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Jul 26 / Kim

Gym Workouts for Women

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Let me start of by saying, thank you for choosing to incorporate weight training as part of your exercise routine.  There is a lot of misleading information about women and weight training and as a result, many women are intimidated by using weights to workout.  Regardless of the reasons why women tend to shy away from weight training at the gym, I am going to discuss why women should incorporate weight training into their regular exercise routine, I will provide tips on how to use weights to develop a nicely toned, feminine look, and I will provide a few gym workouts for women ready to pump some iron.  If you are looking for a program full of gym workouts for women who want to achieve a slim, feminine physique, then I highly recommend the Visual Impact for Women program. The results I have achieved from this program have really changed the way I look at weight lifting and much of what I describe below is inspired by my success with this program.

Why Women Should Use Weight Training: 

There are numerous benefits for women when it comes to weight training.  Consistently using weight training as a form of exercise will help you burn fat, develop nicely toned muscles, improve your strength (which does not have to mean bigger muscles), and it can even help you fight osteoporosis as studies have shown lifting weights improves bone density. 

Incorporating weight training gym workouts into your weekly exercise routine is the surest way to develop the slim and feminine body that you desire.  Think about it for a second, once you take control of your diet and use exercise to accelerate fat loss, your body will rapidly shed fat.  But once that fat is gone, what do you want people to see?  You need to start toning those muscles now while you are losing weight so that those sexy toned muscles are there just waiting to be revealed.   

I’ve seen so many women who achieve their weight loss goals, but then feel like they need to lose 5 more pounds in order to achieve that sexy and toned look, when in fact, what they really need to do is hit the gym for two or three months.  By doing some strength training as outlined below they would develop firm and toned muscles without having to lose any more fat.  If this sounds familiar, then try hitting the gym instead of reducing your calories even more or lengthening your cardio runs. 

What Makes a Muscle Look Toned? 

An untrained muscle does not feel or appear toned because the muscle is not used to making strong contractions.  Whereas, a trained muscle will learn how to activate more muscle fibers and generate a stronger more efficient contractions. To improve muscle tone you need to progressively put your muscles under tension so that they will learn how to make stronger contractions with your current muscle fibers.  Once your muscle become more efficient at generating strong contractions they will constantly feel more firm and dense, this is what appears as toned muscle.

Now, if you put too much tension on your muscles and lift weights at high repetitions until your arms give out (often called training to failure), you will tell your body that they need to build more muscle fibers eventually leading to muscle growth which many women want to avoid. Remember, all you want to do is train your muscles to make strong, efficient contractions with the muscle fibers already present.  You don’t necessarily need to create more muscle. This is why I advocate low volume training for muscle tone. 

Low Volume Weight Training for Women 


Not exactly what I mean by “low volume training.”

The key for women who want a slim feminine physique is to lift weights in a way that will create dense, toned muscles as opposed to big, bulky muscles.  This can be easily controlled by how many sets and repetitions you complete for each weight training exercise.  Unfortunately, this is where most people get it wrong.   

Most women have been told somewhere along the line that in order to develop toned muscles they need gym workouts where they lift lighter weights for higher repetitions.  For example, is someone was trying to develop better tone in their biceps, they may end up doing 4 sets of 15 repetitions with a 5 lb dumbbell.  This is NOT the best way to develop muscle tone! 

If you want to develop nicely toned muscles while limiting the increase in size of your muscles then you need to focus on low repetition training.  I would not recommend doing more than 5 repetitions per set and do 3-5 sets.  Limiting your repetitions will allow you to use weights that are a bit heavier.  This is okay.  It will force your muscles to make stronger contractions (which is what we are after), but as long as you do not do too many repetitions or lift to failure than you can limit muscle growth. 


Gym Workouts for Women

Let’s put this all together to see what a gym workout for women would look like.

My Two-Day Split

I use a two-day split for weight training.  This means that I group my muscles so that it takes two workouts to hit my entire body.  This approach helps limit the amount of time I spend in the gym but still ensures a full body workout each week.  Here is how I pair muscle groups:

Workout 1: Chest, Back, Abs
Workout 2: Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps

I pair opposite muscle groups (e.g., chest and back) because I like the balance this provides in each workout.  I do weight training gym workouts three times per week always alternating between the two workouts.  This means that one week I’ll do Workout 1 twice, but the next week I’ll do Workout 2 twice.  It looks like this: 

Tuesday: Workout 1
Thursday: Workout 2
Saturday: Workout 1

Tuesday: Workout 2
Thursday: Workout 1
Saturday: Workout 2

Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday work great for me, but you should chose whatever days work best for you.   

You may also notice that I do not do any leg specific work.  This is because I rely solely on cardio to keep my legs looking great.  I was genetically gifted with long, slender legs so I find that regular cardio keep them looking nice a toned.  Below I’ll provide an option for women who want to do leg training in the gym as well. 

Gym Workouts for Women – The Exercises 

I normally do two exercises for each muscle group.  Below is a list of my favorite exercises for each muscle group.  Feel free to substitute these with other exercises if you like them better. 

