The Muscle Building Guide for Women

If you’re a male, please refer to the JCDFitness Muscle Building Guide for Beginners.

Before I begin, this article was inspired by a lady I had the wonderful opportunity to converse with a few weeks back.  I hope this helps answer all of your questions and thanks for the inspiration.

While I understand most women aren’t training with the hopes of becoming a competitive bodybuilder, I know many would like to tighten up their physique and achieve that coveted, athletic look – the look you might see on the cover of Oxygen Magazine or in many of the mainstream fitness advertisements.  Then, in the rare case, there are ladies who desire the full blown, big and ripped physique similar to those who’ve obviously been taking plenty of androgenic drugs.

Regardless of the look you’re after, both groups got from point A to point B in a similar fashion.  They took their time and did things right.  Building muscle, especially for women, takes years of hard work; therefore, regardless of taking drugs or not, both groups busted their ass, watched their diet, and set goals they thought to be reachable and acceptable (realistic).

So now, let’s take a look at exactly what it’s going to take for the women who wish to build muscle in a sensible and practical manner.


1. Focus On Strength Training – For the most part, increased strength will result in increased muscle mass for women (as well as men).  I’ve yet to meet a person who lifted baby-weights and became enormous as a result.  Gains in strength with relative gains in bodyweight will result in an increased amount of lean muscle mass.

Strength training also offers benefits such as increased bone density, healthy joints and a heightened self-esteem.  I’ve found that those who set specific and measurable goals for strength gains are often much more focused and satisfied than those who fail to set such goals.

2. Women Can Build Muscle Using Safe and Comfortable Compounds – There is no ancient rule in stone proclaiming you must do the bench, squat and deadlift in order to build the most muscle possible.  It’s just not true.  I always encourage an individual to choose a movement that is comfortable and safe for them.  An example is the person whose shoulders are not in the best of shape.  A safe alternative to the bench press could be a neutral grip machine press or one of the Hammer Strength variations.  Someone who lacks flexibility to do full squats can always opt for the leg press.

The most important factor when selecting a certain muscle building movement is that you can progress for a lengthy period of time.  Compound movements are usually best for long-term progression as opposed to isolation movements.  Plus, you have more muscles involved which will cut down on training time.  Who doesn’t like to be both efficient and effective?

3. Automate Your Training – When I refer to automation, I mean to choose a training program and simply stick with your decision.  There should be no weekly or daily changes to your routine; everything, for the most part, should remain static.  The goal is to measure progress over a period of time and there is no way to measure how far you’ve come when the variables are constantly changing.  This means you’ve no need to change up your routine every other week or so to “shock” the muscles.  This ideology is pure nonsense.

If changes need to be made for whatever reason (injury, discomfort, schedule etc), fine, just ensure you keep variables as consistent as possible.

4. Don’t Train Like a Bodybuilder – Not the ones on the pharmaceutical cocktail, at least.  Research, along with plenty of anecdotal evidence has proven that high(er) frequency training(hitting each body part 2-3x per week) as opposed to low frequency training(hitting each body part once every 6-7 days), is superior for muscle gains and improvements in strength.  Look at all the tried and true programs.  They hit each body part 2-3x per week.  This is no different for women looking to build as much muscle as possible.  The rules don’t change.

So, in light of this, I always recommend women start off with a bull body routine such as NROL4W, Starting Strength or something similar.  After a few months of full body training and respectable strength and muscle gains, one can always switch to an upper/lower split.  Also, my course LGN365 is chock-full of info that will help you set up you diet, and training for many, many months.

5. Remember to Rest – On your off days, make sure you relax.  Intense training sessions should be kept to a maximum of 3-4x per week.  It’s imperative to use the other days to rest and recoup.  Is it okay to insert some low intensity cardio if you so wish?  Sure.  But you needn’t do it daily.  If you’re training hard on the weights 3x per week, I’d say you should do no more than 2 cardio sessions for the week.  Always take 1-2 days for complete rest; sit on your rump and chill out a bit.


1. Protein – Protein, among other nutrients is the primary building block of muscle tissue.   Without protein, there is no special training program or diet that will yield the muscle gains you’re so desperately after.  According to Lyle McDonald’s research from the Protein Book, optimal muscle gains are going to be present when one’s intake is roughly between 1 and 1.5g protein per pound of body weight (3.3kg/kg body weight).

2. Caloric Intake – Without excess calories, no muscle building plan will ever work.  Read that again.  You must eat enough to grow.

I understand this might be scary news to most females.  I assure you, I’m not crazy; so please stay with me here.  Since muscle gains for women, genetically, are roughly half of what a man will accomplish (more on this in a bit), their diets needn’t be so aggressive.

