Genetics. You can be blessed with damn good ones, or be damned by them. In the gym, you see some lucky souls who do little more than lift a few weights every couple of days and build a tight, toned physique. On the other hand, some less-fortunate folks have made working out almost a religion…and are looking as though they’re considering a change in faith. Even though all successful athletes have to work very hard to achieve their greatness, most—if not all—start off ahead of the pack thanks to a very generous gene pool. Well, you can continue to lament your bad luck, or you can buckle down and make the best of what you’ve got.

Every woman has a genetic blueprint that dictates what type of body she has. But don’t be fooled into believing that what you see in the mirror can’t be manipulated and molded into something more. By carefully dialing in certain training variables based on your body type, you can enhance your workout program and speed your progress in the gym.

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The bottom line is that an overweight woman who wants to drop significant body fat and still build muscle shouldn’t be doing the same type of resistance-training program as one who’s stick-thin and looking to fill out her frame.

Body types can roughly be divided into three basic categories: ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph. An ectomorph is naturally lean with a fast metabolism. While this body type tends not to gain fat easily, muscle is also hard to come by. An endomorph, on the other hand, tends to gain weight rapidly and has a tough time losing body fat. Other characteristics typically include a large bone structure and a slower metabolism. Lastly, a mesomorph has a relatively easy time building muscle and keeping body fat to a desirable level. A person with this body type sometimes makes looking good look almost effortless.

Click through to get the scoop on each body type and for body-type-specific tips on hitting your goals.

Ectomorph: The skinny chick

While a lot of women might say they wouldn’t mind being in this situation, the truth is that those who have difficulty gaining—and maintaining—weight don’t like to constantly hear about how skinny they are. “I get sick of it,” complains my sister, Sherri, who drops weight quickly, particularly if she skips a few workouts. She struggles to put on muscle, training diligently and eating several times a day. After years of subscribing to the philosophy that if a little is good, more must be better, she finally listened to me when I told her she was overtraining. Ectomorphs simply can’t be in the gym six days a week, training each body part twice

The best way for an ectomorph to build and shape her muscles is to lift heavy and train each body part once a week, getting plenty of rest between workouts, and refrain from doing too many exercises and sets per body part. “If really pressed, I’d have to say that I fall in the ecto-mesomorph category,” admits fitness icon Minna Lessig, who believes that every woman is actually a combination of all three body types to some degree. “I say this because my musculature is prominent yet lean. When I was a fitness competitor, what worked for me was lifting heavy weights for low reps. I chose compound exercises that helped put overall size on my body.”

IFBB pro Lovena Stamatiou-Tuley agrees that staying in the low-rep range is a good idea, and suggests cutting the intensity and frequency of your cardio to speed progress. “You don’t want to burn that muscle you’re building,” she notes. “Lift heavy weight and rest longer between sets.”

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Ectomorph Workout

The ectomorph is typically thin with low levels of muscle as well as body fat. If your metabolism is fast, and you have trouble putting on weight, use this program to muscle up.

  • Start with a 5-10-minute warm-up and light stretching of muscle groups to be worked that day.
  • Beginners should do two sets of each exercise; others can do three sets.
  • Complete 6-10 reps, increasing the weight and decreasing reps (called pyramiding) with each set.
  • Lift weights heavy enough to reach near-failure within the prescribed rep range.
  • Rest 1-3 minutes between sets, depending on the body part being trained. Take more time for larger muscle groups like legs and back.
  • Train each body part only once a week, and never train a muscle group if it’s still sore from a previous workout.
  • Change some part of your workout every week to add variety, be it the exercise or exercise order, or some other advanced training technique (such as forced reps or negatives). Just don’t overdo it.
  • Get plenty of rest between workouts.
  • Do three days of cardio per week for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity (60%-75% of your maximal heart rate).
  • Limit vigorous activities outside of training sessions that burn lots of calories, or reduce your cardio sessions.

Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if you have a health condition.

Mesomorph: The muscular maiden

So far, I’ve suggested that mesomorphs have an advantage, but that doesn’t mean they have it easy. A woman with this body type still has to work for that great physique, albeit not to the degree that the other two body types would for a similar look. A training split of 3-5 days, moderate reps and a variety of compound and single-joint exercises should do the trick.

