Gaining muscle mass won't turn you into a giant with manly features overnight, though building lean muscle can increase muscle definition and help you burn extra calories by raising your metabolic rate. Many women struggle to build substantial muscle, as they don't have the same amount of testosterone as men, writes Cassandra Forsythe in "The New Rules of Lifting for Women." This can be made even tougher of you have a fast metabolism. Worry not though, with the right approach to your diet, building muscle mass can turn from an arduous chore to an enjoyable challenge.
Count your calories. To gain lean body mass you need to eat more calories than you burn to give you energy to rebuild and grow new muscle. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that active women consume between 2,000 and 2,400 calories per day to maintain weight. So to gain weight, you'll probably need slightly more than this. Start with these figures, but be prepared to bump them up if you're not gaining.
Increase your carb intake. While carbs may be a dieter's worst nightmare, they've just become your best friend. Fail to replenish the carbs you lose from exercise, and you'll have no energy and no fuel to build muscle. Eat most of your carbs around your workouts and look for nutrient-dense sources such as brown rice, whole-wheat bread, fruits, vegetables and sweet potatoes.
Pack in the protein. Protein is vital for muscle repair. Women who strength train need 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, advises sports nutritionist Dr. John Berardi in "The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition." This means a 140-pound woman needs between 112 and 140 grams of protein each day. Look to lean red meat, poultry, low-fat dairy products, eggs or soy for your protein.
Weigh yourself and take progress photos once every couple weeks. If you've gained less than one-half pound, don't feel like you've gained muscle or haven't increased your strength, up your calorie intake slightly. If you've gained more than 1 pound or feel like you've gained substantial fat, drop your intake a little.
Train with weights three times per week. You can either hit your whole body in each session, or split your body up into a legs workout; a chest, shoulders and triceps workout; and a back and biceps workout. Use your workouts as a progress gauge too -- if you're getting stronger, it's likely you're gaining muscle. If your lifts aren't improving, you're probably not, so crank your calories up again.
Ask a qualified trainer to show you the form for basic multi-joint movements such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, bench and overhead presses, pulldowns, rows and dips. These should form the foundation of your routine. Stick to three sets of six to 10 reps on each exercise to gain muscle.
- Mayo Clinic: Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier
- The New Rules of Lifting for Women; Cassandra Forsythe and Lou Schuler; December 2007
- United States Department of Agriculture: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010
- The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition; Dr. John Berardi; 2009
- Check with your doctor before making any changes to your diet.
Mike Samuels started writing for his own fitness website and local publications in 2008. He graduated from Peter Symonds College in the UK with A Levels in law, business and sports science, and is a fully qualified personal trainer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist with accreditations from Premier Global International.