Over the years I’ve carved out a little niche in women’s fitness as a personal trainer. And I have to say, empowering these ladies with the iron and training hard and heavy has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my career. But just as any great coach knows that good training is good training no matter what the gender of the athlete, there are certain exercises that my female clients gravitate towards after they are introduced into their programming.
To ensure I provide my clients with an awesome training experience, I’m always asking for feedback on the program and workouts they complete. What did you like? What did you hate? What are you good at? Oh yeah, and did it work for you? Things like that. Programs are built to yield results, but if your client can have fun while doing that, you’ve hit the jackpot.
I recently took a poll from all of my female clients and compiled the top five favorite and most requested exercises. Lets just say that some of them may surprise you! If you’re a coach neglecting any of these, your clients may be missing out. If you’re a female lifter and have been skimping on any of these, give them a try!
This is what my strong women want – the fitness edition.
The Queen of All Movements: The Squat
Squats – Not just the king, but the queen of all exercises, apparently. What’s not to love about the squat? When performed properly, this is not just a lower body move, but a full-body killer. There is arguably not another movement that is more foundational to strength, power and building muscle.
This one may seem obvious but the amount of variations that you can apply to this movement makes it one of the elites. If you want to develop nice legs and glutes, squatting needs to be in the mix.
Since I’m speaking to this women athletes and coaches with female clientele here, let me put it this way. A woman who loves to squat heavy is like a man who enjoys doing the dishes. Cool points go through the roof.
It is well documented that squatting can promote lower limb hypertrophy, strength, power and endurance, but squats can also help you pack on lean mass in other regions of the body. Find the squat variations that work best for you and do them often.
Top Requested Squat Variations
Here are the most requested variations of the squat that my female clients crave! Though we work in tons of variations of this staple movement, there are some that have shown more promise than others, and like I said before, results and the “fun factor” of training don’t lie!
Drop 25-bucks and get yourself a Sling Shot Hip Circle. This is quickly becoming a staple at our facility for its various uses. In this case, it seems like the Barbell Back Squat with a Hip Circle is a fan favorite.
Want to kick it up a notch on hip and glute activation? This is your ticket. Simply place the Hip Circle around both legs, a few inches above the knees and focus on stretching the fabric as far as you can during your squat. During this movement the band is trying to bring your knees into valgus and you’re actively fighting through the range of motion which, in theory, will help train those muscles to do their job when you squat without the band.
Building that movement pattern and the musculature that supports it is major game changer for all squatters but women especially. Being anatomically predisposed to increased risk of knee damage is something this exercise can help women offset.
Tempo Squats also got a lot of love from the voters. I didn’t get the specific tempos that are preferred, but my personal favorite is an 8-0-8-0 with two Kettlebells in a racked position. This tempo means that you will use 8 full seconds to go down to the bottom of the squat, and come right back up over an 8 second period without pausing at the top of bottom.
Keep a tight rack position to engage shoulder, back and core while squatting low and slow to get total leg recruitment. I can’t believe some of my clients admitted to enjoying these, as they are pretty brutal!
Controlling the tempo is a great way to keep your form in check, assure that you’re activating the desired fibers and can even be used as a conditioning tool. Be honest with your tempo. Give yourself a true one, one-thousand type of count to ensure that you’re achieving the proper time under tension.
Remember that your loading this exercise anteriorly, so focus on sitting down more than back when your perform these. If you struggle to get to (or below) parallel on other squat variations, this is an excellent movement to use to allow yourself to venture into 120-135 degrees of knee flexion without the risk of injury.
“Direct” Arm Training with Tricep Extensions
Strong ladies not only want to be strong, but also look the part, so it makes perfect sense that TRX Tricep Extensions made this list. This was the second leading vote-getter from the poll and it was honestly a surprise to me! I program them, but not nearly enough – apparently.
Think of the TRX Tricep Extension like a skullcrushers that activates your core. Instead of laying on a bench to flex and extend at the elbow, you’re using a suspension training implement which adds another component of muscle activation.
Position yourself at a challenging angle facing away from the anchor point of your suspension trainer. Hands should be placed just above eye level and you follow the same flexing and extending motion as you would on an old-school dumbbell Skullcrusher. Monitor your lumbar region during the movement and make adjustments if you notice signs of overextension or uncomfortable shifting of the pelvis.
Top Requested Triceps Variations
Though my clients love the TRX Triceps Extensions, there’s an obvious need for variation when it comes to training the triceps and chest more directly, and even together as a functional unit. Here are the marquee variations that are popular staples in my programming!
Most women gravitate towards bench dips. I’m not a fan of bench dips because of the anterior humeral glide it forces your shoulders into. In a bench dip, the humerus is going to shift forward to achieve the proper angle for you to “feel” your triceps, however I’ve found that a neutral grip bench dip can relieve some of those shearing forces if you are dead-set on doing them.
