When you first start lifting, you worry that you’ll bulk up and lose your feminine curves, but you quickly learn that getting muscle definition isn’t that easy. Most women don’t have the hormonal makeup to build large muscles. To get ANY muscle definition, it takes hard work, patience, consistent training, and good nutrition. If you’re frustrated because you’re not seeing the muscle definition you were expecting, here are five possible reasons why.
Lack of Muscle Definition: You’re Not Eating Enough
If your goal is to lose fat AND build muscle at the same time, you’re probably consuming more protein and cutting back on how much you eat. Yes, eating a higher protein diet may help you conserve muscle as you’re losing fat, but if your calorie and carb count is too low, you’ll still have a hard time gaining muscle.
When you cut your calories, you send your body mixed messages – you’re hurling it into a catabolic state by lowering your calorie intake and then expecting it to perform an anabolic task like building new muscle tissue. Unfortunately, you’re asking too much. Don’t forget that when you’re under-fueled, you underperform too because your body doesn’t have the energy it needs to function at its best and you may not be able to lift as much. When you don’t eat enough, you not only impact muscle growth but recovery as well.
So, what do you do if you need to lose body fat but you want more muscle? Just as you can periodize your weight training, you can periodize your dietary goals. If you have body fat to lose, focus initially on losing some of that fat. Reduce your calories while still keeping your protein intake high. Lift weights but focus a portion of your workout time on cardio. HIIT training is a good alternative for losing body fat.
Once you’re closer to the body fat percentage you’d like to achieve, increase the calorie intake of your diet, cut back on cardio, and increase the intensity of your strength training. Doing this will send your body into “anabolic” mode and help you gain strength and muscle. It’ll also help you avoid the metabolic slowdown that occurs when you stay on a reduced calorie diet for too long. Yes, you may gain a little weight during your anabolic cycle but a significant portion will be muscle.
You can cycle back and forth like this to allow you to achieve both of your goals – fat loss and muscle gain – just not at the same time. Focus on one at a time so your body doesn’t get mixed messages.
Lack of Muscle Definition: You’re Focusing Too Much on Cardio
Yes, cardio can help you lose body fat but so can high-intensity strength training, particularly when you do compound exercises that elevate your heart rate and stimulate the release of anabolic hormones. Cardio has its place but if you’re a slow muscle gainer and you’re devoting more than 60 minutes a day to cardio, you may be committing cardio overkill.
Swap your cardio for shorter, HIIT training workouts twice a week. You’ll still get the cardiovascular benefits without sending your body into a catabolic state. In fact, high-intensity exercise, especially if you do power exercises like kettlebell swings or plyometric, will turn on anabolic hormones like growth hormone and testosterone that help you build muscle size and definition.
Lack of Muscle Definition: You’re Not Doing Enough Compound Lifts
Compound lifts give you the most bang for your muscle-building buck. That’s because they activate anabolic hormones more than isolation exercises. If you don’t know what compound exercises are, here’s the scoop. Compound exercises are those that involve more than one muscle group. Examples are squats, deadlifts, lunges, pull-ups, bench press, dumbbell rows, good mornings, dips, and military presses.
In contrast, isolation exercises work a single muscle group. Examples are biceps curls, triceps curls, leg extensions, dumbbell raises, and calf raises. Not that isolation exercises are worthless but they create less of an anabolic response relative to compound exercises. In fact, deadlifts are one of the best compound exercises for building muscle because they work almost every muscle group in your body. Many women don’t do this exercise, but if you’re trying to build muscle, you should. In fact, unless you have an orthopedic issue that makes it hard to do certain exercises, you should have these compound exercises in your routine:
These are high-yield exercises that deliver.
. Bench Presses
. Dumbbell Rows
Lack of Muscle Definition: You’re Violating the Principle of Progressive Overload
It’s not enough to simply lift weights. That may get you strength gains and maybe an increase in size early in the game but it won’t keep you growing. Muscles grow and adapt to the stress placed on them. It’s much easier to make gains in the beginning when every stimulus you place on your muscles is new. Then you plateau.
To continue to make gains, you have to abide by the universal weight-training law of progressive overload – incrementally increase the amount of stress and challenge you place on the muscle. It’s easy to get into a rut and do the same movements using the same weight every time you work out – but that won’t get you very far. The most obvious way to use progressive overload is to increase the resistance – but it’s not the only one. Here are more:
. Increase the number of sets
. Increase the number of reps
. Change the angle at which you work the muscle
. Change the amount of time you rest between sets
. Change the velocity at which you raise and lower the weight
. Add new exercises to your routine.
Lack of Muscle Definition: You’re Overtraining
Yes, there’s a point of diminishing return. If you over-train your muscles to exhaustion and don’t give them enough downtime, you’ll stymy their growth. Muscles grow during the time between workouts. Give your muscles at least 48 hours rest between sessions and make sure YOU are resting enough too. Aim for at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night.
The Bottom Line
You build muscle definition and strength slowly over time. Be patient and don’t expect to make quick changes. Many people expect too much too quickly – but you may not see growth at all if you’re making any of these mistakes.
Sports Med. 2015 Jan;45(1):111-31. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0242-2.
Sports Med. 2005;35(4):339-61.
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