Illustration of a skinny women doing goblet squats to build muscle.

Beginner Muscle & Strength Workout for Women

We’ve given you a fair bit of information about why building muscle is so great, and also about why it can be so hard for naturally skinny women. At this point you might be thinking, okay, yeah, this sounds great—I want more curves, more muscle, and more strength—but how do I actually get started?

In this post, we’ll teach you how to start lifting weights, either at home or at a gym, and then give you a routine you can follow for the first few weeks. If you pair this with a good muscle-building diet, you can start building muscle right now.

Results of a skinny woman building muscle and going from Bony to Bombshell.

The Best Beginner Exercises for Building Muscle

If you’re new to lifting weights, working out just 2–3 times per week is often enough to maximize your rate of muscle growth. You don’t need to do that many different exercises, either. In fact, all you need to do is focus on getting stronger at four compound exercises. These exercises are: the squat, the deadlift, the push-up, and the chin-up.

These four exercises work all of the major muscles in your body, they’re great for developing general strength, and they can be loaded progressively heavier as you get stronger. To pick up a kid, you squat down and pick them up. If you want to carry your share of a couch, you deadlift it. If you want to push someone, you’ll be doing a push-up. And if you need to climb up something, that’s a chin-up. If you get strong at these movements, you’ll be strong at everything.

Before and after results of a woman building muscle and gaining weight.

The problem is, the most popular versions of these lifts—barbell backs squats, conventional barbell deadlifts, push-ups from the floor, and chin-ups from a dead hang—are difficult and require quite a bit of practice. Some beginners can do them right away, but they usually have an athletic background and someone to coach them in person. But you don’t need to start with advanced variations. There are simpler variations that beginners can do at home, or during their first workout at the gym. No coach required. And these simple variations are just as good for building muscle.

If you’re a beginner, we recommend starting with these beginner variations:

  1. The goblet squat will work your biceps, shoulders, quads, obliques, abs, calves, lower back and butt. You can do these with a dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate.
  2. The dumbbell sumo deadlift will work all the muscles in your thighs, your grip (forearms), all the muscles in your back. And it’s arguably the best lift in the world for building a bigger, stronger butt. You can do these with a dumbbell. If you only have a barbell, you can do Romanian deadlifts instead.
  3. The raised push-up will work your triceps, shoulders, chest, and abs. You can do these against a weight bench or couch.
  4. The dumbbell row will work most of the muscles in your backs, including your lats, traps, and rear delts. You can do it with a dumbbell, but if you don’t have one, you can do a barbell row instead.
Illustration of a woman doing a goblet squat.

You can still use some of these variations even as an advanced lifter. Even the strongest woman in the world can get a good workout from doing goblet squats. It’s just she’ll be using a hundred-pound dumbbell instead of a thirty-pound dumbbell. But after a few weeks of doing these lifts, you’ll probably have the strength and coordination you need to do more advanced variations: back squats, Romanian deadlifts, push-ups from the floor, and lowered chin-ups.

For now, though, you can begin with just four lifts. Let’s go over each of them in detail.

The Four Big Compound Exercises—Video Tutorials

The Goblet Squat

Here’s Marco and Simone teaching the goblet squat. This is a great lift for building bigger quads and glutes, and great for strengthening your torso and posture. Don’t be discouraged if it takes you a little while to master. You don’t need to be perfect on your first day. Just strive for gradual improvement.

As they demonstrate the lift, notice that they lift the weight smoothly and explosively. There’s no jerking, but they’re pushing into the weight with confidence. Then, on the way down, they’re keeping the weight slow and under control. This lifting “tempo”—lifting explosively and then lowering under control—is ideal for gaining both muscle size and strength.

The Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift

Here’s Marco and Marielle teaching the dumbbell sumo deadlift. This lift is great for developing the hamstrings (back of thighs), glutes (in a slightly different way from the squat), upper and lower back, forearms and, again, hundreds of other muscles. This is one of the best lifts for improving your posture too.

Once you get strong at the dumbbell sumo deadlift, you can do the Romanian deadlift instead, either with dumbbells or a barbell. It’s another great beginner deadlift variation, and it’s arguably the best lift for building bigger hips and bigger glutes. It’s also fantastic for developing general strength.

The Push-Up

Here’s the push-up. This is a great beginner lift for gaining muscle size and strength in your shoulders, chest, arms, and abs. Bracing your core is also great for strengthening your posture.

Once you’re able to do 20 push-ups on the floor—no small feat!—you can switch to the bench press if you want. The only real advantage of the bench press over the push-up is that it’s easier to gradually load heavier. If you want to stick with push-ups, you could just as easily switch to move advanced variations, such as the deficit push-up.

The Dumbbell Row

This is the dumbbell row. It’s a great beginner exercise for building muscle in your upper back. The main muscles it works are the lats, traps, and rear delts. It’s also fairly good for your arms, though, and should stimulate a bit of biceps growth.

Once you get comfortable doing these rows, you can start practicing the lowered chin-up. And from there, you can transition to doing full chin-ups.

Putting The Workout Routine Together

The Workout

The workout is very simple, and we’ll go over the instructions in a moment. Here it is:

  1. Goblet squats: 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
  2. The dumbbell sumo deadlift: 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
  3. The raised push-up: 2 sets of as many reps as you can do (AMRAP).
  4. The dumbbell row: 2 sets of 10 repetitions.

When doing the workout, worry less about the number of reps and more about bringing the lift close enough to failure. If you fail at 8 or 15 reps, that’s just as good as failing at 10 reps. Anywhere from 4–40 reps will build muscle. 10 reps is just a default.

