It’s really great to read that you’re making plans to bring about changes you want!
Personally, I love having the ability to change my body drastically. I recently slimmed down, am now tired of being a lightweight, and am preparing to pack on the muscle again. A process I have put myself through… Maybe 4 times already…
So, I might have just the kind of advice you want!
Foremost, you are right that muscle burns fat basically constantly. Your body needs a huge amount of energy to build and maintain strength. Imagine not just big ol hocks of beef, but the blood vessels, minerals, blood, connecting tissue, skin and even more dense bone structure you’ll need in order to lift weight more easily. Additionally, your body will need lots of energy at the ready at all times (in the form of ATP, stored physically close to each muscle cell). If you don’t have those calories, can take them in efficienctly, aren’t burning it daily, or genetically can’t store any more, you’ll stop building muscle… Or even lose it. ((This is what happens when muscle starts disappearing. Use it or lose it!))
There is a lot of information about how to gain muscle, because no one way works for everyone the same. Some habits help others more, some help you personally more. It’s important to pay attention to your body and take a critical look at what works for you.
In general, building muscle intails some stages:
To achieve a body builder’s physique, one would have to commit years of careful diet and exercise planning and evaluate how effective things are for them daily.
Assuming you’re not planning on taking steriods and becoming a frying-pan-folding beast, you can get away with some generic lifestyle habits ((rather than finding a shady dealer and living in the weightroom)).
Start with Conditioning:
This process can take anywhere from weeks to months, depending upon how active you’ve been over the past years, and whether you’ve ever lifted weights agressively before (and also genetics, etc…)
Your joints, tendons, bones and muscles all need to be prepared if you’re going to build additional muscle. Bones need to increase in density by slowly ramping up the weight you lift in each exercise, as well as by increasing dairy intake (mostly for extra calcium). As bones become harder and stronger, the rest of your body will follow suit.
Use free weights (dumbells, barbells, medicine balls, kettle bells) to increase bone density. The lateral forces (perpendicular to the length of the bone) and the act of stabilizing the weight are a big part of convincing your body to create new, denser bone cells. You actually have to physically crush bone cells to make your body stronger. Not fracture bones… but on a cellular level, kind of…
Increase the weight you lift based on:
- Did the exercise cause any injury? If yes, give yourself time to heal and then scale back to a safe weight.
- Did your heart rate increase? If not, add more weight. Heart rate is a good measure of progress and intensity, by the way. A heart monitor is a super useful tool.
- Did you feel like you could push harder next time without any help, or risk of injury? If yes, it’s probably time to bump up a notch.
Increasing weight in each exercise is usually pretty rapid, just naturally, at first. Don’t be discouraged when this slows down after several weeks, or months. (This is called “hitting a plateau”, we’ll talk about that when you get there if you want).
Sacrifice cardio just a little for more time under the bench press and squat rack.
At the same time you work on conditioning, work on “Bulking”, or building up your calorie intake.
This is the double-edged sword of building muscle.
If you eat too much, you’ll lose definition and those abs might just start disappearing. Too little, and you won’t be very happy with the progress you make in the weightroom.
I recommend that you not make too many sacrifices. Given that you exercise frequently, your calorie intake can be adjusted daily, based on the intensity of your last workout. If you’re dizy and can’t lift your arms over your head, grab a milkshake or a burger. If you bearly broke a sweat, stick with salad. You’ll get a feel for how food impacts your progress pretty quickly, so don’t let a little change freak you out. You can always adjust your diet and see results in a couple weeks, as long as you hit the gym more days than not.
The goal of this phase is to increase the weight you can lift in all exercises gradually, but quickly. This phase doesn’t end when you “plateau”, but most people feel happy with their strength and start to want for more definition and lithe appearance once they approach this natural peak of their strength.
When bulking doesn’t seem to be such a big concern anymore, it’s natrual to start wanting that moviestar-esque cut and chisled look.
This would be your tone, or lean phase.
Continue to exercise with the same intensity as always. Rather than looking for strength gains, look for reduced body fat and muscles that seem to pop, even doing daily tasks (like picking up groceries, or brushing your teeth).
Do more cardio.
Clean up your diet.
Forgo the milkshakes and double cheese burgers, opting instead for “healthy food”. A balanced diet is still key, but one that includes less bread and dairy accelerates the lean phase.
Keep working out. Switch things up before you start getting bored with the old routine. Run further, but slower. Faster but shorter. Lift heavy and fewer reps, lighter and more reps. Have fun with the body you built and always take the time to check yourself out in the mirror! Haha!
For you, personally…
I suspect you are somewhere between conditioning and bulking. Keep working those free weights!
Most women err on the side of too many reps and not enough weight. Shoot for 8 - 10 repititions, 3 - 4 sets with a good amount of effort and an increased heart rate during each set. It will take some practice to be able to predict what weight is reasonable for each exercise. Play it safe and grab low weight for your first set, then bump up if you don’t feel any strain or increase in heart rate.
Consider how you look at food.
As far as your body is concerned, yogurt is warm ice cream, kale is crunchy water, and broccoli is best seen as fluffy, green magnesium. Read labels skeptically, track calorie count by serving size (not package size). And pay attention to how your body reacts to various foods.