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The Ultimate Women’s Guide To Building Lean Muscle

Getting a lean body takes some serious effort. You need to have a great program and you need to work that program. The process can be challenging and frustrating — it can also be confusing. There is a great deal of misinformation floating around out there. Exercises and diets that promise you quick, easy results that seem too good to be true are more often than not just that — too good to be true.

Let us clear things up for you! Here are some tips, backed by science, that will clear up the confusion and misinformation and help you get that lean muscle you’ve always wanted!

1. Train for muscle

Women often gear their workouts towards fat loss. On the surface, this seems like a really good idea but it doesn’t really work. Science has found that when people use losing fat as their motivation, they are less successful because they end up eating more calories after their workouts. What researchers have found is that people have a tendency to reward themselves for the physical things they do in the name of weight loss. On the flip side, people who work out to build strength or muscle don’t compensate by eating more calories.

Another benefit to training for muscle is that the exercises you will have to do  significantly impact your metabolism causing you to burn more calories during your post-workout recovery. All of this  can  trigger hormones that help you to burn fat and curb your appetite.

2. Don’t slash calories

Everything in our culture seems to support the idea that women are required to starve themselves in order to look better. How many times have you seen something telling you to eat as little as possible? Plain and simple, this will not help you get the results you desire. When you drastically reduce calories,  your  metabolism will slow in order to preserve fuel sources, causing you to burn fewer calories. Basically, you never want to dip below your resting metabolic rate (RMR). Your RMR is the amount of calories you would burn if you did nothing and stayed in bed all day. An average woman of normal weight who doesn’t exercise has an estimated RMR of 1441 calories. This is the absolute minimum a woman should eat. If you are working out, you’ll need to eat more. Remember, this is just a rough estimate. The exact number of calories you need to consume will depend on your body composition, genetics, diet, physical activity, and the type of training you are doing.

3. Don’t obsess about calories

Obsessively counting calories is another misguided habit that many women adopt. Studies have found that counting calories can create anxiety which elevates stress levels in the body. These elevated stress levels cause your body to produce more cortisol. Restricting calories can also elevate your cortisol levels. So, if you are cutting calories AND counting them, you are compounding the problem.

Cortisol is a hormone that can cause you to crave high-carb foods and store fat around your midsection. The solution to this problem is to find a way to naturally reduce your calorie intake without leaving yourself feeling hungry. Try a higher protein, lower carb diet. Protein can help your body release hormones that make you feel satiated and reduce hunger.

4. Don’t be afraid of dietary fat

For women, low-fat diets can be problematic. When women avoid dietary fat, they have a tendency to eat more carbs. This causes fluctuations in blood sugar levels which raises insulin and reduces fat burning capabilities. Not getting enough fat can also create hormone imbalances because the body uses the cholesterol from fat to manufacture hormones.

Natural fat sources like eggs, butter, and fish, provide essential nutrients that the body can readily absorb. When women are not getting enough of these nutrients, it may elevate hunger cues and lead to overeating.  A solution to this problem is to include a variety of healthy fats in your diet. You can get omega-3s from fish and grass-fed meat, monounsaturated fats from nuts, seeds and avocados, and saturated fats from eggs, butter and coconut oil. It is best to avoid processed fats like vegetable oils and trans-fats which are often hidden as hydrogenated oils in packaged foods.

5. Improve estrogen metabolism

When in balance with other hormones and androgens, estrogen can be beneficial for female body composition and health. But, too much estrogen can lead to fat storage. So where does all this extra estrogen come from?

Chemical estrogens found in plastics may be one source while poor estrogen metabolism is another possibility. Poor estrogen metabolism is caused by a poor diet, lack of exercise and lack of muscle mass.

Improving your estrogen balances involves a multi-pronged approach. First, cut down on toxic estrogen exposure by eliminating plastics. Second, make sure you get plenty of exercise and begin training with weights to improve your body composition. Finally, shift your diet. Eat more protein and be sure to include plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables — cruciferous vegetables in particular like, broccoli and cauliflower.

