#69: How Female Bodybuilders Structure Their Workouts

#69: How Female Bodybuilders Structure Their Workouts

The female bodybuilding lifestyle isn’t for the faint of heart.  


If you choose to compete, you’ll be required to diet, count macros, and meal prep for several months. You’ll also need to sneak in cardio sessions during your spare time and spend hours in the gym sculpting your muscles.  


There are a lot of sacrifices for female bodybuilders in the pursuit of a toned and lean physique that the average ‘gym-goer’ isn’t willing to make.  


But the result after months of hard work is building a body that you’re proud of, with capped shoulders, tight abs, and full-looking glutes. In addition to the physical progress, you’ll also harness an incredible mental strength, which will empower you across all areas of your life.  


In this article, I’ll discuss how female bodybuilders should structure their workouts. We’ll talk about the scientific principles that go into designing these workouts, and I’ll provide a sample 6-day workout plan that is specific for female bodybuilders.  


Setting Realistic Goals

 

It’s important at the start of your workout plan to set goals that are realistic.  


It takes female bodybuilders longer than men to build muscle and lose body fat. This is because of lower natural hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone.  


As such, you’ll want to plan a time-frame of 6-8 months to reach your target physique. Most female bodybuilders use a 0.5lb rule when planning their training programs.  


For example, if you’re in a training phase to build muscle, a realistic goal would be to build 0.5lbs of muscle per week. Similarly, if you’re in a phase of training to lose fat, plan to lose 0.5lbs of fat per week.  


Of course, these numbers of generic targets, and in actuality your progress could be quicker or slower depending on your training background, diet, and overall training.  


Therefore, it’s important to track your progress by weighing yourself weekly (or daily), taking progress pics, and using body fat measurement tools.  


Bulking vs. Cutting for Female Bodybuilders


Female bodybuilders split their training efforts into specific “bulking” and “cutting” cycles. 


Bulking Cycles


If there is no bodybuilding show coming up, this is when female bodybuilders enter their bulking cycle.  


The goal is to build as much lean muscle mass as possible, while at the same time limiting fat gain.  


This requires a higher caloric intake, usually 10-25% above their baseline.  


As well, higher training volumes are used by increasing the total number of sets and reps. A lot more sets are taken closer to their fatigue limit, and more compound exercises are programmed versus isolation exercises. 


Cutting Cycles


Depending on how much fat loss is needed, female bodybuilders will enter their cutting cycles within some proximity of their bodybuilding show -- typically 16-24 weeks prior.  


The goal is to lose as much body fat as possible, while at the same time limiting muscle loss. 


This requires a lower caloric intake, usually 10-25% below their baseline, and sometimes even lower within the last few weeks of the bodybuilding show. 


At this time, training volumes are either maintained or slightly decreased, usually by keeping the total number of sets the same or less. Rather than taking weights close to failure, female bodybuilders will use special methods like ‘tempo training’, ‘supersets’, ‘drop sets’. 


As well, compound exercises are still used during cutting cycles, but a lot more isolation exercises are programmed.   


Compound vs Isolation Exercises For Female Bodybuilders

 


Female bodybuilders will use a combination of compound and isolation exercises depending on their specific training cycles (whether bulking or cutting).  


Compound Exercises 

Compound exercises are movements that incorporate more than one muscle group.  


These exercises are used to build overall muscle mass and strength. They also produce a greater metabolic response, which burns more calories.  


Examples of compound exercises: 


  • Squats
  • Deadlift
  • Barbell Overhead Press
  • Pull-Ups 
  • Bench Press 
  • Barbell Rows
  • Lunges 
  • Dips 

  • Isolation Exercises 

    Isolation exercises are movements that incorporate only a single muscle group. 


    These exercises are used to increase muscle mass of ‘lagging body parts’. For instance, it’s important that female bodybuilders have capped shoulders and full-looking glutes, so extra isolation exercises for these body parts may be needed.  


    Examples of isolation exercises: 


  • Single-Leg Dumbbell Hip Thrust
  • Single Arm Cable Lateral Raise 
  • Lying Down Leg Curl Machine
  • Seated Leg Extension 
  • Single Arm Lat Pull Down
  • Single Arm Cable Tricep Extension 

  • Use Progressive Overload 

     

    One of the most important principles for female bodybuilding is “progressive overload”.  


    This is the idea that you need to do “more of something” over time.  


    Some of the ways you can think of progressive overload are: 

    • Doing more weight for the same number of reps
    • Doing more reps for the same weight 
    • Doing more overall sets at either the same or increasing reps 
    • Spending more ‘time under tension’ for each muscle group (tempo training)
    • Doing cardio at a higher resistance level 
    • Doing more minutes of cardio 

    Implementing progressive overload creates additional stress for your internal body structures.  As a result, your body is required to adapt and overcome. As you continue to stress the body and continue to adapt to the stimulus, you will start to see significant changes to your physique.  

    Training Frequency For Female Bodybuilders

     

    Female bodybuilders typically workout 5-6 days per week, which may include additional cardio sessions.


    There are several training splits that you can implement (I’ll give you a 6-day training split below).  However, most training splits for female bodybuilders place more priority on certain muscle groups over others.    


    For example, I mentioned that female bodybuilders typically need to have capped shoulders and full-looking glutes.  


