After coaching hundreds of women online & in-person, there's one "most common" mistake that stands out...
Not enough time dedicated to eating more & building lean muscle.
This is often the missing piece keeping women from building the lean, strong physiques.
When I ask new online clients to describe their goal physique on our initial strategy call, the most common answer is...
"Lean and strong."
"Lean and defined."
Getting lean requires proper nutrition. And getting strong and defined requires phases focused on eating more and building lean muscle.
Today's blog takes you through the exact "building phase" process I use with the women I coach online. You'll learn how to build the muscle needed for a lean, strong physique, WITHOUT the excess fat & bulk.
Should You Do A Building Phase?
Before we talk strategy, you're probably wondering...
"How do I know if I should do a building phase right now?"
Now of course, this is very individual to what you want to accomplish with your physique.
But there is an ideal body fat percentage to be at in a building phase. Generally:
→ 15-25% for women
→ 10-15% for women
This is where your Partitioning Ratio (P-Ratio) is the best - basically, your body shuttles a more of the nutrients you eat to lean muscle, and less to fat storage.
To far below or above this rate, and a much greater percentage of the overall weight you gain will be fat.
Anecdotally, in this "sorta lean" to "getting pretty damn lean" stage is where most online clients will say something like...
"I don't look as defined as I want to."
Enter: the building phase.
If you're above the body fat recommendations, it makes sense to run a fat loss phase first. (But you do you.)
If you're leaner than this, a building phase is still a good idea. Just realize your body might need to gain a bit of fat & get back to a healthier place before it allows you to prioritize building muscle. A great example of this would be a client who just finished a photoshoot. (Speaking of photoshoots, check out this blog to learn the exact process one of my online clients used to get photoshoot ready.)
Nutrition is crazy important to you building lean muscle without gaining excess fat.
This is honestly where most people mess up.
There are A LOT of myths out there, claiming that you need to eat thousands of calories in excess to build muscle.
In reality, muscle building is a very slow process, and you just don't need to eat that many calories over your maintenance intake to build muscle.
Eating MORE food doesn't linearly mean more gains.... just more fat.
On the flipside, it's also to easy to "play it too safe" and actually spend a lot of time eating in a calorie deficit. This makes is HARDER for you to build lean muscle. Too many people spin their wheels here for months.
This is why consistently hitting your macros on the head, and tracking your progress like my online clients do is of the utmost importance.
Since we're on the topic of macros, let's break down exactly how to set YOURS up to optimize your building phase.
Setting Your Macros
→ Step One: Setting Calories
Eating in a calorie surplus (eating more calories than you burn in a day) WILL be more conducive to building the lean muscle you want.
The difference between getting fat and getting more muscular while staying lean all comes down to how big of a calorie surplus you're eating in.
For most, eating in a 10% over maintenance calories will yield the same amount of muscle growth as eating 50% over maintenance calories... but you'll get a lot fatter eating 50% over.
So, your starting point for calorie intake will be 10% over your maintenance calorie intake.
If you don't know your maintenance calorie intake, find it HERE.
To complete Step 1, multiply your maintenance intake X 1.1.
^This is the total number of calories you'll be eating to start the building phase.
→ Step Two: Setting Protein Intake
If you want to build a lean & strong body, you HAVE TO get adequate protein.
Your dietary protein is quite literally the building blocks for the new lean muscle you'll be building following this approach.
Protein is also very satiating. The reality of a lean gains approach is, most won't be eating to the point where you're stuffed very often - so eating plenty of protein will help keep you full enough to eat the right amount, without overdoing it.
While protein doesn't usually need to be quite as high when you're eating in a calorie surplus, for the lean gains approach, consuming about 1g protein/lb of body weight daily is optimal.
To complete Step 2, set protein at body weight X 1.
^This is the total amount of protein you'll be eating to start the building phase (in grams).
→ Step Three: Setting Fat Intake
Getting adequate fat is super important.
Fat plays a key role in hormonal production and function. If you're under-eating fat, key hormones to muscle growth WON'T be produced in adequate levels. This will also result in you feeling much worse, and training performance will suffer, blunting your ability to gain lean muscle and strength in the gym.
So there is clearly a minimum "fat threshold" that needs to be met in order to make optimal gains. This threshold is generally thought to be around .3g of fat/lb of body weight. (Anecdotally, this number is closer to .4g/lb of body weight for women.)
Now, realize two things:
1. Increasing fat more than the recommend threshold does not mean beneficial hormones linearly increase as well. It's VERY similar to the idea of bulking at 10% more than maintenance calories vs. 50% of maintenance calories.
