One of the most common questions we get asked by women is something like, “What’s the best exercise to grow my small butt, hips, calves, thighs, arms, etc.?”
While there are tons of studies looking into what exercises activate the muscles the most, that’s just one factor that goes into deciding what exercises are the best for building muscle.
There are many things to consider. Some are more straightforward, like choosing an exercise that’s appropriate for your experience level.
Some are pretty complex though so there’s a good chance that you haven’t considered all of them. Stuff like including lifts with active insufficiency or passive tension is something hardly anyone knows to do but it can have a real impact on your results.
Below we share our illustrative infographic that highlights some of the best muscle-building exercises for women.
But before we get to the muscle-building infographic, here’s a quick look at how we ended up choosing the exercises.
Matching The Exercise To Your Experience Level
Are hip thrusts an excellent lift for building up your glutes? For sure.
But it’s also an extremely complex lift. You need to learn how to brace your core, keep your ribs glued down towards your pelvis, and keep your back from excessively arching. Many people feel a pinch in their back because they’re moving their back rather than doing a solid hip extension initiated by the glutes and hamstrings.
If you don’t do it right, you might just be working out your back instead of your glutes. Doing that won’t even help you with your goals, and could put you in a position for an injury.
But if you do a simpler lift, like the glute bridge, having your back against the floor will allow you to keep your back in a neutral position more easily, allowing your glutes to do the heavy lifting instead.
So a simpler lift can be better for building muscle if it allows you to actually hit the muscles you’re trying to grow. There’s also less risk of injury, allowing you to keep exercising long enough to reach your goals (and beyond!).
What Workout Equipment Do You Have?
If you’re a beginner, you don’t need a lot of equipment to build muscle. It’d be better to pick an exercise that is just enough to stimulate your muscles to grow, without needing to invest a lot of money for a squat rack or require a lot experience to stay safe.
And some of these simpler exercises even teach you how to move better.
Take a goblet squat, for example. While it’s true that you can’t hold as much weight as you could load up onto your back with a traditional barbell back squat, it has many advantages over the back squat.
First, someone working out at home could totally do this lift because it doesn’t require lots of equipment. You don’t need a squat rack, a barbell, lots of weight plates, or even space.
All it requires is a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell. This makes it a great option for those who work out from home or those who just want to get started and are shy in the gym.
Second, because the weight is in front of your body, it automatically helps to turn on your anterior (front) core, which teaches you how to safely brace your core while doing any heavy squat movement.
Third, the weight acts as a counterbalance, allowing you to properly squat deeper than you normally could. This increases the range of motion that you’re building up strength in, which also helps your muscles to look their roundest too!
Fourth, it’s a much safer lift for beginners than the back squat because it helps with learning proper form (anterior core turns on) for the squat movement, and the weight is only as heavy as you can hold.
Fifth, it also saves a lot of time in the gym because it works out your upper body at the same time as your lower body.
And because beginners don’t need to stimulate their muscles as much as a seasoned lifter to grow (study), it’s a great option for them.
Compound Versus Isolation Lifts For Building Muscle
To build muscle, you’ll want to optimize the “three M’s of muscle.” That’s mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage (study). You can do this best by using a heavier weight (that’s appropriate for your experience and strength) through the main movements.
Those movements would be something like the dumbbell deadlift (hip hinge), a goblet squat (squat), dumbbell row (pull), dumbbell bench press (push), any anti-rotational exercise, and a farmer carry (loaded carry).
A good workout will have a mix of both compound and isolation lifts for your entire body. There is evidence in research that doing both helps to build more evenly developed muscle mass, more muscle mass overall, and more strength too. (study, study).
There’s even research showing that adding in some isolation exercises on top of your compound exercises can help you reach your goals faster. We know that you might not be trying to build your biceps really big, but we can learn from this study. It shows that while chin-ups (compound exercise) were great for building up biceps, doing both compound and isolation exercises like the bicep curls, resulted in the most arm growth.
With all that in mind, you’d begin your workout with the heavy compound lifts and then finish with the lighter accessory/isolation lifts.
For example, you may find that doing 8–10 reps of the goblet squat for a few sets will help grow your glutes pretty well. But you don’t need to stop there.
You could finish with some additional lighter isolation work, such as a higher rep glute bridge, some clamshells with resistance (a band, a light weight held in place on your leg, or pushing against your hand), etc. for even more glute growth.
