Best Exercises for Women

If I Do “Men’s Exercises”, Will I Bulk Up Like a Bodybuilder?

woman exercising

Now there’s a question that I often get from women exercisers. So, what’s the answer? Well, the answer is yes and no.

Some consider the best exercises for women to be the same as those for men. This generally holds true except for one primary difference. Women and men generally have different exercise goals. Men typically want to build large muscles where women typically want to tone their muscles.

“Toning” refers to the simultaneous reduction in body fat and the maintenance of muscle, together yielding a better body composition. While toning is possible, is not likely to happen from so-called “toning exercises” unless you have already low body fat %. Low body fat is necessary to be able to see muscle definition.

So, unless your body fat percentage is on the low end of ideal or lean, the best exercises for women are most likely the same as the best exercises for men.

Multi-joint exercises which work large muscle groups are best for increasing metabolism, burning fat and toning up. These multi-joint exercises should make up the base of weight training for men and women who are looking to accomplish these fitness goals.

Is There Such a Thing as “Women’s Exercises”?

Exercises which isolate certain muscles, such as biceps curls, have little or no use for weight training programs for those looking to lose weight. So-called isolation “toning exercises” for women such as inner and outer thigh machines are often a complete waste of time for weight loss goals. Your time should be spent on a full-body weight training program and cardiovascular exercise.

One of the problems facing women today is having to deal with pictures like the one above which litter the pages of all fitness magazines and websites. Photos such as the one above are usually displayed in a misleading context, causingmany women to believe that the best exercises for women are exercises such as biceps curls with a two-pound dumbbell or whatever kinds of exercises the models are doing, when in all likelihood, the model has probably looked like that her entire life and her results were not from performing biceps curls with a two-pound dumbbell.

There are also various myths associated with women’s exercises.

Top 5 Women’s Exercise Myths

Women’s Exercise Myth 1:

Women should lift high reps with light weight to tone, because heavier weight and less reps will bulk.

Whether a weight is heavy or not is a matter of perception. The truth of the matter is that in order for an exercise to be effective, your muscles should fail within your desired rep range. If you perform a weight training exercise and perform 20 repetitions with a light weight that would have allowed you to do 50, the exercise will not be effective regardless your sex. Your muscles require a challenge in order to adapt and change in any way.

Women’s Exercise Myth 2:

Women should only perform the “toning” weight training exercises in women’s magazines, not any exercises men do.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Exercises which work large muscle groups, such as the bench press, are necessary in any successful fitness program for women. Isolation exercises, such as biceps curls, are meant to build a certain muscle.

Multi-joint exercises, such as seated rows, work many different muscles. The best exercises for women are usually any multi-joint exercise with the right sets & repetitions scheme.

Women’s Exercise Myth 3:

Women who want to lose weight should not participate in weight training or high-intensity activities.

The main purpose of exercises meant to achieve a weight loss / toning goal needs to be elevating the metabolism. Burning calories through cardio workouts is not as important in the long run as the maintenance of a high metabolism. The activities which will affect metabolism most significantly include high-intensity activities such as interval cardio, sprints, and weight training.

Women’s Exercise Myth 4:

Women should always do cardio before weight training.

The order in which you do cardio and weight training really doesn’t matter. The best exercises for women before or after cardio will have the same benefits. A good rule of thumb is to do what you least like to do first so you won’t be tempted skip out on it.

If you have a specific goal such as improving your running times, you should probably do your cardio first. If your goal is to do 5 pull ups, you should tackle the weight training first while you have the most energy. There are benefits and drawbacks to doing either first so do what makes you happy.

Women’s Exercise Myth 5:

Pregnant women should not lift weights.

Lifting weights is very good for pregnant women. Some say it eases the birth. There are certain things which pregnant women should avoid such as the Valsalva maneuver, which is the straining motion associated with bearing down while holding the breath.

After the first 3 months of pregnancy, pregnant women should also avoid all exercises which are in the supine (lying on back) position. First and foremost, pregnant women should ask their doctor before starting a weight training program.

Who Can Benefit from the Best Exercises?

