If you often find yourself killing it with at-home workouts, with little to no results to show for it, it might not be entirely on you. Having defined, toned muscles and getting “built” depend on a number of factors—and can unfortunately be harder for women than men. (Thanks, genetics!)
If you’re hoping to build more muscle and get stronger, don’t give up: It is possible! We asked top fitness experts to explain the science behind gaining muscle and for some of their favorite strength exercises to help get you there.
Meet the Expert
Sex Differences in Building Muscle
People assigned female at birth are, of course, as mentally tough as those assigned male (and stronger in a lot of ways!). But when it comes to building muscle, it’s important to note how our bodies respond differently. There are genetic, physiological, and even psychological obstacles at play.
“It is a given that people assigned male at birth have high levels of testosterone and growth hormone, which is key to help repair and build muscle,” explains Jennifer Blackburn, a group fitness instructor, cycle coach, and personal trainer at Moxie. “Those assigned female at birth have lower levels of testosterone and high levels of estrogen, making it more of a challenge to gain muscle.”
Genetics also influence a person’s strength, muscle size (how much size a person can have), and their muscle fiber type, Blackburn notes.
There also may be a psychological component some women need to overcome if the thought of getting “bulky” is a turn-off. “Psychologically some women feel ‘bad’ about their body or uncomfortable about gaining muscle,” Blackburn says. “It is critical that if a woman wishes to put on muscle mass, the first thing that needs to be implemented is a certain mindset.”
That may be easier said than done. But thinking about how much stronger and more energetic you’ll feel is a good place to start.
How to Achieve Your Goals
In order to gain muscle, Blackburn says you must stay consistent, set realistic goals, and create a nutrition plan that aligns with your fitness goals. If it’s in your budget, you can work with a nutritionist or physical trainer to help meet your goals and keep yourself on track.
Brooke Van Paris, a certified nutritionist and personal trainer at Lifetime, agrees that consistency is key, especially as women have a hard time building and maintaining muscle as we age.
“The best way to tackle these challenges is to be proactive about them versus reactive,” she says. “Muscle building depends on multiple factors, such as how many muscle fibers we have and where they are located, body type, where and how we store fat, and yes, hormone balance. We know these issues are there, so the best offense is a good defense! The more strength we build early, the longer it will take for us to lose as we age, especially if we are keeping up with our fitness routines.”
Thankfully, she says women can expect to see a 20 to 40 percent improvement in strength in just their first few months of starting to strength-train—talk about motivation to get going!
Best Exercises for Muscle Growth
- Try Compound Movements 3–5 Days a Week: Van Paris suggests focusing on compound movements when strength training. “I would highly suggest doing larger, more compound (multi-joint) exercises such as squats, deadlifts, rows, and push-ups,” she says. “These bigger, more complex movements help the body to recruit more muscle fibers, and cause more caloric burn as a result.” She suggests going for 8–10 reps and 3–4 sets of each exercise, focusing on different muscle groups on different days. Aim for 3–5 days a week to start.
- Focus on HIIT or Circuit Training: It’s important to get some cardio and resistance training each week, too. “HIIT and circuit training can burn fat while building muscle, which in turn helps regulate insulin (blood sugar), prevent weight gain, and combat excess estrogen production through minimizing stored body fat,” Van Paris says. “HIIT and circuit training limit the body’s stress response to exercise. In other words, it wards off the cortisol that can actually result in muscle breakdown rather than muscle building,”
- Don’t Forget to Recover: Van Paris says it’s so important to take at least one rest day a week. And if you’re sore as you are getting started, try yoga, a walk, or stretching to recover.
It's Important to Fuel Up Properly, Too
Your diet is just as important as exercising when it comes to building muscle, Blackburn notes. “Adequate nutrition will be necessary to repair and develop muscle, because if your nutrition intake does not include enough calories, muscle growth will not happen,” she says.
Your protein needs will be on the higher end, about 30 to 35 percent of your diet while you are working to build muscle. But don’t completely neglect carbs or healthy fats. “Carbohydrates and fats fuel your muscle,” she says. ”Fueling means giving energy—you need energy to power the load of your new workout.”
Choose high-quality foods whenever possible that are cleaner and less processed. Think fresh fish, whole grain bread, and healthy fats such as olive oil and avocados.