Since I am positive no female wishes to pack on an excess amount of weight for the sake of muscle gain, I recommend we take things slowly.  I always suggest females eat over maintenance on training days by about 300-400 kcals and consume their maintenance allotment on off days.  A good starting point for finding your maintenance intake is to multiply your body weight (bw for later use) in pounds by 14, monitor your weight for a few weeks and adjust if need be.

As far as your intake goes, I always recommend a diet full of lean protein, plenty of fruit and veggies with a healthy dose of fat.  Setting up your intake is easy if you follow these simple guidelines.  I actually stole them from Lyle or Alan, I cannot remember who came up with them first.

Multiply BW by 1-1.5 to get your protein intake.
Multiply BW x .4-.5 to get your fat intake.
After you’ve come up with calories for these 2 macronutrients fill in the rest of your intake with carbs*.

Take 3-5g fish oil per day and make sure to get plenty of vitamins and minerals in the form of food or a pill.

*Of course your intake will require an increase in carbohydrates on training days.

Let’s Be Real About Women and Muscle Gain

The maximum rate of muscle gain for men is roughly 35-50lbs of lean body mass, over their lifetime from beginner to advanced, according to Lyle’s brilliant article aptly titled What’s My Genetic Muscular Potential?

So while men and women barely differ in terms of anatomy (muscles, bone, etc) our hormonal profiles differ tremendously (mainly testosterone and estrogen levels).  As a result of such differences, a woman’s genetic potential will be roughly half that of a man.

If we take a woman who weighs 110lbs and is untrained, meaning she has gained no appreciable amount of muscle mass, she can theoretically gain anywhere from 17-25lbs of muscle mass over her lifespan.  This is assuming she trains sensibly and correctly while all other variables (rest, nutrition, stress) are optimal as well.

So, if said female reaches the end of her genetic rope at the same body fat, she will weigh between 127 and 135lbs.  While this may sound horrific to gain that much weight, 20lbs of muscle on a woman appears much different than 20lbs of adipose tissue.

There is one more thing I want all women reading this to remember.  Due to the lack of testosterone, you have no need to worry about getting big and bulky.  Also, there is no need to “shape and sculpt” the muscles with high reps and light weights.  All of that is non-sense and wastes time.  Women looking to build an appreciable amount of muscle are going to have to train intense and fairly often (like I discussed earlier).  While you may not wish to be huge and bulky, if you want to attain that Oxygen-like physique, you must train like you’re heading for the Arnold!

Remember to Have Fun

If you’re the anxious lady out there who’s recently discovered fitness and strength training, remember this muscle building hobby takes commitment and patience.  Have a good time setting and reaching your goals, because the joy is in the journey, not the destination.

Give yourself room to make some mistakes and don’t be upset if you’re not perfect all of the time.  I’m confident all of you can and will reach your goals if you put these principles into place, set some goals and bust your ass.

Nothing worth having ever comes easy; and if it does, it’s likely not worth having.  Go out there and make it happen.

February 2, 2010

  • Kaitlyn January 24, 2014

    I’m 14 standing about 5’1 and I currently weigh 98 pounds. I was given the all clear by my doctor to do any form of exercise I want. I’m lucky enough to have semi-curves naturally but I want to define my entire body more. Do you have any diet and or workout suggestions for a girl like me? I’m willing to try anything. Thank you!! Hope to hear from you soon!

  • Yanet April 16, 2013

    Hi, My name is Yanet, I’m 24 years old, I I’m 56 weigh 150 lbs, and I have 23 of BMI. I loss 20 pound in the past two months and my belly still a little big, but my glutes and legs are really skin…I being working out for two months trying to gain muscle in my lower body… Now is a little define, but I don’t see any muscle gain… Honestly I’m not constant in the gym or workout because of my work, but I’m trying to put some weight in my routine… What should I do to get better results???

    • Diana Zaya April 24, 2013

      Hello, not sure if anyone has replied to this.
      With your lower body you should increase both repetitions and weight to gain a considerable amount of muscle. Legs are a large muscle group and they are built for endurance, seeing as we use them everyday in walking. So best to do a compound movement, heavy squat for 4 – 5 sets of 12-15 reps. You’ll see the results, and you’ll see changes in your upper body and abdomen due to changes in your lower limbs.

  • Cherrelle March 27, 2013

    I’m 8 stone 2 and 5 foot tall , I’ve got some body fat but I really want to loose weight and tone up . I’d love muscly arms legs and stomach but not to much .. Should I drink protein shakes after the gym ?? Also should I eat before the gym if I go at dinner time ? And is pasta, rice, chicken and fish the best thing for me?