These top exercises for women assume that you are trying to lose weight or tone up, since that is the number one goal among female exercisers. They assume that you are not very skinny with a body fat in the lean category for women for your age group. If you are already in the lean category, certain toning exercises will help you tone your muscles. Toning exercises are isolation movements which concentrate on a certain muscle.

The best exercises for women we’ll discuss here are total-body, multiple large muscle group exercises rather than the typical “toning exercises” detailed in women’s magazines. Our best exercises for women activate a lot of your lean mass, so they will benefit you if you are looking to lose weight adn tone up.

What Are the Best Exercises for Women?

Since you are most likely not looking for hulking muscles, the best exercises for you and other women looking to tone up are combination exercises.

Combination exercises are multiple exercises performed at the same time. These are the top exercises for women because they will allow you to work multiple muscle groups, squeezing more overall work into your workouts and allowing you to get more done in less time.

More overall work means extra calories burned, encouraging a higher metabolism. This means you will be more likely to burn fat, tone up, lose weight, and be lean. Since we have limited time and space, here are a few examples of the best exercises for women. This does not mean that any other exercises will not benefit you. As long as you have a healthy diet, perform cardiovascular exercise, and try to live a healthy active lifestyle, there are many, many more beneficial exercises out there.

Here are a Few Examples of Combination Exercises…

Lunges with Shoulder Press

Lunges with shoulder press are an exercise which works your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, inner and outer thighs, shoulders, and triceps all at the same time. Lunges are definitely in the top 3 best exercises for women because they work the muscle group which is usually a problem area for the majority of women: thighs & butt.

Start: You can either perform the lunge with shoulder press from a stationary position or while walking forward. If you have about 20 feet of clear space, you can perform walking lunges with press. If you don’t have space to walk, you can simply perform either stationary lunges or pushback lunges.

Begin the motion: Hold the dumbbells at your side. Begin walking lunges. After you complete a lunge, either balance on one foot or stand on both feet as you perform a shoulder press, pushing the dumbbells above your head. After you are finished with the press, lower the weights back to their original position and repeat the lunges.

Modifications: There are many modifications you can do. You can use kettlebells, body bars, or any form of resistance for this exercise. If you do not know proper lunge form yet, please visit our page dedicated to Exercising with Lunges and work on the basic lunge before you try out the lunge with shoulder press.

Step-Ups with Curls and Press

Step ups with biceps curls and shoulder press work your thighs, hamstrings, glutes, inner thighs, outer thighs, biceps, triceps and shoulders. You will also work on your balance.

Start: Have a pair of dumbbells or any form of resistance. You should work with a completely stable step for safety reasons. The height of the step depends on your level of training.

Begin the motion: With your arms at your sides, step up onto the step. Make sure you step up with the back 2/3 of your foot, not your toes. Your knee should not pass your toes as you step up. You can either balance on 1 foot or put your other foot on the step as well. Curl the weights up to shoulder level and them perform a shoulder press above your head.

Modifications: You can perform all the motions separately or you can do the curls as you step up. The latter is more difficult. You can also perform these stepping up to the side. This will be a great way to get your stabilizer muscles working, in this case the muscles of your inner and outer thighs. They will be working mainly to functionally stabilize your knees.

Squats with Rows

Squats with rows are a great exercise for your butt, hamstrings, thighs, biceps and all the muscles in your back. Many trainers consider these to be one of the best exercises for women because they exercise 2 muscle groups which seldom work together.

Start: Either use a free motion machine with 2 cables, a low cable with a triangle bar or a resistance tube. Grab the resistance and take a couple steps back. Keep your arms straight, as you will use them as a counterbalance during the squat.

Begin the motion: With your arms completely straight and your shoulders and back in neutral alignment, perform a squat. Since you have the counterbalance of the resistance, you can really squat your butt backwards and form a complete 90 degree angle with your legs. Squat back up and perform a row with the cables as you reach the top of the squat. Make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades together in back without elevating your shoulders.

