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The Best Exercises For Women

The top 3 fitness related goals I hear from my fellow ladies are:

  1. To tone up

  2. To build a booty

  3. To lose weight and/or get lean

So what are the best exercises for women to achieve those goals?

Let’s start with a little bit of myth busting first.

Are there special exercises for women to tone and lengthen their muscles? No.

Can you still very much achieve the toned look you’re striving for? Absolutely 100% yes!

When you say you want to tone up, most ladies mean that they want to be lean while also having some definition. In order to have that definition you need to build muscle. Otherwise, when you try to lose weight, you’ll likely be what many people lovingly refer to as “skinny fat”.

So in order to tone up you can’t just focus on weight loss, you need to focus on building muscle too.

Let’s break that down. How do you build muscle? What are the best exercises for women to build muscle?

Spoiler alert: They’re pretty much the same exercises that men do when they want to build muscle! There are no special exercises that we need to be doing as women. But there are a few really important things you want to include in your workouts when it comes to building muscle.

1. Make sure your program includes compound lifts

These are the true best exercises for women. And again, they’re probably the same ones you’re seeing in a guys program. A compound lift is an exercise that works multiple muscle groups.

Things like: Squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press & hip thrusts.

At least 1 of these compound lifts should be featured in every one of your workouts. After selecting your compound lift the rest of your workout(about 4-7 more exercises) should be tailored to your specific goals.

For example: got a goal to build a booty? Amazing! Make sure your program includes some exercises that give your glutes extra love like bulgarian split squats and glute bridges.

Really want to tone up your shoulders but don’t care so much about your biceps? Cool! The program you’re doing should have more shoulder isolation exercises like lateral raises and less bicep isolation exercises like curls.

The foundations of every program regardless of your gender will be the same. Where things will start to differ is based on your individual goals.

2. Follow a program that applies progressive overload.

What the heck is progressive overload?! It’s a fancy way of saying you’re making the exercise more difficult over time.

Your muscles want repetition, they want to do the same exercises over an extended period of time. This is why it’s so important to follow a program rather than doing random workouts.


Your muscles also want to be challenged. In order for them to know they need to grow, you need to be adding new stressors to the muscle over time. These stressors may look like:

-Adding more weight

-Using the same weight but for more reps and/or sets

-Needing less rest time in between sets

-Changing the tempo of an exercise

-Doing a more difficult variation of the exercise

Follow a program but make sure that the exercises are getting more difficult in some way over time. In order for your muscles to know they need to adapt they have to be alerted that adaptation is needed and you’re trying to do something harder with the same muscles. Adding one of the above stressors is how you’ll alert your muscles it’s time for a change.

3. You should be picking up heavy weight.

I know I know, you’ve probably heard that the best exercises for women are the ones that use light weight and a high rep range. In reality, this isn’t the most effective way to build muscle. You really want the last 2-3 reps of your exercises to feel HARD. And to get there, you really need to be picking up heavy weight. This is not the same as that burning sensation you feel on your 50th bicep pulse with 2lb weights. This is when that last rep feels near impossible and you really have to fight to get it in. Select weight that gets you to that point without compromising form.

Remember ladies…you’re stronger than you think. Don’t be afraid to pick up a heavy weight and try something new. You can always decrease weight after a few reps if it’s too much.

4. Eat enough food

When trying to lose weight and tone up the natural temptation is to restrict your calories and eat less.

Cold hard truth: It’s really frickin hard to build a substantial amount of muscle while you’re in a calorie deficit. Less food & lower calories are not always the answer!

Can you build muscle in a moderate calorie deficit? Yes, if you’re a beginner and new to strength training. But the longer you’ve been strength training, the harder this will be.

Eventually if you really want to build your booty and gain some muscle you should be eating more food. If you’ve been strength training for a minute I recommend eating at maintenance to make it easier for your body to build more muscle. You can find your maintenance calories here.

*Wahooo for more breakfast burritos*

Remember that you can ALWAYS go back to a deficit and a fat loss phase down the road. BUT a deficit does not(and should not!) be your permanent life state :)

Eating enough protein will also be key to building & retaining muscle(especially if you’re trying to do so in a deficit) You want to eat about .7g-1g of protein per lb of target bodyweight per day. This is going to help with muscle repair & recovery.

5. Rest

So many females that I talk to are working out intensely 6 days/week and doing yoga and/or going on incredibly long walks on their “rest” days. This is likely way too much to hit your goals!

Your muscles need REST. During your workouts your muscles break down and it’s actually in the rest and recovery that they build back stronger and bigger. AKA in order to actually see results, you need to be resting and giving your muscles the opportunity to build back up.

Rest days may be the secret best exercise for women that no one wants to do LOL. I get it, if you’re working out 6 days/week right now you might be really frickin nervous to take more rest days. You may even feel like you can’t or you’ll ruin your progress. I promise you though if you follow the above tips AND incorporate appropriate amounts of rest, you’ll see more results than when you were doing crazy HIIT 6 days/week.

Speaking of HIIT…you might be wondering where that fits into all of this. Many of the women I talk to love taking HIIT, bootcamp, barre, pilates style classes as a way to tone up. But where do those come into play with everything I’ve already mentioned?

Unfortunately those workout styles are not some of the best exercises for women who are looking to tone up, build booties and get lean. BUT they are fun and I always want you doing exercise you enjoy!

If you have the above goals, make the bulk of your training match what I’ve outlined in this article. A well rounded strength training program that incorporates compound lifts and progressive overload. Then mix in group classes or other workouts 1-2x a week for fun!

Do exercise you enjoy but make sure MOST of your training is helping you reach your goals.

One more thing to address when it comes to the best exercises for women…

Now that you know how to build muscle you might be wondering..will all of this make me bulky? I don’t want to be bulky.

Now I can’t tell you that forsure because everyone’s definition of bulky means something different. What I can tell you is that it takes YEARS of very purposeful training & nutrition to build significant amounts of muscle.

Just like how most of us who took swimming lessons as kids didn’t turn out to be olympians, most of us who strength train and pick up heavy weight won’t become bulky.

Been lifting heavy weights for years and still not the hulk

The chances of you achieving the toned look you’re striving for and getting the rest of the benefits of strength training are faaaar greater than the chances of you bulking up.

Outside of just helping you tone up strength training can:

  • Improve your bone density as you age - AKA your bones won’t be as brittle and break as easily

  • Improve your quality of life - it becomes a heck of a lot easier to squat down and pick up some boxes, carry your kids, lift your luggage into the overhead bin, etc when you’re lifting heavy dumbbells the same weight on a regular basis

  • Give you a big confidence boost - it is empowering as HELL to deadlift your bodyweight and hit strength goals

  • Improve your posture - especially if you’re sitting at a desk from 9-5 everyday

  • And a heck of a lot more health benefits

Don’t let the fear of bulking up allow you to miss out on all of the incredible health benefits that come with strength training.

There you have it. The best exercises for women to hit your goals and what that should really entail. If you have any questions on this please feel free to shoot me an email and I’d be happy to answer them! If you need some extra help achieving these goals or are looking for a custom strength program I’d love to work with you! You can apply for 1:1 online coaching here.

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