Workout 1:
Chest: dumbbell Incline Press & Dumbbell Flys
Back: Assisted Pull-ups/Chin-ups & Incline Dumbbell Rows
Abs: Lying Leg Raises & Planks

[This video does a good job of illustrating one way to do assisted pull-ups.]

Workout 2
Shoulders: Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press & Lateral Dumbbell Raises
Triceps: Lying Triceps Extensions & Cable Pushdowns
Biceps: Barbell Preacher Curls & Dumbbell Hammer Curls


[Here is a quick video on the lying triceps extension in case you’ve never seen it before.]

Gym Workouts for Women – Cardio

As I mentioned above, I use cardio to keep my legs looking toned.  My cardio program is a mix of HIIT and steady-state cardio.  I also use cardio as a way to burn additional calories throughout the week to help keep me lean.

My cardio routine is simple.  Again I alternate between two different workouts. 

Cardio Workout 1: HIIT sprints – After a 5 minute warm up, I will complete a 15 minute HIIT routine either on a stationary bike or treadmill.  If I use the bike then I alternate between 15 second all out sprint speed with 60-90 seconds of slow pedaling.  If I use the treadmill then I alternate 60 seconds of hard running with 60 seconds of walking.   NOTE: If I cannot make it to the gym I’ll do a HIIT jump rope routine.

Cardio Workout 2: HIIT & Steady State Cardio – I will start with six or seven HIIT intervals on the stationary bike followed by 25 minutes of steady state cardio on a treadmill. 

I use Cardio Workout 1 twice per week on days I lift (so there is one lifting day each week where I do not do cardio) and Cardio Workout 2 at least once a week on a day when I do not lift.  The goal for my gym workouts each week is to complete three cardio workouts and three weight training workouts.

Gym Workouts for Women – Additional Leg Workouts

If you want to do more direct leg work with weights during your gym workouts then I recommend utilizing squats, deadlifts, step-ups, and lunges.  I prefer to do squats and deadlifts with a barbell and I do step-ups and lunges with dumbbells.  If you want to maintain your two-day split then add leg work to the beginning of Workout 1.  I would pair squats with step-ups and deadlifts with lunges.  Then alternate the leg workout exercise each time you do Workout 1.  For example:

Tuesday: Workout 1 + squat and step-ups
Thursday: Workout 2
Saturday: Workout 1 + deadlift and lunges
Tuesday: Workout 2
Thursday: Workout 1+ squat and step-ups
Saturday: Workout 2 

You could also use a three-day split in which you create Workout 3 and only focus on legs. A three day split may look like this:

Tuesday: Workout 1
Thursday: Workout 2
Saturday: Workout 3 

I would keep the leg work for the end of the week so you have two days of rest before you do any intense cardio.  I would not recommend doing additional cardio on leg days.  Make sure you use proper form for these big compound exercises.  You can learn more about proper form by reading our complete guide to weight lifting for beginners.

Gym Workouts for Women – Monitor and Adjust

It is extremely important that you keep a workout log.  Write down the name of the exercise, the weight used, and the number of sets and repetitions.  This way you can monitor your strength gains and ensure that you employ gradual but progressive increases in weight. 

You also want to pay close attention to your measurements.  When you first start lifting weights you will feel sore and it should be expected that you will gain a little size in your muscles, but if you feel like your muscles are getting bigger than you want in certain areas then cut back in the number of sets that you do for the muscle group.  You could reduce the number of exercises for that muscle group to only one exercise per week, or you could do one less set of each exercise for that muscle group.   It is okay to do less if certain muscles seem to be getting too big, but I would recommend that you continue to work the muscles so they do not lose tone. 

Structuring gym workouts for women in this way has provided exciting results and I know it can do the same for you.  All of these principles are described in much greater detail in Visual Impact for Women.  If you want to learn more and get your hands on a full workout program I highly recommend this course. 

Good luck with your muscle toning gains!

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  1. Jason - Fitness Workouts / Jul 27 2011

    Nice write up but I see little need in singling out women. Weight training for men and women have the same rules.

    • Jeremy & Kim / Jul 29 2011

      Thanks for your comment, Jason. For the most part you are correct, many of the same rules apply to men and women when it comes to weight training, but men and women often have different goals when it comes to weight training. This post is targeted towards women who want to incorporate weight training in their weekly exercise routine, but do not want their muscles to get big or bulky. This is not for female body builders, but for women who want to tone and firm their body.

  2. I think too few women realize the benefits that can come from strength training done in the proper manner. It’s about tightening and toning muscles rather than growing them like a bodybuilder. Even the women who aren’t afraid of weights tend to lift 10-15lb dummbells for high reps as you mentioned. I’m hopeful that workouts like Visual Impact for Women will help change some of these misconceptions.

  3. Tummy Tuck Belt / Aug 26 2011

    Weight training seems to be beneficial to both men and women as long as you understand your body’s limits. Great post.

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