If you are interested in learning how to gain weight the right way, you have come to the right place!
My name is Staci Ardison.
I overcame an eating disorder, discovered a love for heavy strength training, and now I help women like you get stronger for a living.
Believe it or not, I’m 50 pounds heavier in the photo on the right (and WAY stronger, and healthier, and happier!).
I’m currently a lead coach here in the Nerd Fitness Coaching Program, where we train women to pick up heavy weights, get strong, and build confidence.
Speaking of picking up heavy weights, here I am deadlifting 455 pounds:
This is what I LOVE to do.
In this Ultimate Guide to Building Muscle as a Woman, I’m going to be covering:
Alright, let’s do this.
“If you want to gain weight, eat more calories than you burn regularly. Want to put on the right KIND of weight? Exercise and eat the right way too.”
Now, there’s plenty of nuance to this when comparing men and women:
- Due to our natural hormones, it’s generally more difficult for people with typical female anatomy to gain muscle than people with typical male anatomy.
- We have a lot of factors (such as hormonal birth control) that have been proven to make it even harder as well.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible!
It just means we have to work harder for it.
Ugh, I know.
Now, one thing I want to touch on quick: if you see a woman who is absolutely jacked and at an extremely low body fat percentage, I guarantee she has been working her butt off for a very long time with the goal of building muscle.
It’s not something that happens overnight, or by mistake.
In addition, some women with larger amounts of muscle mass choose to take steroids to help assist them in gaining muscle, because we simply don’t have the hormones naturally to get to that size.
So if you’d like to build muscle, but not as much as a professional bodybuilder – don’t worry, it’s not something that happens by accident.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about body fat and body types:
As we point out in that body fat percentage guide, we women can look very different at any weight depending on our body shape and how much muscle we have. It comes down to our own personal goals!
This guide is going to primarily focus on two things:
- How to eat to gain weight and build muscle.
- How to strength train to build muscle.
We’ve helped thousands of women with our online coaching program, many of whom are trying to gain weight and strength train for the first time in their lives.
Everybody is on their own journey, at their own pace, and everybody will end up with different results too!
If it can be harder for women to gain muscle (compared to men), why go through the trouble?
I’m glad you asked!
Here are the top 7 reasons why women should strength train:
#1) When you’re stronger – everyday life is easier. No need to call for help to get that 50lb bag of dog food off the top shelf, or carrying an air conditioner unit up a flight of stairs. LIFE is easier when you’re stronger.
#2) Less injury risk – when you build strong muscles, you’re also building stronger bones, ligaments, and tendons, making you less prone to injury doing things you love (like playing in a quidditch league).
#3) Helps combat age-related muscle loss, allowing us to remain independent longer as we age:
#4) Muscle is harder to maintain, which means you need to eat more just to hold on to it.
#5) Reduce pain – having a strong body makes living easier on your joints, as well as allows you to hold a better posture, and reduce back / hip pain.
#6) Appearance – this is a personal preference! Some women like to have a lot of muscle, and some don’t. While you can’t spot reduce fat, you can choose to build more muscle in specific areas, changing your body shape. Growing up, I was an extreme pear shape, but due to strength training, I now have more of an hourglass shape.
#7) Live longer – want to spend more time on Earth? Strength training and growing muscle will help you do just that.
As we said above, gaining weight comes down to thermodynamics and science.
Every day, we burn a certain number of calories just existing, which is called our BMR (basal metabolic rate). We then factor in our daily activity level, and get a number that is called our “total daily energy expenditure.” You can calculate yours below.
The Nerd Fitness Calorie Calculator:
(Click here for our Metric calculator).
(Note: we have used The Mifflin-St Jeor Equation to create this calculator! ).
Since we want to gain weight, we want to take our TDEE and add 250 calories to it to get our daily goal. This should result in gaining about half a pound per week.
Now, although eating ANY EXTRA calories from any source will result in weight gain, our goal is to gain the RIGHT kind of weight, in a healthy way.
And thus, we’ll be focusing our efforts on a “healthy muscle building” strategy.
We could easily add more calories each day, and gain weight quicker, however, the slow method gives you the best chances at gaining mostly muscle, with minimal fat. The faster you try to gain weight, the higher the percentage that will likely be fat – so starting off at half a pound per week is a great place to start!
