When you ask women what they want to look like, you’ll hear things like...
“Toned, long and lean, fit but not bulky.”
Basically, most women want a physique with some shape to their shoulders and glutes, but few actually know what that means, or how to get there.
You'll hear some fitness professionals complain about using the word "toned", because people say it without really knowing that "getting toned" and "building muscle are the same thing.
But c'mon... we all get what toned means... someone who looks athletic, with some shape to their shoulders, a tight core, and lines in their legs.
The problem is that many women chase this look by doing things like yoga and pilates, when what’s really needed is some time building muscle.
That shape you see to women’s shoulders, legs, and glutes is actually developed muscle, paired with a low body fat percentage.
In order to reach that goal physique, you’re going to need to take time eating enough and training intelligently in order to build muscle, and then intermittent periods of calorie restriction to lose body fat.
Ladies, today's blog is your step-by-step guide through the physique development process.
Where to start?
Most women are perpetually dieting, eating as little as possible as often as possible, and hoping they’ll eventually reach the body they want if they have enough willpower.
The major flaw with this approach?
Eating as little as possible isn’t a game plan. It’s not something that can be done over a long period of time, it’s not motivating, and it’s not conducive to the training performance needed in order to build any muscle.
Problem is, most women already don't feel as lean as they want to be... so the thought of not dieting is a scary one.
Now, to determine if you actually need to diet, or are better off focusIng on building muscle, you need to understand a concept called P-ratio.
P-ratio stands for "partitioning ratio", and is the ratio of muscle to fat gain.
As a female...
—> If you're above 25-30% body fat, you'll likely gain more fat than muscle when in a Building Phase.
—> If you are leaner than that, you will build more muscle than fat.
For this reason, if you are above 25%, I recommend you start out with a cut, get to a comfortable level of body fat, optimize your P-ratio, and improve insulin sensitivity before going in to a building phase.
If you are already at a comfortable level of leanness and are maybe even classify yourself as closer to “skinny-fat”, you may need to start with a Building Phase to add muscle and shape.
Starting a fat loss phase
If you are in a situation where you need to lose fat before you start a building phase, you first need to assess how you’re currently eating.
Nutritional assessment and learning to properly track macros are important key first steps, because many times you may think you’re eating very few calories... when a diet recall will open your eyes to hidden calories.
When we bring on new online clients, one of our first steps is teaching you how to properly track your intake, then take a deep dive into your food journal to see whether you are actually under-eating, or if it's simply a tracking error.
Now the reality is, if you've already been dieting for a long time on low calories, you might not be ready for a diet yet. (Because we always have your long-term health & the SUSTAINABILITY of your results in mind as our biggest priority.)
If this is the case for you, we could very we push start your process with a reverse diet, followed by a primer phase... all before ever actually push you to lose fat.
To fully understand the application of the reverse diet & primer phases, check out our blog The Definitive Guide To Nutrition Periodization.
how aggressive should your diet be?
The duration and intensity of a diet should be inversely related.
Meaning, if you slash calories pretty severely, you need to keep it short.
If you are in a small calorie deficit, you can sustain that for a longer period of time.
In my opinion this needs to be based on your lifestyle, because adherence is the most important factor in a cut.
—> If you know you will have a hard time sticking to a severe deficit, have a lot of social obligations, or have regular big family dinners you don’t want to miss out on, a rapid fat loss protocol will most likely be the wrong choice.
—> On the flip side, if you know you won’t want to stay in a deficit for a long period of time, don’t have a problem feeling hunger, and can structure a strict diet into your lifestyle, a long drawn out cut may not suit you best.
These will be on a continuum, but for the sake of writing out these two different types of fat loss approaches, I’ll divide them into “rapid cut” and “lifestyle cut.”
Let’s break down each approach...
—> Duration: 6-12 weeks
—> Who it’s for: Anyone that can stay strict with fewer calories, few social obligations, experienced dieter, not a lot of fat to lose and wants to get to building quicker
—> Execution: In a rapid cut you’ll aim to lose about .8-1.2% of bodyweight per week. Let’s use a 160 pound woman for an example.
She can expect to lose 1.3 to 2 pounds per week.
Let’s say we decide on 1.8 pounds per week loss as the target rate of loss.
We know you need to create a 3500 calorie deficit to lose one pound, so she'll need a 6300 calorie deficit across the week/900 calorie per day deficit to lose 1.8 pounds.
Since you’ve spent time at maintenance, you know your intake required to maintain your weight, so you’ll subtract 900 calories from that number.
Now, let's say our 160 pound example woman maintains her weight on 2200 calories per day... that puts her at 1300 calories per day on this rapid fat loss protocol.
(That’s a pretty severe cut, which is why this is kept very short. Be honest with yourself and do not go for this type of cut if you know you won’t stay consistent at this steep of a deficit.)
—> Duration: 12+ weeks
—> Who It’s for: Anyone who wants a more sustainable cut and needs to allow flexibility around events, less experienced dieters, more fat to lose.
—> Execution: In a lifestyle cut you’ll aim to lose 0.5-1% of body weight per week.
Our 160 pound woman will lose .7-1.5 pound per week with this approach, so let’s use a 1 pound per week target rate of loss as an example.
She needs to create a 3500 calorie deficit over the week, which is 500 calories per day. Since she maintains at 2200 calories, we know she needs 1700 calories per day to lose 1 pound per week.
From my experience as a coach, women are almost always under-eating protein. Protein is important in both fat loss and building phases.
- It's most filling macro
- It has the highest thermic effect of food
- It's muscle-sparing in a cut
- It's the raw material your body needs to build muscle
Fat is an essential macronutrient, meaning you need it in your diet to stay healthy. It’s essential to maintain hormonal health, and helps with hair, skin, and nail growth.
0.3 grams per pound of body weight is a good start, but can be adjusted if you’re on either extreme of the body fat scale (very low or very high).
Carbohydrates will make up the remainder of your calories.
When cutting, it’s helpful to keep about 65-75% of your carbohydrates around your workout to help with training performance.
Let’s say our 160 pound woman needs to get to 148 to be at a level of leanness where she can start building.
—> Total weight loss needed: 12 pounds
—> Weeks committed to spend dieting: 8
—> Planned weight loss per week: 1.5 pound
—> Deficit needed: 5250 over the week, 750 per day
Maintenance calories are 2200, so daily calorie intake to start this rapid cut will be 1450.
—> Calories: 1450
—> Protein: 170
—> Fat: 50
—> Carbs: 80
—> Total weight loss needed: 12 pounds
—> Weeks committed to dieting: 20
—> Planned weight loss per week: 0.6 pound
—> Deficit needed: 2100 over the week, 300 per day
Maintenance calories are 2200, so daily calorie intake to start this lifestyle cut will be 1900.
—> Calories: 1900
—> Protein: 160
—> Fat: 50
—> Carbs: 200
Side Note: This math seems like it’s perfectly laid out, but every body is different, and things will need adjusted along the way. Your maintenance intake is a range not a set in stone number, so things may not happen exactly as expected without some individualization & coaching.
Other nutrition Considerations
Although your total calories & macros are the most important things here, there are some things to know to make the diet easier to adhere to, keep you healthy, and to make this process sustainable:
—> Log your food the night before.
This may seem tedious, but I guarantee it'll make a night and day difference when it comes to consistently hitting your macro targets.
This is something we have online clients do (and we review), when they get started coaching with us. This serves three purposes:
1. It ensures you are thinking ahead and not just winging it.
2. It gets you planning your meals so you have food ready to go
3. It helps educate you on what foods contain which macronutrients.
—> Follow the 80/20 guideline
The 80/20 guideline: 80-90% of your calories should come from whole, unprocessed nutrient dense foods. 10-20% can be filled in with anything that fits your macros.
This can be chocolate at the end of a meal, salad toppings that make that lunch salad way more palatable, or a full meal occasionally.
You’re still hitting your macro targets here, but some food that’s just there for taste will make the diet feel more indulgent and (most importantly) more sustainable.
—> Supplement where needed
These are optional, but can help fill some gaps, especially in a rapid cut where you can’t fit in as many nutrient dense foods as needed. Some things I recommend are:
- A multivitamin
- Fish oil
- Magnesium citrate and/or glycinate
Ending The Cut
Once you have dieted down to a comfortable body fat percentage, and ready to focus on building, you need to start the reverse dieting process to transition out of your fat loss phase properly.
Learn all about how to reverse diet properly here.
After reverse dieting and finding your new maintenance, it's smart to spend a bit of time simply focusing on "practicing maintenance" - you're not trying to lose or build... simply allowing your body time to cement it's current size as the "new normal". (A "cementing phase" like this is helpful when it comes to maintaining a leaner physique - both from a physiological and psychological perspective.)
Now that you've (ideally) spent 4-8 weeks in this "cementing phase", it's time to add calories and focus on building.
I get it... this seems scary for women, because we’re always trying to be smaller, right?
But keep in mind that the shape you’re wanting to see is muscle, and muscle takes energy (a.k.a. calories) to build.
With the right approach (like you're learning in this blog), you can build muscle with minimal fat gain, and end up leaner at the end of your building phase. Even if you do happen to add a very small amount of fat during your building phase, you can lose it quickly in your next cut.
Now, building muscle is a very slow process. Really, you only need to add a small amount of calories, about 10%, in order to build muscle.
