As a female who loves to eat and lift weights, the benefits of building muscle mass for women is one of my favorite topics to talk about. But I can also tell you from experience that there’s a right and wrong way to gain weight if you’re looking to add muscle.
So how should females eat and train if they’re looking to build muscle? If you’re a female who’s trying to bulk, you’ll need to eat in a caloric surplus and increase your daily calorie intake by about 10%. You’ll also want to strength train at least four to five days per week, follow the recommended set and rep ranges for hypertrophy training, and limit the amount of cardio you do.
In this article, I’ll discuss the definition of bulking, why women should consider bulking, whether or not it’s easy for women to build muscle, and how to know if you should bulk.
I’ll also show you how to calculate your calorie needs for a bulking phase and discuss the ideal ways to work out when you’re bulking. At the end, I’ll provide a sample bulking workout plan for women.
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What Does It Mean to Bulk?
When you bulk, it means you’re intentionally trying to gain weight. Most often, the goal with a bulk is to put on more muscle mass.
In order to bulk, you need to eat in a calorie surplus. You may think this means you can eat whatever you want, but that’s not exactly true. Even when you’re trying to gain weight, food quality is important, especially if you’re a competitive athlete and/or you’re trying to minimize fat gain, which I’ll discuss later in this article.
Why Should Females Build Muscle?
Gaining weight intentionally is a hard concept for many women to wrap their heads around. We’re frequently bombarded with messages about shrinking our bodies and trying to fit into smaller sizes, and we’re particularly vulnerable to body image issues. But there are several reasons why it’s beneficial for women to build muscle.
1. It’s better than cardio for changing your body composition
If you want to improve your body composition, doing hours of cardio won’t give you the aesthetic results you want. In order to be able to see muscle definition, you have to actually build muscle, and that’s achieved by lifting weights, eating enough protein, and keeping the rest of your nutrition in check.
2. It makes daily activities and other forms of exercise easier
Building muscle makes you stronger, which makes things like carrying groceries, picking up your child, or moving heavy furniture by yourself much easier. It also helps boost your muscular endurance and strengthens your bones, ligaments, and tissues, which can enhance your performance in the gym and help prevent injuries.
3. It boosts your metabolism
Building muscle increases your resting metabolic rate so you burn more calories even if you’re just laying in bed. This means you can also eat more food without gaining weight — though you still have to be mindful of how many calories you’re eating on a daily basis.
4. It can help prevent diseases and metabolic conditions
And for people who have type 2 diabetes, strength training can improve glycemic control and help prevent sarcopenia, or the loss of skeletal muscle mass.
Is It Easy for Females to Build Muscle?
While perceptions are changing, the belief that women will become too bulky from lifting weights is still rampant. But it’s actually difficult for women to build muscle because they don’t have enough testosterone, the hormone that promotes increased muscle strength and muscle mass.
Lifting weights does help increase testosterone levels in women, but they’ll still be nowhere near the amounts of testosterone that men have. As such, the hormone’s effects on muscle and strength gains aren’t quite as prevalent in females.
Being on hormonal birth control or having conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome can also make it harder for women to build muscle.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for women to build muscle. It just means that you have to work harder at it by being more strategic about how you eat and train.
What About Female Bodybuilders?
You may be wondering about women who compete in bodybuilding and why they look as muscular as they do. It’s important to keep in mind that the majority of these women have dedicated their entire lives to eating and training in such a way that results in them looking the way they do.
In many cases, they’re also genetically gifted and/or take steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs to achieve their desired physiques. It’s difficult to look that way just by lifting weights a few days a week and eating an extra 100-200 calories per day.
How To Know If You Should Bulk
You can theoretically bulk any time you want to put on muscle mass, but there are a few criteria you should meet before you enter a dedicated bulking phase.
- Your body fat percentage should be less than 20%. Some fat gain is inevitable even if you follow a correctly-structured muscle-building plan. Trying to bulk when you already have a high body fat percentage can cause you to gain even more fat in the process, which means you’ll have to spend more time in cutting phases later on in order to lose that excess fat.