Your body needs this minimum fat threshold to function properly.
But past this point - unless you're following the keto diet - (probably not the best idea for building lean muscle) extra calories from fat don't do much of anything to fuel better performance in the gym, or more gains.
2. When you increase fat, you're making a trade-off for decreased carbs. Given the minimum fat-threshold is met, extra carbs will do MUCH more to fuel your gains than extra fat.
So, when you take these factors into consideration, it makes sense to keep fat a bit lower for most women in a building phase.
To complete Step 3, set fat at body weight X .3-.4.
This is the total amount of fat you'll start the building phase eating (in grams).
→ Step Four: Setting Carb Intake
As we just discussed, carbs play a key role in your ability to perform in the gym.
Insulin is also a key hormone to muscle growth. Carbs stimulate insulin release, and help shuttle nutrients to your growing muscles.
It's a good idea to focus on driving your carbs up over the course of a building phase. (More on how to go about this later.)
To complete Step 4, fill your remaining calories with carbs.
→ Step 1: You determine your maintenance calorie intake to be 2,000 calories. Multiply 2,000 x 1.1 to determine your starting calorie intake. 2,000 x 1.1 = 2,200 calories.
→ Step 2: To determine your protein intake, multiply your current body weight x1. If you weigh 130lbs, you'll be eating 130 grams of protein. Protein contains 4 calories per gram, so 520 of your 2,200 total calories will come from protein.
→ Step 3: To determine your fat intake, multiply your body weight x .4. If you weight 130lbs, you'll be eating 52 grams of fat (130 x .4 = 52). Fat contains 9 calories per gram, so 468 of your 2,200 total calories will be coming from fat.
→ Step 4: To determine your carb intake, fill your remaining calories with carbs. This means you need to subtract the calories you'll be eating from protein (520) and fat (468) from your total calories (2,200). 2,200 - 988 = 1,212. You have 1,212 calories remaining to fill with carbs. Carbs contain 4 calories per gram, so you could eat 303 grams of carbs (1,212/4=303).
^That said, if the thought of eating 303 grams of carbs daily is overwhelming, it's ok to bump fat closer to the .5-.6/lb body weight range. But ideally, keep carbs AT LEAST in the 1.5-2 x body weight range.
When it comes to nutrient-timing, I always stress the Nutrition Hierarchy Of Importance with online clients:
^Nutrient timing/meal timing is NOT as important as your overall calories, your macros, or eating quality foods. So if focusing on nutrient timing feels like something that is making you miss on your overall calories, macros, or food quality - we'll push it to the back burner.
That said, if you have your calories, macros, and food quality on lock, optimizing your nutrient timing can help you squeeze the most lean, defined muscle out of a building phase.
Here are my recommendations:
→ Protein Timing Across The Day - It's true that calories are the primary driver of weight loss or weight gain. But for optimal lean muscle growth, you need to consider muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Muscle protein synthesis is basically the process of your body turning dietary protein into actual lean muscle.
Consuming protein (with the most optimal amount being 25-50g) increases muscle protein synthesis for ~3-6 hours.
So, to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis through your day, it's most optimal to spread your protein (and meals) across 4-6 meals, with 25-50g protein at each.
→ Pre-Workout Meal - What you eat pre-workout is key for kick-starting the recovery process, and helps fuel your body through intense training.
To prevent as much muscle protein breakdown (the opposite process of muscle protein synthesis - muscle protein is being broken down) as possible, and create optimal circumstances for recovery/growth, you should consume ~25-50g of protein in this meal. If you really don't have the option to eat a pre-workout meal (e.g. you workout super early), I'd recommend at least drinking a protein shake before hand. This will digest very quickly, and shouldn't give you issues.
If you have time to allow the meal to digest pre-workout (>1 hour), adding ~25-50 grams carbs to the mix is smart. A mix of carbs from starch and fruit gives you a combo of faster and slower releasing carbs to fuel you through the workout.
We want to avoid too much fat in this meal, because it will slow digestion, and have you feeling sluggish during your training.
A solid pre-workout meal could look something like:
- Greek yogurt (slow digesting protein)
- Whey protein (fast digesting protein)
- Oatmeal (starchy carb)
- Berries (carb from fruit)
Typically, you'll feel best eating this 1-2 hours before you workout. I like to split the difference here and go with 1.5 hours pre-workout. Eating this meal too close to your workout will have you lifting with food still digesting in your belly, making you feel sluggish.
