The Female Bodybuilding Handbook: Everything You Need to Know

Female bodybuilding can be intimidating. Even if you’re not looking to compete, getting into the gym at all can be hard to do. Fitness machines and routines mean that you have to learn a new activity. If you’re looking for a way to feel confident in the gym, the female bodybuilding handbook is exactly what you need. Ready to kick off your new women’s workout program? Let’s go!


Let’s start with what most women start with when they decide they want to work out more: cardio. Many women feel comfortable on the elliptical or treadmill where there is less intimidation. That’s not necessarily the best place to start. There are multiple cardio options that can be integrated with a starter bodybuilding plan.

Hight Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

HIIT is a highly effective form of cardio that uses short, 30 second intervals of high intensity training followed by a small amount of rest (about one minute). Most HIIT sessions start at about 20 minutes but start with what you can and then increase the work and decrease the rest time.

Weight Training

Decreasing the time in between sets can help work as cardio as well. It will keep your heart rate up and increase the energy burned. If you can’t stand cardio, weight training with shorter rest periods can help support your cardiovascular health.

Low Intensity Steady State (LISS)

Low Intensity Steady State is the popular form of cardio for women including elliptical, slow jog, or gentle yoga. LISS is often used by those on low-carb diets who can’t support the energy burned by a higher intensity cardio. LISS is not the most effective way to burn fat but it is easier on your joints and better for beginners.


Endurance running or biking is a great way to get cardio into your program. Long runs or bikes should be done on opposite days to lifting days so that you have more energy for each activity.

Women’s Weight Training

Now that you’ve decided which cardio routine sounds right for you, we can talk about the majority of your bodybuilding plan: weight training. Many women are afraid of weight training for a variety of reasons. A new activity that means you have to put yourself out there to learn something new and open yourself up to the possibility of failure. Most of the time, the weight area is dominated by big and bulky bodybuilder men who can be intimidating.

On top of those fears, many women are concerned that they will look masculine if they weight train. In all reality, weight training is more likely to tone and shape women’s muscles more than bulking them. Women do not have the same amount of testosterone that gives men the ability to easily bulk. It would take a large amount of dedication and many years to create the female bodybuilding shape that the top bodybuilders have.

So, what else can weightlifting do for bodybuilding women who are just starting out? It can increase your lean muscle mass without making you look masculine. More lean muscle mass means that your body burns more calories to tone your stomach, butt, and arms.

The Basic Women’s Workout Plan

Warm Up

Your warmup allows your body to stretch and activate your muscles and increase your blood flow to your muscles. You can use a foam roller to roll out your muscles or warm up with some basic yoga stretches.

Activation Movement

Perform an activation movement for speed and mobility for 20 reps. You can break the 20 reps into 2 or 3 sets depending on your activity level. They are performed with lower weight for that you can move and stretch the muscles with less risk of injury. These are often floor exercises.

Activation movements warm up the bigger muscles of your body. Stretching out these muscles helps to prevent injury from overworking the smaller muscles. These exercises help to restore your mobility, posture, and balance.

Heavy Compound Movement

A prime movement uses a smaller number of reps on a compound exercise to increase your muscle strength. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets.

Compound lifts are movements that use more than one muscle group. They are the most effective movements for increasing overall athleticism, strength, mobility, and cardio. They use more of your muscles, so they burn more calories.

Examples of Compound Lifts

  • Squats
  • Deadlift
  • Lunges
  • Pull Ups
  • Dips
  • Bench Press
  • Push Press
  • Push Ups

Assistance Movement

Shape your muscles by performing the traditional 8-12 reps for a slightly lighter weight. Use a shorter weight to keep your muscles in an anaerobic state.

Isolation Lifts

Isolation lifts are, as suggested, movements that isolate and target one specific muscle group. They are used to tone and increase muscle on a specific body part, such as your biceps, triceps, calves, or glutes.

Examples of Isolation Lifts

  • Biceps Curl
  • Triceps Extension
  • Triceps Push Down
  • Calf Raise
  • Leg Curl
  • Leg Extension
  • Front Raise


Using a shorter HIIT training program after your weight training can keep your cardio health supported. Follow with one day of LISS or endurance cardio training on an off-weight training day.

Sets and Reps

Typically, the standard for sets and reps to tone is 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps. That means you perform a movement 8 to 12 times, break, then repeat 2 to 3 more times. Start with lighter weight that allows you to work on your form and become comfortable in the movement to avoid injury.

If you want to increase your muscle strength, add more weight for fewer reps (about 4-6 reps per set).

The length of your breaks depends on how intense you want your workout to be. Longer periods of 1-2 minutes give your body time to recover. Shorter periods of 30-45 seconds keep your muscles in anabolic stress to burn more calories.

Moving Up

The goal of weightlifting is always to move up to the next weight or to increase your reps. Working at the same weight for the same number of reps won’t change your body’s tone or strength. Take time to develop your form and feel comfortable, then change something to push yourself. This can be increasing the weights, increasing the reps, or decreasing the rest periods.

