The Only 5 Exercises Women Need to Get Lean

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woman holding kettlebell in the gym to get lean

Strength training is a must, especially for women. Research continues to pile up showing that strength training is a powerful tool in the management of heart disease, osteoporosis and age-related weight gain. Strength training also benefits your hormones — including cortisol (the stress hormone), estrogen and testosterone (yes, ladies, you have testosterone too).

It's the key to truly changing your body, preventing injuries, boosting self-confidence and promoting a general sense of well-being. To start, here's a list of the five moves that are absolutely essential for every body, especially women. All of these are based on a handful of foundational movement patterns.

Credit: franckreporter/E+/GettyImages

Strength training is a must, especially for women. Research continues to pile up showing that strength training is a powerful tool in the management of heart disease, osteoporosis and age-related weight gain. Strength training also benefits your hormones — including cortisol (the stress hormone), estrogen and testosterone (yes, ladies, you have testosterone too).

It's the key to truly changing your body, preventing injuries, boosting self-confidence and promoting a general sense of well-being. To start, here's a list of the five moves that are absolutely essential for every body, especially women. All of these are based on a handful of foundational movement patterns.

1. Goblet Squat

Woman Demonstrating How to Do a Goblet Squat to Build Lean Muscle

The goblet squat emphasizes the glutes and hamstrings, while reducing the common issue of quadriceps dominance that women are prone to. And because of the deep squat and position of the torso, this move is fantastic for building functional core strength too.

1. Position your feet shoulder-width apart and turn your toes to 11 and 1 o'clock. Brace your core to maintain a natural curve in your lower back. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest with your elbows pointing down.

2. Bend your knees and slowly lower your hips, keeping the weight in contact with your upper chest at all times. Lower down until your hips are below your knees.

3. Pause for two seconds at the bottom, then press into your heels and return to standing, moving slightly faster than your lowering speed.

Read more: 12 Essential Squat Variations to Try

Credit: Kelsey Tucker/DescribeTheFauna.com

The goblet squat emphasizes the glutes and hamstrings, while reducing the common issue of quadriceps dominance that women are prone to. And because of the deep squat and position of the torso, this move is fantastic for building functional core strength too.

1. Position your feet shoulder-width apart and turn your toes to 11 and 1 o'clock. Brace your core to maintain a natural curve in your lower back. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest with your elbows pointing down.

2. Bend your knees and slowly lower your hips, keeping the weight in contact with your upper chest at all times. Lower down until your hips are below your knees.

3. Pause for two seconds at the bottom, then press into your heels and return to standing, moving slightly faster than your lowering speed.

Read more: 12 Essential Squat Variations to Try

2. Resistance-Band Lat Pulldown

Woman Demonstrating How to Do a Resistance-Band Lat Pulldown to Build Lean Muscle

In general, women should aim to do three times more pulling exercises (like lat pulldowns) than pushing ones (like push-ups), since women are prone to be weakest in the upper body. This exercise targets your latissimus dorsi muscles ("lats") that wrap around your sides and middle back.

1. Anchor a resistance band around something secure or use a door attachment between the door and door frame.

2. 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.

3. Pull with your upper-back muscles, bend your elbows and pull the handles toward your upper chest.

4. Pause for two seconds with the handles next to your upper chest. Release to the starting position, moving slower than during the pull phase.

Credit: Kelsey Tucker/DescribeTheFauna.com

In general, women should aim to do three times more pulling exercises (like lat pulldowns) than pushing ones (like push-ups), since women are prone to be weakest in the upper body. This exercise targets your latissimus dorsi muscles ("lats") that wrap around your sides and middle back.

1. Anchor a resistance band around something secure or use a door attachment between the door and door frame.

2. 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.

3. Pull with your upper-back muscles, bend your elbows and pull the handles toward your upper chest.

4. Pause for two seconds with the handles next to your upper chest. Release to the starting position, moving slower than during the pull phase.