6. Cut unhealthy carbs in favour of fruits and vegetables

It can be easy to lose track of how many refined carbs you are consuming. Breads, cereals and packaged low-fat foods contain carbs that will spike insulin and raise blood sugar levels. Any of that sugar your body doesn’t burn off right away will be stored as fat. The more of these foods you eat, the more resistant your body becomes to insulin and the more fat it will store.

Healthy, whole carbs, work differently. These healthy carbs slowly raise blood sugar and provide important nutrients that actually increase your body’s insulin sensitivity. Found in foods like vegetables, these carbs also contain fiber which slows digestion and leaves you feeling fuller, longer. Boiled grains and fruit are also healthy sources of carbs but since they are more calorie dense than vegetables, it is important to be mindful of your portion size and consume them when your body is most sensitive to insulin like after an intense workout.

7. Have an established meal frequency — avoid fasting for long periods

One thing that might help you get lean is to establish an eating pattern within a set window or period of time. Eating all of your food within a 10-12 hour period of time can be useful. Instead of eating anytime you feel inclined during a 24 hour day, restricting yourself to a smaller window can improve your metabolic health. Doing this forces your body to burn fat during the time you are not eating. Intermittent fasting is all the rage these days but fasting for periods of longer than 16 hours can cause troubles with cortisol and reproductive hormones in women. Shorter fasting periods tend to be more effective.

What you eat within that 12 hours is up to you. Some women feel wonderful eating 3 meals and a snack while others flourish on 6 small meals. What works for you is up to you to sort out. Whatever your ideal meal frequency turns out to be, remember to plan your meals to include protein, low-carb vegetables and healthy fat.

8. Get metabolically flexible

Being metabolically flexible means your body is able to burn both fat and carbohydrates for energy. This helps you to reduce fat while maintaining energy levels.

When you are not in this state, you will have a difficult time burning fat and you will need to boost your energy by eating carbs every few hours. Without this carb boost, you will experience a blood sugar dip which can make you feel cranky and tired. Fueling your body with carbs raises insulin levels and makes it virtually impossible to get lean.

The solution is to find a balance between your energy sources. There are two ways you can improve your metabolic flexibility. First, reduce the number of calories you are getting from carbohydrates in favour of calories from protein and fat. For example, if you are getting 55% of your calories from carbs, cut that back to 40% and increase your protein calories to 25% and your fat calories to 35%. Just make sure the carbs you are eating are healthy, complex carbs. Second, increase your exercise! Fat burning increases during exercise and this helps your metabolism!

9. Train the classic multi-joint lifts

Women often find themselves sidetracked at the gym by isolation exercises and small movements that target specific body parts. These types of exercises are not real metabolism boosters and do little to create an afterburn when compared to whole body exercises. Exercises like squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups will make you stronger and more agile while building strength in the lower back and tightening core muscles. You’ll also want to include presses, rows, or back extensions to increase variety and build strength in other areas. It is best to plan your training around multi-joint lifts. To increase these results further, consider adding some extra resistance to your movements. Wearing a weighted vest, for example, is a great way to add extra weight without hindering your movements. The vest makes your body work harder without you having to change your routine. Need a vest? Get one here!

10. Do modified strongman or sprints for cardio

Doing intermittent exercises like sprints or modified strongman training (sled training, for example), is a very effective way to get lean. These types of exercises torch calories while you are doing them and trigger an afterburn that can increase the number of calories you burn for up to 24 hours after you’ve stopped working out! They also lead to protein synthesis so you can improve lean muscle mass and keep your metabolic rate steady why you lose fat. Lastly, these exercises release your major fat burning hormones. These hormones mobilize fat for burning and add to the afterburn by increasing your post-workout energy expenditure. For example, active women who did 4-6 30 second running sprints for 6 weeks lost an average of 3 pounds of fat and reduced their body fat by 8%! If you are overweight, you can expect and even greater fat loss.

Have you felt confused in your attempts to get lean? Does this information help things make a little more sense? Share your experience with us!

 

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18 comments

  • Christy Balcita: January 20, 2017

    can I just ask if you have had any kids because I don’t think it would be possible to ever look like this after having 4 kids. I would love to believe that it is possible, but I have tried to lose 15 pounds for a year now and flabby as all get-out and continually doing weights.