In addition to the number of calories we’ll be adding, we also want to pay attention to the type of foods we’re eating.
As we cover in our “Healthy Eating Guide,” we’re going to build muscle by consuming the three big macros in the correct quantities:
- Protein: rebuilds muscle after you break it down.
- Carbohydrates: provides your muscle with fuel and body with energy.
- Fat: helps your bodily functions and can also be burned as fuel in the absence of carbs.
Let’s look at each of these individually:
PRIORITY #1: PROTEIN
Protein can come from any number of sources, including:
- Meat (steak, bison, pork).
- Fowl (chicken, turkey, duck).
- Cheese and dairy.
- Fish and shellfish (salmon, tuna, shrimp).
- Legumes (black beans, chickpeas).
- Other vegetarian protein sources here.
As we cover in our “How much Protein do I need?”, claims for the amount of protein required for muscle growth vary wildly from source to source (and athlete to athlete).
Here is our recommendation:
- If you’re of healthy weight, active, and wish to build muscle, aim for 1 g per pound of body weight (2.2 g/kg).
- If you’re an experienced lifter on a bulk, intakes up to 1.50 g/lb (3.3 g/kg) may help you minimize fat gain.
Let me simplify it for you:
“To build muscle, target at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight (2.2 grams per kg).”
If you’re curious, from our healthy eating article, this is what a portion of protein looks like:
Here’s how much protein is in a serving of food:
- 4 oz (113 g) of chicken has around 30 g of protein.
- 4 oz (113 g) of salmon has 23 g of protein
- 4 oz (113 g) of steak has 28 g of protein.
Want to get more protein? Consider protein shakes.
PRIORITY #2: CARBS
After protein, we’ll be filling up our plate with calories from carbs (and fats).
Here are foods full of carbohydrates you can prioritize:
- Legumes and lentils
- Sweet potatoes
- Regular potatoes
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole grain bread
To help you get better at serving sizes:
1 serving of a starchy carbohydrate is 1 cupped hand (uncooked), or your two hands forming a cup (cooked).
Here are some images to help you learn proper portion sizes (thanks to SafeFood):
In addition to consuming carbohydrates from these sources, it’s okay to consume plenty of fruit while trying to build muscle!
For reference, here is roughly 200 calories worth of an apple (thanks to WiseGEEK):
You can read our full “Is fruit healthy?” guide to learn more.
PRIORITY #3: FAT!
Fat is a macronutrient that can help you reach your calorie goals (in the right quantity), as fat can be high in calories. Plus, you can eat lots of it without feeling full. Helpful if you’re trying to put on weight.
Healthy fat can be found in foods like:
- Macadamia nuts
- Olive oil
- Almond butter
- Peanut butter
Science has recently come around on saturated fat too. Once completely vilified, but now considered okay for moderate consumption.
Saturated fats can come from things like:
- Whole milk
- Full fat dairy
- Coconut oil
- Grass-fed butter
- Fatty cuts of meat
To help you gauge: a serving size of fat is roughly the size of your thumb!
For reference, this is a single serving of almonds (162 calories):
THIS is a serving of olive oil (119 calories):
As you can see, you can eat an extra 500 calories of “healthy fats” by eating lots of “heart-healthy” fats like nuts or adding more olive oil to your meals.
PRIORITY #4: VEGETABLES!
Last but not least, you need vegetables in your diet.
As you start to eat more food, your stomach, intestines, and other bodily functions will thank you for consuming more high-fiber vegetables!
A serving of veggies is about the size of your fist.
Here’s a quick, non-complete list of high-fiber veggies that can fill your plate:
- Spaghetti squash
- Brussels sprouts
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER: A HEALTHY MUSCLE-BUILDING PLATE
This plate and serving size stuff above is just to help you get started thinking about healthy food differently and in proper portion sizes.
TO RECAP, HERE’S HOW TO EAT TO BUILD MUSCLE:
- Calculate your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) and add 250 calories over your number.
- Consume 1-1.5g per pound (2.2-3.3g per kg) of body weight in protein every day.
- Consume the rest of your calories from foods composed of carbs and fats.
- Always eat vegetables so that your body can actually PROCESS all this extra food. I like to aim for half of my plate of vegetables.
- If you are not gaining weight, (and you’re hitting your protein goals), add more carbs and/or fats to your meal.
