In our last post, we discussed the benefits of weightlifting for women who want to get stronger and leaner and slow down the aging process. But if you’re a woman who wants to swap out some of those endless, monotonous hours of “cardio” and do something with more bang for your buck, where do you begin?
No matter where you are in your fitness journey, it is universally proven that compound movements will give us the most benefit. Compound exercises involve more than one joint and work several muscles at a time. As long as you’re performing them correctly -- preferably with the supervision of a certified trainer -- these movements will burn the most fat, build the leanest muscle and allow you to be the healthiest version of yourself!
So what are the 10 best strength exercises that every woman should be doing? That’s a question with some layers to it, and the answer doesn’t fit neatly into a template that everyone can follow. Let me explain.
For optimal strength, movement and health, it’s best to think of exercises not in terms of body parts, but rather movement patterns. Forget the old “back and bi’s, chest and tri’s” mantra; the ‘80’s called and wants its meathead lingo back. Instead, every well-designed strength program should include the following basic movement categories:
- Squatting and Lunging (self explanatory)
- Hip-Hinging (deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, etc.)
- Pulling (chin-ups, pull-ups, rows)
- Pushing (push-ups and presses)
- Core (anti-extension, anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion)
It’s also important to be evaluated by a movement expert to identify weaknesses, imbalances and instabilities and make sure it is safe for you to begin a strength training program (and identify which exercises you can perform safely and what modifications you should use). Please check with your physician or orthopedist before beginning this program … or, if you’re not sure, make an appointment below for a free Functional Movement Screen with one of our movement experts!
So what are the best exercises in these movement categories for women who are beginning a strength program? First we’ll go over the movements, and then we’ll discuss how to pair them up and how many sets and reps to do.
Before getting off the couch, racing to the gym and putting a barbell on your back, it’s best to start with the basics. And when it comes to building leg strength and stability, grooving proper mobility and burning fat, it’s tough to beat good ol’ goblet squats and lunges.
If you’re a beginner, start with the Bottoms Up Goblet Squat. The most vulnerable position in a squat for your back, hips and knees is the bottom position, so let’s make sure we establish proper foot and knee position, posture and core bracing from the get go, as Dr. John Rusin explains below.
Once you’ve established or reestablished a healthy squat pattern, you can begin performing freestanding goblet squats (i.e. without the box), like this:
Healthy hips and knees should also allow you to lunge forward and backward. If you have any doubts, see a functional movement expert who can perform a simple test known as the inline lunge to determine if you have the ankle and hip mobility and core strength to perform proper lunges. If you’re unable to keep both feet flat and your torso upright during this test, it’s best to see a corrective exercise specialist who can prescribe a program to resolve these flaws.
Once cleared, it’s tough to beat the Forward-Reverse Lunge Combo in terms of strength-building, fat-burning bang for your buck. This movement captures a 360-degree view of the entire lunge pattern. We’ll discuss rep schemes later, but try a set of eight forward-reverse lunges on each side and tell me if that isn’t more “cardio” than you’ve ever gotten on the elliptical.
Bending down to pick something up from the ground is one of the fundamental human tasks. But doing it over and over again incorrectly is a recipe for chronic back pain.
Learning how to hip-hinge is one of the most important patterns you must master in order to move well and build strength safely. This is especially true for women, who tend to be more quad-dominant than men and need to strengthen their glutes and hamstrings for optimal knee health. A great place to start properly learning and grooving this pattern is the bodyweight band-resisted Romanian deadlift.
Once you’ve mastered this pattern, it’s time to add weight. Start with the band-resisted version (see below), and then progress to freestanding kettlebell RDLs (without the band).
Life isn’t about how hard you fall; it’s about how quickly you can get up. Good luck doing that if you lack core stability and upper body strength.
Few movements are as basic, timeless and effective as the bodyweight push-up. But as we’ve learned in the hundreds of assessments we’ve performed on our clients, very few women begin a fitness program with the ability to perform a push-up properly. So what do you do?
First, if you have any doubts, see a movement expert who can evaluate you in the trunk stability push-up test. A woman who is unable to perform a push-up in which her entire body moves as one unit (i.e. no lag in the spine) with hands at shoulder level should work on building core strength before attempting push-ups from the floor.
Good news: You can still do push-ups! Start from an elevated surface, like a racked barbell or plyo box. Place the barbell or box at the lowest height possible at which you can perform at least eight strict push-ups with a straight line from your shoulders through your hips, knees and ankles. As you progress and get stronger, lower the elevation.
It’s important to note that a proper push-up is a global movement involving the entire body, not just the upper body. So performing push-ups from your knees will also only make you better at one thing: doing push-ups from your knees.
Building a strong upper back and shoulder complex will serve you well in all daily activities, as well as in performing the lower body movements outlined above. (Remember, don’t think about exercises as lower-body or upper-body; think of them as movements that connect a global system.) Pulling from different angles will develop well-rounded strength -- not to mention well-rounded shoulders and biceps ;)
There are no flashy gimmicks or new-age exercises here. Basic is always best. And again, there’s no more basic or effective pulling exercise than a bodyweight pull-up.
Is there a more empowering feeling for a woman in the gym than being able to perform a pull-up? The problem is, very few women (and men, too) possess the strength and stability to perform a strict bodyweight pull-up properly when they begin an exercise program.
Is the solution to skip steps and go right to kipping or butterfly pull-ups, in which momentum from the lower body is added in order to complete the movement? Not unless you’d like two torn labrums and six months in physical therapy. Kipping pull-ups require MORE shoulder mobility than strict pull-ups, and shoulder mobility is something that most beginner lifters lack. Plus, the load on the shoulder joint is increased 4-6 times at the bottom and most vulnerable point of the movement. Do yourself a favor: Skip the kip and focus on building strict strength.