  • Melyna March 25, 2013

    Hi JC,

    I have been doing high intensity cardio kickboxing along with light strength training 3 times per week for just over a year and also walk 1 mile per day on the off days. I am 5’4″ and weigh 118lbs. I recently decided that I love the kickboxing and will stick with it but I really want a more defined body. I don’t want to be “bulky” per say but want to be defined. I am definitely in much better shape and feel muscles I never knew were there but can’t really see them.

    I have always been a healthy eater and avoid refined sugar and grains. I eat chicken and fish along with nuts, eggs and raw milk kefir for protein and amino acids. I recently started to incorporate whey protein to up the grams per day but am wondering, if I do the kickboxing 3x’s per week and also lift on the same days for a total of 100 minutes (30 lifting and 70 kickboxing) do you think I can gain the definition I am looking for?

    I have only added in the heavy lifting for 2 1/2 weeks but I do feel stronger and firmer. I have very small bones so 118lbs is my limit size wise without looking fat, prior to working out. I hope what I am asking makes sense. Basically I want to know if I am on the right track? I am starting out with more reps 8-12 as much as I can lift in a set and then every two weeks, I will increase the weight and decrease the reps. I just got past my two week mark.

    Thanks for your input :)


  • Sara March 21, 2013

    Hi JC,
    I’m a 24 Year Old Female 5-2″ In Height And 96 Lbs. Im Very Lean Pettite Girl, I’ve Never Been In The Three Digits And I Want To Look Toned Especially From My Legs. Im Obsessed With Wanting Big Legs. Since Mine Are Skinny And Look Wimpy. My Biggest Problem Is, I Cant Have Big Meals, I Eat Very Small Portions But Eat Continuosly Throughout The Day, I’ve Been Told This Method Of Eating Increases My Metabolism. I Dont Want To Slow It Down But I Almost Feel Like My Body Doesnt Retain Any Food.

  • Courtney March 20, 2013

    I’m seventeen and I’m 5’7 I weigh 118.
    I don’t want to lose any weight just firm up a bit.. I’ve been doing squats without weights for about a week and cardio for 30min along with other things. Mainly for the derrière I don’t want to do squats with weights because I have knee problems.. How long will it take and how often should I do squats to get a firm and define my derrière?

  • Usha March 13, 2013

    Hi JC
    Im currently 8 stone, im 5” 3 and is still have a bit of body fat specially around the hips do you have any ideas how i can reduce them… also i was taking a supplement called (maxi tone) but then is stopped and the expire date went out so i threw it away. Now i want to build muscle in the right places.
    How much body fat should a person have before they can build muscle?
    Should i buy the maxi stone shake again, or do u have any other options?
    When is the best time to take it?
    Are there any other supplements that will help me build muscle?
    How many calories should i be eating?

  • Erin March 10, 2013

    One thing I’m really struggling with is determining how much to eat. Don’t get me wrong, I WANT to eat enough – but the numbers I find are very different. I’m quite thin (underweight), and my “maintenance” calories come out to be 1400 calories. I would be absolutely starving on 1400 calories a day! The calories recommended for me to build muscle is then 1700-1800 a day… which, while that sounds more reasonable, I can easily eat 2000 on a regular day. And like I said, I’m technically “underweight.” Any recommendation on caloric intake besides figuring it out myself through trial and error?

    • JC Deen March 10, 2013

      right, so this is where generic guidelines aren’t applicable to you.

      you obviously know that you can, and probably should be eating more. So the best thing to do is monitor your intake for a few weeks to establish the baseline, and then add 200-300 kcals to that per day, and then assess again after a few weeks.

  • Melody March 05, 2013

    Hi JC-
    I’ve been working out for years with breaks here and there. I’m one of those girls who definitely prefers to go hard with heavy weights. I’m 5’4″ and around 176, which most girls would die if they ever saw that number. I’m SOLID – so no one would ever guess I weigh that much. I’ve tried everything…well almost, but I can’t figure out how to get more definition, I have slight definition, but only when flexed. My arms look huge and people say, “yes, they are big, but you can tell you work out and it’s muscle”. Yup, one big chunk of muscle. I need them to be smaller and defined. I look like a linebacker. So…what is the key to definition…is it really just diet that I haven’t mastered. I don’t want average, I want amazing, and I’m not sure how to get there. Your thoughts….Help :(

    • JC Deen March 07, 2013


      we are working on an update to this article currently. it should be out in a few weeks.

  • Kase February 28, 2013

    Hi i have lost over 100kg over 4 to 5 years but now i have lost all muscle tone and i am just skin and bone…. Are u able to help with suggestions on how i can build my muscle back up. I just freak that im going to put weight back on and i cant handle that….

    • JC Deen March 01, 2013

      we have a pretty detailed muscle building guide/program coming out for women in a few weeks.

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