Let’s say our 160 pound woman dieted down and got to a new weight of 148.
From there, she reverse dieted back up after the cut and has been maintaining on 2050 calories per day.
So, to add 10% of calories to her maintenance you multiply by 1.1.
2050x1.1=2255 calories (We'll round that to 2250 to make it simpler.)
So, her new building intake will be 2250.
Macros for building will be set in a very similar way they are for cutting, meaning...
—> Protein will be set at bodyweight x1
148x1=148 grams protein (but lets round that to 150 grams for simplicity).
—> Fat will be set at 0.3 grams/pound
148x0.3=44.4 (round to 45 grams)
—> Carbs will fill up the remainder of your calories
So, calculate calories from protein (150x4=600) + calories from fat (45x9=405). 600 + 405 = 1005 cals are taken up by protein & fat.
2050 - 1005 = 1045. That's the amount of calories you have left to fill with carbs.
1045/4=261 (round to 260 grams).
Once you have your calories and macros nailed down, you can start to play with nutrient timing. Nutrient timing is simply how you distribute the different macronutrients over the course of the day and around your training:
Nutrient timing is more important during a building phase than it is during a fat loss phase, because you are really trying to maximize your training quality, and partition the extra carbs you’re consuming toward building muscle.
Training to build the female physique
Now that we’ve gone through how to optimize nutrition for building muscle, let’s get into the training.
The biggest problem I see with most women’s training is the over-reliance on cardio or circuit training, and not enough focus on progressive overload.
Progressive overload is a principle that involves constantly increasing demands on the muscular system to continually make gains in size, strength, and/or endurance.
Simply put, your muscles won’t make any improvement in strength or size unless you give them a reason to, so you need to be working harder over time.
Progressive overload doesn’t have to just be lifting more weight over time (although I’d argue this is the piece most women are missing). Progressive overload can be accomplished by...
- Adding weight
- Adding reps
- Adding sets
- Increasing time under tension
- Increasing range of motion
- Decreasing rest time
- Improving form
- Lifting the weight faster
Choosing Your Training Split
Deciding which training split to follow should first start with how many days a week you can consistently commit to strength training.
Regardless of what is "most optimal", that won’t matter if you don’t consistently get the sessions done. so decide first how many days per week you can be in the gym on a consistent basis, then choose your split accordingly.
Options broken down by frequency are:
—> Full body
—>Upper/Lower - Using an ULU, LUL schedule
—> Full Body
—> Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower - This one works well for a lower body emphasis
—> Upper/Lower/Upper/Lower/Full Body
Developing YOur Physique
Now that you know your training split, and know you need to strive for progressive overload, it's time to design your training program.
The foundation of your program will always be compound lifts.
Basically, you need to include all of the major movement patterns:
1. Hip dominant
2. Knee dominant
These are the foundational movements that almost every program will include in some fashion. (For more on our programming methodology, check out The 5 Movement Pattern Framework For Building Your Own Training Program.)
Hip dominant movements:
- Barbell Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlift
- Hip Thrust
- Glute Bridges
- Good Mornings
- Kettlebell Swings
- Death March
Knee dominant movements:
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Goblet Squat
- Hack Squat
- Split Squat
- Step Up
- Bench Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Shoulder Press
- Incline Press
- Rowing variations
- Face Pulls
- Pull-Ups & Chin-Ups
- Plank variations
- Anti-rotation & rotation movements
- Loaded carries
- Flexion movements
Now, most women want to put an emphasis on growing their shoulders and glutes.
I would also argue that focusing on the back, specifically the lats, would be a good idea for most women because it will give the illusion of a smaller waist.
Let’s break down each of those muscle groups, and how to grow them.
Your shoulders are made up of 3 muscles, the anterior (front), medial (side), and posterior (rear) delts.
In general, you’ll want to place the most specific emphasis on the rear delts & side delts, whereas the front delts need less direct focus.
Your rear and side delts get the least amount of direct volume just by doing the main compound lifts, whereas your front delts get a lot of work in both horizontal and vertical pressing movements, so they typically don’t need much direct work.
—> Rear Delts
Anecdotally, rear delts are the hardest to effectively work.
Their function is horizontal abduction (reverse fly motion) of the shoulder, and vertical depression of the shoulder (straight arm pulldown motion). They are more of a secondary mover of each of these motions, so getting the primary mover to take LESS of the load in these movements can be difficult.
The best cue for a reverse fly or other shoulder abduction to really target the rear delt and keep the back from taking over is to "hunch your back over". This way, your back muscles can be “turned off,” and the rear delts can take over. Rear delt flys can be done seated or standing, and with dumbbells, cables, or bands.
The face pull can be done with a rope and cable, a band, or a suspension trainer.
