The Truth About Hypertrophy Training for Women

Myth buster: If I lift weights, will I look like a man? Spoiler alert: No!

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I don’t want to get big and bulky, I just want to get toned!

Every personal trainer on the planet wants to commit hari-kari with the nearest set of body-fat calipers when a new female client makes this statement. The “bulking-up” myth is on par in infamy with Little Mikey kicking the bucket from eating Pop Rocks and drinking Coca-Cola simultaneously. But unlike Mikey’s myth, this one about hypertrophy training for women just won’t die.

Hypertrophy for Beginners

First, let’s start with a little background. Hypertrophy is just a fancy word for gaining muscle — a phenomenon that decreases your body-fat percentage and changes your body composition. In addition, muscle burns more energy at rest than fat does, so you will increase your resting metabolic rate and burn more calories on a daily basis.

“The biggest misconception about hypertrophy in women is that it happens quickly and easily, when in fact gaining significant amounts of muscle mass as a woman is hard,” says Molly Galbraith, CSCS, co-founder of Girls Gone Strong in Lexington, Kentucky. “You have to lift challenging weight for enough repetitions with enough time under tension to force an adaptation.” In addition, most women simply do not have the copious amounts of testosterone of their male counterparts to allow for bulky gains.

Physical therapist Lauren Lobert, DPT, OMPT, CSCS, owner of Apex Physical Therapy, couldn’t agree more about hypertrophy training for women. “There has always been this stigma that women should do cardio and lift light weights while men should lift heavy things,” she says. “This could not be further from the truth. When you see women who are very muscular, you have to realize that this was not an accident — it took a lot of hard work in the gym and also in the kitchen. Like, a whole lot. It is extremely difficult to build muscle.”

This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your goals. If you’re a “toner,” then not to worry: You won’t become the Hulk. “When a woman starts strength training, she can expect to gain 0.5 to 1 pound of muscle per month at the absolute maximum,” Galbraith says. This is achieved with consistent, challenging lifting and dedicated nutrition, and most recreational lifters using moderate amounts of weight will stay well below this threshold and achieve their goal of toning. (By the by, toning is just another way of saying “adding muscle.” You’re just not adding a lot of muscle.)

“Genetics plays a huge role, as does diet,” Lobert confirms. “The vast majority of women will not become too bulky but instead develop a strong, curvy and lean physique by lifting weights.”

If your goal is to gain some sleek size and shape or build up certain bodyparts, however, then your task is more challenging. “Those initial size gains will taper off over time as you become a more advanced lifter,” Galbraith says. But you can push your limits and force adaptation through conscientious programming.

Best Hypertrophy Workout

When it comes to hypertrophy training for women, lifting in the six- to 12-rep range is best, according to Galbraith — but she also emphasizes building a solid foundation of strength. “The stronger you are, the more weight you can lift for more repetitions, leading to more lean mass gains,” she says. “Performing large, compound movements such as squats and deadlifts in the one- to five-rep range is great for building your foundation of strength.”

Woman deadlifting in a gym

When you’re looking to gain, Galbraith says the best hypertrophy workout is a four-day split in which you do two heavy days to build strength and two repetition-focused days to add muscle. She suggests following a program such as this for four to six weeks for optimal hypertrophy:

Four-Day Split Hypertrophy Workout

Day Workout
Day 1 Heavy, Upper Body
Day 2 High Reps, Lower Body
Day 3 Rest
Day 4 High Reps, Upper Body
Day 5 Heavy, Lower Body
Day 6-7 Rest

Adding advanced techniques also can push your boundaries. “We are much stronger in the eccentric [lowering] phase of an exercise than we are in the concentric [lifting phase],” Galbraith says. “We can use this to our advantage by really slowing down the negative rep for increased time under tension. As for rep range for hypertrophy training, drop sets — where you perform reps to failure, then reduce the weight and continue the set — are also a great way to increase time under tension and tax both your fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers.”

For another point of view, Lobert prefers three to five full-body hypertrophy workout sessions per week over the four-day split hypertrophy workout. “These sessions will stay the same for about a month and then change,” she explains. “Each day will include an upper-body push, upper-body pull and lower-body exercises. You will do all the major lifts (deadlift, squat, bench press, pull-up, hip thrust, etc.) at least once a week.”

Woman squatting in gym

Lobert says if you do an exercise once a week, you will maintain your strength in this exercise, so each month, you will change your focus and do one or two of these movements, or variations of them, three to five times per week.

“For example, if you want to focus on developing your hamstrings, you would deadlift one day, [do] single-leg deadlifts one day, and do Nordic hamstring curls on the third day,” Lobert says. “The lift that you are focusing on that month should be first in the workout, when you’re fresh. You don’t need to do a ton of sets, as long as you are challenging yourself. I would look to end up with 15 to 20 sets total over five to seven exercises.”

What If I Want to Add Some Mass?

Craving a bigger booty? To build mass in a specific area, it is generally necessary to train this area two to four times per week.

“You will need to practice progressive overload, which means systemically increasing the challenge to your muscles,” Lobert says. “You can do this by increasing repetitions at the same weight, increasing weight, changing the speed (going more slowly and controlled), or improving your form and range of motion.”

To do this, keep track of personal records for specific lifts at certain weights. For instance, if you want to build your glutes, you want to train them at heavy loads (one to five repetitions), medium loads (six to 12 repetitions) and lighter loads (12-plus repetitions). You may have a record of doing a certain number of repetitions at 135 pounds, and your goal will be to improve this number of repetitions at this weight or be able to do the same number of repetitions at 155 pounds. You should vary your loads (heavy, medium and light), train consistently several times per week and keep challenging yourself to be able to see changes.

Weights and barbell in gym

“You can gain muscle and strength if you go to fatigue or failure, even at light weights,” Lobert says. “It will just take longer and you’ll have to do lots of reps! It’s definitely not the most efficient way to do things. Also, eat enough calories to be able to gain muscle. So don’t worry about getting bulky. Lift heavy and enjoy feeling strong and powerful!”

Still convinced you’re going to Hulk out doing a hypertrophy split? Then remain a cardio queen and cruise the status quo. But if you want to change your physique, boost your metabolism and increase your energy levels, then get your lift on and embrace hypertrophy, however much of it may come.

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