Modifications: You can stand on an unstable surface such as a BOSU balance trainer to modify this exercise and increase the difficulty. You can also pause at the bottom of the squat and perform rows while you contract your legs isometrically (muscle contraction with no movement).

Stability Ball Squat with Lateral and Front Raises

Stability ball squats are one of the best exercises for women which can be used in combination with many different exercises. Lateral and front raises isolate the side and front of your shoulders while the squats work your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps.

Start: Hold a stability ball against the wall in the small of your back. Position your feet forward so when you squat down fully, your legs form a 90 degree angle. Keep your core tight, and your back in neutral alignment for the duration of this exercise.

Begin the motion: Squat down, rolling your back along the ball. As you squat, perform a lateral raise, raising the dumbbells to the side. At the bottom of the squat, pause for a second with your arms out to the side. As you squat up, lower the weights back to their original position.

Modifications: You can also perform front raises during this motion. You can do them separately or alternating with the lateral raises. You can do a combination of both (see video.) It is best if you perform the concentric (lifting up) shoulders exercise on the way down with the squat. This will eliminate momentum and cause your body to work your stabilizer muscles more with isometric contraction at the bottom of the squat.

Must-Read Women’s Fitness Articles

Select a Muscle Group:

Frequently Asked Questions about the Women’s Exercises


Is the bench press a bad exercise for women?

Perhaps the biggest misconception about weight training is the idea that certain exercises are for women and certain exercises are for men. All resistance training exercises can be used by either men or women in most circumstances. The primary difference between optimal weight training for men is not exercise selection but rather exercise volume. For example, it is pretty common for men to perform many sets of various forms of chest presses during each workout. While women can surely benefit from a few sets of chest presses, most women are not looking to bulk the chest muscles, so less sets are better suited to women’s fitness goals.


Will weight training cause female breasts to shrink?

The vast majority of women should not worry about a drastic breast size reduction from weight training. When women reduce body fat during any diet or exercise program, there is a slight chance in breast size reduction, since part of the breast mass is made of fat. Weight training itself is no more at fault for breast size reduction than cardio training. Since breast tissue is body fat, any training program that lowers the body fat significantly can decrease breast size although losing “too much” is unlikely to happen for women with normal hormone levels (i.e. women that are not on anabolic steroids).

To read more Q&A on Exercises for Women, Please Visit the Ask the Trainer Q&A Site

Some of the Best Exercises for Women Are Also Great for Men

  • Full-Body Weight Training Anatomy Map
    Find exercises for all muscle groups. Don’t fall prey to women’s fitness myths. Find workouts which isolate specific body parts. Click on any body part to find the best exercises for each part. You will find that the best exercises for women are also the best exercises for anybody who wants to be in great shape.
  • The Best Core Strengthening Exercises
    Core exercises are the top exercises for women to tighten up the midsection. These exercises are a good base or addition to any fitness program. The best core exercises are especially to restore ideal body composition post-pregnancy.
  • A Huge Variety of Lunge Videos and Why Lunges are so Great
    Learn how to properly perform the best leg exercise for most people. The lunge is a great exercise which you can convert to a combination exercise by adding multiple movements to increase your metabolism.
  • Effective Lower Body (Legs & Butt) Exercises for Men & Women
    Learn about the real best legs and butt exercises, which may be very different from what you have seen in magazines and at the gym. You may be surprised that the exercises you have been doing or thought were doing you some good are really not the best use of your time. Learn about the best options for working your problem areas, such as the legs and butt.
  • Effective Ball Exercises
    You may have seen exercise balls in the gym, on TV or you may be an avid user. Learn all about some different types of exercise balls and how to use them effectively to add to create a new exciting workout program or to add to your current workout regimen.
  • Cardiovascular Exercise Tips
    You can’t neglect your cardiovascular health. Cardio very important to living a healthy lifestyle as well as staying lean, toned, and fit. Learn which exercises will maximize your time so you can spend less time in the gym or outside doing cardio and more time having fun while looking and feeling great.

About Michael Behnken

Mike Behnken is a personal trainer who holds multiple NASM certifications and a MS in Exercise Science. Mike loves fitness, travel, and photography among many other interests.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *