Lifting At Home For Women

How to Build Muscle at Home—Beginner Guide for Women

I wrote a detailed bodyweight workout guide on Bony to Beastly, along with another article about how to build a home gym. I wanted to write a third guide specifically for women. After all, many women have different goals, different struggles, and different questions.

Many women want to lift at home. There are many good reasons for that: it’s private, it’s cleaner, it’s cheaper, and there’s no travel time. You can exercise while listening to your favourite music or watching your favourite show. You can do your workouts while supervising kids. Cassandra and I train at home, too. We totally get it.

But how can you build muscle at home? What equipment do you need to get started? Can you get results with your own body weight? What exercises are right for a beginner? What’s a good workout routine for women to follow? Let’s jump in.

The Overview Of Female Muscle Growth

First, let’s discuss how to build muscle. It comes down to these three pillars—you need to challenge your muscles (lift enough), eat enough of the right foods to fuel muscle growth (eat enough), and give your muscles time to repair and grow (rest enough).

The Three Pillars Of Muscle Growth

That gives you a clear sequence to follow:

  1. Lift enough: to stimulate muscle growth, you need to challenge your muscles. The best way to challenge your muscles is with resistance training. There are a few different types of resistance training. You can lift weights, such as with barbells and dumbbells and kettlebells, use exercise machines (found in gyms), or do bodyweight workouts. In a pinch, you could even use resistance bands.
  2. Eat enough: once you’ve started working out, you can start tweaking your diet. Muscle is made out of protein, and most women (and men, for that matter) don’t eat nearly enough protein to maximize their rate of muscle growth. You probably need more. And if you’re a skinny or lean woman, the energy needed to create extra muscle mass will need to come from the food you’re eating, so you’ll also need to eat in a calorie surplus. Women with higher body fat levels won’t need to be in calorie surplus as they’ll have enough energy to work with (but they’ll still need lots of protein.)
  3. Rest enough: once you’ve started working out and eating enough good food, recovery is the next thing to consider. It can be tempting to exercise every day, blast your muscles as hard as you can, and spend all your motivation on doing more. But it’s when you’re resting that your muscles will grow. You need to wait. And while you wait, the best thing you can do for your muscles is to get enough sleep. If you get enough good sleep each night, you’ll gain way less fat and much more muscle. Getting good sleep is one of the most powerful things you can do for muscle growth. And it’s healthy, too.

Building muscle comes down to these three “pillars.” We call them pillars because you need all three to consistently build muscle. The best workout program won’t help if you aren’t eating enough protein and food or getting enough rest. You’ll just get worn down. Eating a muscle-building diet and getting plenty of good sleep won’t help you build muscle unless you’ve already stimulated muscle growth with workouts. You’ll just get fat without those workouts. And if you aren’t eating and training for muscle growth, no amount of extra sleep will help you build muscle. Knock even one of these pillars out, and your castle will crumble.

Before and after progress photos of a woman building muscle and gaining weight by lifting weights.

Making A Decision: Equipment For At Home Compared To Bodyweight

Now that you’ve got the overview of what it takes to see muscle growth, now what? Well, you need to make a decision. 

Will you be buying a couple of pieces of equipment to help with your lifting workouts, or will you be doing full-body weight training to get started at home?

Lifting Equipment For At Home

  • Pros
    • Add more weight on top of your own body weight, making it easier to challenge your strongest muscles, like your legs and butt.
    • Easy to progressively challenge your muscles.
    • Easier to do some movements, like rowing movements, that work your back.
  • Cons
    • It costs you cold, hard cash.
    • It takes up space—however, it doesn’t need to take up too much space, and with just a few key pieces, you can put everything away in an apartment closet.

Bodyweight Training At Home

  • Pros
    • It’s free.
    • You can start today.
  • Cons
    • It’s hard to progressively overload your muscles. It won’t take long until you’re doing 30 single-leg glute bridges; now what? Not only are doing high-rep sets like that more painful from the burn, but you’ll also eventually hit a wall and plateau with your muscle gain.
    • It’s hard to do some exercises without equipment like rowing or pulling. The best cheap option would be to get a tote bag or backpack and put something heavy in it (like a water bottle or heavy books.)
    • It’s easy to feel uncommitted. When you don’t spend money on equipment, it’s easier to “test the waters.” Without any monetary commitment, you might feel like it’s easy to start but also that it’s easy to quit.

