is — don’t worry, we’ll cover that in-depth.
For now, just know that you’re likely already not eating enough, and if you want to build muscle, you need to eat even more.
This might take some mental work for you, and that’s okay. Just imagine a future where you don’t care about being judged for eating an entire cheeseburger and fries to yourself. #LivingTheDream
TL;DR: Eat more food, and make sure it’s as healthful as you can make it.
Resting is vital for muscle building! Remember those microscopic tears we mentioned earlier? It’s not actually the lifting that’s building your muscle.
It’s the repair crew that comes after. That means your rest days are when your body is actually getting stronger.
It’s not just about your rest days, either. How long you rest between sets and reps will change your exercise outcome as well.
Oh, and don’t think we forgot about sleep. Sleep is your second most critical tool in building muscle (your nutrition is #1).
In addition, quality sleep helps your body repair itself, including everything from improving your heart health to regulating your blood sugar to reducing stress and inflammation. So get your sleep hygiene in gear.
TL;DR: When you’re resting, your body is repairing. Let it do so.
The key to building muscle and gaining weight is consistency. You can’t do a few squats here, a few push-ups there, watch your diet only 1 day per week, and expect to see results.
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to completely overhaul your life and make your every waking moment about fitness.
But, unfortunately, sweeping changes don’t last very long — humans just aren’t good at sustaining them.
Whatever habit you think will be easiest for you to maintain, start there. Once you’re consistent with that new habit, then add a second one.
Pretty soon, you’ll be regularly lifting heavy, eating high-quality food, and sleeping soundly. It all starts with one change.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to building muscle. The rest of that massive iceberg is underwater but don’t worry — we’re about to bring it to the surface.
TL;DR: To build muscle, you must be consistent and repeat the processes in this article.
Before You Dive In — Set A Goal
I’m not talking about a “I want to look like a Victoria’s Secret model” or “I want to get back to my high school weight” type goal.
I’m talking about SMART goals because you’re much less likely to stick with any meaningful change without a SMART goal.
“SMART” stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Based. A SMART goal looks like, “I will gain 2 pounds of lean muscle mass in 1 month by strength training 3 times per week” or “I will gain 0.5 pounds of lean muscle each week for 3 months by eating 100 grams of protein per day and lifting 3 times per week.”
- Specific: the exact amount of muscle you want to gain (2 pounds, 0.5 pounds)
- Measurable: you can use skin calipers or a smart scale to track your progress
- Achievable: the steps you’re taking that are do-able for your life (working out 3 times per week, eating 100 grams of protein per day)
- Realistic: you can’t go from couch potato to muscled goddess in a week, so keep your goal realistic (1 month, 3 months, etc.)
- Time-Based: you have a deadline that’s going to push you but that you can feasible meet
See how a SMART goal is so much more detailed than just an aesthetic or general goal? It’s so much more motivating.
TL;DR: Set a SMART goal because nothing breeds success like success.
Stage 1: Work It, Baby
We’ll divide the rest of this article into three sections: training, nutrition, and rest. Stage 1? Your training begins, padawan.
Go Heavy Or Go Home...
You’ve heard that saying before, right? When it comes to building muscle, it’s even more true.
You need to get out of your comfort zone and put some serious stimulus on your muscles. Notice I didn’t say “strain” — straining your muscles results in injury. You need to stimulate muscle growth, so pick up heavy weights.
Keep in mind “heavy” will be different for each person. If you’ve never picked up a weight before, a bodyweight squat might feel heavy for you. If you’ve been a cardio queen or Pilates powerhouse, you might start heavier.
How do you know where to begin? Well, we wrote an entire guide on that, but in general, start with your bodyweight or 5 pounds.
“But wait,” I hear you thinking, “Didn’t you just tell me to lift heavy?”
Yes, but you have to start with very low weights to ensure your form is solid. If your form is wrong and you add weight, you risk serious injury.
So, get a form check from a personal trainer or film yourself doing the basic moves (squat, deadlift, bench press, etc.) and compare to a reputable video online. Once you’re sure your form is solid, start adding weight.
How much you add will depend on your available equipment, but we recommend starting with dumbbells for most exercises. A barbell alone (no weight plates) is 45 pounds. So unless you’ve been training for a while, going from 5 pounds to 45 pounds is not a good idea.
Dumbbells come in smaller increments, so start there. Once you can easily complete 6–12 reps of each exercise with your chosen weight, it’s time to move up (more on how to know that below).