- You’re “skinny fat.” Being skinny fat means you’re thin or you have an acceptable body weight but you don’t carry a lot of muscle mass. If this sounds like you, you’ll want to spend some time in a bulking period so you can add muscle to your frame. And if you’re skinny fat, it’s likely that you don’t have a lot of experience with strength training, so you’ll be able to build muscle more easily than someone who’s been lifting weights for years.
- You’ve already cycled through multiple cut and maintenance phases. If you’ve been trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of cutting and maintaining your weight, you might want to give bulking a try. It will give your body and mind a much-needed break from the stresses of constantly dieting.
- You’re okay with sacrificing your body composition in order to get stronger. If your main goal is to get stronger and you don’t mind looking or feeling heavier, bulking is a good idea. It’s also a good option for powerlifters or weightlifters who want to move up a weight class in order to stay competitive.
Eating to Gain Weight
As you’ll see, intentionally gaining weight doesn’t necessarily mean that you should eat whatever you want. Focusing on food quality and quantity is just as important during a bulk as it is during a cut.
Figuring Out How Many Calories to Eat When You’re Bulking
Before you determine how many calories you need to eat to gain weight, you first need to know your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
Your TDEE is the number of calories you burn each day. Some people also refer to this as maintenance calories, or the number of calories you can eat each day without changing your weight. You’ll need to know this number because you’ll use it to determine how many extra calories you have to eat to gain weight.
You can use an online calculator like this one to determine your TDEE. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the results you get from calculators like these are just a starting point, and your actual TDEE may be higher or lower.
Before you start your bulking phase, you should spend at least two weeks eating according to your TDEE results to see how it affects your weight. If you’ve lost weight, your TDEE is likely higher, but if you’ve gained weight, your TDEE may actually be lower. You’ll then have to adjust your calorie intake higher or lower until you’ve reached a maintenance point.
Once you’ve established your TDEE, you can determine how many calories you should eat each day to gain weight. In general, you’ll want to start by increasing your calories by about 10%. So if your maintenance calories are 2,600, you can start your bulk by eating an extra 260 calories per day.
Protein, Carbohydrate, and Fat Breakdown for a Female Bulking Diet
In addition to monitoring your overall caloric intake, it’s important to track your macros as well. Getting enough of each macro will make your bulk more successful by ensuring you’re fueling your body properly with the right amount of protein, carbs, and fats.
Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle mass, especially for women who strength train.
If you lift weights and you’re trying to bulk, you should eat 0.8-1.2g of protein per pound of body weight per day. For a 150lb female, this would be anywhere from 120-180g of protein per day.
The protein needs for women with lower activity levels will be at the lower end of that range while those for women who are highly active will be at the higher end.
Carbs provide the energy your body needs to get you through a tough workout and help the major organs in your body function properly. They’re also necessary for recovery and help replenish the glycogen stores that you lose during a workout.
Females who are bulking should aim for about 2-2.5g of carbs per body weight per day. Using our example of a 150lb woman, this would equal 300-375g of carbs each day.
Fats are essential for hormone regulation, vitamin absorption, and satiety. Because fatty sources of food are calorie-dense, including enough of them in a bulking diet is an excellent way to easily meet your calorie needs.
A female in a bulking phase should eat anywhere from 0.5-1g of fat per kilogram of body weight per day. So our 150lb (68kg) female should aim for 34-68g of fat per day.
Differences Between A Clean Bulk and A Dirty Bulk
While increasing your calories may sound fun, you shouldn’t fall into the trap of eating whatever you want. This is commonly referred to as a dirty bulk — in other words, you eat large quantities of junky, high-calorie foods to put on weight as quickly as possible.
The problem with following a dirty bulk and gaining weight too quickly is that the weight you gain is more likely to be fat instead of muscle. This can have negative effects on your health and, as I mentioned earlier, make it more difficult to lose that excess fat in the future.
