The Best Muscle-Building Exercises For Women

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 Romanian deadlift (hip hinge), a goblet squat (squat), dumbbell row (upper-body pull), dumbbell bench press (upper-body 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.

The best exercises for building muscle in your biceps (curls or chin-ups?)

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

What muscle group does lift target or the best exercise for muscle group bony to bombshell chart infographic guide

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 🙂

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  1. Marisol on March 28, 2017 at 3:58 am

    I need help !! I really want to order this however I am a vegeterian ,will the nutrition plan help me ? I know the nutrition is an important part of seeing results and most of the nutrition plans have meat incorporated . Would your nutrition plan work for me ?

    • Jared Polowick on March 28, 2017 at 9:38 am

      Hi Marisol,

      Absolutely! Our nutrition program is quite flexible. In fact, some of the women who have their transformation on the sidebar eat a vegan diet, which is a bit more difficult than a vegetarian diet when it comes to building muscle and gaining weight (requires a bit more effort). Vegetarians (and vegans) can build lots of muscle 🙂 I hope you decide to join in!

  2. Sarah on April 7, 2017 at 7:45 am

    I’m interested in this program, however, would this program work for someone who is skinny fat? My body shape is long and lean but in the last year, I’ve put on weight in my midsection ( mostly upper body) due to age and poor eating habits. I’ve started working out and eating clean but feels like the fat is here for good 🙁 or at least its not coming off as easy as in my early twenties. Basically, I would like to lose fat in my midsection and upper body and gain muscle in my lower body. Would this program benefit me as I don’t see any models on your page who carry weight in their midsection?

    Thanks 🙂

    • Jared Polowick on April 7, 2017 at 6:46 pm

      Hi Sarah,

      Absolutely. On the program info page we say we can help you build up 10 pounds of lean mass and lose 5 pounds of fat. Many of our members start off by burning some fat first. Our program does really well with skinny-fat bodies.

      I am not sure where you are currently at, but on the sidebar Erica, Reetta, and Randi all started by losing weight. We have some more examples on our Instagram, which you might find someone in a more similar starting point:

      Lastly, our program has a 180-day guarantee and comes with coaching. You are totally encouraged to grab the program and check it our first before deciding if it’s a good fit. You can even try it out for a month or two and see if you like how it’s working 🙂

      I hope that helps a bit Sarah, we hope you decide to join!

  3. Casey on May 17, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    I absolutely love this! I do have a few concerns though, I am vegan and I do already have a big enough butt for my size. The only thing I want to gain a substantial amount of muscle in are both of my legs. Like 10-15lbs in each leg. I would like wider hips and huge quads and calves (and everything in between). I do not want to look like a body builder, just very “thick”. Is there a specific program from just gaining in the legs and not the glutes.

    • Jared Polowick on June 28, 2017 at 10:03 am

      Hmmm. That wouldn’t be our program as it hits the glutes pretty hard. Athletically and functionally you’ll want your body to work well as a unit and be balanced. So compound exercises like a squat would be great to start with. While it hits your glutes, it’ll also hit your quads a ton. Then after getting in some compound work, do some isolation exercises to target those areas for a bit more growth. For the back/front of your thighs it’d be something like leg extensions and leg curls, etc.

  4. Erika on June 7, 2017 at 8:04 pm

    I’m very interested in this program. Do you have to go to the gym to follow this routine?

    • Jared Polowick on June 28, 2017 at 5:49 pm

      Hey Erika,

      Many of our members work out from home. You don’t need to go to a gym. But you do need heavy weights. Body weight exercises won’t be enough.

      We recommend getting 2 heavy adjustable dumbbells and an adjustable bench. I hope that helps!

  5. Gina on December 25, 2017 at 1:05 am

    How can someone tell if they need to maintain their weight, gain, or lose? Thanks

  6. Lizzy on December 24, 2018 at 10:55 pm

    Is there any way I can gain weight in terms of muscle mass and fat if I have a naturally fast metabolism? If so, how? What diet should I be on and which workouts are best? Thank you!!

  7. Sasha on September 26, 2020 at 10:32 am

    It is incorrect that yoga will not build muscle. I am an ectomorph and yoga practice significantly improved my upper body strength, far beyond what traditional weightlifting ever did.

    Yoga requires you to support your own body weight: plank, side plank, headstand, handstand and various other challenging balances. Yoga is the exercise that allowed me to build enough strength and flexibility to begin aerial training (i.e. pole, silks, lyra) not to mention the mental/spiritual balance.

    When I was regularly practicing yoga and aerial was the most in shape I have ever been. My abs looked amazing and my arms, bum and legs were slim but toned. I looked slim but healthy and strong.

