The tide is slowly turning. Females are becoming empowered by lifting heavy and having muscle. But the message portrayed in mainstream media and the horrible training information presented by social media “trainers” makes it difficult for women to build muscle.
Female muscle growth requires training and nutrition, which goes against the message society portrays about women. Women need to lift weights and reduce their cardio while eating more for muscle growth.
But why do women tend to lag behind men in relative strength and size development? Is there an appreciable difference between males and females regarding muscle growth?
Female vs. Male Muscle Growth: Do They Differ?
There are very few relatively well-designed studies comparing male and female muscle growth with resistance training.
According to a recent meta-analysis, improvements are similar between males and females when strength and size gains are measured relative to bodyweight. And females tend to make faster gains in relative upper body strength .
This is contrary to conventional wisdom that denotes women can’t gain strength and muscle at the same rate as men. As always, these studies have limitations, and I'll break these down individually.
But first, we can better understand why these results occurred when diving into the individual studies compiled in the recent meta-analysis. For example, one of the largest study interventions involved 181 physically inactive older adults and found 10 weeks of leg extensions increased relative 1RM strength similarly between men and women .
But males showed the most significant increases in absolute 1RM (load increase regardless of bodyweight). Now, the apparent limitation of this study is the subjects were older (average age of 61), were physically inactive, and the training program was only 10 weeks.
Would we see the same results if subjects were younger, active, and the study was longer? Therefore, having a higher strength and muscle baseline with less room for improvement?
If we extend a training program to 12 weeks focusing on the leg extension and chest press in non-weight trained men and women aged 25-50, we see the same results with similar increases in strength and size .
Taking a younger population of 22–37-year-olds who hadn’t weight trained for 6 months prior through a 16-week full body training routine also saw similar increases in relative strength and muscle mass between males and females . Males saw a greater increase in absolute strength.
An underpowered 20-week training study with 12, 20-year-old kinesiology subjects found women had greater increases in relative strength than men and similar increases in muscle size . This potentially highlights a social and cultural limitation to male vs. female strength and size studies where males are typically more active and have a higher initial physical fitness level .
This is further supported in a 6-month training study where men had greater quad muscle mass than women at baseline, with female subjects demonstrating a larger increase in quad size than men after the intervention . Studying kinesiology likely indicates a greater chance these subjects were regular exercisers.
These short-term studies indicate females grow muscle and increase strength at similar rates relative to bodyweight compared to males. Whether we see the same results over longer periods is more speculative.
But why do women tend to lag behind men regarding muscle growth when the short-term research suggests otherwise?
Why Females Lag Behind Males With Muscle Growth
Social & Cultural Message Of Being Skinny
As a society, attractive women are portrayed as skinny with little muscle. Think of Victoria Secret's runway models. As this is perpetuated through mainstream media, women believe this is the ideal body.
Instead of hitting the gym to build muscle, they undereat to fit society's view of what is attractive. Unfortunately, this leads to a host of cascading problems if this becomes a habit. Not to mention it's impossible to build appreciable muscle long-term when undereating.
Inadequate Protein Intake
From my observations, women tend to undereat protein. It comes along with undereating in general. Eating less meat and meals that don’t have a protein source makes hitting protein targets challenging.
This isn't isolated to females. Many men fall into the same camp. However, it is more common in women, in my experience. High protein intake is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass, so when needs aren't met, it becomes more difficult to grow muscle.
Lack Of Targeted Heavy Strength Training
I'm sure you've been bombarded with trending booty or leg workout clips on social media. None of them use heavy weight training and, instead, use a variety of bodyweight and light band resistance exercises performed in a circuit for high reps.
But these won’t build muscle mass. Gaining muscle requires high levels of mechanical tension, either through heavy loading or lighter loads close to or at failure. Stop 2-3 reps short of failure for compound exercises like squats.
For isolation exercises like leg extensions, go closer to failure or failure, especially when loads are lighter, to maximize tension on the muscle .