So what will you do? The next sections of this article will cover both paths depending on if you’re up for investing a bit of money in lifting equipment or if you want to get started with a bodyweight workout.

How To Build A Cheap & Small Home Gym

Most women aren’t trying to build a full-out barbell gym in their garage or basement. (Although you can see our guide on that here.)

All you need are a couple of pieces of equipment to get started:

  • Two adjustable dumbbells
  • or…
  • Three kettlebells—light, medium, and heavy

A dumbbell home gym is the most versatile way for women to train at home. You can load your adjustable dumbbells gradually heavier, you can do a staggering number of different exercises, and you won’t have any problems stimulating muscle growth.

Then, when you’re done, you can store them in a closet. Back when I lived in a small apartment in downtown Toronto, I kept a pair of adjustable dumbbells and an adjustable bench in my closet. I’d bring them into my living room and then put them away again. You don’t even need the adjustable bench, either. You can use your couch when doing raised push-ups and hip thrusts, etc.

Using Dumbbells At Home

Illustration of fixed-weight and adjustable dumbbells for a women's home gym.

Fixed-weight dumbbells (left), nice adjustable dumbbells (middle) & cheap adjustable dumbbells (right).

  • Fixed-weight dumbbells (left): most commercial gyms have an assortment of fixed-weight rubber dumbbells, which are incredibly sturdy, don’t rust, and can be tossed around without breaking. These are great, but getting a whole set running from 10 to 100 pounds can be pricy. Plus, they take up a ton of space. This isn’t practical for most apartments or small spaces.
  • Premium adjustable dumbbells (middle): Powerblock (Marco’s choice) and IronMaster make sturdy adjustable dumbbells that are durable and easy to adjust. Their flat sides also make it easier to set up for most lifts. These are old brands with great reputations that have stood the test of time. We recommend these if you can afford them.
  • Cheap adjustable dumbbells (right): several brands make cheap adjustable dumbbells you can load with little metal plates. They’re a bit more awkward than the premium ones, and they make it harder to do certain lifts (such as the dumbbell bench press), but they get the job done. I gained muscle with these without a problem, but I didn’t love them.

Using Kettlebells At Home

The problem with kettlebell training is that because you can’t adjust the weight as easily as dumbbells, you need to adjust your reps instead. Instead of adding 5 pounds each workout, you need to fight for extra reps instead. As with bodyweight training, that can quickly become a nightmare. That’s why dumbbells are so great. They make progressive overload so simple.

Even so, when I added kettlebells to my dumbbell home gym, I started enjoying my workouts way more. Kettlebells aren’t better for building muscle, and they didn’t improve my results. But some exercises feel better with kettlebells than dumbbells. They’re sturdy and ergonomic, and they have a lower centre of gravity, making them easier to balance. They don’t work well for all exercises—they’re awful for bench presses and biceps curls—but they’re great for some. In my case, I prefer doing my Goblet Squats with kettlebells.

The other benefit is that having a few kettlebells lying around allows you to perform more of your exercises as supersets. You can do a set of dumbbell bench presses and then a set of goblet squats without needing to adjust the weight of your dumbbells. They’re handy and efficient.

  • Rogue Kettlebells ($100): I recommend buying three weights. A lighter one, a medium one, and a heavy one (mainly for glute bridges and hip thrusts). Some ideas might be an 18-pound, 40-pound, and 60-pound kettlebell. Three weights will give you more flexibility with your rep ranges and exercise variations.

Many of our members have some kettlebells in their home gyms, and they all swear by them. You don’t even need any dumbbells and beginners can get great results with just three kettlebells.

Beginner Lifting Workout For Women Using Dumbbells Or Kettlebells

The Basics

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 squatthe deadliftthe push-up, and the lowered 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 to change up the living room, 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.

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 time to master.

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. No gym, no coach, and no barbells or exercise machines are required. And these simple variations are just as good for building muscle.

The 5 Best Beginner Lifts For At Home

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), and 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 are going to the gym and have access to a barbell, you can do Romanian deadlifts.
  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 single-arm dumbbell row will work most of the muscles in your back, 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.
  5. Glute bridge or hip thrust will give your glutes some extra attention. Almost every woman we’ve worked with wanted to improve their butt. Doing some glute bridges or hip thrusts is a great way to improve your hip measurements, tone up the glutes, and add in some feminine curves.