Progression And Variety Helps When It Comes To Building Muscle
The best way to stimulate every part of your muscles is to do a wide variety of great exercises that hit your muscles in slightly different ways.
But it’s important that you don’t switch your exercises too often. When you learn a new lift, you’ll adapt by improving your coordination through practice. Once you’re good at doing the lift, you’ll adapt by building more muscle. If you keep switching your exercises before getting good at them, all you’ll be doing is improving your coordination, not gaining muscle.
Try sticking with an exercise for 5–10 weeks before progressing to a new one.
And when you decide to progress to a new one, it can help to progress slowly to get what you can out of each exercise, to minimize frustration, and to reduce the chances of injury.
So ideally you wouldn’t go from a goblet squat straight to a full-out barbell back squat. You could try going in smaller steps like from a goblet squat to a double dumbbell front squat. Then once you’ve gotten what you can out of that, then graduate to a barbell front squat. Then, finally, when you’ve mastered that, move onto the barbell back squat.
Here are a few other ways to switch up an exercise for variety:
Alter your grip, hand position, or stance
Altering your grip will hit different fibres of your muscle and even muscle groups. There are 3 types: pronated/overhand, neutral, and supinated/underhand.
So say you’re working out your back with a row, you can hit different parts easily just by switching up your grip after you’ve done one grip for a few weeks.
You can also switch up your hand position. When it comes to something like a push-up, bringing your hands closer together into a diamond position will put a bit more stress on your triceps on your arms. If you go wider, it’ll hit your pecs in your chest area a bit more.
Lastly, you can switch up your stance with your feet. When it comes to something like the deadlift, a hip-hinge movement, you can grab the weight between your legs and stand wider like the dumbbell sumo deadlift exercise. This will keep you more upright and can be a simpler exercise to start with for those with back issues or who are beginners and still building up their muscles in their lower back. Being more upright would work your quads (front of your thighs) a bit more, too.
As you continue to get stronger and want to progress you could stand narrower and grab the weights on the outsides of your legs. This would make your upper body more horizontal (bent over) as you pick-up the weight. This would work your lower back (spinal erectors, etc.) and your hamstrings (back of your thigh) a bit more. If the barbell or dumbbell is too low for you (long legs) or you have limited mobility, you could do raised deadlifts and move the weight up off the floor to keep the progression in smaller steps.
Same hip-hinge movement, but different muscle groups and muscle fibres being worked.
Change Your Angle
The best example of this would be taking your dumbbell bench press exercise and just changing the angle of the bench. Using a flat bench would be hitting your pecs pretty evenly. If you change the bench to sit up a bit and do the incline dumbbell bench, it works your shoulders and upper pec fibres a bit more. You can even do the decline dumbbell bench where it’d hit your lower pecs a bit more.
Try More Progressed Lifts To Challenge Yourself As You Continue To Practice and Get Stronger
If you’re a beginner or you’ve been out of the lifting habit for awhile, you should start with simpler lifts. You don’t need much stimulus to get going and it’ll be much safer.
But as your muscles get stronger, your mobility improves, your bones become denser, your co-ordination becomes solidified through practice—then you can move onto more complex lifts that have a higher risk/reward ratio.
We’re not talking about something actually high-risk that should ideally be coached one-on-one in person, like an Olympic lift, but something like a deadlift where good form is a priority since you’re using heavier weights.
You can even begin to challenge yourself by getting intentional about what you’re working on. We mentioned this in quick passing at the very beginning of the article, but you can use passive tension to target muscles. It’s when you using your muscles like slingshot being pulled back. A great example would be a Romanian deadlift where your hamstrings will be stretched out then fire very efficiently (study).
You can also use active insufficiency to target some muscles by slackening others. So in a hip thrust your hamstrings will be shortened, when your knees are bent, making them so they can’t fire as well. This will allow your glutes to take over and do most of the work which will help an advanced lifter get the stimulus they need.
For an idea of what a workout might look like, check out our free beginner’s workout guide. You can also try our full and progressive weight-gain program if you’d rather get the whole system. It’s guaranteed to get you results while you’re figuring this all out step-by-step.
The Top Muscle-Building Exercises For Women Infographic
We really hope you found this article and illustration helpful. If you did, let us know below in the comments!
P.S. this list of exercises is not exhaustive. But it is a great list of exercises that will certainly get the job done.
P.P.S. we made this infographic for our Bony to Bombshell Pinterest page. If you have Pinterest, it’d be great if you followed us. We’ll be posting more cool muscle-building illustrations there over the next few months 🙂