→ Post-Workout Meal - As far as protein, aim to eat another ~25-50g of protein within an hour post-workout (as it will have been about 3 hours from your previous bolus of protein at this point.)
With carbs, insulin sensitivity is highest post-workout. (Basically, your body will most efficiently use carbs for muscle-building purposes at this time.) So it makes sense to time lots of fast-digesting carbs post workout (e.g. white rice, spotted bananas). THIS is the most important time to consume carbs, as far as timing goes.
On a similar note, an intense training session will trigger a stress response. Basically, when you experience stress, cortisol (the stress hormone) rises and your nervous system enters a sympathetic state or “fight-or-flight mode”. In this state, your brain perceives an imminent threat, and slows or stops all bodily processes but the most vital to either “fighting or fleeing”. This means processes crucial to your recovery - food digestion, hormone production, and muscle growth itself - are slowed or essentially stopped.
So obviously, to optimize recovery, you want to get out of a sympathetic state as fast as possible post-workout, and get into the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” state. Here, your body focuses on nutrient absorption, repairing damaged tissues, etc.
The beauty of timing your carbs intra/post-workout like this is, carbs help decrease cortisol levels. So consuming carbs post workout will help you create a better environment for building lean muscle.
Similar to the pre-workout meal, we want to keep fat low here. Fat would slow your body's ability to digest the nutrients you just took in.
→ Pre-Bed Meal - Now, sleep is a crucial part of your body actually being able to make build muscle & burn fat. Eating too close to bed will slightly disrupt your sleep quality, but we also want your body to have some protein available throughout the night. ~1 hour before bed, eat 25-50g protein from a slow digesting source (casien powder, greek yogurt, cottage cheese).
So to wrap all of this up simply:
The meals around your workout are high protein, high carb, and low fat.
The meal(s) further from your workout are still high protein, but higher fat and lower carb.
Supplements are far from a must, and will truly make the LEAST difference of anything you've read in this blog.
But when online clients have every other level of the Nutrition Hierarchy Of Importance mastered, we'll sometimes add in supplements to optimize everything.
A few that can be helpful:
→ Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin - This rapidly-digesting carb source will give you fuel during your workout, and aid recovery. 15-25g, sipped throughout your workout.
→ Essential Amino Acids (EAA’s) - Mixing EAA’s in with your HBCD will again put you in a better position to recover to your absolute fullest potential and get the most gains out of each training session.
→ Creatine - HIGHLY studied and proven to be effective. Creatine supplies your body with more ATP, which can allow you to crank out an extra rep on a challenging set - over time this adds up. Take 5g creatine monohydrate any time throughout your day.
→ Caffeine - Caffeine before your workout can increase your performance in the gym, translating to more lean muscle from each session.
→ Fish Oil - If you're not eating fish at least a few times per week, supplement with fish oil daily to get adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.
Ok, now that we've broken down the in's & out's of nutrition, let's break down how to build a lean, strong body as a female lifter.
(Generally) Decrease Moderate and High-Intensity Cardio, Increase Training Volume
Cardio is FAR from the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a lean, defined physique.
Remember that hierarchy of importance from earlier? We can apply something similar here:
Most have this hierarchy flipped on it's head - which is exactly why so many people struggle with changing their bodies
My online clients get great results, because they have their priorities straight.
Here's why the hierarchy is in this order:
We've already talked A LOT about nutrition, and I know you're already a believer in it's importance. Whether we're talking fat loss OR building lean muscle, nutrition is always essential.
2. Resistance Training
A.K.A. lifting weights. When you start online coaching with me, you'll do a lot of this.
Now, lifting weights doesn’t burn many calories... fewer than a cardio session actually.
But, resistance training has many more benefits than cardio:
→ Nutrient partitioning - Lifting weights shuttles calories towards the calorically expensive process of building muscle and maintaining lean, defined muscle. This leaves fewer calories for the energy efficient process of fat storage.
→ Health - Resistance training builds functional strength, healthy tendons, and increases bone density. Resistance training properly will keep you strong, mobile, and capable your whole life.
→ Aesthetics - You’re reading this blog because you want to feel good and look good. You likely want to look some combination of lean/toned/defined/athletic.
Like we've talked about, the lean part comes from your nutrition.
But, if you lose a lot of body fat without any muscle underneath... most of us just end up looking like stick figures. Probably not the look you’re going for. A body that looks lean, strong, and defined requires building a bit of muscle.