Personally, I think with enough workload in that position, it will eventually be the beginning of your long term shoulder problems. I also believe that Dips are intended to work both chest and arms, and a bench dip nearly eliminates all chest recruitment. If you are keen on doing bench dips, try them out with positioning your body between two benches like this Bench Dip variation from Dr. John Rusin.
Perhaps a better option would be to use a Band Assisted Dip or a Sling Shot Assisted Dip if a standard bodyweight Dip isn’t an option. These aren’t direct variations of the TRX Tricep Extensions, but they’re tough, effective and work muscle groups that are in demand from women (and men, as well).
If you struggle with Dips, try to work up to them using a Hands Elevated Close Grip Push-Up. In terms of relative strength the push-up and the dip require a similar workload. If you can get really good at narrow grip push-ups, Dips will start to come easier for you – and this way you can avoid any potential injuries the bench dips could have caused.
Now lets move on to another staple foundational movement pattern that everyone should be prioritizing, the deadlift, or should I say, hip hinge!
Deadlifts aka Loaded Hip Hinging
Nothing made me happier than responses that were very pro-deadlift. Probably the number one butchered exercise of all-time, this is a tough movement to master but it is well worth taking the time to get it right. Also note: There are different ways to deadlift and different reasons to deadlift in a chosen fashion. Not everyone will or should deadlift the same, but several vital principals still apply to all deadlifters.
For example these things rarely change in any variation of the deadlift:
The deadlift should always be hip dominant. Not knee dominant.
You should always set up with your shins close to the barbell.
Engaging your lats will assist the lift.
Keep a flat back and a tucked chin.
Lead with your chest, finish with your hips.
With a proven track record of improvement of the posterior chain, the deadlift and its variations should be a woman’s best friend. There are a lot of myths surrounding women and deadlifting. They won’t make you bulky, blocky or wide, ladies. Deadlifts are safe and effective, plus look exponentially more badass when performed by a female.
Top Requested Deadlift Variations
These variations are music to my ears as a trainer and coach. Dominating the hip hinge has the power to do so much for people not only in the strength and aesthetics department, but also bulletproofing the spine, pelvis and hips against injuries. That’s why they are mandatory aspects of every program I write.
Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs)
Romanian Deadlifts, or RDLs, seem to come more naturally for women to perform. It’s a great intro to the hip hinge movement and should done, by everyone, on a regular basis no matter what your experience level is. A 2014 study by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning showed that when compared to a good morning, GHD and leg curl, the Romanian Deadlift activated the erector spinae, gluteus medius, semitendinosus, biceps femoris, and medial gastrocnemius in the most efficient way. (3) In other words, do RDL’s for a nice, shapely backside.
You can execute this lift with a barbell, kettlebell, dumbbells or on a landmine setup for best results. You can even use a Trap Bar. If you decide to use a single leg variation, just beware of fire hydrant syndrome. This is when your rear leg and hip rotate and open up away from the body.
That turns your movement from an RDL to making you look like a puppy doing her business on a fire hydrant. Don’t be scared to use a wall for balance until you nail the form. Nothing is more important that great form, especially on an RDL. If you can nail the proper hip hinge needed for an RDL, you have just unlocked an entire repertoire of movement options that will take those gainz to the next level.
Trap Bar Deadlifts
This is a response I received on this survey, verbatim. “I love that silver thingy that you step inside and it holds weights on the end.” So awesome. And based on the video above, Lindsay Bloom, co-owner of DrJohnRusin.com also loves smashing some weights in this “silver thingy” as well!
The Trap Bar, or Hex Bar, is a personal favorite of mine as well. It’s an incredible way to deadlift while decreasing risk of injury without losing major benefits of a traditional barbell deadlift. In a recent study performed by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, the Trap Bar Deadlift allowed subjects to generate greater peak force, power and velocity than a standard barbell when using submaximal loads. The study suggests that, in general, the Trap Bar Deadlift is a more effective exercise overall than a standard barbell deadlift. (4)
Don’t get me wrong, you’re definitely going to activate more posterior chain using a barbell, but that doesn’t mean you should force feed that variation if it doesn’t suit you well. Getting a little extra quad isn’t going to kill your hamstring and glute involvement. Another great solution is to perform Trap Bar RDLs and mix the best of both worlds.
Dan John once said, “The loaded carry does more to expand athletic qualities than any other single thing I’ve attempted in my career as a coach and athlete. And I do not say that lightly.” If that doesn’t get you hyped up, I don’t know what will.
Bottom line is that loaded carries have an extreme amount of carry over to athletics and life, in general. They are doable for nearly anyone. They are fun and can be competitive – with yourself or others. Lastly, but by far most importantly, they make carrying grocery bags from the car to the house in one trip completely achievable. No more taking multiple trips!
Three steps to an awesome loaded carry:
Safely pick up something heavy.
Walk briskly to your end destination.
Safely put down your heavy object.