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 Romanian Deadlift

Here’s Marco and Marielle teaching the dumbbell Romanian 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.

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 from a dead hang.

Glute Bridge Or Hip Thrust With Dumbbell Or Kettlebell

Putting Your First Workout Routine Together For At Home

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. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
  3. Raised push-ups: 2 sets of as many reps as you can do (AMRAP).
  4. Dumbbell row: 2 sets of 10 repetitions.

When doing the workout, worry less about the number of reps and more about challenging yourself and bringing yourself 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 good default.



Full Body Workout

Get the workout as a Google spreadsheet. You’ll be able to pick from exercise alternatives, fill out the sheet, and get our beginner’s warm-up.

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Challenge Yourself, But Stop Short 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 Sets Later

Start with just a couple of sets, then add more sets as you get stronger. 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.

Using Your Bodyweight As The Weight

Illustration of a woman doing bodyweight push-ups to build muscle.

The good news is that you can build muscle with bodyweight exercises just as quickly as if you were using weights. Bodyweight squats and push-ups are great lifts.

Bodyweight exercises can be good for gaining strength, not in the powerlifting sense, where strength is measured by your 1-rep squat but in the sense where you’ll build a toned, strong and functional body.

The downside is that bodyweight training can be more complicated and painful than lifting weights. When you’ve got dumbbells, progressive overload is as simple as adding a few extra pounds. With bodyweight training, you need to add reps (which hurts) or switch to more difficult exercise variations (which are harder to master, so it becomes more of a game of skill than challenging your muscles).

If you’re willing to grit your teeth and put in the reps, you can do this. You can build a tremendous amount of curves with bodyweight training. You just have to be a scrapper.

Bodyweight Exercises & Progressive Overload

Your body weight won’t change too much over the weeks, so the main form of progression is adding reps. Every time you repeat a workout, try to get more reps than last time. The catch is that if your reps drift too low or fly too high, your muscles won’t grow as much. So the idea is to keep our reps within the range that stimulates a maximal amount of muscle growth: the “hypertrophy rep range.”

The best evidence in research shows that anywhere from 6–20 reps stimulates a similar amount of muscle growth (systematic review). Some experts speculate that the rep range extends to 4–40 repetitions, though I pity the poor soul suffering through 40-rep sets of bodyweight hip thrusts.

Practically speaking, if you can do at least 4 reps, you can stick with that exercise variation until you hit 20 or perhaps even 40 reps. That gives you progressive overload, the heart of muscle growth.

  1. Workout One: 4 reps, 4 reps, 3 reps (11 total reps)
  2. Workout Two: 5 reps, 4 reps, 4 reps (13 total reps)
  3. Workout Three: 5 reps, 5 reps, 5 reps (15 total reps)
  4. Workout Thirty: 25 reps, 23 reps, 22 reps (70 total reps)

As you’re fighting to add reps, you can add in other forms of progressive overload, as needed:

  • Increase the number of setsIf you’re having trouble adding reps each workout, you can add more sets. So instead of doing 3 sets of bodyweight hip thrusts, you’d do 4. This will increase the stimulus, hopefully allowing you to start making progress again.
  • Progress to a harder exercise variation. When you can do a few sets of 20–40 repetitions, it’s time to find a more challenging exercise variation. For example, when you can do 20 bodyweight squats, you can switch to bodyweight split squats. When you can do 20 split squats, raise your back foot up on a bench (Bulgarian split squats). When you can do 20 of those, try pistol squats.

The 5 Best Bodyweight Exercises For Women Building Muscle

Our muscles can be broken down into muscle groups—muscles that work together to perform a movement. For example, when you do push-ups, your chest, shoulders, triceps, and serratus muscles, all work together to help you push the floor away. When you do a squat, you’re working your quads, glutes, stabilizer muscles, etc.

We want to choose a bodyweight exercise for every big movement pattern: pushing, pulling, squatting, and hinging. Those four movements will train almost all the muscles in your body, with a few notable exceptions: your calves, spinal erectors, and neck.