It really does come down to the following:
If you are not gaining weight fast enough, you’re not eating enough. Increase your portions of carbs and fats!
Whenever we work with coaching clients who struggle to build muscle, this is the area we target: adding more carbs and fats to each meal.
Years from now, you’ll look back and thank “Past You” for starting strength training today.
And don’t worry, I’m going to tell you exactly what to do so you can start strength training TODAY!
Here’s why strength training is so important: when you eat a caloric surplus (more calories than your body needs each day), the extra calories have to go somewhere.
- If you don’t do any exercise, your body will choose to store the extra calories as fat for later.
- However, when you strength train, your muscles are broken down. Then they’ll use the extra calories to rebuild themselves bigger and stronger over the next 48 hours!
“Staci that sounds great, but I’ve never strength trained before, and I don’t know what I’m doing…Halp!” You might be saying into your computer or phone.
Fear not! I’ll help. Strength training doesn’t need to be scary or overly complicated.
Simply put, “strength training” means two things:
#1) “Movement of any weight against “resistance” (including your body weight) – Doing ANY exercise that pushes your muscles outside of their comfort zone, forcing them to rebuild stronger to prepare for the next challenge.
#2) Progressive overload: doing slightly more than last time (lift a heavier weight or do 1 more rep) consistently. Your muscles will have to constantly adapt and rebuild themselves stronger. This is called “progressive overload.”
Coach Jim breaks down different strategies for progressive overload in this video:
This means if you drop down and do ONE push-up or knee push-up right now…
Technically, you’ve strength trained.
Now do that and then do a bodyweight squat…
Boom, you just did a strength training workout.
Here’s what you need to know about strength training:
- Strength training is one of the BEST things you can do for yourself.
- Strength training will help you put on muscle while eating in a surplus.
- While you can’t spot reduce fat, you can focus on building more muscle in specific areas, which can help you attain a specific look you’re going for.
- If you don’t like the gym, you don’t need to go, ever. But I hope you do. Because that’s the easiest way to start training with weights.
- Regardless of your fitness level, body fat percentage, strength level, or biological sex, you have every right to be in the free weights section in the gym, training with heavy weights, with everybody else. The people in the gym who are very strong with a lot of muscle started somewhere, too!
I used to be a CrossFit instructor, and my favorite thing about CrossFit was that it destigmatized barbell training and heavy lifting for many women.
In order for us to strength train and build muscle, we’re going to approach this intelligently.
We’re not going to pick up small dumbbells and do lots of reps.
We’re not going to sit down at various machines and scroll through our phones while doing leg curls.
Instead, we’re going to:
- Get very strong with compound movements that recruit LOTS of muscles to work together.
- Do our workouts quickly and get out of there. The workout should take no longer than 45-60 minutes.
This is how we efficiently build muscle in the minimum amount of time. What are the exercises that we’re going to target?
1) The Push-Up: The best exercise you could ever do for yourself when it comes to using your bodyweight for push muscles (your chest, shoulders, and triceps):
2) The Bodyweight Squat: This exercise serves a dual purpose: it is the foundation for building strength AND helps build proper mobility. If you are going to ever do barbell squats, you need to work on hitting proper depth with a bodyweight squat first!
3) The Inverted Bodyweight Row: Until you can get your first pull-up or chin-up, these exercises are GREAT to start building your pull-muscle strength (your back, biceps, and forearms).
4) The Pull-Up and Chin-Up: Once you can support your body’s weight above the bar, the world becomes your playground. No strength training routine should be without pull-up or chin-up work! (Click here if you can’t do a pull-up or chin-up yet):
And now we’re into the best weight training exercises:
5) The Barbell Squat: Probably the best exercise when it comes to building strength and muscle throughout your whole body. It also burns crazy calories and makes life better. This is a MUST:
This is a very technical lift, so make sure you read our article on how to deadlift with proper form:
7) The Barbell Bench Press. Lie on a bench, squeeze your shoulder blades to keep your back tight, and then lower a barbell until it almost touches your chest. Pause, and then press it back up towards the sky. Repeat! And get strong.
8) Barbell Overhead Press: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and lean back by pushing your hips forward. While keeping your entire body tight, press the bar overhead.
Once the bar passes your forehead, move your body back under the bar by driving your torso forward and back into a standing position. At the top of the lift shrug your shoulders slightly and lock your elbows.