→ Adherence and sustainability - In my experience, resistance training can be made fun for most anyone.
It’s rewarding - you can very clearly see yourself progressing as weights increase.
It’s a huge psychological boost - You were probably very intimidated when you first entered the weight room. Now, not only have you overcome that, but you’re suddenly lifting weights you never thought you would. You realize you’ve underestimated how much of a badass you can be if you really set your mind to it. It’s super empowering.
No other modalities of exercise have that effect. Lifting weights is just straight up fun for most people. You’re a lot more likely to stick to a resistance training routine for years than you are a cardio routine. Our goal here is sustainability.
While cardio does have some benefits for health & fat loss, it is NOT very helpful when it comes to building lean muscle. So the majority of your time in the gym in a building phase should be devoted to lifting.
The problem is, most training programs marketed to women are usually based on a high-intensity, cardio-focused style training. (Think: bootcamp classes, at home on-demand workouts).
Sure, these programs make you sweat a lot - but the actual number of effective training sets is very low - it's mostly just your cardiovascular system that is gassed.
You build lean muscle through progressive overload - basically, finding a way to consistently do a bit more work in the gym. This came come through many methods:
- Adding weight to the bar
- Doing more reps with the same weight
- Taking a set closer to failure than last week
- Doing more sets with the same weight
You get the idea.
We also know that to build lean muscle, you need to achieve effective reps - basically, take a set within ~4 reps of failure.
The issue is, the traditional bootcamp/HIIT style of training sucks for allowing you to create overload, and very rarely do you achieve effective reps.
→ Limit HIIT and moderate-intensity cardio - I DO program some high-intensity work for the ladies I coach online, but it's typically in the form of short 5-10 minute finishers. These are short, and intense but fun bouts that you finish your training sessions with. The goal is to jack up your heart rate and burn a lot of calories, without creating a massive amount of stress on your body or nervous system.
→ Lift weights 3-5 times per week, 30-80 minutes per session - The ladies that I coach vary in how much they train depending on goals and experience levels. But they ALL focus the majority of their time on weight training. For more on setting up the perfect weight training regime to build a lean, strong body, check out Finding The Optimal Training Split For Your Goals And Lifestyle.
→ 2/3rd's Or More Of Training Volume Comes From Compound Movements - There used to be a stupid idea that women's training should be entirely isolation exercises performed with tiny pink dumbbells.
Don't buy into this. Your training should make you feel like a strong badass.
Train lots of compound movements. Things like:
This is smart because:
- You're working a lot more muscles at once - Implementing lots of compound movements make higher frequency easier, since you're always training multiple muscles at once. Your workouts are more effective & efficient.
You create more mechanical tension, the primary driver of lean muscle growth.
Simply following a 3x/week full body training program based around the compound movements, plus a nutrition strategy individualized to YOU can make a CRAZY difference.
→ Get stronger in the 5-15 rep range - Research shows us that you can achieve very similar lean muscle building results with anything from 5-30 reps, as long as the necessary effort is there.
That said, since you’ll be training mostly compound movements, it makes sense to keep MOST of your sets to 15 reps of less. Past this point, form often starts to break down simply from the cardiovascular effort. Sets that have you gasping for air also equate to longer rest periods between sets (and longer workouts as a whole).
→ Stop most sets with 1-3 reps in the tank - Remember the idea of “effective reps” we talked about earlier? We know that to challenge and fatigue your muscles enough to spark growth, most sets need to bet taken pretty close to failure.
So stopping sets with 1-3 reps in the tank is a good rule of thumb. (This is also a big part of what most bootcamp style workouts are missing.)
→ Rest 1-3 minutes between sets - You build a strong body by continuously creating overload in the gym. Problem is, if you’re doing circuit-style training with little to no rest, the weight you can lift will be reduced drastically as your workout progresses.
We need to give our body time to recover from peripheral fatigue (think: muscle fatigue) and systemic fatigue in order to produce sufficient effort on subsequent sets to create overload in a training session. This reduction in fatigue takes AT LEAST 1-3 minutes (depending on the movement).
Turning your training session into a circuit-style workout with no rest is a good way to ensure you get VERY LITTLE out of the session.
→ Increase training volume (maybe) - When you enter a building phase, you’ll have more recovery resources than normal. This sometimes means that we can push the total volume you’re doing (think: number of hard sets) to get as much as possible out of the building phase.
Now first and foremost, use these guidelines before just adding more hard sets or training days. If you’re currently making excellent progress training 3x/week, there’s likely no need to jump to a 4x/week split.