  1. Push-ups: the foundation of bodyweight hypertrophy training. Push-ups work your chest, shoulders, triceps, and abs. Start with easier variations (like raised push-ups) and work towards harder ones (such as deficit push-ups).
  2. Bodyweight squats: your quads and glutes are the two biggest muscles in your body. The squat trains both of them, making it the best exercise for gaining overall muscle mass. Start with easier variations (like air squats) and work towards more challenging ones (such as pistol squats).
  3. Lowered Chin-ups: the best bodyweight exercise for your back, biceps, and abs. You can start with lowered chin-ups or inverted rows, working towards full chin-ups. Probably one of the most difficult exercises for women.
  4. Bodyweight deadlifts: the hardest movement pattern to train with bodyweight exercises. You could do one-legged Romanian deadlifts or glute ham raises, but if you want to train your spinal erectors, the towel deadlift is probably best.
  5. Bonus: Bodyweight glute bridges & hip thrusts: a bit of extra love for the glutes to add size and to help tone them.

These five lifts aren’t a full workout plan. They could be, but they don’t have to be. We prefer to use them as a foundation to build upon. Push-ups are all you need to build a bigger chest, but nothing’s stopping you from adding in dips. Bodyweight deadlifts train your butt a little bit, but you’d probably like to give the glutes some extra attention with glute bridges, hip thrusts, and some other glute isolation lifts like clamshells.

Just don’t lose sight of your goal. Focus on getting better at these 5 main exercises. If you can do that, you’ll do great. If your progress stalls, is it because you’re too fried or too fresh? We can then raise or lower the number of sets accordingly.

Raised Push-Ups

The lift that makes bodyweight training so good for improving our general strength and appearance is the classic push-up. In many ways, it’s comparable to the bench press. Both train the chest, shoulders, and triceps. But the push-up does a bit more than that.

To do a push-up, we need to hold our torsos in a rigid “plank” position, making it a good lift for helping with our posture.

When doing push-ups for muscle growth, we want to put our hands slightly wider than our shoulders (to ensure good chest activation), with our fingers facing roughly forwards, and with our elbows tucked to around 45 degrees. There’s some flexibility here. You can go a little closer or wider and angle your hands a few degrees—no problem. If we go much wider, it becomes more of a chest-isolation lift. Much closer, and it becomes more of a triceps isolation lift.

The next thing is to brace your core as if you’re doing a front plank. The idea is to keep your torso rigid and solid throughout the set. Never let your hips sag, even as you approach failure. This makes it much easier to stimulate your upper-body muscles, but it’s also good for stimulating your abs and improving your posture.

Finally, we need to standardize the range of motion. For a push-up rep to count, your chest—not your stomach or nose—needs to touch the couch, bench (or the floor if you’re doing full push-ups.) You can tuck your chin and look down or raise your chin and look ahead—either is fine. Then, when you push back up, lock your arms out (for your triceps) and push your body all the way up, fully contracting your chest and serratus muscles. Push the ground as far away as you can.

On that note, it’s not a bad idea to keep constant tension on your muscles throughout the entire range of motion. You don’t need to pause at the top or rest your weight on the floor at the bottom. But we still recommend going through the entire range of motion. The full range of motion standardizes technique, makes the push-up better for building muscle, and, best of all, makes the push-up harder, reducing the number of reps you’ll be able to do before hitting failure.

How to Progressively Overload the Push-Up

The downside to the push-up is that it’s tiring in higher rep ranges. And because it’s hard to load with progressively heavier weights, it can be hard to escape those higher rep ranges. What most people do is gradually raise their feet (study):

  • Knee push-ups: if you do push-ups from your knees instead of your toes, you lift 49% of your body weight.
  • Hands-elevated push-ups: if you raise your hands on a tall bench (60cm), you lift 40% of your body weight. With a shorter bench (30cm), you lift 55% of your body weight.
  • Push-ups: with your hands and feet on the floor, you lift 65% of your body weight.
  • Feet-elevated push-ups: if you raise your feet on a short bench (30cm), you lift 70% of your body weight. If you raise your feet higher (60cm), the load increases to 75% of your body weight.

Thus, the best way to progress your push-ups is to start with your hands raised, progress to the floor, and then raise your feet.