We could sit here all day and talk biomechanics, posture, gait, grip strength, etc. but at the end of the day if you can stay in your lane and meet the three guidelines above, you’ll be getting strong, burning calories and increasing your functional capacity in record time!
Top Requested Variation
Man, there are so many awesome variations that we use in programming that it was hard to narrow this one down. But here are the top requested variations that my clients love, and I love programming.
Sand Bag Farmer’s Walk
Sand Bag training doesn’t get the love it deserves. Our facility happens to have a pair of heavy pink sandbags that women seem to flock to as if they were the keys to Ryan Gosling’s heart.
Maybe they are…
Sand bags can be held at the sides like a suitcase (functional training?!?!) or held in a racked position, again those three simple rules will help you carry those keys to Ryan’s heart anywhere you desire. Check out the different setups and variations in the graphic above.
Plank variations can be massively helpful at building core strength. It won’t take long at all to graduate from the standard, “how much more time?” planks before you have to switch it up and bring in the big guns. Most people are already probably to that point, to be honest.
I usually have people perform planks with a reaching component, with a reaction-based component or some sort of tweak that:
Makes the movement more effective
Makes the movement more creative, interest, fun, etc.
Planks were another response from the voters that shocked me. A lot of them mentioned there is a bit of a love-hate relationship with them, but knowing and seeing the effectiveness is a huge motivator.
Top Requested Plank Variations
Here they are, the top plank variations that my clients love to hate!
Stability Ball Around the World Planks
One of the most awesome things you can do with a stability ball is the Around the World. Set your forearms on the SB as you would on the ground, pressing firmly into the ball as if you’re trying to pop it.
Keep that core tension created by your elbow drive and make sure you don’t overextend the lumbar spine or fall into a sagging midsection position. That tension alone should be a tough workout, then start to create mini-circles with the ball being controlled by your forearms – not your toes.
It’s brutal, it gets the job done and you didn’t even have to hold a plank for 10 minutes or stack a bunch of 45-pound plates on your spine like a – never mind…
TRX Body Saw
Another great variation that got nominated was the TRX Body Saw. With your feet in the TRX straps, toes pointed down, assume a normal plank position. With forearms on the ground and core activated, you create a back-and-forth subtle rocking motion by using your forearms to create force traveling towards and away from your midsection. In my opinion, this is one of the best scalable core exercises out there and it seems that the women I asked would agree.
In Bret Contreras’ Inside the Muscles article, the TRX variation wasn’t tested by the standard body saw was. With a peak maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) of 188.0 in the lower rectus abdominis, 208.0 in the internal oblique, 143.0 in the external oblique and 15.0 in the lumbar erectors, this looks like a low risk, high reward exercise to maximize your core strength.
This Is What Women Want, And What Men Should Want As Well
From the looks of it, this is a pretty solid list I got back from the women I train. No pink hand weights here, these ladies obviously love to get after it in the gym. Of course, this is only 7 exercises and a handful of variations out of thousands of options but it’s always nice to pick the brains of other likeminded women in the gym.
If you’re wondering, I asked women ages 14 to 64 a wide variety of lifestyles, occupation and athletic ability. That makes these exercises even more impactful because of the ability to scale, teach and program them to fit each of their individual needs.
Put it all together with this 9-Week Strength Training Program tailored by what women want. With a little bit of “show” mixed in with the “go,” this is going to be 9 weeks of fun, effective training. There are four workouts per week, complete them and do whatever else you want throughout the week. The program features tons of variety and self-competition to keep you engaged and crushing it for all 9 weeks!
About The Author
Justin Ochoa is the head personal trainer & gym manager at 1 & Only Fitness (Fishers, Indiana). A NASM-Certified Personal Trainer, Group Training Specialist, Fitness Nutrition Specialist and TRX Level 1 Coach, he works with a wide variety of clients ranging from professional athletes to rehabilitation patients. Besides lifting heavy objects and stuffing his face with reheated chicken breasts, Justin enjoys spending his time with his wife, son and dog.
1) Bloomquist K1, Langberg H, Karlsen S, Madsgaard S, Boesen M, Raastad T. “Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations.” European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2013 Aug;11(8):2133-42. doi: 10.1007/s00421-013-2642-7. Epub 2013 Apr 20.
2) Swanson, Aaron. The Deep Squat (Part 1 – The Good, The Bad, & The Not So Ugly). https://www.aaronswansonpt.com/the-deep-squat-part-1-the-good-the-bad-the-not-so-ugly/. 2014 Jun 1
3) McAllister MJ1, Hammond KG, Schilling BK, Ferreria LC, Reed JP, Weiss LW. “Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2014 Jun;28(6):1573-80. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000302.
4) Swinton, PA, Stewart, A, Agouris, I, Keogh, JWL, and Lloyd, R. “A biomechanical analysis of straight and hexagonal barbell deadlifts using submaximal loads.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2011 July. 25(7): 2000-2009, 2011.