Over-Reliance On Cardio
Having a form of cardio within your training plan is always a sound idea. But when it makes the bulk of your training when your goal is muscle growth, it becomes a problem. There are two inherent issues trying to use cardio as a way to build muscle:
Loads experienced, and range of motion during cardio exercise means the muscle isn't stimulated to grow. Further, the molecular pathway signaled during and after cardio is to improve endurance. It's called the AMPK pathway.
In layman’s terms, it’s the molecular pathway activated during and after endurance training resulting in improved cardiovascular fitness . The pathway we want to activate to build muscle is the mTOR pathway which, in layman’s terms, is the muscle-building pathway.
Unfortunately, stimulating the AMPK pathway and other molecular processes with cardio inhibits the signaling of the mTOR pathway .
This lasts up to 3 hours before returning to baseline, and the strength of the signal to the endurance pathway depends on the cardio exercise’s volume and intensity. That means the longer the duration and the higher the intensity, the greater activation of AMPK.
Less Physical Activity Growing Up
Males tend to have a higher physical fitness status than females, likely due to the differences in physical activity . This can make it harder to learn new exercises in the gym with less body awareness than the average male. Further, adult women tend to be less active than men .
Smaller Bone Structures
Women have smaller bone structures than men, who typically have longer, denser, and stronger bones, allowing their skeleton to support more muscle mass . On average, males have 10% more bone than females .
What About Hormones?
I am yet to mention the elephant in the room. Hormones. Specifically testosterone. While males have testosterone levels of 15x or more than females, it doesn't seem to affect short-term strength and muscle gain .
However, higher testosterone potentially allows males to build more relative muscle mass and strength over the long term.
Interestingly, the higher estrogen in females acts as a protective mechanism reducing inflammation and muscle damage . It’s why females may not experience the same time course of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) as males .
How To Build Muscle For Women Fast
While short-term strength and muscle gain are similar between men and women, you may need to overcome some issues that hold women back from maximizing muscle growth. Here’s how to build muscle fast!
This may go against every instinct in your body, but you need to eat to feel full multiple times daily. This is how you consume more calories than you burn, leaving you with a net positive energy surplus.
An energy surplus is what’s needed to create new muscle mass. Sometimes it can be a struggle to train yourself to eat constantly when you’re full. Here are some tips I’ve used to gain mass:
Get Enough Protein
Typically, 1 g per pound of bodyweight of protein per day is recommended. But this can seem a lot when you’re not used to eating enough protein. Research suggests 0.8 g per pound or 1.6 g per kg is the upper limit for maximizing muscle gains .
The only way to do this is to have protein with every meal or snack throughout the day. Meat, eggs, and dairy are obvious choices. But also opting for higher protein carbohydrate and fat sources like pasta and nut butters can bump the protein in your meal.
Train With More Volume
There is a dose-response relationship between volume and muscle growth . Meaning the more lifting volume (to a certain extent), the greater the muscle growth. Upwards of 25+ sets per week per muscle may potentially be the limit before diminishing returns set in.
But these 25 sets don't include light warm-up sets. They must be performed at a high relative effort, so at least 3 reps from failure is a good guideline. But shooting for 25 sets per week per muscle group will leave you drained and with no room to progress.
The lower set threshold is approximately 10 sets per week per muscle group, giving you a wide range to play with.
Use A Full Range Of Motion
Research is continuously being published showing training at longer muscle lengths is superior for muscle growth . Lifting through a full range of motion means you're loading long muscle lengths, allowing you to take advantage of a superior muscle-building stimulus.
Lift Close To Failure
As mentioned, lifting close to failure is a high relative effort to increase effective volume. 2-3 reps short of failure is a great place to start with compound exercises. You can push isolation exercises even further to failure.
If you use lighter loads, you likely need to go to failure or very close to it to maximize mechanical tension .