The Lowered Chin-Up (or Inverted Row)

Chin-ups work almost all of your pulling muscles through a huge range of motion. They’re the best exercise for your back (helping with the top shape of the hourglass curves), bar none. Or, perhaps I should say bar one. To do chin-ups, you need a chin-up bar or gymnastics rings

Side note: if you don’t want to buy any equipment, since the rowing motion is hard to do with only your body weight, you can load up a backpack or tote bag with the heaviest things you can find and do 1-Arm Rows on your couch as an alternative.

Progressing the Lowered Bodyweight Chin-Up

For women, the chin-up will be one of the hardest exercises to do. Don’t worry; most men aren’t even able to do a single chin-up. So we’ll be starting with the lowered chin-up progression.

  • If you’re using a pull-up bar, you can put a stool underneath, allowing you to start in the top position.
  • If you’re using gymnastic rings, learning how to do chin-ups is even easier. Just lower the rings closer to the ground, starting with inverted rows. As you get stronger, raise the rings higher, giving your body a more vertical angle. Soon you’ll be doing full chin-ups.

What we recommend is using chin-ups as your main bulking lift, but then if you want to add in some extra lat work or exercise variation, add in some pull-ups. Your biceps will thank you.

That gives us a chin-up progression system that looks like this:

  1. Lowered or supported chin-ups until you’re strong enough to do at least a few reps.
  2. Regular chin-ups. You can also do variations like pull-ups to emphasize your lower lats and knee-raised chin-ups to emphasize your abs.

Bodyweight Squats

The sheer amount of muscle being worked by squats is wild. Your quads alone are 7x as big as your chest. Your glutes are 5x as big as your chest. Even your calves are nearly 3x bigger than your chest. This makes squats several times bigger than push-ups and chin-ups combined.

Bodyweight squats are incredibly good for building muscle. However, they’re also fearsomely tiring and brutally painful. If you aren’t careful, they can easily test your grit instead of your strength.

Progressing Bodyweight Squats

The first and easiest bodyweight squat progression is the air squat. Hold your hands in front of your body, try to keep your torso as upright as possible, and sit down (not back). You can keep your hands close (as pictured below) or hold them out in front like a zombie. If you have a shorter torso, the zombie approach tends to work better.

The problem with air squats is that they quickly become too easy. Even as a beginner, you may be able to do 20+ reps before hitting failure in just a few workouts. And as the rep range climbs higher, squats become extremely metabolically taxing. We need to make them harder.

One way to progress the air squat is to load up a backpack with books and hold it in front of you. If you can read quickly enough, you could add a new speculative fiction novel to the backpack every week, making it gradually heavier. But even if you have a big backpack and like to read heavy books, you’ll quickly grow too strong for them.

When air squats become too easy, you can make them harder by jumping—jump squats. Your muscles will need to work harder to launch you into the air. Then, when you land, your muscles need to decelerate you. This is nice because you need to generate the force at the bottom of the range of motion when your quads and glutes are stretched. That’s great for stimulating muscle growth.

When you grow too strong to train both legs at once, you can switch to doing split squats. Split squats are great because they don’t just drop the range lower; they also cut the muscle mass you’re working in half, making the lift much easier on your cardiovascular system. You can make those split squats more difficult by raising your back leg up—the Bulgarian split squat.

The pistol squat puts all your weight onto one leg. If you can do 40 air squats, you may only be able to do a few pistol squats. If you’re having trouble balancing, don’t be afraid to hold onto something for support. The point is to work your quads, not to win a balance competition.

That gives us a bodyweight squat progression that looks like this:

  1. Air squats until you can do 20 reps. You can get some extra mileage out of these by loading up a bag with books and holding it in front of you. You can also do jump squats, trying to jump as high as possible with every rep.
  2. Bodyweight split squats until you can do 20 reps with each leg. As with air squats, you can hold a heavy bag in front of you to make them harder. You can also raise your back leg on a bench.
  3. Pistol squats. Hold something for balance if you need to.

Bodyweight Deadlifts

Finding good bodyweight alternatives to the deadlift is tricky because the whole point of the deadlift is to put a heavy load on your spine, spinal erectors, and hamstrings. There are plenty of bodyweight deadlift variations that work your hips to some degree or another, but hardly any of them work the muscles in your posterior chain (such as your spinal erectors).

That’s why my favourite bodyweight deadlift variation is the towel deadlift. You stand on a towel and pull on it, just like you’d pull on a barbell. The difference is that this is an isometric lift—no range of motion. No matter how hard you pull on the towel, it will not move. You’re locked in the bottom position.

