The Best Exercises for Women That You're Probably Not Doing
Neck and Upper Back (Trapezius)
This layer of muscle runs across your upper back, through your shoulders and up your neck, and is used during daily activities like supporting and turning your head. Lugging a heavy purse around all day on one shoulder can cause some major muscle imbalances within your trapezius.
Best Trapezius Exercise: Wall Angels
Strengthen your trapezius with this no-equipment-required move, recommends Rick Richey, master instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine and owner of R2Fitness in New York, NY. Start standing, feet wide, with your back against a wall, arms extended out to the side with your elbows bent 90 degrees, palms facing forward. Then, while keeping your head, spine, butt, elbows, and backs of your hands against the wall, slide your arms straight up overhead.
Richey recommends starting off by completing one set of 10 reps, and then progress to 2 sets of 15 reps.
Spinal Extensors (Erector Spine)
This bundle of muscle and tendons line and support the spine, most notably at the lower back. These muscles are used in everything from maintaining proper spinal alignment to flexing and extending the spine during daily activities like picking things up off the floor—which is why strengthening them is so important.
Best Erector Spine Exercise: Cobra Back Extension
This move will help strengthen your entire back, Richey says. To start, lay face down on the ground with your palms flat on the floor, legs extended out straight and toes pointed. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and press them down away from your ears. Then, extend your spine, lifting your chest, arms, and hands off the floor. Rotate your palms away from your body, but keep your feet on the ground. Slowly lower to start position and repeat.
Start off with 1 set of 15 reps, and then work your way up to 2 sets of 15.
Hip Muscles (Gluteus Medius)
Sure, you work your buns at the gym because you want to look good from behind, but you may be neglecting an important part of your booty musculature: the gluteus medius. This portion of your glutes is important for hip stabilization, especially when walking or running. "It's also important for women because it can help prevent ACL injuries, which occur four to six times more often in females than their male counterparts," Richey says. (Here's why women are more susceptible to serious knee injuries.)
Best Gluteus Medius Exercise: Lateral Tube Walk
Start standing and wrap a small resistance loop or band around your ankles. Bend your knees and sit back slightly into your hips (a quarter squat). From there, step sideways 15 times, keeping tension on the band the entire time. Repeat going back to the other side 15 times. Be sure to stay in the quarter squat position and make sure you feel the burn on the top/back portion of your hips, Richey says. Build up to 3 sets of 15 steps in both directions.
Women generally have limited upper-body strength, so once you've started working out, it's important to strengthen the link between your arms and your trunk—the rotator cuff, Richey says. "Strengthening the rotator cuff will help limit shoulder injuries for those that are beginning or advancing their upper-body strength training."
Best Rotator Cuff Exercise: Plank Rotation
Start kneeling on all fours with both hands under your shoulders. Extend both legs out behind you, feet hip-width apart and toes tucked under into a straight-arm plank. Hold this plank position for 10 seconds. Next, shift all your body weight to the right arm and rotate your entire left side up toward the ceiling, turning and stacking your feet on top of each other and extending your left arm up to the ceiling so your whole body faces the left. Hold for 5 seconds, slowly lower back to straight-arm plank, and then rotate to the right side and repeat the hold. Work your way up to three sets of holding each plank position.
Shoulders and Mid Back (Rear Deltoid)
Most women work their shoulders by doing a pressing movement or a side raise and neglect the posterior portion, which is very important when it comes to posture, say John Dull and Michelle Collier, both certified personal trainers and co-creators of the Supreme 90-Day System. Strengthening your rear deltoid muscles helps to pull your shoulders back. Most exercises that we do cause us to protract our shoulders and collapse our posture forward, accompanied by a forward head tilt and a weak core. (Also try this upper back workout for better posture.)
Best Rear Deltoid Exercise: Bent-over Raise
Holding dumbbells in each hand, bend forward at the hips, keeping your back flat and knees slightly bent. Let your arms hang straight down in front of you, slightly bent, and raise the dumbbells away from your body until they are parallel with your back. Pause for a second and then lower them back down with control, being careful not to swing your arms. Do 3 sets of 15 reps each. (Be sure to choose a weight that will fatigue your muscles by the last rep in each set, but not be too heavy that you can't finish each rep with proper form).
Wrist Muscles (Forearm Flexors and Extensors)
Many women find exercises like push-ups, triceps dips, or simply lifting heavier weight stressful on the wrists. Holding a dumbbell during the move below helps strengthen the wrist in two ways: the flexors and extensors of the forearm help to keep the dumbbell in a neutral position during the exercise and prevent the wrist from bending from side to side, say Collier and Dull. (Truth: You're probably lacking grip strength too. Here's how to increase your grip strength and why you should.)
Best Forearm Exercise: Triceps Extensions
You'll strengthen both your wrist and your triceps properly with this move. To start, sit on a stability ball, holding dumbbells in each hand close to your chest. Slowly walk your feet away from the ball and lie back onto it so that it's just under your shoulders (head and neck are supported by the ball), keeping your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Extend your arms straight up to the ceiling and then bend your elbows, lowering each weight past your ears while keeping the upper part of your arm stationary. Next, slowly extend your arms back up towards the ceiling, keeping your elbows over your shoulders and upper arm still. Do 3 sets of 8-12 reps. (Don't have a stability ball? No problem, you can do this move lying on the ground on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.)
This muscle wraps around your rib cage and attaches to the bottom of your shoulder blades, and it looks like the serrated edges on a knife, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., creator of the Perfect Legs, Glutes, and Abs
DVD. "It is an often overlooked posture and shoulder blade muscle—it keeps your shoulder blades from winging up and out and does a lot to stabilize your shoulder girdle."
Best Serratus Anterior Exercise: Weighted Punches
Start lying on your back on the floor, a weight bench, or for an added core challenge, an exercise ball. With a dumbbell (Olson recommends using between 5-10 lbs) in each hand, straighten both arms up towards the ceiling, open your chest wide, and let the back of your shoulders touch the supporting surface. Then, keeping your elbow and wrist straight, "punch" up your right arm as if you were trying to push out your upper arm bone from your armpit, lifting just your right shoulder blade off the ball or bench underneath you. Alternate punching on both sides and perform three sets of 15 reps.
You've heard of your shoulder rotator cuff, but did you know your hips also contain a rotator cuff set of muscles? "They run horizontal from your outer, upper hip joint to the center of your gluteals and sit well under your gluteus maximus. And, like the rotator cuff of the shoulder, these muscles not only rotate your upper thigh bone outward, but strong hip rotators also help you to balance and protect your hips when you jump, do kickboxing moves, or climb up and down stairs," Olson says. (Achy hips? Here's what to do with sore hip flexors.)
Best Hip Rotators Exercise: Side-Lying External Rotations
Start lying down on your right side with your legs and hips stacked, supporting yourself with your right elbow bent under your shoulder and your left hand in front of your body, palm on the floor to help you balance. Press the right side of your torso away from the floor and draw your abs in tight to keep your spine lifted and supported. Squeeze your butt and lift your left leg about 20 inches (just above your hip) and hold for 1 full count. Then, turn your leg outward so that your toe is pointing up to the ceiling and slowly lower until the heels of both feet touch. Repeat for three sets of 15 reps and then change sides.