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How to Build Muscle for Women

By Patrick Dale

It's not just men that want to gain muscle -- many women do, too. Building muscle can be harder particularly for older women than for men because the muscles of older women respond somewhat less to resistance training. Still, with a well-designed training program, most women can gain an appreciable amount of muscle and strength.

Strength Training

Strength training should be the cornerstone of any attempt to build muscle. While cardio activities such as jogging or cycling can result in slight increases in muscle mass, it's strength training that provides the most effective way to build muscle. Options include free weights, resistance training machines, body-weight exercises and resistance bands. Providing the form of exercise being used is sufficiently challenging, muscle growth will occur.

Compound exercises work best to increase muscle. Include pushups and pullups, squats and lunges, deadlifts and bent-over rows, and shoulder presses and lat pulldowns.

Program Planning

A well-developed strength program can follow one of two main approaches -- whole body workouts and split routines. Whole body workouts, normally performed three days a week on alternate days, involve working each major muscle group. Split routines involve working different muscles on different days, such as back and biceps on Monday, legs and arms on Wednesday, and chest and shoulders on Friday. Both systems work, although split routines are more commonly associated with building muscle.

Whichever program you pursue, exercises should be performed for six to 12 repetitions and rests between sets should be limited to 30 to 60 seconds. Use weights that fatigue you by the last two to three repetitions of each set to ensure your muscles are being challenged to grow stronger.

Exercise Progression

To build muscle, your muscles must be exposed to a gradually increasing amount of stress. Your muscles adapt very quickly to the exercises you are performing. So to ensure progress, continually challenge your muscles by periodically changing your program. You can make your workouts more demanding by increasing the weight you are lifting, doing more repetitions, resting less between sets, using more demanding exercises or doing more exercises per muscle group. Changes should be gradual and logical to avoid doing too much too soon, which could lead to soreness or injury.

Eating for Muscle Growth

Diet is every bit as important for women who want to build muscle. Carbohydrate provides energy for exercise, while protein is essential for muscle repair and growth. Strength-training women should consume about 0.91 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily. A 20-gram dose of this protein, in the form of whey or soy protein ideally, after each strength session helps encourage greater muscle growth. Fats, formerly demonized by the media, are also important, as they provide the framework for hormone production, promote satiety and the regulation of inflammation. Because they are very calorie dense, fats should be consumed in moderation and stick to healthy, unsaturated versions found in fatty fish, avocados and nuts. If you are training hard but are not seeing any meaningful muscle growth, you may need to increase your food intake.

Rest, Recover and Grow

Muscles only grow when you are resting between workouts, so recovery is just as important as exercise and diet. Build adequate recovery into your schedule by planning a couple of exercise-free days per week and ensuring you get plenty of sleep. Insufficient rest can reduce the effectiveness of your workouts, increase the production of the muscle-busting hormone cortisol and can also make you crave unhealthy foods. Rest muscle groups 48 hours between sessions; for example, you could lift for legs on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while focusing on upper body on the days between.

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