As women, we have been conditioned for decades that our place in a gym are cardio machines, and moving heavy weights and growing muscle is for the big guys.
Fortunately, this mindset is rapidly shifting! We love seeing more and more women hitting the free weights section at the gym, and performing lots of strength-building exercises as opposed to spending 100% of their session in the cardio zone.
Move With Us coach Rachel Dillon can relate: "I am especially celebrating this as I’ve been there myself! For the longest time, I was your typical cardio bunny, eating very little, doing lots of cardio and being very confused as to why this approach isn’t getting me any closer to my dream physique. Much has changed since then, and I couldn't be more satisfied with the results I've been able to achieve."
So, what's the key change Rachel has implemented? The answer is building lean muscle...but for many women, embarking on this journey can be intimidating.
You may want to build shape - but what if you gain too much fat? How do you know if your nutrition approach is correct? For how long do you need to follow the muscle gain protocol for? It’s a lot to consider!
Those who take the leap, however, tend to be very happy about their results - just like our client Melissa, who has chosen the Muscle Gain option several times throughout her journey!
We have created this guide to help you make an informed decision and hopefully inspire you to factor in a building phase into your programming. Let’s get right into it and chase some serious gains!
How to approach building muscle
When it comes to putting on lean muscle, there are several important rules to adhere to throughout your journey.
#1 Consume enough calories
You may have heard that to build muscle, you need to “eat in a calorie surplus”.
What it means is that you need to consume more calories than you burn throughout the day - or else your body will not have the necessary “building blocks” for muscle growth. While it’s not entirely impossible to build muscle in a calorie deficit or maintenance, it’s incredibly difficult and taxing on the body.
Simply put, when you’re eating under your energy requirements, creating lean muscle is - to say the least - not your body’s priority (it’s too busy trying to conserve energy and keep you at an optimal level of functioning overall). So, eating slightly above your maintenance calories is a much more efficient strategy.
There are different approaches to exactly how much you should increase your intake by, but for women anywhere between 5-10% on top of maintenance calories tends to be a good starting point! For example, for someone whose maintenance calories sit around 2000, an initial target for muscle gain could be between 2100-2200 calories. If one’s current intake is significantly under maintenance, a reverse dieting protocol can be implemented to reach the desired target.
#2 Distribute macros wisely
While calories are a very important consideration, your macronutrient split is something you need to approach wisely, too!
You want to consume around 1.5-2.2 g of protein per kg of your body weight each day to stimulate muscle growth and recovery (if desired, this amount can be increased - but this won’t necessarily give you more muscle building benefits).
The rest of your calories are to be distributed between carbs and fats. For most women, around 55-70 g of fat per day is a good range to aim for, and the rest of your intake would be allocated to carbs.
And while we’re at it, restricting carbohydrates is a very bad idea when trying to build muscle, as moderate to high carbohydrate intake helps both performance and gains! When reaching substantial surplus in my Programs, our clients typically eat between 250-400 g of carbs per day, depending on their preference, physique and goals - and this is one of the contributing factors for their amazing results.
Above: our client Tahlia demonstrating amazing results from following our Muscle Gain protocols
#3 Train Hard
When training for muscle gain, you need to keep constantly challenging yourself by applying progressive overload. This means implementing a gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during training.
Some ways to achieve progressive overload include:
- Increasing the number of sets you perform
- Upping the number of reps in each set
- Or applying more resistance to perform an exercise.
Variety is key, and our coach Rachel shares a little tip: "While adding more resistance (i.e. upping the weights) is the most well-known progressive overload method, I like utilising all options equally when creating training protocols! This ensures that each of the components gets emphasized in different workouts, which means more training variety and ultimately, better results."
#4 Use mind-muscle connection
While focusing on building muscle, you need to be especially focused and purposeful when completing your sessions.
Don’t just “go through the motions” - this results in a mediocre workout, and can even increase your risk of injuries if you’re working with higher weight ranges. Instead, place your entire focus on the muscle groups you’re targeting, and purposefully go through every phase of the movement! You will feel those muscles “switching on” much quicker, and maintain much better form throughout, maximising the benefits of your session.
#5 Don’t neglect rest and recovery
Recovery is NOT optional - especially when you’re incorporating some seriously challenging workouts into your schedule in order to build lean muscle!
Always plan your sessions in a way that allows ample recovery before targeting that body part again, don’t make your sessions longer than they need to be, and instead of adding endless exercises, perform a reasonable number of sets but give those your ALL.
We recommend incorporating at least 1 complete rest day each week, during which you should not be performing any high impact activities.
Let your body rest and recover - and you will be rewarded with boosted results and amazing energy levels!
#6 Get enough sleep
Speaking of recovery, sleep deprivation is one of your worst enemies when it comes to muscle growth.
It’s a double-edged sword, affecting both your body’s ability to build muscle tissue and reducing your strength, reducing the chances of you being able to successfully implement progressive overload.
Add reduced concentration and low energy levels to the mix - and you are pretty much depriving yourself of any opportunities to have a safe and effective workout.
For most people, 7-9 hours each day is a good amount of sleep to aim for - and we strongly recommend working on your sleep schedule if you’re not getting enough zzz’s in on a regular basis!
Muscle building FAQs
“My measurements are going up - is this normal?”
Yes, it sure is!
Something you need to come to terms with is that while we can do our best and implement a variety of strategies to limit fat gain while eating in a surplus, to a certain extent it will still occur! It’s completely normal, and you are not doing anything wrong. Your measurements and weight are very likely to increase while you’re working on muscle gain, and there’s practically no way to avoid this completely. Those numbers not going up at all may be a sign that you're not yet in a surplus, and your calories may need to be increased.
In addition, increased intake can cause additional fluid retention, which is another reason why you may feel “fluffy”.
Remember: ultra-lean physiques are not sustainable all year round!
“I am feeling uncomfortably full and struggle to consume all my meals - help!”
As much as we think it’s our ‘ultimate dream’ to eat as much as possible, when you actually have to do it, you may be surprised at how hard eating more can be!
In the beginning, you may feel like you’re always full, bloated and are eating non-stop. However, we promise: over time you’ll adjust to the additional intake, and your body will adapt to utilising the extra fuel much more efficiently.
One helpful strategy to get those calories and macros in is choosing foods that pack more nutrients in less volume. For example, a bagel can contain as many calories as a large serving of basmati rice - and the latter would be much harder to consume if you’re not too hungry already.
Otherwise, until you feel hungrier, at the very least hit your protein target for the day - and have as much of the rest as possible.
“Is eating more and lifting heavy going to make me bulky?”
Absolutely not, unless that’s what you’re after!
A “bulky” look for a woman requires a very specific type of training and nutrition protocols, and no coach will provide this kind of guidance to you unless you specifically ask for it.
Our programming is created to give you the ultimate hourglass shape, with balanced curves and beautiful muscle definition.
“For how long should I commit to the Muscle Gain goal?”
Ideally, at least 8 weeks - and preferably even more!
Building muscle is a slower process for most people, and the more time you put into it (within reasonable limits and comfort levels), the better base you will be able to achieve.
“I want to work on reducing my body fat % - can I still choose Muscle Gain as my goal?”
The most efficient approach to muscle gain is starting from a place where you’re overall happy with your body fat %. If you know you are holding quite a bit of body fat you would like to shred, we recommend focusing on that first - and choosing muscle gain as your goal later.
We we were able to put your mind at ease and consider choosing Muscle Gain as your goal in the future! We love helping our clients create their dream physiques, and building lean muscle is a wonderful tool for achieving that.