These are some of the best compound exercises you can complete in order to build muscle. Want more muscle? Great! Get stronger at these movements!
One quick note: when I first started lifting, it took a while to build up the strength to be able to bench press or overhead press with the 45-lb bar. If your gym doesn’t have a lighter bar, dumbbells are a great option!
Your mission, should you choose to accept it:
Commit to trying ONE of these movements in the next week. Use 20 seconds of courage, recruit a friend who has lifted or trained before, and try your best.
I have three options for you next:
- Select one of the muscle-building routines for women in the next section.
- Build your own workout routine using these exercises!
- Work with me and our coaching program to follow a custom strength training routine for your goals.
I’m going to walk you through three different levels of strength training, and by the end of today, you’re going to know exactly how to get started.
My advice: do 2-3 strength training routines per week, with 1-2 days off in between. As the saying goes: “muscle isn’t built in the gym, it’s built in the kitchen!”
So your goal should be to do a strength training routine, and then make sure you eat a caloric surplus so that your body has enough calories to rebuild your muscles bigger and stronger!
LEVEL 1: BODYWEIGHT TRAINING
Here’s a beginner bodyweight training routine you can do in the comfort of your own home:
- 20 Bodyweight squats.
- 10 Push-ups.
- 10 Walking lunges (each leg).
- 10 Dumbbell rows (use a milk jug or other weight).
- 15 Second Plank.
- 30 Jumping jacks.
We also have a downloadable worksheet of this beginner’s workout that you can print out and hang on your fridge to track your progress! Get it when you sign up below:
Grab Your Beginner Bodyweight Routine Worksheet. No Gym Required!
- Complete this workout at home, no equipment required
- Avoid the common mistakes everybody makes when doing bodyweight exercises
- Learn how to finally get your first pull-up
LEVEL 2: DUMBBELL WORKOUT
If you have dumbbells at home or access to a gym, you can pick our Level 4 workout from our 6-Level Gym Workout Routine.
So your Dumbbell Workout is 3 circuits of the following:
- 10 goblet squats (holding the dumbbell like a goblet with 2 hands):
- 10 push-ups (or knee push-ups):
(By the way, these are two GREAT exercises towards getting your first pull-up)
LEVEL 2: BEGINNER KETTLEBELL WORKOUT
If you have a Kettlebell at home, here’s a 20-Minute Beginner Kettlebell Workout you can do:
Do 3 circuits of this Kettlebell Workout:
- 8 Halos (each side)
- 10 Goblet Squats
- 8 Overhead Presses (each side)
- 15 Kettlebell Swings
- 8 Bent Over Rows (each side)
- 6 Front Rack Reverse Lunge (per side)
If you like this Kettlebell workout and want to follow along on a worksheet, simply print out our Kettlebell Workout and bring it with you:
Grab Your Beginner Kettlebell Routine Worksheet!
- Complete this workout at home or gym with 1 kettlebell.
- Avoid the common mistakes everybody makes when doing kettlebell exercises.
- Build strength, burn fat, level up your life!
LEVEL 3: BARBELL GYM WORKOUT
Here’s a Barbell workout you can follow from our Level 5 Gym Workout Routine.
BARBELL BATALLION WORKOUT A:
- 3 sets of 10 barbell squats
- 3 sets of 10 bodyweight rows:
BARBELL BATALLION WORKOUT B:
- 3 sets of 5 barbell Romanian deadlifts (video pulled from our courses in Nerd Fitness Prime)
- 3 sets of 10 bench presses:
- 3 sets of 5 pull-ups, assisted pull-ups, or negative pull-ups:
PICK A WORKOUT, GET STARTED!
The whole point is to do challenging movements that really make your muscles work, and then try to do ONE more rep, or lift a SLIGHTLY heavier weight next time!
Don’t sweat the small details and instead use 20 seconds of courage to get started!
Track your workouts by writing down what you did, and then do what you can next time.
“Staci, that’s still too many choices! Can you just tell me what workout routine to follow?”
Okay fine! Here’s what I would do if I was you.
Still overwhelmed? Check out our coaching program. We get to learn your story, and then build a program and strategy around your goals that you CAN do.
I interviewed multiple other coaches on our team and asked for their best advice on how to build muscle as a woman.
