It’s no secret that weightlifting has become much more popular among women than what it used to be.
Many have realized that we women shouldn’t be afraid of the weight room. It will not make you “look like a man” but rather building strength is empowering, and impacts other areas of our lives. It can also be a more effective way to improve your body composition than excessive cardio and extreme diets.
I LOVE that many women have discovered what has been a passion of mine for over 6 years now. But a desire to build muscle and get stronger is one thing.
Knowing how to successfully accomplish this goal is another.
There’s so much fitness related information out there that it makes it very difficult to know what advice to follow when your primary goal is to build muscle. ESPECIALLY for women. So many sources advertise “Eat this to lose weight” or “Follow this guide to spot reduce your stomach and thighs.” The amount of incorrect information out there makes it a lot more confusing than it should be.
Whether you’ve been lifting for some time and stopped seeing progress and you just can’t figure out why, or you’re a newbie looking for what to avoid doing in the gym, this list is for you.
Disclaimer: I am not a certified trainer nor have I conducted any research on these subjects. I am simply sharing what I’ve learned in my 6 years lifting to be most effective.
1. You’re focusing on how much weight you’re lifting rather than how good your form is
If you’ve read any information or watched any videos at all on building muscle, the most widespread tip you’ve undoubtedly come across is to focus on progressive overload.
One of the most common forms of progressive overload is increasing the load you can lift over time.
However, a common mistake in the quest to lift heavy is sacrificing form. Not only do you risk injury, but you may not be properly stressing the muscles you’re intending to if you’re lifting with bad form. You become confused and disillusioned when all your effort seems to be going to waste, as you’ve gone up in weight but don’t seem to have gained any muscle for your troubles.
For example, if you can squat 155 pounds but you’re only going down a quarter of the way (decreased range of motion, and poor form), you may wonder why you haven’t built muscle in your glutes.
Or maybe when hip thrusting, you can lift 200 pounds, but similarly, you don’t notice much muscle growth. Chances are, the weight is too heavy for you and you’re over-compensating with other muscles (i.e. your quads) while struggling to bring your hips all the way up to parallel. You’ve sacrificed perfect form for a little more weight and as a result, you won’t see the muscle growth you’re expecting.
One of my favorite Instagram accounts to follow is @collegecleaneating. She emphasizes form over everything, and provides helpful tips for cues to fix your form. Her results speak for themselves!
2. You’re switching up exercises too frequently
Many trainers and influencers out there (especially those targeting a female audience) tend to recommend a long list of different and complex exercise combinations as the key to building muscle or toning your body.
*Step up, lift your leg back & up, step down, step back into a lunge, jump, curtsy lunge, return to center*
I might be exaggerating a bit, but honestly not by a lot. I see it all the time.
Not only is that sequence hard to memorize, its not necessary. It makes it more difficult to measure your progress week over week, hard to increase the weight you’re lifting, and overall it’s just not the best strategy.
When it comes to building muscle, make compound exercises a staple in your programs. Prioritize them. It may seem “boring” but there are plenty of ways to take the same handful of exercises and progress them to build muscle.
You’ll see that you progress far more quickly.
3.Your overall training volume per week is too high
The tricky part about making compound exercises your focus is that now it’s imperative that you take into consideration your overall training volume of heavy exercises per week.
A common inclination when trying to see results is to workout more frequently. More workouts = more chances to build muscle right? Maybe, depending on how you structure the volume of each training session.
The more common outcome if you combine progressive overload with training too frequently (or too many overall sets at a given weight per week, even if completed in fewer sessions), is that you over-train.
You might find that you can normally comfortably lift a certain amount for a compound exercise, but lately, you’re struggling to lift it at all. What is normally your warm up seems challenging as a working set.
If this sounds like you, chances are you’re not prioritizing recovery enough, and over-doing it in the gym. (Nutrition also plays a role in recovery)
Not only do you lose strength, you again risk injury. And not only the type of injury where you immediately feel pain, but rather the type of injury that builds up from stress over time until all of a sudden you have a nagging pain in your lower back or wherever it may be.
According to trainer Bret Contreras, the ideal number of sets per week would be somewhere between 15 and 30 depending on the muscle group in question, the exercises chosen, and the inherent recovery ability of the individual. For purposes of simplicity, you can set the optimal volume at 24 sets per week.
The simple way that I approach this lesson, is to not train for strength every single session. I have strength targets in mind, but I utilize other forms of progressive overload which allow me to stress my muscles but to not over-do it on the number of heavy sets I complete per week (see tip #5).
4. You’re not eating enough
This one is huge, particularly for women. Most women at some point or another in life have been afraid to eat. We’ve been conditioned to always be conscious about our bodies appearance, and often held to unrealistic standards for how slim we should be.
As a result, me telling you that you need to eat more can sound scary.
But if your goal is to gain muscle, you need to eat. Muscle burns a lot of energy, and a number of things can happen if you don’t eat enough. You can get down to too low of a body fat percentage and lose your period. I did this for a few months when I first started lifting, and I know others who have as well. Its extremely difficult to get your period back if it’s gone for too long, and it really takes a toll on your hormones and even your long term health.
If you are optimizing your training and recovery, but aren’t building muscle, gradually increase your calories until you start to see progress. You’ll learn that you can likely eat a lot more than you currently are without gaining a lot of excess fat, as long as you’re training correctly.
5. You’re not using multiple methods of progressive overload
In reason #1, I mentioned that one of the most common forms of progressive overload is increasing the load you can lift over time. However its limiting your progress if that’s all you focus on when it comes to progressive overload, primarily because as you become more and more of an experienced lifter, it becomes harder to continuously add weight to the bar. Eventually, you plateau.
You need other tools in your arsenal to continue to build muscle. I go into more detail on some of the other methods of progressive overload here, but the main point is that if you’re not seeing muscle growth, it’s may not be that you’re doing the wrong exercises, it might just mean you need to change how you’re completing them.
If you address these 5 areas (or any of them in particular that are applicable to your current situation), I’m confident that you’ll see some improvement. Lifting weights and gaining muscle might seem complicated, but there are a number of rather simple principles to be focused on that can make a world of a difference when executed correctly. Let me know your thoughts below!