That might mean for a few workouts, as you’re getting a feeling for what you can lift, you don’t make quite as much progress. You might walk out of the gym (or your home workout area) feeling like you didn’t do much of anything, and that’s okay.
It’s MUCH better to start slowly with solid form than get injured and sidelined for weeks as you recover.
TL;DR: Start lifting with light weights with the goal of lifting heavy once you know your form is perfect.
…And Then Go Heavier
Alright, your form is on point, you’ve been lifting for a few weeks, and your weights are starting to feel easy. So how do you know when to add weight? How much should you add?
When you complete your repetitions feeling like you could’ve crushed 2 or 3 more at the end of each set, you’re likely okay to up the weight next time. This means you need to track your workouts, so you know what you lifted the time before.
Err on the side of adding about 2.5 pounds to each lift each time you feel ready. Again, it’s better to proceed slowly rather than load up the barbell and wind up crushed underneath it.
Now, at some point, you might max out your available weight (perhaps your dumbbell set only goes so high?). If that happens, there are a few ways to keep making progress:
- Add a half rep. For example, when doing a squat, go all the way down, come back up halfway, go all the way down again, and then stand fully back up.
- Add another set of your chosen reps.
- Shake up the types of sets you’re doing (pyramid, drop, etc. Details on that here.)
- Get creative with your equipment. Fill a backpack with books to add weight to your squats, for example.
The point is to keep your body in a state of continuous progressive overload. That means changing the sets, reps, or weight (as appropriate) to keep your body from adapting completely to the workout.
For example, if you’re bench pressing 80 pounds for 4 sets of 4 reps, that might start out pretty difficult. However, your body will build up those muscles and adapt to the exercise, so eventually, 4 sets of 4 reps at 80 pounds will be easy.
If you don’t change something, you don’t keep building muscle. That’s where progressive overload comes in — try 5 sets of 4 reps, 4 sets of 6 reps, or lifting 82.5 pounds for your 4x4.
TL;DR: Keep progressively overloading your muscles to make progress.
Go for Compound Exercises
A compound exercise is one that uses multiple joints. These moves recruit more of your muscles, meaning you don’t have to work quite so hard to get results. (The opposite of compound moves are isolation exercises like bicep curls.)
Compound exercises also help work the smaller muscles you can’t train directly. Think all the stabilizer muscles in your feet and knees that work to keep you balanced. Compound moves also usually automatically work your core (say goodbye to endless crunches!).
Here’s a short list of 5 of the most popular compound exercises you should include in your routine:
Deadlifts (Hip Hinge Movements)
When performed properly, deadlifts work out basically your entire body. Of course, they focus on the glutes and hamstrings, but this move also targets your forearms, lats, core stabilizers, and upper-, mid-, and lower back.
Basically, they’re excellent for working your posterior chain (every muscle on the back half of your body).
Ahhh, the powerful squat. This is another move that targets your quads and glutes but also hits your posterior chain and core stabilizers. Plus, squats are great for enhancing mobility in your hips, knees, and ankles.
Work toward achieving a full, deep squat where your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, if not deeper.
Any time you pick up something heavy and walk with it, you’re doing a loaded carry. You can do waiter’s carries where the weight is over your head (great for shoulder stability), or suitcase carries, where the weights are down by your sides (great for core stability).
These exercises also work your grip, back, arms, and legs.
Don’t worry if you can’t do a pull-up. There are plenty of ways to modify and/or build the strength to get there. And once you do, BAM — there’s nothing that makes you feel quite as powerful.
Pull-ups and chin-ups mostly target your lats and upper back, but when done correctly, they also hit your grip, shoulders, core, and pelvic floor.
Push-ups are an incredible full-body exercise, but you have to perform them correctly. Your spine must stay neutral, so if there were a broomstick laid down your back, it would touch only at the back of your head, your upper back, and your tailbone.
Push-ups work your arms, shoulders, lats, serratus muscles (outside your ribs, just below your armpits), core stabilizers, pecs, and glutes.
If you can’t do a full push-up yet, don’t start on your knees. Instead, start higher with an incline and work your way down to the floor.
TL;DR: Compound exercises work multiple muscles at once, so you get stronger faster.
Schedule Your Workouts
Like anything in your life, if you’ve scheduled it on paper, you’re more likely to get it done. Plus, working out at the same scheduled time each week builds consistency (which, as we established, is key to making progress).
Schedule your workouts (at least 2 strength training sessions per week, 3 is better), but don’t overdo it. We’ll dig into this more in the Rest stage, but space out your workouts so your muscles can recover between them.
