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10 Best CrossFit Exercises for Women to Build Lean Muscle

by
author image Collette Stohler
Collette Stohler is the author of Passport to Fitness. She is also the creative director and co-founder of the travel blog, Roamaroo. She was an All-American Track and Field athlete & Olympic trials qualifier in Olympic Weightlifting. She attended the University of Pennsylvania and received a master's degree from the University of Miami.
10 Best CrossFit Exercises for Women to Build Lean Muscle
Squats are great for your booty! Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

CrossFit helped make it OK for women to still be a beauty while unleashing their inner beast. The extremely popular workout has many benefits for women, including increased cardiovascular capacity and improved strength and muscular endurance.

“Besides the physical benefits, CrossFit gives women the mental fortitude and confidence that a regular gym just doesn’t deliver,” says Forrest Jung, owner of CrossFit South Bay in Hermosa Beach, California. “Working out with friends helps push you to do things that you never thought were possible on your own.”

But Will I Get Bulky?

Many women are scared of starting a CrossFit routine because they think they’ll become big and “manly.” But a general CrossFit routine won’t create bulk on women due to a number of factors, the first being that they don’t produce enough testosterone to do so, says Adam Smith, a personal trainer at elite training facility Thanyapura.

But what about those top female CrossFit athletes you see on ESPN? They tend to be bigger and stronger than your average athlete. They’re the exceptions, not the rule.

“The ladies at the upper levels will look big and bulky, but this is due to those women being professional athletes,” Smith says. “Like any woman at the top of her sport, her body will look extreme due to the hours of training. For the woman working out for fitness or weight loss, she will get stronger and leaner by doing CrossFit.”

“I always tell the women that come into the gym that you don’t just wake up one day looking like a CrossFit Games athlete,” Jung says. “If you start to get too muscular, then you always have the choice to stop. To say that it will make you bulky before you even try it is just an excuse.”

The second factor in avoiding bulk is diet. “The key to not being bulky when doing any exercise program is diet,” Jung says. He recommends getting a body scan to figure out what your lean mass is compared to your body fat percentage, with a goal of under 20 percent body fat for women.

The third factor is genetics. “A woman cannot get bulky unless she is predisposed to being bulky in the first place,” says Gabe Hihira, a Bangkok-based personal trainer for more than 20 years. Your genes may make you more likely to gain muscle mass or hold on to fat more stubbornly in certain areas, but the solution to this is modifying some of the exercises in your workout, not avoiding them altogether.

With that in mind, here are the 10 best CrossFit exercises for women. Do them all in a circuit, or incorporate a few into your existing WOD (that’s CrossFit speak for “workout of the day”).

Get your heart rate up!
Get your heart rate up! Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

1. Speed Skaters

This cardio drill gets your heart pumping while targeting your lower body and challenging your agility.

HOW TO DO IT: Start by standing on your left leg with your knee slightly bent. Jump to the right, landing on your right leg and bending your knee. Touch the ground with your left hand and extend your left leg back and to the right of you. Jump back to the left, continuing to leap from side to side. Rep Scheme: four sets of 16 reps (eight on each side)

Work that booty!
Work that booty! Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

2. Kettlebell Romanian Deadlifts

The deadlift is a powerful exercise that targets the entire back of your body, but especially your glutes and hamstrings. And that means your booty is going to look great!

HOW TO DO IT: Start with your feet underneath your hips and a kettlebell between your feet. With a flat back and bent knees, pick up the kettlebell, keeping it as close to your legs as possible. Stand up with the kettlebell, and then slowly lower back down. Rep Scheme: five sets of eight reps

You'll really feel this on in your lower abs.
You'll really feel this on in your lower abs. Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

3. L-Sit

This challenging exercise can be modified for beginners, but no matter which version you do, you’ll feel your core screaming by the end.

HOW TO DO IT: Place parallettes (push-up bars) on either side of your body about shoulder-width apart. With one hand on each bar, push away from the ground and raise your legs up to hip height while keeping your legs straight. For beginners, you can bend your knees to make this move easier. Rep Scheme: four sets of 20 seconds

Get sexy, sculpted arms.
Get sexy, sculpted arms. Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

4. Bent-Over Rows

Many women leave pulling exercises out of their routine, instead focusing on the more common pushing exercises. But it’s important to incorporate pulling to your regimen for a balanced body.