    This is because capped shoulders give the illusion of a smaller waist and full-looking glutes provide the ‘hour-glass’ figure. Therefore, a female bodybuilding workout will usually include a lot more shoulder and glute exercises than back, biceps, and chest.  


    This is something to keep in mind when you’re looking to do female bodybuilding programs.  

    Cardio Recommendations For Female Bodybuilders 

     

    Female bodybuilders do a combination of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and low-intensity steady state (LISS) cardio.  


    HIIT Cardio 


    HIIT cardio is short in duration (5-20-min) and is higher in intensity, meaning you’re working closer to your max heart rate. It involves short bursts of very hard work followed by a short period of recovery. An example of this is sprinting as hard as you can for 30-seconds, then jogging for 60-seconds, and repeating this series 6-10 times. 


    HIIT Cardio has been shown to be more efficient at burning calories. However, it’s a far more stressful type of cardio so you can’t do it every day.  


    Several top female bodybuilders use HIIT cardio before their weight training sessions. 


    LISS Cardio


    LISS cardio is longer in duration (30-90 minutes) and lower in intensity, meaning you’re working further from your max heart rate. It’s performed at a steady state so that you can sustain your energy for the entire duration. Some examples of this could be biking, running, brisk walking, or rowing.  


    In order to use LISS cardio to burn the same or more calories as HIIT cardio, you need to perform longer durations. But since it’s not as stressful on the overall system, you can perform this type of cardio more frequently.  


    Several top female bodybuilders use LISS cardio after their weight training sessions or on ‘off days’.  

    Post Workout Recovery 

     

    Female bodybuilders will incorporate many recovery elements so that they can continue to progress without risking burn-out or injury.  

     

    Recovery can include ensuring that you take at least 1 day off from the gym each week; listening to your body when you feel pain or excessive soreness; ensuring you’re maintaining a proper diet with high amounts of protein; getting at least 8 hours of sleep, and partaking in non-stressful activities such as meditation, reading, or socializing with friends. 


    Outside the gym, several female powerlifters use Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS), incorporating a tool like PowerDot that increases blood flow and circulation, which wards off inflammation. This helps bodybuilders reduce muscle soreness and recover more quickly between workouts.

    Sample Bodybuilding Workouts For Women (6-Day Split)

     

    The following is a female bodybuilding program that can be used during a ‘cutting cycle’ where the goal is to maintain muscle mass and lose body fat.  You can add HIIT cardio 2-3 times per week before each workout and LISS cardio 3-5 times per week after each workout.  


    Day 1:  Legs 

    • Barbell Stiff Leg Deadlifts: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
    • Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squats: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
    • Lying Leg Curls: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
    • Dumbbell Hip Thrusts: 4 sets of 12-15 reps 
    • Smith Machine Hip Thrusts (Band Around Knees):  2 sets of 20 reps 
    • Cable Glute Abduction: 2 sets of 20 reps 

    Day 2: Calf, Back, Delts, Biceps

    • Seated Barbell Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
    • Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
    • High Row Machine: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
    • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
    • Seated Rope Face Pull: 4 sets of 12-15 reps 
    • Machine Cable Curls: 2 sets of 20 reps 
    • Machine Calf Raises: 2 sets of 20 reps 

    Day 3: Legs

    • Leg Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
    • Dumbell Reverse Lunge: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
    • Leg Extension Machine: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
    • Seated Hamstring Curl: 4 sets of 8-10 reps 
    • Hack Squat Machine: 2 sets of 20 reps 
    • Barbell Hip Thrusts: 2 sets of 20 reps 

    Day 4: Glutes, Chest, Shoulders, Triceps

    • Single-Leg Dumbbell Hip Thrust: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
    • Barbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
    • Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
    • Dumbbell Front Raises: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
    • Dumbbell lateral Raises: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
    • Reverse Pec Deck: 2 sets of 20 reps 
    • Cable Tricep Pushdowns: 2 sets of 20 reps 

    Day 5: Legs 

    • Banded Smith Machine Hip Thrust: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
    • Smith Machine Split Squat: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
    • Leg Extension Machine: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
    • Lying Leg Curl Machine: 4 sets of 12-15 reps 
    • Glute Abduction Machine: 2 sets of 20 reps 
    • Glute Adduction Machine: 2 sets of 20 reps 

    Day 6: Calves Back, Shoulders

    • Machine Calf Raises: 4 sets of 15-20 reps
    • Reverse-Grip Barbell Row: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
    • Seated Row: 4 sets of 10-12 reps 
    • Medium-grip lat Pull Downs: 4 sets of 12-15
    • Seated dumbbell press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
    • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps 
    • Rope Upright Row: 2 sets of 20
    • Machine Shoulder Press: 2 sets of 20 reps

    Final Thoughts

    Female bodybuilding programs need to have a large focus on glutes and shoulders over other body parts. As well, female bodybuilders need to structure their training in ‘bulking’ and ‘cutting’ cycles, which is designed to build muscle and lose body fat. Important elements of the female bodybuilding program also include progressive overload, recovery, and cardio.  

    About The Author

    Avi Silverberg holds a Master's of Science Degree in Exercise Science with a research focus on powerlifting training.  He’s been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting since 2012.  As an athlete, his claim to fame was always his bench press, competing at the World Bench Press Championships on three occasions and winning a bronze medal in 2010.