TL;DR: A scheduled workout is a consistent workout.
Do the Right Amount of Sets and Reps
Again, we wrote an entire guide for this, but if your goal is to build muscle (called hypertrophy), you should be doing about:
- 3–5 sets of 6–12 reps
That’s a fairly wide range, so start with 4 sets of 8 reps each. Then adjust your sets and reps as you progress in your lifting journey.
Go for Free Weights and Barbells
The machines at the gym look fancy but try to avoid the temptation to rely on them. If you’re just starting out and need a gateway into lifting, you can use machines, but in general, they’re not as effective.
Why? Because they’re designed to be good at what they do — train a single muscle or group of muscles and nothing else.
For example, if you use a leg press machine instead of doing a dumbbell or barbell squat, you are targeting your quads and glutes. But what you’re missing out on is the core work, plus all those balancing muscles we talked about earlier.
TL;DR: Stick with dumbbells and barbells to make full-body progress more quickly.
Master the Proper Form
I can’t harp on this enough — you must have proper form during your lifts. It’s not only essential to avoid injury (though that’s a big one). If your form is sloppy, you won’t be targeting the muscles you’re trying to train.
For example, let’s say your deadlift form isn’t ideal. Instead of zeroing in on your hamstrings and glutes, your lower and upper back are doing most of the work. As a result, you can deadlift and deadlift and deadlift and never get any stronger in your lower body.
That’s a lot of wasted hours at the gym.
TL;DR: Master the proper form to avoid injury and train the muscles you’re targeting.
Train for Failure
Remember when we talked about adding more weight once you feel like you can do 2–3 more reps with ease? That’s part of what’s called training for failure.
“Failure” is usually a negative word, but when you train for failure, you’re actually doing a good thing. It means to lift heavy enough/for long enough that by the time you’re done with your sets and reps, you couldn’t possibly do another one with good form.
That’s the key — with good form. I’m not talking about training so hard that you’re exhausted, and your form fails. I’m talking about executing that final rep with the same precision and attention to form detail as your first one, AND not being able to do another rep after that.
Why should you train this way? Because training for failure maximizes muscle growth.
TL;DR: To maximize muscle growth, train each workout so you can’t do another rep with good form by the end.
Build Your Mind-Muscle Connection
The “mind-muscle connection” is when you deliberately think about moving the targeted muscle during your exercise. It’s been scientifically proven to help strengthen the muscle more than if you’re not doing so.
It’s about more than just paying attention or not zoning out. When you lift, you need to concentrate completely on the muscles you’re working. It’s about mentally connecting to the quality and intensity of the movement.
Practice this level of concentration with lighter weights so as you progress, it becomes second nature.
TL;DR: Mentally connect to the quality and intensity of the muscle moving the weight.
Skip the Cardio
If you hate cardio, hold off on celebrating for just a minute. I’m not saying do literally zero cardio because that’s not healthy for you. What I’m saying is cool it with the 60-minutes of steady-state jogging or swimming or whatever you do.
Instead, do only 20–30 minutes of cardio 2–3 times per week. When you do too much cardio, especially in conjunction with a lifting program, your body doesn’t have time to focus on rebuilding your muscles.
Think about it: if you lift heavy on Monday, go for an hour run on Tuesday, and wait to rest until Wednesday, your body doesn't have time to rebuild the muscles you worked at the beginning of the week. Those muscles got the bare minimum of repair before your body moved on to handling your cardio workout.
TL;DR: Let your muscles repair by keeping the cardio short and sweet.
Get a Workout Plan That’s Right for You
There are literally hundreds of workout plans you can find online. While some of these are effective, the fact is, the fitness world is filled with “get fit quick” schemes, supplements, and scams.
Your best bet is to work with a certified, professional trainer to design a workout plan that’s right for you. At your first meeting, they’ll usually perform some sort of assessment to see if there are any areas that need special attention (like if you struggle with hip mobility, for example).
Then, they work within your available equipment, time, and experience level to craft a program that’s tailored to you and your goals. You really can’t put a price on that level of customization, so do yourself a favor and start with a personal trainer.
TL;DR: Start with a personal trainer, even if only for a few sessions, so they can design a workout plan that’s tailored to you.
Stage 2: Eat, Eat, Eat, Repeat
90% of your ability to gain muscle and weight is going to depend on your nutrition. After all, you eat somewhere around 3 times per day (not including snacks), and you’re only lifting for about 45 minutes 3 times per week.
