Strength Training

Top Mistakes to Avoid for a Women’s Bodybuilding Program

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Top Mistakes to Avoid for a Women’s Bodybuilding Program

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Bodybuilding is a sport of grace, symmetry, and dedication. There is so much more to the process than building muscle mass and doing cardio. The workout routine, nutrition, and training periodization (the plan) all have to work together! Let’s explore each component of a successful women’s bodybuilding program and shed some light on common mistakes to avoid in each aspect. 

The Art Science of Bodybuilding

The art of bodybuilding is more like a science. It takes a planned, systematic approach to create muscle hypertrophy and fat loss (without losing hard-earned lean muscle mass) and step on stage in competition shape. 

There are generally two phases of a bodybuilding program: bulking and cutting. In the bulking phase, the focus is on lifting weights to support muscle growth, building muscle strength, and using an increased calorie intake to maintain and build muscle tissue. But this can’t be done without a plan! Too many calories and you’ll store excess body fat (excess weight gain) that can be difficult to shed later in the process. Too much lifting without adequate recovery and injury is likely. It takes balance and a day-by-day approach to fine tune. 

The cutting phase requires you to still lift heavy to maintain muscle mass, but the diet shifts to a calorie deficit and cardio is introduced and used as a tool to promote fat loss. Again, a balance is required. Too much cardio and muscle wastes away. Too much lifting without adequate recovery and, just like when bulking, injury can occur (especially with a calorie deficit!). 

Let’s get an overview of each aspect. 

The Diet

Nutrition during bodybuilding is key. Specifically, getting enough calories to support muscle building and reducing calories enough to promote fat loss. All the macronutrients are important, but for different reasons. 

Proteins support muscle protein synthesis, carbohydrates provide energy, and fats support body processes and can help keep you full. Whole, fresh foods are best on a bodybuilding diet to control calories. Have you ever tried to eat 200 calories worth of broccoli? It’s a very large bowl! 200 calories of a hamburger, not so much.

Check out this ISSA blog to learn more about crafting the perfect women’s bodybuilding diet!

The Training

There’s so much to know about training! Resistance training happens throughout a bodybuilding program, but the cardio is used as a tool towards the end. How you plan, or periodize, the program matters too! It’ll all be based on how long you have before you hit the stage. 12 to 16 weeks of preparation is typical and ideal. Some women may need even more time depending on their body condition when beginning a program.

Resistance Training 

To build muscle, resistance training has to be heavy…. Like, really heavy! Six to eight repetitions to fatigue heavy. This is the only way to force the muscles to adapt and grow during bulking. The training will continue at a similar intensity when cutting to prevent muscle protein breakdown. It’s a ‘use it or lose it’ situation when operating at a caloric deficit. 

Learn everything you need to know to build muscle effectively for women in this informative ISSA blog post: The Go-To Guide for Women Building Muscle


Again, cardio is a tool to burn extra calories and further create a calorie deficit. There are a few different ways to do cardio in a bodybuilding program. The best way is based on the individual and how each unique body responds:

  • Fasted cardio – on an empty stomach
  • Semi-fasted cardio – at least three hours after a meal
  • Steady state cardio – a slow pace, low intensity, longer duration cardio session
  • HIIT cardio – high intensity, fast paced intervals for a shorter duration

Sessions typically start off shorter and the duration will increase as the weeks count down. 


Ok, here’s the most important part! When you know how many weeks you have to prepare, you can plan your training and phases appropriately. For example, if you have 16 weeks until show day, a potential periodized plan could be:

Weeks to go

Resistance training

Cardio training



6-8 reps, heavy


Calorie surplus (500 to 600 additional calories daily)


8-10 reps, heavy


Calorie surplus (up to 300 additional calories daily)


10-12 reps, heavy

20-40 min 4x a week

Slight deficit (reduce by 200 calories daily)


10-12 reps, heavy

30-50 min 4x a week

Deficit (reduce by 300 calories daily)


10-12 reps, heavy

45-60 min 5x a week

Deficit (reduce by 300 calories daily)


10-12 reps, heavy

60-90 min 5x a week

Deficit (reduce by up to 500 calories daily)

Take the program week by week to minimize anxiety and see how the body responds to each aspect of your preparations (diet, training, and cardio).

