The Best Strength Training Exercises For Women

strength and tone for women Strength training is a vital part of any fitness or weight loss plan. A good weight training plan can help to tighten and tone the body, and you can even target those areas that are prone to suffer a little looser, wobbly fat.

Many women are put off by strength training, fearing that it will lead to unattractive, bulky muscles. This is simply not true though. For women to develop large and defined muscles many years must be dedicated to bodybuilding and a strict diet regime designed to allow the muscles to grow must be followed.


Strength training / weight training is vital to tone and sculpt the body. When we talk about toning, we are always referring to the act of improving muscle definition while also trimming fat.

Take a look at how middle and long distance runners train. Paula Radcliffe incorporates strength training sessions into her weekly running training and she is certainly not bulky.

And of course, the fitness model in the image above also uses strength training to stay in great shape. So lets now look at some of the best exercises to help keep those jiggly areas under strict control.

Preparation and technique

As with any workout, especially strength training workouts, you should warm up first. Start with a few minutes of skipping or jogging and then perform a few gentle air squats.

For each exercise start with a light weight and perform one warm-up set of 15 reps. The warm-up weight should be light enough so that it is very easy to complete the reps.

For the “work sets” perform 2 sets of 10 reps (if a one arm exercise, 2 sets on each side) with a heavier weight.

The weight should be heavy enough to challenge you at the end of each set, but you should be able to complete each set without having to break good form – i.e. not using your bodyweight to jerk the weight upwards or towards you.

Keep the movements steady. Breathing should remain natural, generally breathing in before the lift / pull and out while exerting force.

Bent-over rows

Latissimus dorsi

Muscles Worked: Latissimus dorsi

Woman performing a single arm dumbbell row, using a bench for support

Single Arm Dumbbell Row

Trim down Bra Strap fat with bent-over rows.

If you have started to suffer from the dreaded bra-strap bulge and have fat spilling over the top of your bra strap, you can trim down and tone this area with bent-over rows.

Bent-over rows can be done with a barbell, dumbbells or a kettlebell. To target the latissimus dorsi muscle it is best to perform a one-handed row with either a dumbbell or kettlebell.

They are performed by standing with the legs slightly bent with your upper body leaning forward.

Keep your head slightly upright with your gaze looking forward, not down at the ground or at the weight. With a weight in your hands simple pull, or “row”, the weight to your chest.

If using a barbell pull until the bar just touches the chest. If you use a dumbbell or kettlebell you can pull the weight towards your outer ribs. When performing a row it is important to focus on using the back to pull.

Make a conscious effort to utilize the back muscles rather than pulling entirely with the arms and shoulders.

So, start the movement from the back and as you pull the weight upwards focus on maintaining the tension in the Latissimus dorsimuscle.

Keep your abs “engaged”, i.e. tense, to help maintain a solid back.

Bench dips / chair dips

Triceps brachii

Muscles Worked: Triceps brachii

Woman performing a Bench Dip in a park

Tricep Bench Dip

Tone up “Chicken Wings” with dips.

Dips target the Triceps brachii, the large set of muscles at the rear of the upper arm.

The triceps are the largest muscles in the arm and are used for pushing.


To perform a chair dip (a.k.a. a bench dip), start by sitting on a solid chair, grasp the front of the seat of the chair and then walk your feet away from the chair until your backside is clear of the seat. Straighten your legs and then lower your body by bending your arms. Once your arms are at approximately 90 degrees straight push yourself back up again.

Alternatively you can also perform tricep kickbacks or tricep extensions with a dumbbell. See our page on triceps training to learn more.

 

Push ups

Serratus anterior

Muscles Worked: Serratus anterior

Woman doing push ups in park

Push Ups

Target arm-pit overhang with push ups. Push ups are one of the most underrated exercises, far too often ignored by women.

They work the chest, arms and shoulders and therefore also help to tone the region of the arm-pit.

It is the Serratus anterior muscle that we wish to target though, which is the muscle that is under the arm-pit on the side of the ribs. Full push-ups can be hard for beginners, so start off by performing knee push-ups (sometimes called “three-quarter push ups”).

Start within the standard push-up position with your arms locked out and body straight, with palms on the floor shoulder width apart and finger tips facing forwards. Then bend your legs so that your knees are resting on the floor, but keep the line from your knees to your shoulders straight.