They say “you can’t out-train a bad diet” and ya know what — they’re right.
Figure Out Your Recommended Caloric Intake
I want to start this section with a small disclaimer: if tracking calories is triggering for you because you have a history of disordered eating or a clinical eating disorder, be careful with this.
Make sure it doesn’t toe into obsessive behaviors, and consider tracking your calories only under the supervision of a therapist or medical professional (if at all).
If macro counting or portion sizes work better for you, do those (more on those later).
That said, figuring out how much you need to eat per day to maintain your weight will help you figure out how much you need to add to get into a surplus.
And don’t worry, we’re going to cover exactly what to eat so you are, in fact, gaining muscle and not just adding water weight or fat (unless you need to add some fat, which is possible if you’re underweight).
We have a few resources for you to find your recommended caloric intake:
- Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) Calculator (an estimate of how many calories you use per day, including exercise): https://www.calculator.net/tdee-calculator.html
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) Calculator (an estimate of how many calories you use in a resting state, without exercise): https://www.calculator.net/bmr-calculator.html
Why should you know both? Remember how rest days are key to making progress? Use your BMR to figure out how much to eat on rest days. Use your TDEE to figure out how much to eat on exercise days.
It’s a good idea to use these numbers as averages or guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules. Nutrition labels aren’t 100% accurate anyway.
TL;DR: Find your TDEE and BMR, so you know how many calories to eat per day.
Then, Make Sure You’re In a Caloric Surplus
A caloric surplus means consuming more calories than you’re burning. Let’s look at an example.
Start with Your TDEE, then Add to it
Say I’m a 32-year-old, 5’4”, 130-pound woman with a moderate exercise level. According to the calculators above:
- My TDEE is 1882 calories per day
- My BMR is 1285 calories per day
Here’s why you should take those numbers as estimates: if I were to wake up and do literally nothing all day besides get up to use the bathroom then go straight back to lying motionless in bed, yes, my body would likely only use about 1280 calories for things like breathing, keeping my heart beating, brain function, etc.
Otherwise, 1200–1300 calories per day for anyone, let alone women, is WAY too low.
So, take that number and look at my TDEE of about 1800 calories per day. 1800 is more realistic for weight management or possibly weight loss, but we’re not talking about that in this article.
If I want to gain weight and muscle, I need a higher daily number. So, I’m going to add about 200–400 calories per day for a total of 2000–2200.
Now, that’s just a starting point. I’ll try that for two weeks, and if my measurement of choice hasn’t budged, I’ll up it by another 200, and so on.
TL;DR: Start with your TDEE, then add about 200–400 extra calories per day.
How to Divide that Throughout Your Day
In our example, you need about 2300 calories per day to build muscle. Let’s assume you have a 9–5 with a semi-normal eating schedule. With estimates, that can look like:
- Breakfast: 650 calories
- Mid-morning snack: 150 cals
- Lunch: 650 cals
- Afternoon snack: 150 cals
- Dinner: 650 cals
Or, if you don’t eat breakfast (which you should be doing, even just a piece of fruit on your way out the door) or prefer to eat more at dinner, try:
- Breakfast: 100 cals
- Mid-morning snack: 250 cals
- Lunch: 650 cals
- Afternoon snack: 150 cals
- Dinner: 1150 cals
Okay, the numbers are great, but what does it actually look like on your plate? Check this out:
- Breakfast: 1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt with fruit and almonds (~300 cals)
- Mid-morning snack: apple + peanut butter (~200 cals)
- Lunch: 3 oz grilled salmon on spinach salad with shredded cheddar, walnuts, and balsamic vinaigrette (~450 cals)
- Afternoon snack: large handful trail mix (~250 cals)
- Dinner: lean hamburger on a whole wheat bun topped with lettuce/tomato/etc., side of air-fried broccoli & cauliflower (~650 cals)
Of course, all those numbers are extremely approximate and based completely on the products you have on hand. But that sample day gets you around 1850 calories. That leaves you with about 450 calories to play with because we didn’t take into account creamer or sugar in your coffee, dressing on your burger, an after-workout protein shake, etc.
TL;DR: Find your total daily number of calories and divide them between the meals and snacks of your day according to your schedule and dietary needs.
Get Enough Protein
Now, how much of your daily calories should come from each nutrient? That’s called “macro counting,” with “macros” being the macronutrients protein, carbs, and fat.
So let’s start with protein.