Vary The Reps
The idea of a hypertrophy rep range is outdated. 8-12 reps was considered the hypertrophy zone where muscle building is maximized. However, recent research suggests using a variety of rep ranges is a better muscle-building stimulus .
The 6-12 rep range is a good range to spend most of your time as it is a decent trade-off between volume and fatigue. However, isolation exercises can be pushed to 20 reps.
Best Workout For Female Muscle Growth
There’s no such thing as a male or female muscle-building program. The principles of building muscle remain the same regardless of gender. However, like men wanting to emphasize chest and arms, women typically want to get a bigger butt.
Further, your work and life schedule will dictate your training split. Can you only get to the gym twice a week? Or do you have time every day? So, here's a simple upper-lower split you can use.
Day 1 (Upper)
A1) Close Grip Bench Press
3-4 x 8
B1) DB Incline Bench Press
3 x 10-12
C1) Chest Fly
2 x 12
C2) Incline Push-Up
2 x 10-15
D1) Lat Pulldown
6 x 8-10
E1) Face Pull
3 x 10
F1) Barbell Curl
3 x 8
Day 2 (Lower)
A1) Hip Thrust
3 x 8, 1 x 15
B1) Seated Leg Curl
3 x 12
C1) Leg Press
3 x 15
D1) Back Extension
2 x 15-20
Day 3 (Upper)
A1) Barbell Row
3-4 x 8
B1) Machine Row
3 x 10-12
C1) DB Pullover
3 x 12
D1) Overhead Press
3-4 x 8
E1) Lu Raise
3 x 15
E2) Reverse Pec Deck
3 x 20
F1) Overhead Triceps Extension
3 x 12-15
Day 4 (Lower)
A1) Romanian Deadlift
4 x 6-8
B1) Back Squat
3 x 8
C1) Quadruped Hip Extension
3 x 12-15
D1) Front Foot Elevated Reverse Lunge
2 x 10-15/leg
Best Muscle Building Supplements For Women
Supplements are the cherry on top of your training and nutrition. And some are far better than others having scientific evidence behind them. Most are not worth your money. So, here are a few that can help you with muscle growth.
While supplements are considered the 1% of training and nutrition, I don't place protein powder in the 1%. It's an important staple you can use in your diet, making it easier to reach your protein targets.
Especially if you are chronically undereating protein. Whey protein is the standard protein powder to go for. Whether it’s whey concentrate or isolate doesn’t matter in the long run unless you have dairy intolerances. Then opt for isolate for the lower lactose concentration.
If you are avoiding dairy, other options like beef or vegan protein powders exist. When you take your protein powder, it doesn't matter, as total daily protein intake trumps protein timing. If drinking it after training is convenient, do that. Otherwise, use it as a snack option.
You can use a mass gainer to get excess calories as a last resort. There’s a reason weight gain supplements for skinny girls work. They are easy to consume calories since you don’t need to chew anything.
However, you must be careful when selecting a mass gainer as some contain over 1000 calories per serving. Much more than you need to gain muscle and, instead, will cause more fat gain. Often taking half a serving is best, and adding half to a full scoop of whey protein makes it an epic high-protein shake.
Creatine is the most misunderstood performance-enhancing supplement available. A couple of epic benefits is a potential 8% increase in strength and a 14% increase in the number of reps completed at a given load .
This translates to more volume and mechanical tension leading to more muscle growth. Further, you'll see a slight increase in body weight of approximately 1.2%, primarily due to water weight . Take 5 g per day to maximize the effectiveness.
Females are not constrained by their stature and physiology when growing muscle relative to bodyweight. The problem often relates to poor training and nutrition perpetuated through societal norms. Female muscle growth requires training similar to males as the principles remain the same regardless of gender.
1. Roberts, B. M., Nuckols, G., & Krieger, J. W. (2020). Sex differences in resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1448-1460.
