Ladies, the time has come to descend from the ivory tower of the women's workout room at your comfortable gym, step up to the platform, and get under a barbell. It's time to put down the chrome dumbbells and pick up something that at first glance looks as big as you are. But trust me: You'll get better, faster results.
Of course, some women are afraid of heavy lifting, so let me ease your worried mind: No, it will not make you "bulky." No, it will not make you "look like a dude." And no, it will not suddenly push your testosterone to chest-hair-sprouting levels. Lifting to your limits—safely and with good form—will do nothing but boost your metabolism, develop and define your muscles, and improve your overall strength.
Even if you're not interested in becoming a bikini pro, powerlifter, or something in between, you should be concerned with the longevity and reliability of your body. That's where these basic compound lifts come into play. They make you stronger and more athletic. They tighten the mind-muscle connection. They breed mental toughness.
No matter your age or fitness level, adding these lifts to your regimen will make you feel great, knowing full well the incredible things your body can suddenly do.
Exercise 1: Romanian Deadlift or Snatch-Grip RDL
The deadlift may be the single best movement for increasing your overall strength level. What could be more functional than lifting a heavy weight off the ground, right? Unfortunately, the way many people deadlift from the ground, especially when they're just learning, is about as dysfunctional as it gets.
The answer isn't to skip deads altogether, but to start with a version that lends itself to learning the form. It's tough to beat the Romanian deadlift! This version is performed top-down rather than bottom-up, which makes a bigger difference than you might think. Because you start with the eccentric or "lowering" portion of the lift, you'll pretty much automatically load the core, glutes, upper back, and hamstrings at the start of each rep. That's not nearly so easy to do off the ground.
Just set the bar in the rack at mid-thigh level, pick it up, and walk it out. Then, do your reps slowly and under control, and walk it back in. To make it extra badass, perform these with your arms out wider in a snatch grip. This will further activate the lats and upper-back muscles, helping you lock down proper form and build up your posture at the same time as your lower body.
These are guaranteed to make you sore in a good way. And they'll also build up exactly the kind of strength and control that will make you a great puller off of the floor in the future.
Exercise 2: Front Squat
You may think the difference between front squats and back squats is minimal, but it's not. Front squats are more likely to make you a better overall lifter and athlete, with less risk of injury. Sound unbelievable? Stick with me.
Because the weight is held at the front of your body rather than behind your neck, it acts as a counterweight that allows you to squat deeper and more upright. In other words, with better form! Master these, and your core will get crazy strong and your legs and hips will get accustomed to getting low.
Front squats put less pressure on the spine, allowing you to do the movement with your spine in a more natural position. If your back is in poor shape, or even if it's not, front squats are a better option than back squats. Although you won't be able to lift as much weight as you would in a back squat, you'll still be able to move enough to train hard.
Also, getting down in the gym means you can get down on the dance floor. There's that.
Exercise 3: Pull-ups
Do you want a muscular back that makes your waist look smaller? To increase your upper-body strength? Be able to save yourself if you're dangling off a cliff face? You need pull-ups.
Most women have weaker upper-body strength and carry their weight in their booty and thighs. This can make pull-ups difficult, but definitely not impossible.
And if you can't do pull-ups for reps yet, there are plenty of ways to do modified pull-ups that will give you the same benefits until you're strong enough to do them without assistance. A few include:
- Flexed arm hangs for time in the top position
- Active hangs in the lower position
- Jumping pull-ups with slow negatives
- Partner-assisted pull-ups
- Band-assisted pull-ups
- Machine assisted pull-ups
Many find the last two are less effective than doing slow negatives and holds, or even than partner assists, where someone gives you "just enough" help. But try them all, and they'll all help increase your strength and develop some wicked musculature.
Plus, you'll look totally badass in the gym. How many other women do you see doing pull-ups?
Exercise 4: Barbell or Dumbbell Push-Press
The push press may feel a bit awkward at first if all you've ever done is standing or seated shoulder presses with dumbbells or barbells. It'll take a little time—and a little coaching, in some cases—to find the right amount of leg action, for example. But once you learn the push press, you'll never look back.
The push press is great because it's the definition of a full-body lift: It comes from the floor and goes all the way up to your hands. This movement primarily hits your shoulders, but you'll also use—and strengthen—your legs, core, and back.
As an added bonus, the push press can give your coordination a major boost, and it also transfers well to all types of athletics. Plus, you'll look so awesome doing it that you'll have Dudley Dude-Bro asking for a spot.
Exercise 5: The Hang Snatch
Now we're getting a little more advanced. But if you've been curious about Olympic lifting or CrossFit and wonder what the best entry point is, it's the hang snatch.
Why throw a barbell over your head? We're focusing here on exercises that work multiple muscles at the same time, not machine motions that painstakingly work your body one-single-freaking-muscle at a time. You've got places to be, right? Once you've got the hang of it, the hang snatch is one of the best full-body movements on the planet.
Although it requires a fair amount of coordination and balance, the hang snatch isn't so difficult that you need a Ph.D. in Olympic lifting. Even if you just practice it with light weights, you'll push with your legs, pull and push with your upper body, and use your core to maintain balance and control. Strength, power, coordination—it's all in this move.
Keep working on the hang snatch, and sooner or later you'll be saying, "Power cleans? Clean and jerks? No problem!"
Become a Total Badass
Wondering how to program these? How many sets and reps to do? There's no easy answer. All of these can be done heavy or light, for all the reps or just a couple of triples.
So rather than dive into details, let's go big-picture and consider these moves as great workout priorities. If you're getting stronger at a few of these moves, in any rep range, you're getting stronger, period. Use them as your measuring stick, and keep variations of them in the rotation year-round, and you'll earn great results.