As you increase training volume, you increase the amount of growth stimulus you’re hitting your muscles with. You’re also increasing calories burned. Both of these mean your body has an increased need for recovery resources.
If we DON’T increase your food intake, but continuously increase training volume, you’ll eventually start to lose weight as a result of all the volume burning tons of calories. While great for fat loss, you’re likely NOT building muscle here.
On the flip-side, if we just keep increasing food intake and don’t increase training volume, you’ll start to gain excess fat.
We gradually drive up both training volume and carbohydrate intake simultaneously. The extra food is helping you recover and grow from the extra volume. The extra volume is helping the extra food be shuttled to muscle, NOT fat storage.
Rate Of Gain & Making Adjustments
Unless you're new to training and eating properly, or have been off the wagon for a bit, it’s unlikely that you’re recomping (losing fat and building muscle simultaneously). This means that as you build lean muscle, the number on the scale should be going up.
Pay attention to the scale, as this is what you'll be making a lot of your nutrition adjustments from. (Take your weight AT LEAST 3x/week, use the average to determine weekly change.)
Aim to gain .25-.5% of body weight per week.
BUT, the scale isn't the only thing you should be focusing on.
You should also be tracking:
→ Body measurements - Body measurements give you an idea of what muscle groups are growing, as well as how much your waist is growing. They're also a bit more time consuming, so don't take them as often as weight. Online clients typically take these once per week.
For accuracy, measure in centimeters with a soft tape measure.
1. Chest - Take a circumference measurement, with the tape at the level of the nipples.
2. Bicep - Take a circumference measurement around the biggest part of your right bicep, both relaxed and flexed.
3. Waist - Take a circumference measurement of your torso with the tape 2 cm above the navel, directly over the navel, and 2 cm below the navel.
4. Hips - Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of the hips.
5. Thigh - Take a circumference measurement around the broadest part of the right thigh.
→ Weight Lifted - If you're making gains, it'll translate over to you being able to do either:
a) more weight
b) more reps with the same weight.
Tracking your weight also helps you stay extremely mindful of consistently pushing yourself.
How To Adjust If You're Not Gaining
You undoubtedly know at least one person who seems to eat whatever they want without gaining weight. Maybe you are that person.
In reality, people like this either:
1. Haven’t accurately tracked their calorie intake before. They likely eat a lot - at times - and then subconsciously adapt by going long periods of time without eating. This is extremely common with new online clients that claim they can't build muscle or add weight..
2. Have an extremely adaptive metabolism. Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is the daily calories you burn outside of the gym, through activities like fidgeting, pacing, doing chores, etc. NEAT is a BIG part of your metabolism.
In response to overfeeding (eating in a calorie surplus), some people will naturally (without even being conscious of it) increase NEAT. This increases your daily calories burned, and in turn prevents weight gain, despite the fact that you're eating more.
Now, how a clients metabolism reacts to a calorie surplus is highly individual (this is the beauty of having a coach - to see trends and adjust the plan specifically to YOU). But the gist of it is, some people WILL have to increase calories higher than 10% over maintenance in order to see gains.
So, if you’re NOT seeing increases in weight, body measurements (outside of the belly measurements), or strength in the gym after a week, it’s time to increase calories.
Increase your total calorie intake by 5% (via carbs). Continue this weekly until you're gaining in the recommended range.
How To Adjust If You're Gaining Too Fast
If you’re surpassing the recommend rate of gain, bad news - you’re likely adding a lot of excess fat.
Time to dial it back.
Decrease calories by 5% (pulling from carbs). Repeat this weekly until your rate of gain falls back in the recommended range.
How Long Should I Build For?
You can stay in a building phase for quite some time.
I recommend AT LEAST 4 months here, as gaining lean muscle does seem to take some “momentum”. If you’re constantly interrupting your building phases with a calorie deficit, you won’t get much lean muscle growth out of it.
If it’s your first building phase, you’ll likely feel VERY good after 6+ months of building. Fat loss will also come easier in the future, and you’ll look leaner at a higher body fat percentage (thanks to all the lean muscle you’ve built).
That said, you can really stay in a building phase as long as you want, so long as you keep your body fat within the recommended ranges to avoid excess fat gain.
And that's how to properly implement a building phase for more lean muscle, and minimal fat gain.
Remember ladies, spending some time eating more and focusing on building muscle is KEY to a sustainably lean, strong physique.
Want expert guidance through this process with both your nutrition & training?
CLICK HERE NOW to apply for online coaching with me.