A clean bulk is a much more reasonable way to add muscle mass. When you’re following a dirty bulk, you can still eat high-calorie foods on occasion. However, you should prioritize more nutritious foods like chicken, rice, vegetables, oatmeal, eggs, olive oil, and nuts. You’ll just eat higher quantities of them in order to maintain a calorie surplus.
Related Article: 16 Healthy Bulking Foods for Hard Gainers
What Supplements Should You Take During a Bulking Phase?
The fitness industry is fraught with supplements. But even if you’re trying to gain weight, you really don’t need many and should instead get as many calories as possible from real food sources.
That said, some supplements are worth taking not necessarily because they can aid in your weight gain but because they can boost your performance in the gym, which will make it easier for you to continue strength training consistently.
Creatine is a substance that’s found naturally in your body and is produced by the amino acids glycine and arginine. The majority of the creatine that your body produces is phosphocreatine, which recycles a compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that’s responsible for providing energy to your cells.
It’s recommended to consume at least 5g of creatine per day. You can get creatine from eating meat and seafood, but you’d need to eat a huge quantity of both to reach that recommended amount.
When supplementing with creatine, you should look for creatine monohydrate, the purest form of creatine and the one that’s most frequently researched. Some studies suggest that taking creatine immediately after working out is best, but you can take it at any time of the day.
2. Protein powder
Women who strength train already have higher protein needs than sedentary women, and trying to meet your daily protein goals when you’re bulking can be difficult if you’re relying solely on egg whites, Greek yogurt, or chicken. A high-quality whey protein powder can help you fill the gaps by providing anywhere from 20-30g of protein per serving.
Protein powder is most often found in the forms of whey protein and casein protein. Whey protein is a quicker digesting protein that’s best when taken before, during, or immediately after a workout. Casein is slow digesting and is best for when you won’t be able to eat for a while, such as right before you go to bed.
Whey and casein protein powders are usually sold separately, but some brands sell whey and casein blends so you can get the best of both worlds. Some protein powders are also considered mass gainers because they have a high amount of carbs and more calories, which can be useful if you’re struggling to gain weight.
If you can’t eat dairy, there are also many dairy-free and vegan protein powders on the market. Collagen is another popular form of protein, but it’s not a complete protein because it doesn’t have a full amino acid profile. You can still supplement with collagen, but you’ll get more bang for your buck by taking whey, casein, or a high-quality vegan protein powder.
Whether it’s through multiple cups of coffee, a single dose of a potent pre-workout, or a caffeine pill, caffeine can give you an energy boost that’s necessary for getting through a tough strength training session.
Research suggests that taking anywhere from 2-6mg per kilogram of body weight 30-60 minutes before exercise can yield the greatest results.
What about BCAAs?
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a bit of a controversial subject in the fitness industry. Some people swear by them because of their purported effects on recovery and their ability to reduce muscle soreness, but research supporting these claims is limited.
The three amino acids that comprise BCAAs — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — aren’t naturally occurring in the body, which is why people turn to BCAA supplements. But you can get an adequate amount of BCAAs from foods such as chicken and tuna, so supplementation isn’t necessary for most people.
Training to Gain Weight
It may sound obvious that lifting weights is the best way to build muscle. However, there are still several things to keep in mind when training during a bulking cycle so you can maximize your muscle gains.
Should You Train for Hypertrophy or Strength During a Bulking Phase?
When you’re trying to add muscle mass, you should train for hypertrophy. This means you should aim for three to five sets of eight to 12 reps. By keeping your reps in these higher ranges, you’ll only be able to lift at moderate percentages. This will allow you to do enough volume to induce the muscle damage needed for your muscles to grow bigger.
Furthermore, while you can and should include compound movements in a bulking plan, you should also include a lot of isolation exercises. As the name suggests, isolation exercises isolate specific muscle groups, which can help you develop the well-rounded physique you’re likely looking to achieve from your bulking phase.
How Often Should You Train During a Bulk?