  • brandi keith: December 10, 2016

    I would try your workout ideas thanks

  • Amy: October 30, 2016

    This is a great article! It’s packed full of useful information that is easy to implement. Thanks so much for all you guys do to help us get healthy and fit.

  • Kristine: September 15, 2016

    How to you choose which weighted vest to purchase.

  • Kiana: August 15, 2016

    Hi Kathryn! Your trouble with weight loss is more associated with the loss of estrogen hormone and the resulting increase in other stress hormones (I.e. Cortisol). You would most likely benefit from a nutrition regimen that focuses on increasing natural, organic food sources of estrogen and a exercise routine that is less taxing on the body (which can increase stress & stall weight loss). Try yoga, meditation, Pilates, and tai chi. I'm an RN Health Coach and offer nutrition plans that may be of help to you ? knghealthyliving1gmail.com

  • Lana : July 26, 2016

    I meant sprints : do you know if it’s better to do them in the morning or at night, before sleep? For better effect. Sorry I wasn’t clear.

  • Lana : July 26, 2016

    @Tiffany do you know if it’s better to do in the morning or at night before sleep? For better effect.

  • Kathryn: July 24, 2016

    Hi! I have exercised consistently since I was 15. My frustration is that I am now 53, in menopause and I have tried so many different things to drop some numbers on the scale and it will not budge. I hike 4 days a week and just started taking a body pump class at the gym 3 days a week. After my divorce I gained 18 lbs (of which I had lost because of stress) and I am now 159 lbs. I also have tried replacing meals with protein shakes and eating one healthy meal a day and nothing seems to change. One thing that hasn’t changed is that I am not willing to give up and I keep looking for a solution that will work for me.

  • Jenny: July 21, 2016

    Hi, I just wanted to clarify in the very last section, it says: “active women who did 4-6 30 second running sprints for 6 weeks…”

    Does this mean 4-6 30 second running sprints per day for six weeks? Or per week?

    Thanks!

  • Tammy Brunk: July 11, 2016

    Help
    there are so many work outs to chose from and so much different advice. I have been bullied all of my life about my body.

  • Linda: July 10, 2016

    Thanks for the info. I just broke my arm, in a cast for 6 weeks to my elbow. In looking to reorganize my workouts and nutrition, this info is helpful. Upping my protein for bone healing is already on the agenda but any other suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. I normally would be running but have to change the routine for a few weeks :( , trying to keep my chin up.

  • Jenn: July 09, 2016

    I am doing about 30 minutes of cardio followed by 30-45 minutes of weight training. I eat healthy but I’ve hit a plateau. Any advice?

  • Racquel Charlemagne: July 05, 2016

    Your site rocks. I can’t wait to get bodied after I give birth!!! Thanks so much.

  • Karen Birdsall: July 01, 2016

    When discussing the effect of estrogen what is the beat way for women that are post menopausal. I currently take a low dose hormone to negate the effects of menopause but is that working against me adding estrogen to my body and is there a better way.

    thank you
    karen

  • Jennifer : June 09, 2016

    Is it better to count calories and macros or just keep track of macros? Also how do I find out what percentage of macros would help me build muscle and lower fat percentage?

  • Tiffany: June 09, 2016

    @Sarah,
    Good point, specifics are useful. The article is referring to 4-6 sets of running at full sprint speed for 30 seconds with (I’m assuming) about 10 second rests in between each set. I would personally recommend not stopping during the rest periods in between, but to slow to a jog or at least keep moving (such as walking). As for how many times a week, they seem to have completely left that out. I’m not sure if you were posing your question because you yourself wanted to know, or if you were simply providing some positive criticism to have the writer elaborate for the sake of others reading. Either way, I would say that if somebody did these at least 3-4 times a week that they should notice some sort of change. I am not a personal trainer, but I do have a bit of experience with HIIT. Hope this helps.

  • Sarah: June 03, 2016

    When you say “active women who did 4-6 30 second running sprints for 6 weeks” could you be more specific? I’m guessing you don’t mean they sprinted for thirty seconds, once a day, 4-6 times a week for 6 weeks.

  • Nisia Hobbs: May 28, 2016

    This was really great information ;-) Thanks.I actually have implemented a lot of the info you mention already.Its just nice to see I’m on the right track and this article was a great confirmation.

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