Isometrics that challenge your muscles in a stretched position are good for building muscle. The towel deadlift is done with a deep hip angle, challenging your glutes and hamstrings in a stretched position.

The other great thing about the towel deadlift is that it trains your entire posterior chain. As you pull on the towel, your spinal erectors and mid-back muscles need to work just as hard as if you were pulling on a too-heavy barbell. And because you need to grip the towel, your forearm muscles get worked, too.

Progressing Towel Deadlifts

The nice thing about pulling against a stationary object is that the bigger and stronger you get, the harder you can pull. If you give each set your all, progressive overload is built right into the lift.

When doing towel deadlifts, we recommend using burst reps. Pull as hard as you can for a few seconds, then release the tension. That’s your first rep. Then pull as hard as you can for another few seconds. That’s your second rep. You can progress how many seconds you pull for, and you can adjust how many reps you do per set. For example:

  • Week One: 3 sets of 3 reps (3×3), with each rep lasting 5 seconds.
  • Week Two: 4 sets of 3 reps (4×3), with each rep lasting 6 seconds.
  • Week Three: 4 sets of 4 reps (4×4), with each rep lasting 7 seconds.

Bodyweight Glute Bridges Or Hip Thrusts

The problem with the towel deadlift is that the range of motion is zero. And as a general rule, we want to gain strength through a large range of motion. That’s a crucial aspect of being generally strong, and it’s also the best way to build muscle. It doesn’t matter much with our spinal erectors since their purpose is to hold our backs rigid, but it does matter with our hips, which are designed to move. So, in addition to doing deadlift isometrics, we recommend including some other hip hinges, such as the hip thrust.

Progressing The Glute Bridge / Hip Thrust

For the glute bridge or hip thrust, there are a few progressions:

  1. Glute Bridge: start with regular glute bridges until you can do at least twenty reps, but feel free to stick with it until you can get as many as forty.
  2. Single-Leg Glute Bridge: once you can do 20–40 reps with both legs on the ground, switch to single-leg variations and work your way back up to 20–40 reps.
  3. Hip Thrust: when you can do 20–40 reps of one-legged glute bridges, switch to doing hip thrusts with your back on a bench. Feel free to put a backpack loaded with books in your lap to make the lift harder.
  4. Single-Leg Hip ThrustWhen you can do 20–40 reps, switch to using a single leg at a time, and work your way back up to forty reps.


female BEGINNER’S Bodyweight WORKOUT

Full Body Workout

Get the bodyweight workout as a Google spreadsheet. You’ll be able to pick from exercise alternatives, and fill out the sheet.

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Bodyweight Accessory & Isolation Exercises

After you’ve done a couple of the main movements, you can move to the smaller movements. With the main movements, we recommend training pretty seriously. With the accessory and isolation lifts, you can approach it much more casually. Pick a few exercises that interest you for the muscle groups you’re most eager to grow and try to improve at them a little bit every workout.

There are a ton of different accessory and isolation lifts that you can add to your bodyweight muscle-building routine. Here are some of our favourites.

Legs & Glutes

  • Single-legged Romanian deadlift
  • Hip thrusts (and single-leg hip thrusts)
  • Glute bridges (and single-leg glute bridges)
  • Straight-leg bridges
  • Sissy squats

Abs & Obliques

Not every woman wants big abs, but some do. Add in some of these if you do.

  • Planks and side planks
  • Dead bugs (I love these as a warm-up drill)
  • Bodyweight Russian Twists
  • Flutter kicks
  • Sit-ups and crunches

Biceps, Triceps & Shoulders

  • Dips using parallel bars or rings (chest, triceps, upper back)
  • Close-grip raised chin-ups (biceps & rear delts)
  • Couch dips (triceps)

The Bodyweight Workout Routine

Okay, so we’ve gone over the 5 best beginner bodyweight exercises, and we’ve talked about how to progress them:

  • The push-up: Start with raised push-ups and work towards floor push-ups.
  • The squat: Start with air squats and work towards split squats.
  • The chin-up: Start with lowered chin-ups (or rows with a backpack) and work towards a full chin-up!
  • The deadlift: Start with towel deadlifts, doing them longer and harder each workout. Add in bodyweight hip thrusts for hip development.
  • The hip thrust: This works the glutes and is a great finisher for the workout.

