Strength training is a must, especially for women. Research continues to pile up showing that strength training is a powerful tool for heart health and bone strength. Strength training also benefits your hormones — including cortisol (a stress hormone), estrogen and testosterone (yes, ladies, you have testosterone too).
It's the key to truly empowering your body, preventing injuries, boosting self-confidence and promoting a general sense of well-being.
To get started, here's a list of the five best exercises for women to build lean muscle and lose fat.
A Quick Language Note
Here at LIVESTRONG.com, we carefully consider language surrounding sex and gender. We typically avoid language that implies a sex or gender binary in favor of inclusive language.
However, most exercise research still categorizes people as men or women, so we're using those terms where they are used by primary sources throughout this article.
More research is needed to more fully understand how biological differences may affect training in people taking hormones as part of gender-affirming care.
All that's to say, anyone can do these exercises (if they're right for you) to build lean muscle and lose fat.
How to Do These Exercises
For beginners, start with 8 to 10 reps of each exercise for 2 to 3 rounds total. Take breaks as needed, pausing at least 60 seconds between each exercise. Then, as you start to feel more comfortable with the workout, you can work your way up to 12 reps per move or increase the weight you're lifting for each exercise.
1. Goblet Squat
The goblet squat emphasizes your glutes and hamstrings, while reducing the common issue of quadriceps dominance that women are prone to. And because it uses deep squat and upright torso position, this move is fantastic for building functional core strength too.
- Position your feet shoulder-width apart and turn your toes diagonally to the sides. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest with your elbows pointing down.
- Brace your core to maintain a natural curve in your lower back.
- Bend your knees and send your hips back, keeping the weight in contact with your upper chest at all times. Lower down until your hips are below your knees, or as far as comfortable.
- Pause for 2 seconds at the bottom, then press into your heels and return to standing, moving slightly faster than your lowering speed.
2. Lat Pulldown
In general, women should aim to do three times more pulling exercises (like lat pulldowns) than pushing ones (like push-ups), for upper-body muscle balance and function. This best exercise targets your latissimus dorsi muscles (aka lats) that wrap around your sides and middle back.
- Anchor a resistance band around something secure or use a door attachment between the door and door frame.
- Kneel on the floor facing the band and position yourself so that your arms are straight and there is a little bit of tension on the band. Your arms should be at about a 45-degree angle to the floor.
- Pull with your upper-back muscles, bend your elbows and pull the handles toward your upper chest.
- Pause for 2 seconds with the handles next to your upper chest. Release to the starting position, moving slower than during the pull phase.
3. Chest Fly
To keep your body balanced, it's critical to build upper-body strength. Two gold-standard chest exercises are the bench press and the chest fly. The dumbbell chest fly improves the pulling and pushing functions of your chest muscles, while the bench press focuses more on pushing.
- Lie on the floor with your feet flat and knees bent. Bring the dumbbells together in front of your chest with your shoulders anchored down and elbows unlocked.
- Slowly open your arms until the dumbbells are directly out from your shoulders, without changing the angle at your elbow.
- Pause for 2 seconds. Contract the muscles of your chest to bring the dumbbells back together, moving more quickly than during the first phase.
This may very well be the absolute best exercise for women to get lean and strong. Similar to the leg press, the deadlift works all of the major muscles of your lower body. It's particularly great for women because it puts more emphasis on pulling movement of the the hamstrings and glutes, improving body mechanics and supporting your pelvis.
- Position a barbell on the floor in front of you. If needed, position it on an elevated platform to allow for a reduced range of motion.
- Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
- Hinge from your hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
- Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
- Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
- Return the bar to the ground by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the bar travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.
5. Overhead Press
Barbell exercises are great because they help to bring symmetry of movement between the right and left sides of your body. This move improves shoulder function while also demanding core stabilization.
- Stand up straight with feet hip-width apart and hold a barbell with both hands at chest level, palms facing out.
- Without arching your back, use your shoulder and upper-back muscles to raise the bar overhead.
- Pause for 2 seconds without locking your elbows. Lower the bar back down to your chest with control and repeat.