Not all women want to “bulk up.” This is understandable. But over the years, there has been a change, not only in the research showing why building muscle is more metabolically effective but also in society’s perception of women who exhibit a strong physical look. More and more, the look of tight, toned muscles is being seen as the height of femininity and attractiveness; think Jessica Biel or Jennifer Garner. Women who build muscle can guard not only their own safety but also their health.
Why build muscle?
The amount of lean muscle mass that a woman possesses is directly related to the favorability of her body composition. For example, take 2 women who each weigh 150 lbs. One woman is 20 percent body fat, while the other is 40 percent body fat. The woman with the lower body fat possesses more lean muscle mass and is therefore the healthier and more fit.
Having a body fat percentage above 30 percent means an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, not to mention it’s considered “obese.” Increasing lean muscle mass is the perfect way to combat obesity. Furthermore, muscle tissue burns calories at rest; it’s very metabolically active. Muscles use calories to maintain existence, and to burn even more calories when active.
Fat tissue, on the other hand, is fairly sedentary, burning a scant 2-5 calories/day/lb as opposed to muscle’s 30-50 calories/day/lb at rest. With a significant amount of muscle tissue, a woman’s basal metabolic rate can be significantly increased, not to mention skyrocket during activity since more muscle is available to do work and therefore burn more fat and calories for fuel.
Why weight train?
Many gym rats are drawn toward cardio equipment and will spend hours on the elliptical, treadmill or bike in last-ditch efforts to lose weight.
Cardiovascular activity can certainly be useful in calorie burning, but typical steady-state, endurance-based cardio does not impart a metabolic boost or build muscle or tone. For example, not only have long-duration jogging and cycling been shown to be inferior modes of weight loss, but they also maintain a person’s former version of themselves: a smaller pear shape rather than a large pear shape. Without weight training, a person’s frame and shape will remain the same, with little muscle, definition or cut.
Furthermore, the calories burned during longsustained aerobic exercise are absolute. Once you get off the machine, there is relatively little afterburn. But weight training has been shown in research to be the best way to increase the number of calories burned postexercise. The metabolic effect (or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) that’s earned through a single, intense weight-training bout has the potential to keep an individual burning fat and calories at an accelerated rate for up to 24 hours post-exercise! Following a weight training workout, your body uses calories and fat to replace fuel stores lost during exercise and shuttle blood and metabolites around for tissue repair, all of which are ongoing post-workout.
Lifting weights also improves bone mineral density. Lifting a weight forces muscles to contract and pull on the muscle’s insertion points that attach to bones, creating joint movement. It’s this pulling that actually activates new bone growth. Thus, lean muscle mass is invaluable for women of all ages – and oh, it looks good too! Weight training, along with sound muscle-building nutrition, is the only way to build significant muscle mass.
Your muscle-building workout
It’s not enough to simply pick up some weights and lift them. There are certain protocols and programs that work best for women simply because a woman’s hormonal environment only allows her to build so much muscle. Testosterone and growth hormone are important metabolic messengers that, when released during intense weight training, can have a significant effect on muscle building.
By nature, women have much less testosterone than men. High testosterone production allows for significant increases in lean body mass. Because women have less than men, they must weight train a certain way to increase it naturally and harness its power into muscle building. Growth hormone is also an anabolic (musclebuilding) hormone that is released in response to intense weight training and contributes not only to muscle building but also to fat burning, mineralization of bone and immune system function.
Building muscle size, or hypertrophy, is a science that requires 2 types of exercise protocols, as well as progressive resistance. The first exercise protocol called myofibrillar hypertrophy, involves using relatively heavy weight and performing sets of 2 to 8 repetitions to increase the quantity and size of the muscle’s contractile apparatuses, developing a larger limb. A person should reach close to the point of mechanical failure by the seventh or eighth repetition; in other words, the weight should be too heavy to lift.
This provoking of failure increases testosterone release and increases microtrauma to the muscle fibers. Microtrauma is the generation of small muscle tears during weight training and is the basis for hypertrophy. When this occurs, the muscle repair process effectively replaces the damaged muscle with stronger and larger tissue so that the tissue can withstand that same stress load in the future. Progressive resistance, or increasing resistance as the workouts progress, allows for the muscles to handle increased workloads and continually create micro-tears in the muscles to increase mass. To perform a myofibrillar hypertrophy protocol, perform 4- 6 sets (2-8 reps each) and rest 1-2 minutes in between sets. Here’s an example of an upper-body workout for an intermediate female exerciser:
The second useful protocol elicits sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, an increase in sarcoplasmic fluid within muscle cells, allowing muscles to grow and appear larger. This type of training yields the greatest strength gains in beginners and is used to prime one’s neuromuscular system, leading to fast gains in strength within the first couple weeks of training.