“I’m a true meso, although I’d say that isn’t typical of all fitness competitors,” explains Lovena. “I work out four days a week with a 3-4-day split, but I change it up all the time.” For best results, mesomorphs should do high reps for legs (15-20) and 8-12 for the other body parts, and do up to four days of cardio, varying the intensity each time, she states.

One problem that some naturally muscular women face is a lack of direction in their workouts. Seemingly, whatever they do brings about some sort of change; however, the need for a well-thought-out program is vital. “You have to look at your body and see where you want to put the curves,” says Lovena. “You have to stress your body properly to create positive change.” Know how you want your body to look and work out with that in mind.

“What works for me today coincides with my goal to have a body that’s healthy, full of energy and strong, yet flexible,” notes Minna. “I don’t keep track of numbers but rather go by how my body feels. This isn’t to say that I don’t have consistency. Yet my body awareness is so sharp that I work with mind-muscle unison rather than look at how many sets and reps I did of an exercise last week.”

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Training guidelines for mesomorphs

  • Start with a 5-10-minute warmup and light stretching of muscle groups to be worked that day.
  • Do three sets of all exercises.
  • Complete 8-12 reps for each set.
  • Alternate light and heavy days, choosing a weight that allows you to complete reps toward the higher end of the prescribed rep range on lighter days, and choosing a heavier weight that allows you to complete reps toward the lower end of the prescribed rep range on heavier days.
  • Choose weights heavy enough to reach near-failure within the prescribed rep range.
  • Rest according to the intensity at which you’re training that day, taking a little longer for larger muscle groups like legs and back.
  • Experiment with different splits to see what works best for you. Also, change exercises frequently, but it’s always a good idea to choose a multijoint movement as the first 1-2 exercises for a given body part (when possible) over a single-joint movement.
  • Change your routine when results start to slow. Change other variables more frequently.
  • Consider taking rest days between workouts if you can add cardio to the end of your training days. Allow your muscles to recover fully before training that body part again.
  • Do 30 minutes of cardio 3-4 times per week at a moderate intensity (65%-75% of your maximal heart rate) to stay lean and improve heart health.

    Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if you have a health condition.

Endomorph: The curvy girl

Unfortunately, women who fall into the endomorph category are usually the ones who shy away from weight training for fear they’ll get “too big.” In reality, resistance training is just as important as cardiovascular training for someone with this body type. Increasing muscle size will raise your metabolism, which results in a higher number of calories burned every day, even at rest. An endomorphic body type benefits from a fast-paced workout and a higher number of reps, sets and exercises, focusing on burning calories, as well as an increased frequency of training.

“Train the entire body three times a week, combining circuit training and supersets,” advises Lisa Reed, strength and conditioning coordinator at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “Try to keep your heart rate between 60% and 75% of your max for a more aerobic effect.” Move from station to station quickly, and complete the cycle 2-3 times.

Lovena takes this a step further. “Lift moderate weight, because you aren’t going to change the shape of your body with light weight,” she says. And another thing: “Don’t be afraid to work the big parts of your body. A lot of women who are heavy are phobic of working legs. You need to work them if you want to change your shape.”

As for cardio, Lovena recommends doing cardio longer and more often, but not necessarily at an increased intensity because of the fact that excess weight can be hard on joints and soft tissues. Elevate your heart rate by walking inclines, be it that huge hill by your house or on the treadmill at the gym.

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Training guidelines for endomorphs

  • Start with a 5-10-minute warm-up and light stretching of muscle groups to be worked that day.
  • Beginners should do two sets of each exercise; others can do 2-3 sets.
  • Complete 12-15 reps for each set.
  • Lift weights heavy enough to reach near-failure within the prescribed rep range.
  • Keep rest between sets to a minimum: 15-30 seconds between sets.
  • Train each body part twice weekly.
  • Include circuit training and supersets in your routine.
  • Change your routine frequently, but rely on multijoint exercises to burn the most calories and use training techniques like drop sets and partials to get the most out of each set.
  • Get plenty of rest between workouts.
  • Do 4-5 days of cardio per week, alternating between 30-minute interval sessions and 45-60-minute lower-intensity sessions (at 60%-70% of your maximal heart rate).

Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, especially if you have a health condition.