That gives you the foundation of your program, and if you’re a beginner, that may be all you need. You could simply do those 5 exercises three times per week. You can do that with 3 full-body workouts per week or split it up into more workouts. For example, if you wanted 6 short workouts, you could do the lower-body lifts one day, and the upper-body lifts the next.

3-Day Full-Body Bodyweight Workout Routine

  • Monday: big five.
  • Tuesday: rest.
  • Wednesday: big five.
  • Thursday: rest.
  • Friday: big five.
  • Saturday: rest
  • Sunday: rest

6-Day Upper/Lower Bodyweight Workout Split

  • Monday: raised push-ups and lowered chin-ups.
  • Tuesday: squats, towel deadlifts, and hip thrusts.
  • Wednesday: raised push-ups and lowered chin-ups.
  • Thursday: squats, towel deadlifts, and hip thrusts.
  • Friday: raised push-ups and lowered chin-ups.
  • Saturday: squats, towel deadlifts, and hip thrusts.
  • Sunday: rest.

I would start with a low volume and work your way up. Something like this:

  • Week One: two sets of each lift to ease into the routine (and prevent crippling muscle soreness).
  • Week Two: three sets of each lift to step up the training volume.
  • Week Three: 3–4 sets of each lift, doing more sets for your favourite lifts.

From there, you can increase training volume as needed or desired. If you’re failing to make progress on your lifts, consider doing more total sets. Or, if you’re struggling with crippling soreness or fatigue, consider doing fewer sets. Every woman is different and will respond best to slightly different training volumes that match where you’re starting from.

As you gain more experience, feel free to experiment:

  • Add in assistance and accessory lifts.
  • Experiment with short rest times, circuits, and drop sets.
  • Raise the volume higher for the lifts you’re most eager to get better at.

And, of course, this is just a loose recommendation. Feel free to customize your routine as you see fit. As you get deeper into bodyweight training, you’ll be able to see which muscles are getting stimulated during your workouts, which muscles get sore afterwards, which lifts you get better at, and which muscles see the most growth.


female BEGINNER’S Bodyweight WORKOUT

Full Body Workout

Get the bodyweight workout as a Google spreadsheet. You’ll be able to pick from exercise alternatives, and fill out the sheet.

Plus, we’ll make sure you’re on the Bony to Bombshell newsletter, and send you all of our best women's muscle-building content.

Advancing to Free Weights Like Dumbbells And Kettlebells

Bodyweight training can be a bit finicky, and as you get stronger, the pain of doing compound lifts in higher rep ranges can make it downright brutal. Thus, at some point, most people decide to invest in some free weights. Here’s our guide on choosing workout equipment.

Total Beginner FAQ

What to Do After Your Workout

Make sure that you eat a home-cooked meal that’s balanced with plenty of protein. Your body will need more protein to help rebuild those muscles bigger and stronger.

You will also likely get muscle soreness the next day or two days later. This is called “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness” or DOMS. Don’t worry—first, this is one sign of potential muscle gain, and this only happens for your first week or two of working out. Your muscles will rebuild tougher and stop getting so sore.

If you’re sore but your mobility is okay, you can keep working out. You can even buy a foam roller to store away in your closet. It can help loosen up those sore muscles. Here’s a video of Marco demonstrating how to use the foam roller:

How to Lift With Good Form

Watch a video on how to do the exercise, don’t overthink it, and give it your best shot. As long as everything is pain-free, you’re good. Like dancing, you can’t “think” yourself better. You’ll need to try your best, struggle a bit, go to sleep, and your brain will rewire, and you’ll get better. Just give yourself a bit of grace, give it your best effort, and over time, your exercise form will clean up. If something hurts, that’s a different story. You should stop right away and perhaps get in-person help (such as with a qualified physiotherapist to help work out what the problem is.)

What Next?

If you liked this article, you’d love our muscle-building newsletterWe’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 gaining muscle and strength, including teaching you the exercises, giving you a structured 5-month workout program, a complete diet guide, a recipe book, and online coaching/customization, 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.

Cassandra González Duquette is a certified nutritionist (CNP) who studied at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition in Toronto, Canada. She's personally gained 22 pounds, going from 97 up to 119 pounds.

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