The sarcoplasmic hypertrophy protocol calls for 12- 15 repetitions per exercise, 4 sets total, with 1 minute or less of rest in between sets. This is an extremely voluminous workout that moves quickly and yields an aerobic component as a result. The best way to do this program is to choose 3-4 exercises and perform them back to back in circuit fashion. You may work synergistic muscle groups (increases workout difficulty) or opposing muscle groups. Here’s an example of a typical circuit for an intermediate female trainee:
This type of training does not induce mechanical failure as quickly, but instead elicits a muscular burning that signals a rise in lactic acid that needs clearance, eventually inducing failure that way. This type of failure (metabolic) releases more growth hormone, likewise necessary for muscle building.
The final aspect is the rest needed to repair and build larger, stronger muscles. Many fitness experts advise 48 hours. However, for best results, allow at least 72 hours between these intense weight training programs outlined here. Longer rest days between workouts will allow muscles to fully recover, as well as help the trainee push even harder the next workout. Too many workouts in a row will ultimately lead to muscle overtraining, which inevitably leads to muscle breakdown.
Your muscle building diet
Building lean muscle mass is impossible without correct nutrition. Interestingly, it’s fairly easy to eat for muscle gain since both calories and carbohydrates are needed in large quantities. However, to prevent fat gain while building lean muscle, a specific nutrition plan is needed: Maximize muscle building and minimize fat storing. Preworkout (60-90 minutes prior), consume a small meal containing both carbohydrates and protein (close to a 50-50 ratio). This type of snack will make energy available to assure an intense workout, but will limit fat-storing potential. An example is a small bowl of natural oatmeal with 1-half scoop of whey protein powder and 1-2 tbsp of natural peanut butter.
The art of hypertrophy, however, lies mostly in an individual’s post-exercise nutrition. Post-exercise, carbohydrate intake is critical, ideally within the first 30 minutes after weight training. During intense exercise, blood glucose and usually glycogen stores are depleted and need to be replenished. At the same time, muscle breakdown occurs, which merits substantial protein intake also.
The goal of a post-workout, muscle-building meal is to deliver protein to muscles for repair and reinforcement while also replenishing muscle glycogen. Exercise itself is a catabolic act, breaking down muscle and using up fuel reserves; consuming lean protein and high-quality carbs post-workout will allow the body to remain anabolic.
Immediately following exercise, the body is in a depleted state and muscle tissue will devour anything that can be used for fuel: muscles are sponge-like at this point and careful consideration should be given to food choices. Whey protein is 1 of the most quickly absorbed types of protein. Other options include egg whites, ground beef and even milk. A carbohydrate source should be insulinogenic, since insulin accelerates protein uptake by the muscles and facilitates muscle growth. Good carbohydrate sources post-workout include simple-sugarcontaining foods such as honey and bananas.
Other factors affecting muscle building
Many women claim that they bulk up quickly, but not surprisingly, it’s actually not all that easy for women to put on substantial muscle because of our hormonal makeup. In addition to exercise and nutrition, there are other tools and techniques that assist the body’s ability to build lean muscle mass. Sleep is powerful in releasing growth hormone. In fact, growth hormone levels cycle up and down throughout the day, and 1 of the peak times of growth hormone release is within an hour after falling asleep. Get at least eight hours of sleep every night to maximize growth hormone’s muscle-building potential.
Consumption of dietary protein outside of pre- and post-workout meals is beneficial in maintaining muscle mass. Certain supplemental complexes have been shown to increase muscle size and strength, including creatine, glutamine and arginine. Cribb et al. showed that a creatine and carbohydrate supplement significantly increased muscle fiber size in participants performing resistance training over a carbohydrate-only supplement (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 39 ).
Along with stimulating the release of growth hormone, glutamine is an anabolic amino acid whose muscle stores limit the amount of muscle mass that can possibly be generated. Anyone trying to build muscle will need to make this amino acid available to the muscles (0.5 mg of glutamine per kilogram of body weight). Finally, the amino acid arginine has been shown to trigger the release of somatotropin upon supplementation. Somatotropin is an insulin-like growth factor stimulating protein (i.e., muscle) synthesis. It likewise facilitates growth hormone release.
“Just right for a woman”
Weight training and smart, sound nutrition form the cornerstone of a woman’s muscle-building potential. No supplement, amount of sleep or endless aerobics classes will do the trick if these measures are not in place. Once they are, however, liberal consumption of lean protein maintains healthy muscle tone and mass. Remember to train heavy, train to failure and use both exercise protocols outlined here to ultimately reap big, bulky benefits in building lean muscle tissue and, in effect, a stronger, healthier, leaner you!