But what do you do if you don’t have the strength or core stability yet to perform a bodyweight pull-up? Start with banded pulldowns. This movement can be awkward to set up in the vertical plane, especially if you’re working out at home. So here’s a solution that will allow you to perform banded lat pulldowns from a horizontal stance.
The core is involved in every single exercise you do, regardless of which body parts are involved. It connects those components and stabilizes the trunk while the limbs are in motion. A strong, stable core that is able to resist extension, rotation and lateral flexion forces is essential before progressing any exercise regimen -- and is non-negotiable if your goal is to train for a long time without injury.
Here are examples of the three types of core exercises you should be doing:
Again, simple is better, so there’s no better place to start developing the ability to resist extension of the lumbar spine than the plank.
Assume a prone position on the floor with your legs straight and bottom of your forefeet in contact with the floor and your forearms parallel to each other. Clench your fists, push your elbows into the floor and elevate your body in a straight line from your shoulders through your hips, knees and ankles. Your shoulder blades should be spread apart, like wings. Contract your glutes, quads and calves. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, pushing your elbows and feet into the floor as you exhale.
Do not stick your butt into the air or allow your hips to sag toward the floor. If either of these things happens, stop and elevate your upper body on a step, box or bench. If you cannot get and stay in the correct position as noted above for at least 30 seconds, this is where you need to stay before attempting more advanced anti-extension exercises.
Once you build up to holding a proper plank position for at least a minute, you can progress to more advanced variations, like the TRX Body Saw.
Remember: Struggling to hold a plank position with your hips sagging toward the floor will only delay your progress and put you at risk for injury. And holding a two-minute plank with your butt sticking up in the air is pointless, as it removes all the forces on the core that the movement -- done correctly -- is designed to resist.
A common mistake you’ll see at your local gym is people who are aggressively training core rotation (rotational medicine ball throws, Russian Twists) without first establishing the ability to resist rotational forces. Don’t make this mistake; train anti-rotation first.
One of best core anti-rotation exercises isn’t the least bit fancy, and only requires a band and a place to anchor it. (Are you beginning to notice a pattern?) It’s called the Anti-Rotation Half-Kneeling Pallof Press, and it’s essential to building a strong, stable and attractive core.
Rusin explains the movement in the following video. One point I’ll add: Don’t over-clench your grip on the band, otherwise your upper body (as opposed to your core) will dominate the exercise. If you feel it more in your upper body than in your core, loosen your grip and see if that makes the difference.
Remember that meatball you saw at the gym last week doing hundreds of side bends with a heavy dumbbell because he was “working his obliques?” Don’t be a meatball. If lateral flexion -- or side-bending -- is something we are trying to train the core to resist, why would we do an exercise that results in that very thing happening over and over again?
The Farmer Carry is a great foundational movement because it trains the core and hips to remain stable while carrying heavy stuff (like grocery bags, for example). It also involves the most basic human function (walking), improves grip strength (which will pay off as you progress in all your pulling and hinging exercises) and builds strength and stability in the shoulder complex. It’s hard to think of an exercise with more global benefits.
If you don’t have a hex bar or barbells with handles, you can easily perform this movement with dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags or any heavy objects you can grip. Whichever implements you use, be sure to bend your knees, keep your back flat and lift with your legs (not your back) when you pick them up.
Once you stand, brace the core, contract your trunk and shoulder muscles and walk. Avoid bending to one side or the other, keep your ribs above your hips and your shoulders down (i.e. don’t shrug). Begin by loading evenly (i.e. same weight on each side), and gradually increase difficulty by either added more weight or walking farther.
Once you’ve mastered this exercise, you can progress to uneven loading -- with weight on only one side -- making sure to alternate sides each set.
Putting Together A Plan
How can you use these basic strength exercises to begin building stability and strength, adding lean muscle and burning fat? Here’s an outline we recommend for a two-day/week training program for four weeks:
For Day 1, pick one squat or lunge exercise, one pushing exercise and two core exercises. After a proper dynamic warmup in which you hit all of the movement patterns listed above, perform these exercises in a circuit with two sets of eight reps each (or 30 seconds of core). Here’s an example:
A. Two Sets:
- Goblet Squats x 8
- Push-Ups x 8
Use a box or bench as a target on Goblet Squats as needed to maintain proper form and posture. Elevate Push-Ups to the lowest point at which eight reps are challenging but doable with proper posture and form.
B) Two Sets:
- :30 Plank Hold
- Half-Kneeling Banded Pallof Press x 8 each side
Elevate plank position as needed to maintain proper posture and form for 30 seconds.
For Day 2, pick one hip-hinge exercise, one pulling exercise and two core exercises. After a proper dynamic warmup in which you hit all of the movement patterns listed above, perform these exercises with two sets of eight reps each (or 30 seconds of core). Here’s an example
A. Two Sets:
- Kettlebell RDL x 8
- Banded Lat Pulldowns x 8
For Kettlebell RDL, use band as needed to ensure a proper hinge in which the hips shoot backwards as the weights descend.
B. Two Sets:
- :30 Dumbbell Farmer Carry (heavy as possible)
- :30 Plank
Moving forward, you would mix and match the exercises each week, pairing squat-lunge exercises with pushing exercises and hip-hinge exercises with pulling exercises. Rotate the core exercises so you get a good mixture of anti-extension, anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion exercises.
Over a four-week period, progress by safely increasing weight and/or reps. A recommended rep scheme would look like this:
- Week 1: 2 sets of 8
- Week 2: 3 sets of 8
- Week 3: 3 sets of 10
- Week 4: 3 sets of 10
The next time you’re in the gym, give these movements a try! Let us know how it’s going in the comments. If you have any questions or need advice on how to get started, request your free trial session below and we'll be in touch right away!