2. Walts, C. T., Hanson, E. D., Delmonico, M. J., Yao, L., Wang, M. Q., & Hurley, B. F. (2008). Do sex or race differences influence strength training effects on muscle or fat? Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 40(4), 669.
3. Abe, T., DeHoyos, D. V., Pollock, M. L., & Garzarella, L. (2000). Time course for strength and muscle thickness changes following upper and lower body resistance training in men and women. European journal of applied physiology, 81, 174-180.
4. Cureton, K. J., Collins, M. A., Hill, D. W., & McElhannon Jr, F. M. (1988). Muscle hypertrophy in men and women. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 20(4), 338-344.
5. O'hagan, F. T., Sale, D. G., MacDougall, J. D., & Garner, S. H. (1995). Response to resistance training in young women and men. International journal of sports medicine, 16(05), 314-321.
6. Shephard, R. J. (2000). Exercise and training in women, Part I: Influence of gender on exercise and training responses. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 25(1), 19-34.
7. Roth, S. M., Ivey, F. M., Martel, G. F., Lemmer, J. T., Hurlbut, D. E., Siegel, E. L., ... & Hurley, B. F. (2001). Muscle size responses to strength training in young and older men and women. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 49(11), 1428-1433.
8. Morton, R. W., Murphy, K. T., McKellar, S. R., Schoenfeld, B. J., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., ... & Phillips, S. M. (2018). A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British journal of sports medicine, 52(6), 376-384.
9. Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Van Every, D. W., & Plotkin, D. L. (2021). Loading recommendations for muscle strength, hypertrophy, and local endurance: a re-examination of the repetition continuum. Sports, 9(2), 32.
10. Methenitis, S. (2018). A brief review on concurrent training: from laboratory to the field. Sports, 6(4), 127.
11. Baar, K. (2014). Using molecular biology to maximize concurrent training. Sports Medicine, 44(2), 117-125.
12. Handelsman, D. J., Hirschberg, A. L., & Bermon, S. (2018). Circulating testosterone as the hormonal basis of sex differences in athletic performance. Endocrine reviews, 39(5), 803-829.
13. Knox, T., Anderson, L. C., & Heather, A. (2019). Transwomen in elite sport: scientific and ethical considerations. Journal of medical ethics, 45(6), 395-403.
14. Sallis, J. F. (1993). Epidemiology of physical activity and fitness in children and adolescents. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 33(4-5), 403-408.
15. Enns, D. L., & Tiidus, P. M. (2010). The influence of estrogen on skeletal muscle: sex matters. Sports medicine, 40, 41-58.
16. Flores, D. F., Gentil, P., Brown, L. E., Pinto, R. S., Carregaro, R. L., & Bottaro, M. (2011). Dissociated time course of recovery between genders after resistance exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(11), 3039-3044.
17. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences, 35(11), 1073-1082.
18. Pedrosa, G. F., Lima, F. V., Schoenfeld, B. J., Lacerda, L. T., Simões, M. G., Pereira, M. R., ... & Chagas, M. H. (2022). Partial range of motion training elicits favorable improvements in muscular adaptations when carried out at long muscle lengths. European Journal of Sport Science, 22(8), 1250-1260.
19. Pedrosa, G. F., Simões, M. G., Figueiredo, M. O., Lacerda, L. T., Schoenfeld, B. J., Lima, F. V., ... & Diniz, R. C. (2023). Training in the Initial Range of Motion Promotes Greater Muscle Adaptations Than at Final in the Arm Curl. Sports, 11(2), 39.
20. Schoenfeld, B. J., & Grgic, J. (2019). Does training to failure maximize muscle hypertrophy? Strength & Conditioning Journal, 41(5), 108-113.
21. Rawson, E. S., & Volek, J. S. (2003). Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(4), 822-831.
22. Branch, J. D. (2003). Effect of creatine supplementation on body composition and performance: a meta-analysis. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 13(2), 198-226.