Then lower your chest to the ground by bending your arms, pause briefly and then push yourself up again. Aim to do a few sets of 10 push-ups, but if that is not possible just perform as many as you can to start with.

Go slow and maintain good form throughout. There are many variations to the basic push up, most are described in our article on push ups.

Lunges

Thigh muscles

Muscles Worked: Thigh Muscles

Woman doing a lunge with dumbbells

The Lunge

For firmer thighs perform lunges.

Lunges work the quadriceps as well as the glutes and the hamstrings.

There are three basic variations of the bodyweight lunge that you should perform.

The forward lunge, the rear lunge and the lateral (side) lunge.

As your legs become stronger you can increase resistance by holding a pair of dumbbells, but to start with just using your bodyweight is sufficient.

To perform a forward lunge start by standing up straight with feet close together. Take one large stride forwards and bend the leading leg to lower your body down.

The rear leg should bend at the knee and the knee should almost touch the floor. Push off with the front leg and stand up straight, then repeat on the other leg.

To help keep your torso up straight put your hands behind your head – this is sometimes called a “prisoner lunge”.

You will feel unbalanced to start, but this helps to maintain a good upright posture. Alternatively you can start to add extra resistance by holding dumbbells, as shown in the photo.

If you have some dumbbells you may want to try our Dumbbell Workout – this will also help you to tone up.

A rear lunge is performed by starting in the same position but taking a large step backwards and lowering the rear knee to the ground before returning to the standing position.

The lateral lunge simply involves taking a large step to one side, keeping both feet pointing forwards and bending the leading leg. Try to always prevent your knees from extending beyond your toes.

Squats

Gluteus maximus

Muscles Worked: Gluteus maximus

 by Lululemon Athletica

Front Squats, like Prisoner Squats, ensure that you keep your torso upright. Photo by Lululemon.

For a toned backside you need to squat.

The squat works the largest groups of muscles in the human body – the muscles that define and shape your backside is called the glutes (Gluteal muscles).

The glutes are made up of the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.

Bodyweight squats are an excellent way to exercise the glutes. To perform a squat start by standing with your feet shoulder width, or hip width, apart, with your toes pointing slightly outwards.

Lower your body by bending at the knee. Keep your torso upright as much as possible with your weight on your heels.

Avoid your knees extending over your toes. For a full squat you lower yourself down as far as possible, with your knees pointing outwards and weight resting back on your heels. This form of squatting is often referred to as an air squat. To learn more about squatting read our page on The Squat.

Bicycle crunches and planks

The muscles the make up the abdominals

Muscles worked: Abdominals

Bicycle crunches in the park

Bicycle Crunches in the Park

Tone your stomach with bicycle crunches and planks.

Last but not least you perform your core exercises – bicycle crunches and the plank. If there are only two exercises you do to work your abs, it should be these two.

These exercises work the various muscles collectively called the abs – the transversus abdominis, rectus abdominis, the pyramidalis, the internal obliques and the external obliques. Bicycle crunches are similar to standard sit-ups.

Start by lying on the floor and then raise your torso off the floor by contracting your abdominals. As you lift, also twist your torso so that one elbow meets the opposite knee.

The legs moving in a cycling motion while the upper body twists. The abs get a fantastic workout. Alternate twists on each repetition.

The plank is a static exercise. With your forearms on the ground keep your body straight and engage your abdominals.

Hold this position for as long as possible. Aim for 60 seconds in total. At first it will seem like an easy exercise, but very soon the abs will start to tire – this is when they are put under pressure and start working hardest. More on abs exercises here.

6 simple exercises

So these are your 6 simple exercises to strengthen and tone those common problem areas.

If you perform a workout twice a week that includes all of these exercises (remember, 1 warm-up set then 2 work sets) you will soon start to tighten up those “jiggly” areas.

To burn fat you still need to do more cardio exercise, but this will play a vital role in shaping up.

More like this in the Strength Training section

  3 comments for “The Best Strength Training Exercises For Women

  1. Betsy
    May 7, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    I really like your website, lots of good common sense information. Everyone is always looking for the quick way or the way to cheat their way to weight loss but it all comes down to the basics. Something I’m working on getting back to with my weight loss.

  2. david
    September 16, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    Really nice website….. for the ’00.

  3. MotleyHealth
    September 17, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    Maybe time for an update, David?

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