Keep in mind, this is an airplane view of developing a women's bodybuilding program. Be sure to take the time to sit down and plan it out. Get with a prep coach and/or a dietitian to make the best selections for your lifestyle and timeline.

Mistakes to Avoid…

The biggest general mistake people often make when training for bodybuilding is not picking a show date first! If you don’t know how much time you have to train, then it’s nearly impossible to plan your training progression. It’s also far less likely that you’ll ever reach the end look your working towards. To be the most successful, pick a competition that is 12 to 16 weeks away from your starting date to allow you to progress through a program safely and healthfully. 

Mistakes with the Diet

It’s easy to get sucked into the dieting schemes and fads that the general population uses when prepping for a show. However, the eating pattern of a bodybuilder is actually very deliberate. It’s higher in protein on purpose—to support muscle tissue. And carbohydrates are not the enemy! They are strategic fuel that should be timed appropriately. Some common mistakes with a bodybuilding diet include:

  • Not taking the time to calculate your calorie needs: that means you’re guessing when determining your surplus or deficit = ineffective!
  • Eating packaged foods: you’ll likely be preparing your food along the way to keep it clean. Taking the shortcut and grabbing prepackaged bars and foods makes it really hard to follow your macronutrient goals.
  • Not measuring your food before you eat it: if you’re not measuring, you’re guessing!
  • Forgetting your off meal every 10-14 days: a high-calorie meal every now and then actually spikes your hormones and boosts your metabolism. Your brain and body will thank you for the mental break and enjoyment of the occasional “cheat meal!”
  • Or, on the other hand, doing a cheat meal too frequently: you will likely not see results—especially when cutting—if off meals are too frequent. You’ll have to get used to sometimes feeling a little hungry!

Mistakes During Training

It’s important to hit the weights hard when bodybuilding, but within reason! Here are some common mistakes when training that you may never have considered:

  • Varying your training too much: bodybuilding uses the same basic lifts over and over again to target muscle groups like the quads and shoulders specifically. Too much variety in exercises and the body will not adapt to the stress.
  • Pushing too hard without rest: every body needs to recover after training. If you fail to take some time off every now and then—or at least listen to your body—you’ll likely get injured and be out of the gym indefinitely!
  • Not lifting heavy enough: it’s not about getting sore; instead, it’s about working to the point of muscle fatigue. If you are fatiguing your muscle, you are forcing adaptation = growth!
  • Making your training sessions too long:  you’ll have to be okay with the fact that sometimes you’ll walk into the gym with a plan and that plan may only take you 30 minutes to execute. Cool. Finish and go home!

Mistakes with Periodization

The program is nothing without the plan! Some common mistakes with bodybuilding training periodization include:

  • Not allowing enough time to prep: Your body may not respond in time or you may get sick if you push too hard too fast.
  • Starting cardio too early in the process: no one has time for 3 hours a day of cardio, but if you start too early, your body adapts, you’ll have to keep adding time to your cardio sessions, and that is where you’ll end up!
  • Trading resistance training for cardio towards the end: muscle disappears really quickly when you do that, especially when working on a calorie deficit.
  • Not allowing enough time in the process for cardio: You may not lose as much body fat as necessary and you’ll end up on stage with an unfinished look.

Find Focus and Stick to the Plan

Bodybuilding is very much a mental game. Sometimes you’ll be a little hungry. Sometimes you be a little hangry! Sometimes you’ll feel tired, but you still have to go train or do your cardio. And if you stick to the plan and avoid the little mistakes, you’ll be so happy you pushed through. There is no better feeling than stepping on stage knowing that you brough your best physique possible!

Are you interested in really learning the ins and outs of bodybuilding? Check out the ISSA’s Bodybuilding Certification!


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