While it’s possible to build some muscle by lifting weights only one, two, or three days per week, to maximize your growth potential, you’ll want to train four to five days per week.
In order for your muscles to grow, it’s recommended to do anywhere from 5-20 sets per muscle group per week depending on your experience level and which body part you’re training.
At the higher end of this range, it’s impossible to do all of those sets within one session. Spreading your training out over four or five days per week will allow you to split those sets up into multiple sessions so you don’t have to spend hours in the gym and you can recover properly between workouts.
Should You Do Cardio When You’re Trying to Bulk?
When you’re in a bulking phase, the goals are to gain weight and put on muscle mass. Excessive cardio can be counterproductive to those goals. It can not only prohibit muscle growth but also increases the amount of calories you need to eat to support your activity levels, which can be difficult to sustain when you’re already eating in a surplus.
You can still do some cardio if you enjoy it or you want to maintain cardiovascular health, but you’ll want to cut back on how much you do.
A good rule of thumb is to keep low-intensity cardio sessions to no more than 45 minutes and high-intensity sessions to no more than 20 minutes. I also recommend doing a maximum of three cardio sessions per week during a bulking phase, preferably on non-lifting days.
Related Article: What Cardio Should You Do When Bulking (The Best 3 Options)
How Many Rest Days Should You Take When Following a Bulking Plan?
If you’re trying to gain weight, you may be tempted to strength train more often. But lifting weights more frequently can lead to overtraining, which can have an adverse affect on your bulking phase.
Contrary to popular belief, muscle building occurs when your body is at rest, not when you’re training. Taking at least two rest days a week will give your body enough time to recover so your muscles can grow and you can continue training hard every time you go to the gym.
What Is a Good Rate of Weight Gain When Trying to Bulk?
Results from a study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics suggest that you should aim to gain no more than 0.5-1lb/week. This study was done on males, but the same principles can be applied to women.
While you’ll gain more muscle in a shorter amount of time if you follow a more aggressive bulking approach, a higher percentage of the weight you gain will be from fat.
How Much Weight Should Females Expect to Gain from Bulking?
How much weight you gain during your bulking phase is highly individual. Your starting weight, the rate with which you gain weight, and how long your bulking period lasts can all dictate what your ending weight will be.
Going back to our example of a 150lb woman, let’s say her bulk lasted for 12 weeks. Assuming she followed a lean bulk and gained 1lb/week, her ending weight may be around 162lbs. But if she was more conservative and only gained 0.5lbs/week, her ending weight may be closer to 156lbs.
It’s also important to note that this is total weight gain, and some of that is fat. The amount of lean muscle mass you can expect to gain from bulking is closer to 1-2lbs per month. However, this also depends on genetics, how many years of lifting experience you have, other lifestyle habits, and many other factors.
How to Bulk Without Gaining A Lot of Fat
As you build muscle, it’s inevitable that you’ll also gain some fat. But you can minimize your fat gain by not increasing your calories too quickly and continuing to include nutritious foods in your diet.
Other ways you can bulk without gaining a lot of fat include:
- Increasing your calories gradually
- Consistently hitting each of your target macros
- Getting enough sleep and managing stress, which can result in lower cortisol levels and help prevent additional spikes in weight
How Do You Know If You’re Gaining Too Much Fat?
If you’re keeping track of your weight, it’s pretty easy to determine if you’re gaining too much fat. Gaining more than 1lb/week or roughly 1% of your body weight per month can indicate that you’re gaining too much weight too quickly, and chances are that that weight is mostly fat.
If you regularly get your body fat percentage checked via a DEXA scan or by measuring it on an InBody scale, you’ll notice that the amount of fat you’ve gained in a month is more than 1% of your total body weight.
Taking weekly progress pictures can also indicate whether you’re gaining too much fat. If you notice that your muscles appear harder and more defined, it’s a good sign that you’re gaining more muscle than fat. But if you look fluffier and more bloated, you’re likely gaining too much fat.