Protein is made of amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of your body: your bones, skin, hair, and, yes, muscles. When you consume foods high in protein, your body breaks it down into these amino acids, which — you guessed it — your body uses to repair those tears in your muscle fibers we talked about earlier.
So to build muscle and gain weight, you have to get enough protein. How much is enough?
Most people will need to eat about 1.6–2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for maximum muscle building.
Where can you get this protein? I’m glad you asked — it just so happens we have both an extensive carnivorous and vegetarian/vegan set of resources for you.
Prefer the hand-size method? A serving of protein is about the size of your palm.
TL;DR: Aim for about 1.6–2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight per day.
Oh, and Carbs
Carbs are the main source of energy for your body. When you eat them, your body stores them as glycogen which it then uses to fuel your workouts.
Ladies, that’s good news — if you’ve been afraid of carbs, now is the time to stop.
Carbs are absolutely your friend if you want to gain weight and build muscle. You just can’t complete a tough weight lifting workout as well if you’re on a low-carb diet.
Now, some folks follow the keto diet or a different low-carb option because they feel better and/or have more energy when they do. You do you if that’s the case.
But if you’re following a low-carb diet because you’ve bought into the fitness industry’s claims that pizza is “bad” and cauliflower is “good,” that stops now. (No judgment, we’ve all been there. Just consider this your permission slip, if you need one, to stop believing such nonsense.)
Okay, so we’ve un-demonized carbs. How many do you need in your day?
Most major health organizations recommend anywhere from 45–65% of your daily caloric intake should come from carbs.
So if you’re eating 2300 calories per day, on the lower end of the spectrum, that’s about 1035 calories from carbs. 4 calories of carbs = 1 gram, so you’re looking at about 258 grams of carbs per day.
Keep in mind not all carbs are created equal. While no food is “good” or “bad” (it’s all just food), some carbs are processed more efficiently by your body. I’m talking whole wheat and whole grain options, so err on the side of those instead of, say, fruit juice.
Want that hand-size reference again? Try 1–2 cupped cooked handfuls at each meal.
TL;DR: Carbs are your friend now. Aim for anywhere from 45–65% of your calories to come from whole grain and complex carbs.
Don’t Avoid Fats
The fitness world loves to demonize carbs and fats, switching off which one is “bad” for you at the drop of a barbell. I’m here to tell you — yes, again — that neither of them is bad. You just need to choose healthy fats and eat them in moderation. Same as carbs (and heck, even protein).
Your body prioritizes carbs for energy during your workouts. However, for slower or steady-state activities, it turns to fats. 1 gram of fat has more than double the energy of 1 gram of carbs.
So, healthful fats have a solid place in your diet. How much do you need? Aim for anywhere from 20–35% of your daily calories from fat. Using the same type of calculation as carbs, there are 9 calories in 1 gram of fat, so you can figure out your daily needs.
Or, that hand-size method is super convenient: aim for a serving about the size of the tip of your thumb at each meal.
Where do you find these healthful fats? Avocados, olive oil, fatty fish, and raw nuts and seeds are great places to start.
TL;DR: Fat is your friend now, too. Aim for 20–35% of your daily calories to come from healthful fats.
Track Your Calories
We’ve talked a lot about calories in this article, so you gotta be tracking them (again, if it’s safe for you to do so). There are dozens upon dozens of apps for this, so download a few and see which one you like best.
If tracking calories isn’t your thing, try tracking macros in the percentages we listed above. Or, if that’s too much, go for the hand-size serving method.
Above all, remember — food is not your enemy. Food is many things (fuel for your workouts, enjoyment with family, a celebration of your culture, etc.), but it is not your enemy.
TL;DR: Calorie tracking is usually best, but if it’s not for you, find another way.
Use Supplements… if You Feel You Must
To be clear: it’s 100% possible to build muscle without supplements of any kind. However, if you have a particular dietary need or really struggle to get enough protein, there are two supplements to consider.
If you have a crazy busy schedule, are vegan/vegetarian, or favor convenience over everything else, protein powder can be a lifesaver to help you reach your daily goal.
Make sure you look for one that has ingredients you can pronounce, contains whole foods, and has at least 15 grams of protein per serving.
One of the best things about protein powder is how versatile it is. You can blend it into smoothies, mix it into your yogurt, or even bake with it. Try replacing about ⅓ of the flour in your recipe with protein powder and see how your favorite recipe turns out!
Creatine is another potential supplement to include in your diet. Creatine is your body’s source of energy for muscle contraction. About half of your body’s supply comes from meat sources and half from your liver. That means vegetarians and vegans especially can benefit from creatine supplementation when trying to build muscle.
