How Women Can Build Muscle With Diet and Exercise

Young woman eating a oatmeal after a workout
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Gaining muscle is a common fitness goal. Not only does muscle make you look and feel stronger, it reduces the risk of many chronic conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.

But learning how to apply the best nutrition strategy for lean muscle mass gains can be tricky. Eating for muscle development is different from simply trying to reduce body fat. Muscle is a highly active metabolic tissue that requires substantial nutrients for repair and growth, especially after difficult workouts. 

Because most women naturally have less testosterone than men, muscle-building can be a slower process. Some women also shy away from eating for muscle growth due to concerns about gaining body fat. This misconception can lead to restrictive dieting that doesn't support muscle growth and definition.

How to Eat to Build Muscle

If your goal is to build muscle, changing your mindset and lifestyle are key.

Forget Fad Diets

Although tempting, fad diets just don’t work. Quick-fix approaches and restrictive diets are temporary solutions. They typically rely on pre-made meals, pseudo health bars, and expensive shakes and supplements. Fad diets don’t teach nutrition, leaving people unable to fend for themselves in the kitchen or grocery store.

The billion-dollar fad diet industry is filled with empty promises and fake health foods. Many people follow these expensive diets and are still unable to reach and maintain fitness goals. Overtraining combined with under-eating is a futile cycle that's more likely to inhibit muscle gains than support them.

Fad diets are also not geared ​for people whose goal is to gain muscle. They target people looking for a quick way to lose weight. In order to build muscle, you'll likely want to implement a long-term nutrition plan that will provide long-term results. Use sustainable food plans to learn how to shop, cook, and eat to build and maintain muscle mass. 

Prioritize Carbs and Fats

Avoiding healthy carbs and fats may set your body up for low energy and muscle loss. It's important to learn the difference between the carbs and fats that can benefit your body (complex carbs and certain fats) and those that won't contribute to your fitness goals. Without adequate macronutrients, the body is unable to function at optimal levels. This leaves many people tired and frustrated because they are not seeing the results they're striving for. 

Both carbohydrates and fats have been blamed as a reason for excess body fat. However, eliminating these macronutrients deprives lean tissue of essential nutrients for muscle growth, making it harder to get the results you've been working towards.

Reducing the simple carbs and fats, such as those found in high-sugar, processed foods is a good place to start. However, there's no reason to restrict the complex carbs and healthy fats commonly found in vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, avocados, and healthy oils.

Doing so robs your body of essential macronutrients that your muscles need for glycogen (energy) and anabolism (growth). Complex carbs play an important role in muscle-building. They are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscle tissue and provide energy during and after your workouts. 

Our bodies generally don't tolerate carb restriction well and will convert amino acids (protein) stored in muscle to fuel workouts in the absence of carbs. This process is called gluconeogenesis and can mean losing hard-earned muscle. 

Fats, especially essential fatty acids (EFAs), play an equally important part in muscle development. They are linked to muscle preservation, fat burning, and hormone function. Fats help transport nutrients in and out of our cells and deliver amino acids to muscle tissue.

Focus on Muscle Growth

Make a mental shift from focusing on foods for fat loss to eating for muscle gain. This means consuming nutrient-dense foods in the form of lean proteins, complex carbs, and fats in the right quantity to support muscle growth. 

It also means committing to regular weight resistance training. If your goal is to achieve muscle definition, it will require more than cardio to get there.

Focusing on losing fat without considering what it takes to build muscle can become a mental roadblock. Many people find it difficult to believe that eating more nutrient-dense calories results in faster muscle gain.

Try various and challenging weightlifting classes or solo lifting to build muscle. Approach your workout with determination and accept the potential discomfort of lifting heavier weights. Your new outlook and efforts will likely create new muscle and a natural reduction of body fat at the same time. 

Go Easy on Yourself

It's not uncommon to go through guilt cycles when it comes to food. Our bodies and brains don’t respond well to exercise as punishment. Completing hours of cardio or overly restricting your caloric intake to "make up for" indulgences hinders muscle development and may cause physical and emotional stress.

If you get down on yourself and allow slip-ups to define you, you may be more susceptible to unhealthy exercise practices or giving up. While some people can enjoy an indulgence and move on, others believe that all of their muscle-building efforts are ruined by going off plan. Spoiler alert: They're not.

Remember, one less nutritious meal won’t make you tip the scale. It’s what we do on a consistent basis that determines our overall body composition.

If your mindset is focused on muscle growth rather than fat loss, an occasional treat is not going to make or break your results. Reframe your way of thinking to free yourself from needless and counter-productive guilt.

How to Exercise to Build Muscle

Strength training is the most effective way to build muscle. Incorporating bodyweight workouts and weight lifting into your workout regimen can be a successful way to increase muscle mass and gain strength.

You don't need much equipment — or any at all — to start a strength routine. Instead, start a bodyweight circuit at home for beginners to kick off your strength training journey. A workout that includes squats, pushups, lunges, planks, and mountain climbers can be an effective strength-building strategy. All of these moves, incorporated into your routine, can help in building muscle.

Elevate a bodyweight workout by adding low-weight dumbbells. For example, perform a squat while holding dumbbells at shoulder height. Alternatively, do a lunge with two dumbbells at your side.

If you'd like more direction with your moves, download a fitness app, which can guide you in moves and proper form for each step.

A Word From Verywell

Gaining muscle is a popular health and fitness goal, and eating well to support lean mass gains is essential. Once proper nutrition is incorporated, building muscle can lead to effective fat loss as well. A review of your current food intake and more mindfulness around your eating habits will unlock your muscle development potential.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Darla Leal
Darla Leal is a Master Fitness Trainer, freelance writer, and the creator of Stay Healthy Fitness, where she embraces a "fit-over-55" lifestyle.