Not all women are looking to lose weight—some actually want to add a few pounds. But not just any pounds, they typically mean they want to gain lean muscle. And just as with weight loss, weight gain comes down to caloric intake versus caloric output. There are other factors that can help, however, so that you put on muscle in the healthiest and most efficient way.
When you're in the gym working out, you are breaking down your muscles (i.e. putting stress on them); out of the gym they recover and grow via diet, sleep, and hydration. Here's your two-part plan to maximize muscle growth.
Inside the Gym
1. Do strength exercises that are compound muscle movements. [Tweet this tip!] In other words, do moves that utilize multiple muscles and multiple joints at the same time. These recruit and break down more muscle fibers so that in recovery phase, more are building and growing than if you were to do just isolated muscle moves. Exercises include squats, lunges, deadlifts, cleans, burpees, walking lunges, and plyometric moves like jump squats and box jumps, and can be performed with our without weights, as appropriate.
2. Lift heavier weights. I've said it before: Train like a man, look like a lady. Do not be afraid of bigger weights! If you lift like the boys, your body produces testosterone in order to adapt to the big stress that you place on it, and this helps build muscle. If you're doing a back squat comfortably with just a bar, add 5 to 10 pounds to each side. If you are doing eight to 10 reps of any move comfortably, that's a good sign you should increase your weight. For bodyweight moves, do more reps (if you can—some bodyweight exercises are challenging enough).
3. Up your rep speed. Another way to place more stress on your body is just to complete your reps faster (without sacrificing form). A good pace is one repetition every two seconds. You should still be able to maintain your form.
4. Stick to low-impact, light cardio. And not very much of it. Cardio gets your blood flowing so that your muscles are receiving more oxygen, which promotes muscle growth. But don't do much of it: You should always be lifting more often than doing cardio if you want to increase your muscle mass. A good plan to stick to is strength training three times a week, and one day of light, low-impact cardio—no six-mile runs. Think about a long-distance runner's body (very lean, low body fat) compared to a sprinter's body (more muscular). Also don't do cardio before your strength training session if you do choose to do them on the same day. This will fatigue your muscles, and you'll sacrifice form and increase risk of injury.
Outside the Gym
1. Time your carbs. Eat more carbohydrates at breakfast and immediately after your workout in that half-hour anabolic window to maximize muscle recovery. Your body has that short window post-workout to restore, so get a liquid carbohydrate and protein drink into your body to help replenish your glycogen stores as fast as possible. This has proven to restore muscle recovery, increase lean muscle gains, and increase growth hormone levels. During your cardio session, sip on a carb-rich or calorie-rich drink to make sure you keep your calorie intake up. And common sense here: The rest of the day eat good-for-you foods, i.e. lots of color and protein. For more advice, follow this eating plan to gain weight in a healthy way.
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2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Drink half of your bodyweight in ounces of water daily so your muscles stay full and saturated.
3. Sleep. This is where the magic really happens. After a workout, your muscles use the nutrients and water you've ingested during the day, and will work during your sleep to build and grow your muscles. So don't skimp!