TL;DR: Prioritize wholesome nutrition over-supplementation, and you’re likely fine. The only two you should do extensive research on before adding them to your nutrition are protein powder and creatine.
Do NOT Follow Fad Diets
Unfortunately, the diet industry is overwhelmed with fad diets. Whether it’s the carnivore diet or the latest lemon juice-and-cayenne-pepper cleanse, it can be easy to fall for the latest gimmick or Instagram ad.
Do not do this. I can’t stress this enough — do not do this. The next time you’re tempted to launch yourself into a new detox or follow the promises of that Instagrammer who’s touting her six-pack with no effort, resist.
This may be easier said than done, but here’s a trick: whatever it is you saw that sparked your desire to try whatever diet, walk away. Put away your phone, close your laptop, turn off your TV, or tell your evangelical friend to cool it, and literally walk away.
Take at least 30 minutes to really think about what you saw. Even better, run it through a few educated searches. Add “site:org” or “site:edu” to the beginning of your Google search, so you get only scientifically-backed results.
If you can’t find anything, it’s a fad, and you can move on.
TL;DR: Fad diets do WAY more harm than good. Separate yourself from the source that made you think you should follow it, and don’t look back.
What to Eat Before Your Workout
This could be an entire article on its own, but here’s a quick-and-dirty guide: work out 100% fasted or with a small complex carb + protein snack about 1 hour before your workout.
Some people do well with fasted workouts, and some don’t. The only way to know is trial-and-error. For example, if you prefer to do your workout first thing after waking up, fasted is likely a good choice. Or, if you try a fasted workout and struggle to do moves you otherwise crush, your body needs more fuel.
If you need fuel, choose complex carbs + protein. Think: banana + peanut butter or whole-wheat toast + hard-boiled egg.
TL;DR: Try fasted or a complex carb + protein about 1 hour before your workout.
What to Eat After Your Workout
Again, this could be an entire article on its own, but in general, similar principles apply: prioritize complex carbs, protein, and veggies.
Try a spinach salad with roast chicken, whole wheat pasta with tofu, or a shake with frozen fruit, protein powder, and kale.
Science loves to go back and forth on whether or not timing your nutrition is worth anything. You might have heard you “need” to consume a certain amount of protein within 45 minutes of your workout, but honestly, that’s up to you.
I’d recommend the same research you use for investigating fad diets. Use .org or .edu sites and compare at least 4 different sources before you make a decision.
TL;DR: Prioritize protein, complex carbs, and veggies post-workout.
Stage 3: Rest And Recover
Rest Between Sets and Reps
In general, rest minimally, if at all, between reps. Between sets, rest at least 2 minutes. You should be lifting heavy enough you need 2 full minutes between your sets (if not 3) to recover enough to tackle the next one.
Rest Between Workout Days
Make sure to rest 48 hours between working specific muscles. You need to give your body time to rebuild the muscles you’ve worked before you work them again.
Rest at Night
Remember earlier when we told you sleep was important? You absolutely need to get that in gear. You might know these tips, but if you don’t, start now:
- End all screen time 1 full hour before bed. Turn off the TV, your phone, and your computer. Instead, try reading a book, doing meditation, journaling, or taking a bath.
- Reduce or eliminate your alcohol consumption, at the very least, on nights before your workouts.
- Stop caffeine at about 3pm (if you’re sensitive to it).
- Keep your bedroom as cool and dark as possible.
- Keep your bed for sex and sleep and nothing else. Your brain learns habits based on where you do them — if you’re constantly doing other things in bed, it will be more difficult for your brain to remember sleep happens there.
- If you struggle to quiet your brain, keep pen and paper (no screens!) beside your bed to jot down any nagging thoughts. Or, look into sleep-guided meditation apps that don’t require you to look at your phone.
- If it’s really bad, consider over-the-counter treatments like melatonin, but be careful with these and always check with your doctor first.
Sleep hygiene is another issue that can take an entire article, but try these tips to see how you can improve your rest at night.
TL;DR: Rest between sets, between workout days, and make sure your sleep is in order.
Wrapping It Up
Ladies, first of all — congratulations on bucking society’s expectations that you shouldn’t take up space or be muscular. That alone is a huge accomplishment and one worth celebrating.
To get there, set a goal, lift heavy, eat enough calories, and rest accordingly. Pretty soon, you’ll be crushing heavy lifts and helping other women to get there, too.