Developing a Women’s Bodybuilding Program
Bodybuilding as a sport originated in the 1970s and surged in popularity in the 2000s. There are now many “divisions” of bodybuilding like women’s figure, bikini, wellness, and physique that have opened the sport to a wider base. However, the art of traditional bodybuilding benefits any female client or gym member when the principles are applied correctly.
What would prompt you to have a female client on a “bodybuilding” program and how would you rationalize it? Whether they are planning to compete in a show or not, the benefits are many! As a personal trainer and authority on the human body, it is up to you to explain the massive benefits.
1. Build Muscle and Prevent Injury
As you age, you naturally lose muscle mass no matter how much you begin with. The result is the loss of strength and a higher risk of injury from simple daily tasks like stepping in and out of a shower. Maintaining a resistance training workout program maintains and builds skeletal muscle mass and improves your client’s balance, posture, and body mechanics.
Injuries do happen! If you have an interest in working with clients recovering from injury, the ISSA Exercise Therapy Certification is for you!
2. Increased Metabolism
Who doesn’t want to burn more calories without trying?! Muscle tissue burns 30-50 calories per pound each day in our bodies compared to the 3-5 calories per pound body fat burns per day. The more muscle mass your client has, the higher their resting metabolic rate will be. If they have a goal of weight loss at any point, this will be key!
3. A Streamlined Physique
Muscle tissue takes up far less space than fat tissue. More muscle mass often means less body fat. This often translates to the loss of inches regardless of the change in weight (muscle tissue is denser than fat tissue as well) and a smaller, tighter physique.
4. Better Cardiovascular Health
The addition of cardiovascular training can strengthen the heart, lower blood pressure, and improve key health indicators like good cholesterol levels and decrease diabetes risk factors.
5. To Get on Stage!
So, this will not apply to most general clients, but if the goal is to compete in a show, the program is designed to get your client in optimal condition, with some small adjustments to their diet and cardio inclusions, to step on stage.
Nutritional Elements of a Women’s Bodybuilding Program
The most important part of any training program is the diet. Especially when working to add muscle mass, the careful addition of calories in the right way will make or break the results of a resistance training program.
Calculating Caloric Needs
More than just calculating your client’s basal metabolic rate (BMR), you will need to pay attention to their body composition to track their progress. Weight loss or gain is not a fair indicator of muscle growth during a bodybuilding program.
To calculate BMR, you can use an online calculator or, knowing your client’s body fat percentage, you can do the math yourself. Completing the calculation yourself is a teaching moment to help your client understand how muscle burns calories passively! First, use calipers or a bioelectrical impedance tool to measure body fat.
- (total weight (lbs.)/100) x (100 - Body fat %) = lean body mass in lbs.
- total weight - lean body mass = fat mass
Assume that half of the lean body mass is muscle tissue in most clients, half is essential organs, bone, and tissue.
- lean body mass/2 = muscle mass in lbs.
Muscle burns 30-50 calories per pound per day. 30 calories would be a relatively inactive individual while 50 calories would be for a highly active client.
- Multiply muscle mass in lbs. by 30 = low range of calories needed
- Multiply muscle mass in lbs. by 50 = high range of calories needed.
Now, you have a range of calories and, using what you know of the client’s activity level, you can determine the right number to start with. To account for daily activity, take an average of these two numbers as a starting point. Remember, as their body composition changes, this number will change!
With the required calories for the day, you’ll add 200-500 calories to the daily total for muscle building and, when the timing is right, remove 200-500 calories from the daily need for fat/weight loss.
The calories break down into an ideal macronutrient count. The macronutrients in human nutrition are carbohydrates, protein, and fat. The average client who has a basic workout routine will benefit from a distribution of 40% of calories from carbohydrates, 30% of calories from protein, and 30% of calories from fats.
For a client looking to gain muscle mass who has a heavier workout routine and, in many cases, the addition of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), the ratio needs to accommodate the greater intensity. The protein will ideally be bumped toward 45-50% of the daily calories (not to exceed 1g of protein per pound of body weight for long term kidney health!), with the calories from carbohydrates around 30% of the daily calories, and fats with the remaining 20-25% of daily calories.
An important side note on fats—women should not engage in low-fat dieting. Fats aid in the production of female hormones and other important body functions. Too little fat in the diet will disrupt hormones and can lead to many other issues in the body.
For more detail on nutrition, calculating macronutrients, and how food works in the body, be sure to explore the ISSA Nutrition Certification!
Now, for the heavy lifting—literally!
The first step in bodybuilding program design is setting a timeline. A deadline (e.g., a competition date) or a desired check-in point will help you determine the periodization as you design the best program for your client. Knowing the phases of the program will help you set realistic and attainable goals with your client. There are typically two phases in a women’s bodybuilding program: bulking and cutting.
Often referred to as a growth phase, the bulking phase focuses on higher calories, maximum-effort resistance training, low reps, and hypertrophy. The body fat of your client may go up a little in this phase, but proper, balanced nutrition can minimize this side effect. A safe muscle growth goal is 10-15 pounds per year, so 1-1.5 pounds of muscle growth per month is ideal. Anything more may indicate body fat gain, which can be discouraging for a female client. Help them manage their expectations and understand that their total weight is not the only indicator of growth and what the proper rate of growth should be.
This phase requires a small calorie deficit, maximum effort resistance training, low reps, the addition of high-intensity interval training for cardio, and maintaining muscle mass while reducing body fat. As discussed with nutrition, for fat loss, a simple drop in 200-500 calories from the daily goal will promote fat use as a fuel source and discourage muscle wasting. The small decrease in caloric intake will also prevent excessive soreness and extended recovery times.
Depending on how much body fat your client would like to lose, you will need six to twelve weeks in this phase to see safe weight loss. One to two pounds of body fat loss per week is great progress!
Creating a Split
Most bodybuilding programs will use a body part split and utilize supersets to keep intensity higher. There are many ways to create a split and you as the trainer will have the discretion to create what works. A common split would be:
Back and Biceps
Legs- extensions, curls, lunges
Chest and Triceps
Back and Biceps
Legs- squats, deadlifts, leg press
Chest and Triceps
(optional rest day)
Include time for proper rest to allow for the recovery of each body part, this will help you determine how many days in between a body part. However, one day a week is typically not enough to promote maximum muscle growth. Training a muscle group twice per week will promote optimal growth while still leaving time for recovery.
Within a workout for bodybuilding, the ideal reps stay between 4 and 8 with a focus on 85% or more of max weight used. This means your client is lifting maximal or just under maximal weight with the idea of reaching muscle failure by the end of each set. This much fatigue after reps will also mean much longer rest periods—2 to 5 minutes depending on the exercise. This is a good opportunity to create a superset, or grouping, of movements that incorporate core work or smaller muscles like the biceps or triceps on a day they may not otherwise be a part of the workout. The benefit is extra reps on a small, quick repairing muscle group and the increase in blood flow to promote repair if those muscles are sore.
You will want to create a workout routine each day that starts with the bigger lifts for the larger muscle groups like the back squat, deadlift, pull-up, or bench press early in the workout. The muscle will be less fatigued immediately after the warm-up than if you wait until farther into the workout and your client will be better prepared to complete heavier reps.
The Cardio Component
Every personal trainer knows cardio is a tool, not a requirement, for a well-rounded women’s workout routine. Some clients may not need cardio in their workout routine at all while others may need it to encourage weight loss.
In a women’s bodybuilding program, cardio is introduced in the cutting phase. There are three ways to use cardio to increase daily calorie burn and promote fat loss.
1. High-Intensity Interval Training
This does not have to be max effort sprints on a treadmill! This simply means short bursts of high-intensity intervals of training that spike the heart rate for 30 to 90 seconds, followed by a full recovery to a resting heart rate or close to it. These rounds are short and repeated five to ten rounds in a single session. Anything cardio-based, plyometric, or fast-paced can elicit this response:
- Air bike full-body sprint
- Treadmill/stair master/elliptical sprint
- Barbell push press
- Box jumps
- Running in place
- Sled pushes
- Low weight, high volume chest press (used in a superset with a hypertrophy exercise)
Get creative! This is a wonderful way to break up the monotony of cardiovascular training and keep your client engaged.
2. Steady State Cardio
Just like it sounds, a 75%-80% of maximum heart rate target, steady pace cardio session. This is often completed post-workout when the metabolism is already elevated and the body is warm. Some would say a post-workout steady cardio bout will burn 10-15% more calories as well! Steady state cardio is a longer session than the high-intensity interval training. Begin with 15-20-minute sessions post-workout at the beginning of the cutting phase. As you progress the client through the cutting phase, the bouts will increase by five to ten minutes every seven to ten days.
Keep in mind, no one really wants to do 60 minutes or more of cardio. Competitors will often do this seeking extreme results, but, for the average client, you can mix up the steady state sessions with high-intensity interval training to prevent boredom and increase workout compliance.
3. Fasted Cardio
This may be an option for a more invested client or a competitor. It requires steady state cardio first thing in the morning (or upon waking) and on an empty stomach. The idea is that the body will use more fat for fuel in this situation assuming the intensity of the cardio is relatively low. High-intensity cardio intervals are not appropriate when fasted as muscle wasting will occur.
Research on fasted cardio shows minimal difference between lower impact cardio on an empty stomach versus after eating, but some clients may enjoy the energy boost they get from it.
We’re talking nutritional supplementation here! There are a few supplements to carry or encourage your clients to take that are beneficial for a muscle-gaining program.
Whey, casein, and plant-based proteins are readily available. Whey is dairy-based and good at any time of day. Casein is a slower absorbing protein perfect for just before bed. Plant proteins are available for those who cannot tolerate dairy or who follow a plant-based diet. Supplementing protein is an effective way to increase a client’s protein intake if they are falling short. However, be aware of how this supplement will affect your client’s macronutrient count.
2. Branch Chain Amino Acids
Also called BCAAs, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They can be bought in powder, pill, or liquid form and are a necessity for any bodybuilding program. Powdered BCAAs often include a small amount of sugar to sweeten the taste and elicit an insulin response. In any form, they can be consumed intra-workout, post-workout, or even pre-workout as a fuel source for clients who don’t eat before they exercise.
Most BCAAs do not include glutamine anymore as the taste of the supplement can be bitter to some consumers. Glutamine is another essential amino acid that aids in muscle recovery. It is best consumed post-workout when your glutamine levels are lowest.
Honor the “Old School” Mentality
Bodybuilding for men and women is considered pretty “old school”—the mindset and training methods in the gym are simple, yet effective! Training philosophies like the use of free weights and barbells instead of machines and bands are big with bodybuilders and their trainers. The use of barbells, dumbbells, and lifting platforms allow you to train the prime movers and all the stabilizer muscles for your clients. Not only will they get stronger faster, but they will be working to improve their posture, balance, and body control at the same time.
Now, go! Spread the word that bodybuilding is not a dirty word! There are so many benefits to having and maintaining more muscle mass, especially in female clients. Let’s work for a stronger world, one rep at a time. Continue your education with the ISSA Bodybuilding Certification!