HOW TO DO IT: With your feet underneath your hips and your knees slightly bent, hinge at the hips and grab a barbell in front of you. With a flat back, row the barbell underneath your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Once the barbell touches your ribs, lower it down with control and repeat. Rep Scheme: four sets of eight reps

Grab a kettlebell and get swinging.
Grab a kettlebell and get swinging. Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

5. Kettlebell Swings

This staple kettlebell exercise is a full-body move that looks deceptively easy. Start off with a lighter weight to get a feel for the proper form before choosing a heavier, more challenging weight.

HOW TO DO IT: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart while holding a kettlebell in both hands. Hinge at your hips, allowing the kettlebell to fall between your legs. Thrust your hips forward, allowing the power of your hips to drive the kettlebell up to eye level. Keep your arms straight with a slight bend in the elbows. Rep Scheme: four sets of 12 reps

A classic exercise with great results.
A classic exercise with great results. Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

6. Push-Ups

Sure, push-ups are one of the most common exercises out there, but that’s because they’re so effective at strengthening the entire body. Start on your knees if you need to modify, but as you get stronger (and you will if you keep doing these), progress to your feet.

HOW TO DO IT: Place your hands underneath your shoulders with your legs extended behind you so you’re in a strong plank. Squeeze your glutes and engage your core as you slowly lower your chest to the ground, squeezing your elbows in toward your sides. As soon as your chest touches the ground, push away from the ground, raising your body back up to a plank. Rep Scheme: four sets of eight reps

Target your upper body.
Target your upper body. Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

7. Strict Press

Don’t forget your shoulders! They’re one of the most often overlooked muscles in an upper-body routine, but you’ll need strong shoulders for a multitude of everyday activities.

HOW TO DO IT: Start with feet hip-width apart and a barbell across your clavicle. Squeeze your glutes and engage your core as you press the barbell overhead. Make sure to keep your core engaged, and don’t let your back arch. Lower the bar back down to your chest and repeat. Rep Scheme: four sets of eight reps

A lower-body sculpting exercise that also gets your heart pumping.
A lower-body sculpting exercise that also gets your heart pumping. Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

8. Jumping Lunges

If your lower-body routine is getting a bit stale, add in these lunge jumps. Your heart rate will be skyrocketing by the end, and you’ll have a fit, toned booty and legs to show for it.

HOW TO DO IT: Start with your left leg in front and both knees bent at 90-degree angles. Swing your arms into the air as you jump up, switching your legs in midair. Land in a lunge with the right leg in front. Try to jump as high as possible, allowing your arms to propel you into the air. Rep Scheme: four sets of 16 reps (eight on each side)

Earn those six-pack abs.
Earn those six-pack abs. Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

9. Russian Twists

Many of these exercises work the core without directly targeting your ab muscles. But this exercise is meant to get your abs burning.

HOW TO DO IT: Take a seat on the floor, grab a medicine ball, kettlebell or dumbbell and extend your legs in front of you with your knees slightly bent. Lift your legs off the ground and twist your body to the left, tapping the weight on the ground. As soon as the weight touches the ground, twist your body to the right and tap the weight on the ground. Continue switching sides. Rep Scheme: four sets of 20 reps (10 on each side)

A classic squat with a twist.
A classic squat with a twist. Photo Credit Scott Stohler/LIVESTRONG.COM

10. Back Squat

The core of all CrossFit moves is the back squat, a great movement that targets your entire body, but specifically focuses on your glutes, hamstrings and quads.

HOW TO DO IT: With your feet shoulder-width apart and a barbell across your back, send your glutes back and down, squatting toward the ground. If your mobility allows, let your glutes drop below parallel. Keep your chest up and your core engaged as you stand up. Rep Scheme: five sets of eight reps

What Do YOU Think?

Ladies, have you ever done CrossFit? What did you think? What were your favorite exercises? What was your least favorite? If you haven’t tried CrossFit, what’s stopping you? Share your stories, suggestions and questions in the comments below!

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