What does it take to sculpt head-turning muscle definition? You might think you need a ridiculously low body fat percentage, but that’s simply not true. Rounded delts, defined arms and back, and a shapely lower body are within your reach. But you need a plan and maybe even a mindset shift.
First, let’s find out where you stand:
The Body Fat Factor
Body fat plays a role in muscle definition, but some women can have defined muscles at 24% or higher body fat, depending on their muscle mass and genetics. If you place too much emphasis on body fat, you’ll just be “skinny” – not what you’re going for.
The Power of Muscle
While it’s true you’ll get more definition with less body fat, you also need above-average muscle mass.
When you spot fantastic muscle definition, you’re seeing someone who has spent considerable time in the weight room. Simply being active – running, walking, cycling, gym classes – won’t usually result in significant muscle building. You need to lift heavy stuff on a very regular basis.
“Great,” you say, “I already have a lower body fat and I lift weights. But my delts still aren’t popping.”
If you’re still waiting for your transformation, a few changes in how you train and eat could make all the difference.
1. Turn Down the Volume
So you say you lift weights six days a week and always do at least five sets of each exercise – so why aren’t you gaining muscle?
Of all the people I talk to who want muscle definition, these folks are the most frustrated.
I was one of those people. For years, I did 90-minute workouts on a body-part split… and I was plateaued beyond plateaued. Finally, after lots of trial and error and applying solid training principles, I was able to make the best progress of my life.
You can save yourself years of frustration by following this one simple rule:
When it comes to building muscle, do as little as you can get away with.
That advice might seem counterintuitive, but going hard every session is only going keep you on the sidelines of muscle definition.
You’re much more likely to build beautiful new muscle when you do the minimum number of sets and exercises required in the fewest sessions per week. When you’re training too frequently or hammering out too much volume, your body doesn’t have the time or energy to repair and rebuild. It gets freaking tired.
What is the best training frequency? It’s individual and depends on your goals. The key is to track, test, and tweak.
Start out with three 60-minute, full-body workouts per week. Track your strength and body composition and recheck after six weeks. If you notice an improvement, keep going for another three to four weeks. Then, recheck your stats again to see if you’re still progressing. Keep in mind that you need to make small changes every session or every week (depending on your level) to keep progressing – increasing the reps or weight, changing your grip, decreasing the rest, etc.
When your strength and/or muscle has stopped growing and small tweaks don’t work, it’s time to increase your training frequency. I find that for intermediate trainees, an upper/lower split for a total of four workouts per week works best. Body-part splits have a lot of uses and are fantastic for some people (including competitors and advanced trainees), but chances are you can get great results with a more flexible plan.
By the way, you also don’t want to train heavy every session. It’s great if you can deadlift one and a half times your body weight, but to build muscle you’ll need to train in the moderate range too. (Check out more strength-training principles on my blog.)
2. Break Up with Washboard Abs
While having six-pack abs is a noble goal, it might be preventing you from having a muscular back, shoulders, arms, and legs.
When you’re obsessed with having a washboard abs, you’re probably always trying to lose fat. And that means being in the cardio mindset. Even if you lift heavy, if you’re spending too much time on cardio your body will never have the chance to build muscle.
Women are so conditioned to hate every ounce of fat on their bodies that they give cardio too much importance in their routines.
Aerobic exercise subtracts from your energy balance sheet. When you do frequent moderate-to-high intensity exercise, your body uses energy to fuel that activity instead of building muscle.
If you want to lose fat, make small, sustainable changes to your diet every day and strength train with the proper volume. Cardio has a place in a fat-loss program, but once you’re at a body fat level you’re comfortable with, back off and focus on muscle-building.
You don’t need to go “lady balls to the walls” every session to burn fat, either. Consistent, low-to-moderate intensity exercise and a healthy diet are enough to stoke your metabolic fires. (Walking is one of the most underrated ways to improve your health and maintain a healthy metabolism.) When your metabolism is flexible and functioning well, you’re a fat-burning machine instead of a fat-storing machine.
You can have gorgeous muscle definition without washboard abs. Get off the cardio mindset.
3. Stop Fighting with Food
If you eat like a bird, drink liquid meals, or otherwise fight with your body about eating, you’ll never build above-average muscle mass.
This is perhaps the hardest thing for women to change, because in our culture, the main priority is to be “thin.” That means restricting calories, of course – it’s what we do! If there’s a “muffin top” or smidge of fat to be seen anywhere, we obsess about ridding ourselves of it above all other goals, including building muscle.
The fact is, if you want muscle definition, you have to feed your muscles. Muscle requires extra calories to grow; they don’t just form out of thin air. You’ll have to give up your sparse eating habits and get at least your total daily energy expenditure in calories (TDEE).
That doesn’t mean you can go on an eating free-for-all. First find out if you’re getting your TDEE (I describe how to do that here). From there, women can increase their calories by 100-200 per day, more if they are very active.
You also need more protein to build muscle: 1-1.1 grams per pound of body weight. Track your food to find out if you’re getting enough.
When you implement these changes into your training, diet, and mindset, you’ll start to see that gorgeous muscle definition you want.
Want to train with Suzanne? Check out her new Fitocracy Fitness Team: Lean and Strong.