Here’s what they said:
Susy (Coach, BS in Psychology, Certificate III & IV in Fitness, 5+ years of experience)
Tip #1: Food is your friend when you are looking to build muscle and get stronger – your body will need fuel, so you may need to eat more on the days that you work out!
Tip #2: Strength and muscle building requires structure to your workouts – you progress through getting better at specific movements, so make sure that you enjoy the style and structure of your workouts so that you can be as consistent as possible.
Tip #3: Your progress will always be fastest if you avoid injury, so correct form and listening to your body is super important. Your muscles will fatigue and feel sore, but joint pain and sharp, stabby pain means something isn’t moving quite right.
Kerry (Coach, NASM-CPT, 6+ years of experience)
Tip #4: Fall in love with the process. Getting stronger is a journey, one that is both rewarding and challenging. So no matter where you are starting from, take the time to celebrate each small step along the way towards a more badass version of yourself!
Christy (Coach, BS in Applied Health/Fitness, National Personal Training Institute Graduate, Precision Nutrition Certification, 6+ years of experience)
Tip #5: To get strong, you gotta lift weights. When lifting weights to get strong, you gotta be okay with testing your boundaries every now and then.
After exercising with your current weight, for the next training session…stop…and try a few reps with the next weight UP to test it out! It might surprise you how much more weight you can lift!
Here are some other tips to help you build muscle.
Tip #6: Boost your testosterone naturally: Consume enough saturated and monounsaturated fats, keep your sugar intake low, and make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin D and Zinc.
These are items linked with boosting your testosterone naturally.
Speaking of testosterone – I know you may think of this as a “male” hormone, but it plays a huge part in women muscle building, fat loss, increase bone mass, and many other health-related issues(remember: estrogen is made from testosterone).
Men make about ten to fifteen times what we make naturally, but it doesn’t mean we don’t need it too.
Another way we can help our testosterone levels is to watch our cortisol levels.
Cortisol is a hormone that is promoted by stress and reduces free testosterone levels (in addition to signaling for your body to store fat).
Tip #7: Not getting bigger? Eat more food.
Focus on more fats and carbs. They are the easiest ways to increase your total calories.
Tip #8: Make sure every meal has a solid protein source.
Protein is needed for building muscle, so prioritize this above all else when you sit down to eat.
Having trouble getting it all down? Buy a blender!
Steve drinks two smoothies a day to reach his protein goals and you can check out our Guide to Protein Shakes for his personal recipe.
On the go with no blender? I like to keep protein powder with me in a small Ziploc bag – that way I can grab a bottle of water, rip off the corner of the Ziploc bag, and use that as a funnel to get the powder into the water bottle. Then, just replace the cap and shake and you’ve got a protein-filled snack!
Tip #9: Get more sleep! When you build muscle, your body is working overtime, burning extra calories. It’s going to need some time to recover. Remember, muscle is built when you rest, not when you actually lift.
Go to bed!
Tip #10: Start today!
Gaining muscle comes down to eating right and strength training. Let’s get you lifting today!
The most important step you can take today is to begin.
Let’s give you some more tips to get you going.
If I can narrow down building muscle for women, it would be three main points:
- Get stronger by picking up heavy stuff or doing more challenging bodyweight movements.
- Get bigger by eating lots of food.
- Recover faster by sleeping enough and giving your muscles days off to rebuild.
That’s it. You can do this.
If you made it this far, and you want more specific instruction and guidance, we have a few options for you:
1) If you are somebody that wants to follow a tailor-made program designed around their life and goals, check out our popular 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program.
You’ll work with our certified NF instructors who will get to know you better than you know yourself, check your form, and program your workouts and nutrition for you.
2) If you want an exact blueprint for growing strong, check out NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).
Try your free trial right here:
3) Join the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.
Sign up in the box below to enlist and get our guide, Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know. It’ll help you begin your journey on building muscle.
Download our comprehensive guide
- Everything you need to know about getting strong.
- Workout routines for bodyweight AND weight training.
- How to find the right gym and train properly in one.
Lastly, I’d love to hear from you!
PLEASE leave your questions, eating or strength or otherwise below so we can answer them and become best friends and practice karate kicks in the garage:
How can I help you get bigger and stronger?
What part of this journey are you still struggling the most with?
What are your favorite bulking up foods!?
Share with your friends in the comments so we can all go buy it in bulk at Costco.
PS: Make sure you check out the rest of our Strength Building Articles!