What To Do If You’re Gaining Too Much Fat
Gaining too much fat during a bulk is a common mistake, but you can nip it in the bud before it gets out of control by:
- Decreasing your daily calories so you’re not in as much of a surplus
- Eating in a calorie surplus on the days you work out and eating at maintenance calories on your rest days
- Increasing your sets, reps, and/or the amount of weight you’re lifting to stimulate more of a muscle-building response
- Not skipping your strength training sessions
- Incorporating small amounts of cardio if you’re currently not doing any
- Cutting back on the amount of cheat meals you may be eating each week
How Long Should You Follow A Bulking Plan?
The length of your bulking period will depend on your goals and how happy you are with your results. For best results, you should bulk for at least eight weeks, although many people choose to bulk for 12 or 16 weeks in total.
If you’re satisfied with how you look, you’re still performing well in the gym, and you’re gaining weight at a reasonable pace, you can even stay in a bulking phase for longer than 16 weeks. But the longer you bulk, the more fat you’ll gain, which means you’ll have more to lose if/when you decide to do a cut in the future.
What to Do After Your Bulking Phase Ends
While you can immediately start a cutting phase after a bulk, it’s not ideal because it will be harder to retain all of the muscle you’ve just gained. Instead, it’s best to spend a few weeks in a maintenance phase.
This gives your body ample time to settle into its new weight while also allowing your metabolism to adjust to a new level of daily maintenance calories before you start eating in a calorie deficit again.
And though it may not seem like it, gaining weight can be a huge stressor on your body, especially when you’ve also been lifting weights frequently. Going into a maintenance phase after a bulk gives your body a break from that stress so that it’s better primed to lose fat when you enter your next cutting phase.
It’s also a good idea to adjust your training to focus more on strength than hypertrophy for a few weeks. Your body accumulates a lot of fatigue and adapts to high training volumes during a bulk. Focusing on lower reps at higher weights will allow you to put your newly-earned muscle to good use and test your new strength levels.
A good rule of thumb is to maintain your weight and follow a strength block for at least six to eight weeks before you transition into a fat loss phase. But if you’re happy with your weight and the progress you’ve been making in the gym, you can also spend an indefinite amount of time in your maintenance phase.
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Sample Bulking Workout Plan for Females
The sample workout below is focused on hypertrophy and includes both compound and isolation movements. It’s intended to be done four days per week.
Since this plan is an upper/lower split, you can do the workouts on back-to-back days, but I recommend not doing all four days in a row.
Upper Body Day 1
- Bench press – 3 x 8-10
- Bentover rows – 3 x 8-10
- Seated dumbbell shoulder press – 4 x 10-12
- Lateral raises – 4 x 10-12
- Barbell bicep curls – 4 x 12-15
- Overhead tricep extensions – 4 x 12-15
Lower Body/Core Day 1
- Squats – 3 x 8-10
- Glute bridges – 3 x 8-10
- Walking lunges – 3 x 8-10 per leg
- Leg extensions – 4 x 10-12
- Hamstring curls – 4 x 12-15
- Weighted situps – 4 x 12-15
Upper Body Day 2
- Overhead press – 3 x 8-10
- Pullups – 3 x 8-10
- Dumbbell incline bench press – 4 x 8-12
- Single-arm dumbbell row – 4 x 8-12
- Spider curls – 4 x 12-15
- Skull crushers – 4 x 12-15
Lower Body/Core Day 2
- Straight-leg deadlifts – 3 x 8-10
- Hack squats – 3 x 8-10
- Good mornings – 3 x 8-10
- Bulgarian split squats – 4 x 10-12 per leg
- Hanging knee raises – 4 x 10-12
- Calf raises – 4 x 12-15
So, there you have it. If you’re a female, you don’t have to be afraid to gain weight as long as you gradually increase your daily calories and you’re willing to put in a lot of effort in the gym. There are many reasons why women should consider building muscle, and by following the guidelines above, you can do so while minimizing any excess fat gain.
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.