3. Dumbbell Chest Fly

Woman Demonstrating How to Do a Dumbbell Chest Fly to Build Lean Muscle

To keep the body balanced, it's critical to build strength in your upper body. Two gold-standard upper-body moves are the bench press and the chest fly. The dumbbell chest fly improves the pulling and pushing functions of the chest muscles, while the bench press focuses more on pushing.

1. 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.

2. Slowly open your arms until the dumbbells are directly out from your shoulders, without changing the angle at your elbow.

3. Pause for two seconds. Contract the muscles of your chest to bring the dumbbells back together, moving more quickly than during the first phase.

Read more: The Only 5 Exercises You Need for a Chiseled Chest

Credit: Kelsey Tucker/DescribeTheFauna.com

To keep the body balanced, it's critical to build strength in your upper body. Two gold-standard upper-body moves are the bench press and the chest fly. The dumbbell chest fly improves the pulling and pushing functions of the chest muscles, while the bench press focuses more on pushing.

1. 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.

2. Slowly open your arms until the dumbbells are directly out from your shoulders, without changing the angle at your elbow.

3. Pause for two seconds. Contract the muscles of your chest to bring the dumbbells back together, moving more quickly than during the first phase.

Read more: The Only 5 Exercises You Need for a Chiseled Chest

4. Deadlift

Woman Demonstrating How to Do a Deadlift to Build Lean Muscle

Similar to the leg press, the deadlift works all of the major muscles of your lower body. It's particularly great for women, since it puts more emphasis on pulling movement of the the hamstrings and glutes, improving body mechanics and supporting your pelvis.

1. Start standing with feet rooted into the floor and feet hip-width apart. Bend at the waist and grab a barbell (or a pair of dumbbells).

2. Using mainly your legs (and without locking your knees), lift the barbell or dumbbells up as you contract your glutes and hamstrings to stand up.

3. Lower the weight back to the floor slowly and with control.

4. Pause for two seconds at the bottom and then repeat.

Credit: Kelsey Tucker/DescribeTheFauna.com

Similar to the leg press, the deadlift works all of the major muscles of your lower body. It's particularly great for women, since it puts more emphasis on pulling movement of the the hamstrings and glutes, improving body mechanics and supporting your pelvis.

1. Start standing with feet rooted into the floor and feet hip-width apart. Bend at the waist and grab a barbell (or a pair of dumbbells).

2. Using mainly your legs (and without locking your knees), lift the barbell or dumbbells up as you contract your glutes and hamstrings to stand up.

3. Lower the weight back to the floor slowly and with control.

4. Pause for two seconds at the bottom and then repeat.

5. Barbell Overhead Press

Woman Demonstrating How to Do a Barbell Overhead Press to Build Lean Muscle

Barbell moves are great because they help to bring symmetry of movement between the right and left sides of the body. And since shoulder and neck issues have become nearly an epidemic, this move improves shoulder function while also demanding core stabilization.

1. Stand up straight with feet hip-width apart and hold a barbell with both hands at chest level, palms facing out.

2. Without arching your back, use your shoulder and upper-back muscles to raise the bar overhead.

3. Pause for two seconds without locking your elbows. Lower the bar back down to your chest with control and repeat.

Read more: 4 Overhead Press Mistakes That Are Terrible for Your Shoulders

Credit: Kelsey Tucker/DescribeTheFauna.com

Barbell moves are great because they help to bring symmetry of movement between the right and left sides of the body. And since shoulder and neck issues have become nearly an epidemic, this move improves shoulder function while also demanding core stabilization.

1. Stand up straight with feet hip-width apart and hold a barbell with both hands at chest level, palms facing out.

2. Without arching your back, use your shoulder and upper-back muscles to raise the bar overhead.

3. Pause for two seconds without locking your elbows. Lower the bar back down to your chest with control and repeat.

Read more: 4 Overhead Press Mistakes That Are Terrible for Your Shoulders

How to Strengthen Periscapular Muscles

Credit: franckreporter/E+/GettyImages
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