Are there certain exercises specifically for men and others specifically for women? Absolutely not, though it sometimes seems so. Men make up the vast majority of gym-goers who do heavy bench presses and barbell curls, and women currently have the market cornered on the inner/outer thigh machine and plié squats. But ladies, there’s no reason you have to limit yourselves to such “girl-ified” moves. By all means, keep hitting your thighs and glutes hard, but heavy lifting and intense upper-body training aren’t just for guys.
There’s a whole host of exercises that are underused by women but shouldn’t be. So we asked three experienced trainers and physique competitors (who just happen to be women) what some of these exercises might be. What we came up with are the following eight exercises — some you may be already doing, others you’re probably not — that we believe should be a part of every girl’s gym repertoire.
Why Do It: “Tried and true, pull-ups are an oldie but goodie and are often neglected by females because they’re not easy,” says Liz Jackson, a Figure competitor, co-owner of The Rack Gym in Ponca City, Okla., and owner of Jackson Nutrition. “Start off with assisted pull-ups if you need to (using a machine or help from a partner), lowering the assisted weight every week or two until you’re on your own.”
How to Do It: Grasp a pull-up bar with your choice of grip — an outside shoulder-width, overhand grip is typically recommended, but it’s also the most difficult, so feel free to move your hands closer together and/or use an underhand grip or a neutral grip (palms facing each other) if the pull-up station at your gym has parallel handles. The most important thing is that you’re pulling your bodyweight up to a bar. Start by hanging from the bar with your arms extended. Concentrating on your back muscles, pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar, then slowly lower back down to the start position (arms extended — no half reps allowed). Don’t let your legs or any extraneous movement help you get up; this should be a strict pull-up, with the only action occurring at the arms and shoulders. When doing assisted pull-ups, the technique is the same except that you’ll be kneeling on the machine’s pad to offset your bodyweight.
Sets/Reps: If you can’t do bodyweight pull-ups, Jackson advises, start with assisted pull-ups for three to four sets of eight to 12 reps. “Once you’re able to do 10 to 12 reps easily within your sets, decrease the assistance,” Jackson says. “After a few weeks of assisted pull-ups, go ahead and try one or two unassisted. Most people get discouraged because they can’t do more than one or two pull-ups on their own. But one is better than none and is halfway to two! Continue doing the assisted pull-ups immediately after hitting failure on unassisted reps to reach eight to 10 total reps (unassisted plus assisted). Every week, push yourself to do one more unassisted or even one more half rep. Anything over what you did the week prior is progress.”
2. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
Why Do It: “As a woman, I want strong and shapely glutes, so this is a must-do exercise,” says Christa McLane, a medical professional and amateur figure competitor living in Dubuque, Iowa, who was the Overall Open Figure champion at the 2012 Best of the Midwest Physique and Strength Championships in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “The Bulgarian split squat is a very effective exercise for focusing not only on the glutes but also on the abdominal muscles and lower back.”
How to Do It: Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides with a bench or other stable surface of comparable height (i.e., a plyometrics box, a chair, an ottoman, etc.) a few feet behind you. Start with one foot on the ground below you and the other up on the bench behind you — only the toes of the back leg should be touching the bench. Keeping your torso upright, bend your front leg to lower your body straight down. That knee should not track over your toes; if it does, move your foot forward on the floor. Your back knee also will bend, and once it’s within a few inches of the floor, contract the glutes and quads of the front leg to stand back up and return to the start position. Repeat for reps, then switch legs and do the same.
Sets/Reps: Do one light warm-up set, then do three increasingly heavier working sets of 12 to 15 reps per leg. “Add heavier weight with each set, and over time, you’ll no doubt add muscle mass and lift your glutes,” McLane says.
3. Incline Hammer Curl
Why Do It: “If you not only want your arms toned but also want to build bigger biceps, this is a great exercise for you,” McLane says. “I love this move because of the position of the dumbbells. It’s a great change of pace and will add variety to your arm training.”
How to Do It: Lie back on an incline bench holding a pair of dumbbells hanging straight toward the floor with your palms facing in. With your upper arms stationary, curl the dumbbells straight up, keeping your palms facing each other throughout. (That’s what makes it a “hammer” curl.) At the top of the rep, squeeze the biceps for a count in the fully contracted position, then lower back down to the arms-extended position. As with any type of dumbbell curl, you can perform this exercise one arm at a time, if you prefer.
Sets/Reps: Do two to three sets, 10 to 12 reps. McLane recommends doing drop sets on this exercise to maximize intensity. On each of your last two sets, after doing 10 to 12 reps to failure, immediately lighten the weight and rep out to failure once again.
4. Push Press
Why Do It: “A great, shapely set of shoulders draws the eye up and helps balance your physique,” Jackson says. “Push presses are great because they’re an explosive power move and something that gives you a bit of an edge over doing a classic shoulder press. Doing push presses can help you when learning to execute more advanced moves like the clean-and-jerk and can help you learn total-body coordination because the move starts in your legs.”