Video Demonstration

Okay, now that you know how you do the four main beginner lifts, let’s talk about how to put them together into a workout routine. Here’s Reetta from Finland, a Bombshell member turned Bombshell coach, with a video demonstrating the routine. (Note that since filming this video, we’ve added the dumbbell row as a core lift.)

Reetta is using a kettlebell because that’s what she has at home. If you have dumbbells, those are even better. If you’re training at a commercial gym, they’ll have everything you need. If you want to train at home, you can start with whatever you have, but we recommend buying some adjustable dumbbells, such as IronMaster, Bowflex, or PowerBlock dumbbells.

Use a Moderate Rep Range

For all of these lifts you want to choose a weight that you can do 4–40 repetitions with. If you can’t do 4 repetitions, use a lighter weight or an easier variation (such as doing the push-ups with a higher incline). If you can do more than 30 repetitions, use a heavier weight or a more difficult variation (such as doing push-ups from the floor). That will guarantee that the workout is helping you gain muscle size and strength, not making endurance adaptations. But your strengths and the weights you have available will vary, so some flexibility will go a long way.

If you have access to adjustable dumbbells, choose a weight you can do 8-12 repetitions with.

Stop Just Shy of Failure

Ideally, you’ll stop your set when you’re just about to fail. But as a beginner, it’s hard to know exactly how hard you’re pushing yourself. If you aren’t sure if you’re taking your sets close to failure, try doing more. Try pushing yourself all the way until your muscles give out. That way you’ll know what it feels like. Next time, stop right before that point.

Start With Two Sets, Then Add More

Start with just a couple sets, then work your way up. We recommend doing two sets of each exercise the first week. Practice your form, find the right weights, take your time.

Next week, if you aren’t too sore at the start of each workout, try adding a set to each exercise. If that goes well and you feel ready for more, add another set next week. You can do around 3–6 sets per exercise. Most people will do best with 3–4 sets (including us). If you ever start to feel worn down, or if you’re coming back after a long break, start the cycle over again, going back to just two sets per exercise.

Do Three Workouts Per Week

Each workout will stimulate muscle growth for the next 2–3 days. After those 2–3 days, your muscles will be (mostly) repaired, and you should be ready for another workout. More importantly, you should be stronger. You should be able to lift more weight or eke out more repetitions than last time.

Because each workout stimulates a couple of days of muscle growth, training every second or third day works very well. Here’s a good default schedule, but feel free to adjust it:

  • Monday: work out
  • Tuesday: rest
  • Wednesday: work out (even if sore)
  • Thursday: rest
  • Friday: work out (even if sore)
  • Saturday: rest
  • Sunday: rest (and full recovery)

Rest 1–2 Minutes Between Sets

How long you rest between sets isn’t very important. Whether you rest 2 or 10 minutes, you’ll still stimulate a similar amount of muscle growth. The important thing is that you rest long enough to catch your breath, ensuring that your cardiovascular system doesn’t limit your performance. We want to challenge your muscles, not just your heart (though your heart will get a good workout, too!).

The main reason to rest for just a couple of minutes is to keep your workouts short and dense. But if you need more rest or get interrupted partway through your workout, no problem. Just pick up where you left off.

If you want to blast through your workout even faster, you can do the lifts in a circuit/superset. Do a set of push-ups, rest a minute, then do a set of squats, rest a minute, then do your second set of push-ups, and then do your second set of squats. That way you’re still giving your muscles plenty of time to recover between sets, but you’re doing another exercise during the rest period.

Add Isolation Lifts—If You Want

This workout is a great foundation, but feel free to build on it. If you want bigger glutes, no problem. You’re already doing squats and deadlifts, which is plenty, but there’s no harm in adding in some extra hip thrusts or glute bridges to the end of your workout.

Fight to Outlift Yourself Every Workout

We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s important enough to be worth repeating. To build muscle, you need to force yourself to get gradually stronger over time. You can do this by lifting more weight (e.g. choosing a dumbbell that’s five pounds heavier), squeezing out more repetitions (e.g. doing one extra rep on your second set), or using a deeper range of motion (e.g. switching from push-ups to deficit push-ups). This is called progressive overload.

Every workout, fight to outlift yourself. That doesn’t mean going to failure, but sometimes that can happen. Sometimes you’ll add a bit of weight, you won’t be strong enough to get all your reps in, and you’ll fail. That’s okay. Try to outlift yourself again next time. And next time, if you can, try to stop right before that point of failure.

If you’re getting stronger over time, that’s a great sign that you’re training hard enough, eating enough food, eating enough protein, and getting enough sleep. Just keep going!

For more, we have a full article about how to use progressive overload to gain muscle size and strength.

Make Sure to Eat Enough Calories & Protein!

Working out is the best place to start. Worry about exercising before you worry about your diet. But once you’ve done your first workout, it’s time to start eating for growth.

To gain weight you’ll need to work on your nutrition as well. Combining this workout with enough calories and enough protein is key in order to gain weight and build muscle.

For more, we have an article about how to eat for muscle growth.

What Next?

If you liked this article, I think you’d love our muscle-building newsletter. We’ll keep you up to date on all the latest muscle-building information for women. Or, if you want us to walk you through the process of building muscle, including teaching you the lifts, giving you a full workout program, a complete diet guide, a recipe book, and online coaching, check out our Bony to Bombshell Program.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has over ten years of experience helping over 10,000 skinny people build muscle, get stronger, and gain weight.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's also a certified trainer (PTS) and nutrition coach (PN) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and performance, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.