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Now that you know why building muscle is critical, it’s important to understand how to do it effectively. Women may find it more challenging to build muscle than men due to genetics and hormones. Some women may need to focus on decreasing body fat in addition to building muscle, in order to achieve visible muscles.

More weight, less cardio

Cardiovascular exercise is an important aspect of fitness that shouldn’t be skipped, because it promotes heart health and burns fat. But it’s better at shedding fat than increasing muscle density. That’s where free weights and dumbbells come in. Using weights is the only way to sculpt muscle and promote the muscle-mass and density responsible for giving muscles their shape.

Choose challenging weights and use compound movements, or exercises that work multiple muscle groups at once. Focus on short, challenging workouts instead of longer drawn out ones. When lifting, reach the point of failure where the muscle burns and you feel out of breath. Lift at this intensity for six to eight weeks then add in a week or two of lighter training. As you get stronger, you can progressively increase the weight.

It’s important to rest muscle groups for up to 48 hours between workouts so they have ample time to repair. This is when they become stronger. Up to a 60 second rest between sets is also important.

Lift with intention

When it comes to weight lifting, just going through the motions won’t cut it. Similarly, using momentum to lift the weights won’t work either. Your technique should focus on contracting the muscle, squeezing at the point of contraction then releasing with control. The more time spent working the muscle this way, the more micro-tears are created which when repaired, result in muscle growth.

Those who are afraid of bulking up may try to go the route of lighter weights and more repetitions, but the opposite is more effective. Aim for heavier weights with fewer repetitions. Likewise, incorporate a mix of compound and isolated movements into your workouts. Compound movements like squats engage the bigger muscle groups and stimulate testosterone to build stronger muscles. But women still won’t bulk up since they produce 20 to 30 percent less testosterone than men. Isolation lets you focus on a specific muscle or muscle group. Mix up the movements to build well-rounded muscles.

Depending on your experience, you may want to do a full body program a couple of times each week or a split program that focuses on different and opposing muscle groups throughout the week.

Think beyond the gym

What happens in the gym certainly determines the destiny of a muscle, but so does what goes on outside of the gym. The speed at which your muscles repair and recover depends on proper stretching, nutrition and supplementation. Weight training shortens the muscle so you’ll want to lengthen it back out with ample time spent doing static stretching when the workout is over. A personal trainer can safely help your stretch reach its full potential.

Muscle repair requires protein and amino acids. Supplementing with amino acids and eating a clean diet that consists of lean protein like turkey, chicken, salmon and beef along with plenty of vegetables, especially leafy greens, and lots of water is the best way to build strong, toned muscles and reduce body fat.

Finally, sleep is just as important for muscle cells as stretching and nutrition. Aim for eight solid hours. This is the most important time for fat burning, muscle growth and repair. During this time, the body produces growth hormones and any protein eaten during the day is synthesized. Remember, even the best training plans are only as effective as the accompanying recovery and nutrition.

Original article written by Brian Maher on