How to Do It: In a squat rack, grasp a relatively heavy barbell (heavier than what you’d use for a strict overhead press) with a shoulder-width, overhand grip. Rest it across your upper chest, then take a couple of steps back to be clear of the rack. With your head up, chest out and feet in an athletic stance (hip- to shoulder-width apart), initiate the movement by bending your ankles, hips and knees slightly so your body dips down, but only by a matter of inches — reaching a low squat is not part of this exercise. Rapidly extend your hips, knees and ankles while explosively pressing the bar straight up overhead to full elbow lockout at the top. (Because you’re going heavier than you would with a standard overhead press, the lower body’s job is to get the bar moving upward; the shoulders should start taking over after this initial momentum has been created.) Let the bar fall back safely to your upper chest, bending your hips and knees slightly to cushion the weight before starting the next rep.
Sets/Reps: Do five sets, six reps. “Go as heavy as possible to stimulate muscle growth,” Jackson says.
5. Exercise-Ball Tuck
Why Do It: “This exercise focuses on overall core strength and definition,” says Jessica Janicek, a competitive Figure athlete and personal trainer with New York-based Sci-Unison Fitness (sci-unisonfitness.com). “However, because you’re in a push-up position, you’re also incorporating shoulders and chest as secondary muscles to support your own bodyweight. This exercise will also give you a nice burn in your quads from the in-and-out movement, along with a little tension in the glutes from maintaining your balance.”
How to Do It: Assume a push-up position with the tops of your feet up on an exercise ball behind you. Start with your body rigid and in a straight line from your shoulders to heels, arms fully extended up from the floor. Once you’re balanced, contract your abs to pull your knees in toward your chest as far as possible. Then slowly extend your legs back to the start position. Don’t let your hips drop down to the floor as you push your legs back; stay tight throughout the core and keep the motion controlled, not rushed.
Sets/Reps: Do three sets, 20 to 25 reps.
6. EZ-Bar Overhead Triceps Extension
Why Do It: “Don’t underestimate moving some heavy weight with your arm muscles to create great shape,” Jackson says. “Your triceps are the largest muscle of the arm, and they help show muscle tone in the upper body. Doing overhead extensions seated will help to completely isolate your triceps, which is important to keep your muscle fibers firing.”
How to Do It: Sit on a low-back seat or flat bench holding an EZ-bar just inside shoulder width, using an overhand grip. Begin with the bar straight up overhead with your arms fully extended. Bend your elbows — without letting them flare out too much — to slowly lower the bar behind your head. When your elbows are past 90 degrees (the bar should be behind your neck), contract your triceps to straighten your arms back to the start position, reaching full elbow lockout at the top. For a slightly more challenging variation, Jackson recommends performing the exercise lying back on an incline bench instead of seated. Keep your upper arms perpendicular with the floor or angled slightly backward throughout.
Sets/Reps: Do four sets, 10 reps, using as heavy a weight as you can while still maintaining strict form.
7. Sumo Stiff-Legged Deadlift
Why Do It: “This is an exercise that I like to include regularly in my training, as it helps develop and add mass to the hamstrings,” McLane says. “Trust me, you’ll feel this one for days. By keeping a wide stance and your toes pointing outward, you’ll isolate your hamstrings. This exercise is so effective at isolation that you only need to perform it once a week.”
How to Do It: Standing just behind a barbell set on the floor, assume a wide stance — feet outside shoulder width — with your toes pointed outward about 45 degrees. Lean forward and down at the hips and grasp the bar with a shoulder-width grip. In the start position, your knees should be only slightly bent (roughly quarter- to half-squat position) with your back flat and the bar in close to your shins. Contract your hamstrings to extend your hips and pull the bar up along the front of your legs while also straightening your legs. When your body is fully upright with the bar in front of your thighs, slowly lower the weight back down to the ground and repeat for reps.
Sets/Reps: After one light warm-up set, do three increasingly heavier working sets of eight to 10 reps.
Bodypart: Full Body/Shoulders
8. Press Jacks
Why to Do It: “This move incorporates the motions of a jumping jack from the waist down with a standing dumbbell shoulder press. For women out there who are concerned about getting too muscular, this exercise is perfect,” Janicek says. “It includes a cardio exercise that raises your heart rate (jumping jacks) while using weights to tone and sculpt for beautiful, shapely shoulders.”
How to Do It: Stand holding a pair of light dumbbells just outside your shoulders with your elbows bent. Simultaneously jump and spread your legs and perform an overhead press with the dumbbells. Hop up and bring your feet back together while lowering the dumbbells to the start position. Repeat for reps in a continuous manner, one right after another instead of pausing between each rep — just like you’d do regular jumping jacks. If this move is new to you, it might take a little while to get use to, so start off with the lightest weights you can find. Once you begin to get used to it, gradually increase the weight.
Sets/Reps: Do three sets, 15 to 18 reps.