    Ladies, don’t underestimate what regular yoga practice—combined with other fitness you enjoy—can help you achieve!

    • Shane Duquette on September 29, 2020 at 4:25 pm

      Hey Sasha, I think yoga is a great type of exercise! I don’t mean to hate on it at all. It’s just that it’s not a type of exercise designed specifically to stimulate muscle growth, and so, not surprisingly, it’s not ideal for stimulating muscle growth. That doesn’t mean it’s not great, though, it’s just a type of exercise with a different purpose.

      I don’t mean to suggest that it’s impossible to build muscle with yoga, either. It’s just not as good as hypertrophy training. I’m not sure what type of training you were doing when you were doing traditional weightlifting, but not all types of weightlifting are designed to stimulate muscle growth either (although I’d argue that most styles of weight training are still better at stimulating muscle growth than yoga is). If you mean traditional weightlifting as in “weightlifting,” aka Olympic lifting, then that’s not designed to stimulate muscle growth either.

      Also keep in mind that building muscle isn’t about becoming slimmer, it’s about becoming more muscular. Yoga is indeed better for having slim arms in the sense that it won’t build much muscle in your arms. But if you want to build bigger, stronger, more muscular arms (or glutes or whatever), then hypertrophy training would be the way to go.

  8. Erica Pierluissi on October 14, 2020 at 9:34 am

    What kind of equipment will I need? I have two adjustable weight power blocks that go up to 60 lbs each. I also have an adjustable bench. The power blocks are nearly impossible to hold on my hips for a hip thrust though and difficult to hold for my wrists and shoulders when doing a dead lift. My legs are strong but my upper body is weak.

    • Shane Duquette on June 21, 2021 at 5:12 pm

      Hey Erica,

      Those dumbbells are perfect! And an adjustable bench is the next piece of equipment we recommend after getting adjustable dumbbells. You’ll do great with that setup.

      You could try doing single-leg hip thrusts instead of weighted hip thrusts. And even if you weight the single-legged hip thrusts, the weight will be much lighter.

      It’s hard to hold weights when doing deadlifts, yeah, and dumbbells can make that harder. You might want to get some lifting grips, such as Versa Gripps. They make it much easier to hold onto weights that are heavy enough to challenge your hips. Your grip will get stronger over time, too.

  9. Nicole on September 18, 2021 at 6:03 am

    Hi! Can we use resistance bands for the program? Or at least start with them? Where I live adjustable dumbbells are super expensive and I don’t think I’m ready to make that financial investment yet.

    • Shane Duquette on September 18, 2021 at 10:54 am

      Hey Nicole, I hear ya. High-quality adjustable dumbbells are definitely expensive. That totally makes sense.

      We’ve written an article on resistance bands here. So far, based on the limited research we have, it doesn’t seem that resistance bands are quite as good as free weights for building muscle. They’re also more painful and finicky than lifting weihts. You can still build muscle with them, though, and they can be handy to have around. (And some people prefer resistance bands to free weights.)

      The good news is there’s quite a bit of research showing that bodyweight training IS as good as free weights for building muscle. It can be more gruelling because you’ll need to delve into higher rep ranges, and it can be more complicated because you can’t adjust the load as easily, but you can gain muscle and strength at full speed. We’ve got an article about bodyweight training here. It has a full routine you can follow.

      We’re working on making a version for this website, more specific to women. What I’d recommend is swapping out the vertical push-ups for bodyweight hip thrusts. Both are explained in the article. Your workout routine would look like this:

      Push-up variation (e.g. raised push-ups)
      Squat variation (e.g. air squats)
      Deadlift variation (e.g. towel deadlifts)
      Chin-up variation (e.g. lowered chin-ups)
      Hip thrust variation (e.g. bodyweight hip thrusts)

      If you do 2–4 sets of each exercise every workout, and you work out 2–3 times per week, you should be able to build muscle just fine.

      You can swap some of these for resistance-band variations, or you can add in resistance-band exercises as desired.

      Once you get into the habit of exercising and eating a muscle-building diet, you should start to see results. Maybe at that point, you’ll feel more confident investing in some adjustable dumbbells. Once you get those, your training will become faster, easier, and less painful.

      You can buy the Bony to Bombshell program if you want. It comes with a full diet guide and a weight-gain recipe book. It also comes with online coaching and support. You can post your progress updates, ask questions, and get feedback as you make progress. But the workouts that come with the program assume that you have access to free weights. The bodyweight workout is free, though, and we can help you troubleshoot and adjust your workouts as you go along 🙂

      I really hope that helps!

      • Nicole on September 19, 2021 at 4:52 am

        Thanks so much for your super helpful reply!

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