Women’s Nutrition Plan

Nutrition is an important part of any female bodybuilding plan. Nutrition planning does not equal “dieting” and there’s no reason to use fad diets. The food you eat supports your fitness goals, and what you eat and put into your body is important to support working out. Your body – and your body type – dictates what you should eat and what kind of dietary plan will work for you.

A Note on Calories

Calories are of course a part of any diet. If you’re wanting to lose weight, your calories in will need to be less than the calories you’re burning. You need to meet your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories you burn in a day. You want to start with a maintenance level of calories – equal to around your total daily calorie expenditure. From there, you can either cut calories to lose weight or add calories to gain muscle. This should start with a small change of about 200-300 calories.


If you’ve ever followed a fitness influencer on social media or joined a fitness group on Facebook, you’ve probably heard the idea of macronutrients. They are the three major food nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat.


The number one macronutrient that is used for building muscle tone is protein. Protein is made up of amino acids, which also help build muscle. Generally speaking, you want to eat about a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.

Examples of Protein

  • Lean Meat
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Protein Supplements


Your body needs fat to function. There are multiple forms of fats: essential fatty acids, saturated, unsaturated, and trans fats. Although the dietary industry has labelled fats as harmful, there are good fats, like essential omega fatty acids, that your body needs. Avoid trans fats and processed foods with hydrogenated oils but supplement your diet with natural and clean fat.

Examples of Good Fats

  • Nuts
  • Butter/Ghee
  • Olive/Coconut/Avocado Oils


Carbohydrates are the other macronutrient your body needs. Like fats, there are good carbs and bad carbs. Simple carbs, like white bread and processed foods with higher sugar content, should be limited. Complex carbs, like oatmeal, green vegetables, and brown rice, can help you feel fuller longer and take longer to digest.

Examples of Complex Carbs:

  • Potatoes
  • Oatmeal
  • Green Vegetables
  • Brown Rice
  • Bananas

Macronutrients and Body Types

The general split for macronutrients is 40% carbs, 30% fat, and 30% protein. However, that ratio can change depending on your body type and even your activity level. There are three body types: ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph. You can read more about the body types here, but we’ll summarize below and explain how each type affects your macronutrient ratio.

Note: most people are a combination of body types. You’ll most likely need to experiment with your ratio to see what works for you.


Ectomorphs tend to be tall and lean with a high metabolism. They tend to need higher amounts of carbohydrates to give them energy.

Macro ratio: 50% carbs, 30% protein, 20% fat

Visual portion recommendations for four meals a day:

  • 2 cupped hands of carbs
  • 1 palm of protein
  • 1 balled fist of veggies
  • ½ thumb of fat


Mesomorphs are typical athletes that can both gain muscle and stay toned pretty easily. Because their body type is in the middle, they can use the average macro ratio.

Macro ratio: 40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat

Visual portion recommendations for four meals a day:

  • 1 cupped hand of carbs
  • 1 palm of protein
  • 1 balled fist of veggies
  • 1 thumb of fat


Endomorphs are heavier and have a thicker bone structure. They tend to do better with slightly higher fat and lower carbohydrate macros.

Macro ratio: 25% carbs, 35% protein, 40% fat

Visual portion recommendations for four meals a day:

  • ½ cupped hand of carbs
  • 1 palm of protein
  • 1 balled fist of veggies
  • 2 thumbs of fat

Women’s Supplement Basics

Any women’s workout routine will suggest a few supplements. There are a whole host of supplements that are just as good for women as they are for men. But let’s start with the basics where anyone can start.


A multivitamin helps to keep your body in top shape by supplying nutrients that we tend to be deficient in to support energy, immunity, and performance. Women’s vitamins are typically higher in folate, vitamin B12, and iron.

Fish Oil

Fish oil is simply a way to supplement your good fatty acids, such as Omega-3s, that help reduce inflammation and are known to help lower the risk of certain cancers and neural diseases.


Protein is most likely the most common and most popular supplement for weightlifting athletes. To meet the required amounts of protein that you need, a protein powders can be extremely helpful. Protein powders can be used to make protein shakes or in baking recipes. Gone are the days of two option flavors – with everything from cookies and cream to brownie fudge, there is sure to be a flavor you’ll like.

Additional Supplements

BCAAs and EAAs

Branched chain amino acids and essential amino acids are essential to building protein and muscle. Research shows that taking BCAAs before a workout can help increase protein intake and improve recovery.

Vitamin D

Because many of us work inside in offices or live in less sunny places, Vitamin D deficiency has become more commonplace. Vitamin D is used to help support bone and teeth health and can help with performance and recovery.


Hydration is key to any female bodybuilder’s workout plan. Drinking eight glasses or 64oz of water per day helps to support overall health and wellness. Staying hydrating is known to promote cardiovascular health, increases energy, supports joints and muscles, improves skin, and helps to support many of your body’s necessary processes.  

Summary of the Female Bodybuilding Handbook

In order to become a female bodybuilder and to start a women’s workout program, you need to understand a basic workout program, nutrition plan, and the basics of supplementation. Going to the gym can be intimidating, so going in with a plan can give you a basis of support. No need to be wary of becoming too masculine, following a women’s workout plan can help you tone your muscles and feel great about your body.

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