If you’re lucky enough to have a gym with a reverse fly machine, these are great for isolating the rear delts.
—> Side Delts
The main function of the side delt is to raise your arm out away from your body, or abduct. It’s also heavily involved in vertical (overhead) pressing movements.
These can be done with a barbell or dumbbells, seated or standing.
One of our favorite movements to program for online clients working the side delts in isolation.
Dumbbell, barbell, and cable variations are all solid here.
Your glutes are a group of 3 muscles, the glute maximus, glute minimus, and glute medius.
The main function of your glutes is to extend the hips, and abduct your leg (move your leg out away from the body.)
One of our favorites, for the way it allows you to overload your glutes in their shortened position.
These really allow you to train your glute muscles without loading the spine heavily.
Remember, one of your glutes functions in abduction, so it's smart to train this.
For a very in-depth guide to how we program to help our online clients achieve superior glute gains, check out The Complete Guide To Glute Training [Bigger, Stronger Glutes]
Building your lats will help give you a v-taper... basically, it will make your waist appear smaller.
A staple in most programs, this is an excellent way to train your lats without the limiting factors of movements like pull-ups.
Want to feel like a badass in the gym (and build a great back to boot)? Master these. Check out this blog to learn how to master your first few pull-ups.
Another back training staple, this is a great way to hit many muscle groups of your back simultaneously.
How to program to build your physique
First, realize your sets and reps will be dependent on what you’ve been doing previous to now, and how much volume you need to grow.
Typically, women start coaching with a history of doing very high reps with lots of circuit training, so it can be beneficial to start out with heavier, lower rep (e.g. 5-15) training with plenty of rest between sets.
If you’re new to this type of training, you can usually add strength linearly for a very long time before needing to change things up.
That’s a very good thing, because that means you can get really good results in both strength and hypertrophy (muscle growth) without needing to switch up the training plan for a while.
—> I recommend starting with one to compound movements that you focus on adding load to week to week (refer to our Five Foundational Movement Patterns from earlier).
—> Next, add auxiliary movements that add volume, and incorporate more of the foundational movement patterns.
—> You can finish with some isolation movements and/or a “finisher” where you can scratch the circuit itch with a short burnout that gets your heart rate up, gives your target areas some extra volume, and is fun.
Let's look at an example week’s training for an online client following an upper/lower split, with extra emphasis on their shoulders and glutes:
Monday - Upper Body
a1.) Seated Military Press, 4x7-10. 1 RIR.
b1.) Chin-Ups, 4x5-8. 1 RIR.
c1.) Dumbbell Bench Press, 4x8-12. 1 RIR.
d1.) Dumbell Rows, 4x8-12. 1 RIR.
e1.) Dumbbell Lateral Raise, 3x15-20. 1RIR.
f1.) Alternating Dumbbell Curl, 3x10-15/side. 1 RIR.
f2.) Tricep Overhead Extension, 3x10-15 reps. 1 RIR.
Tuesday - Lower Body
a1.) Barbell Squat, 4x6-10. 1 RIR.
b1.) Romanian Deadlift, 4x8-10. 1 RIR.
c1.) Walking Dumbbell Lunges, 3x10-15/side. 1 RIR.
d1.) Lying Leg Curl, 3x10-15. 1 RIR.
e1.) Glute Bridge W/ Band Abduction, 4x20, 1 RIR.
e2.) RKC Plank, 4x20-30 seconds
Thursday - Upper Body
a1.) Barbell Row, 4x7-10. 1 RIR.
b1.) Dumbbell High Incline Press, 4x10-12. 1 RIR.
c1.) Machine High Row, 3x12-15 reps. 1 RIR
d1.) Dumbbell Arnold Press, 4x10-12. 1 RIR.
e1.) Face Pull, 3x15-20. 1 RIR.
e2.) Dumbbell Upright Row, 3x15-20. 1 RIR.
f1.) Deadbug, 2x10/side
f2.) Hanging Knee Raise 2xMAX
Friday - Lower Body
a1.) Barbell Hip Thrust, 4x6-12. 1 RIR.
b1.) Bulgarian Split Squat, 4x8-12/side, 1 RIR.
c1). Glute Dominant Back Extension, 3x15-20. 1 RIR.
d1.) Goblet Squat, 3x12-15. 1 RIR.
e1.) Death March, 3x10 Steps/side. 0-1 RIR.
e2.) Leg Extension, 3x20. 1 RIR.
Finisher: 50 Kettlebell Swings as fast as possible.
Follow this and push for consistent progressive overload - you will see incredible improvements in your body composition and strength.
Ready to take on a periodized nutrition & training program built specifically for you, and finally build the lean, strong, badass physique you’ve always wanted?
Click here now to apply for online coaching with our team.