Compound exercises are those highly efficient movements that work multiple muscle groups at once, making them great for speeding up your metabolism and boosting fat loss. These powerhouse moves for building a lean body are effective regardless of gender. However, women can see enhanced results, increased strength, and more lean muscle growth by applying certain workout principles tailored to them. Therefore, I have compiled a list of 10 top compound exercises specifically geared towards women who aim to be lean, toned, and strong.

In the workout world, it’s been observed that women can often handle more sets and repetitions, and have a better aerobic endurance than men. What does this mean for women aiming to lean out? It suggests they can benefit from higher volume workouts without the risk of overtraining. To make the most of your natural endurance strengths, consider shorter breaks between sets to further boost your metabolism.

Below are the 10 compound exercises I highly recommend for women seeking leanness, all of which I use in training sessions with the women I work with on a weekly basis. Remember, there’s a variety of ways to perform each exercise, with equipment options ranging from barbells, dumbbells, to kettlebells. Choose the variation and equipment that you’re most comfortable with. Also, to keep your workouts interesting and effective, don’t forget to change up your routine every four to six weeks!


barbell deadlift, compound exercises for women to get lean

My list of the best compound exercises for women to get lean kicks off with the deadlift. When discussing deadlifts, the term encompasses various lift variations, utilizing barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or hex bars. From traditional to stiff-leg, RDLs (Romanian deadlifts), and even trap bar deadlifts, these variations are excellent for sculpting lean muscle mass in your posterior chain—targeting the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, upper back, and even calves. Let’s dive into the classic traditional deadlift technique.

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Next, bend your knees and push your hips back to reach down and grip the barbell (or equipment you’re using). Push through your heels, and bring your hips forward to stand up, squeezing your glutes. Keep your back straight, your core tight, and the bar close to your shins as you move. Carefully return the bar to the floor by reversing the movement. Complete three sets of eight to 15 reps with 90 seconds of rest between sets.

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Heel-Elevated Goblet Squats

Do you want to carve out defined quads and chisel your abs? If so, look no further than the heel-elevated goblet squat. This exercise precisely targets your quadriceps while engaging and challenging your core.

Grab a dumbbell, hold it close to your chest with both hands, and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, elevating your heels with a weight plate two to three inches above the floor. Next, squeeze your abs to engage the core, and lower into a squat by bending at your knees while maintaining an upright chest and straight back. Drive through your entire foot to return to the starting stance. Perform three sets of 12 to 20 reps with 90 seconds of rest between sets.

Lateral Box Step-ups

dumbbell step-ups exercise, compound exercises for women to get leanShutterstock

Box step-ups are a stellar exercise for cultivating single-leg strength, stability, and balance. Introduce the lateral variation, and you’re not just sculpting leg muscles—you’re igniting those glutes, too. To keep lateral box step-ups challenging, incorporate variations with your body weight, dumbbells, and kettlebells, and experiment with different hold positions.

Position yourself beside a sturdy box or workout bench, ensuring it’s at a height where your knee bends to approximately 90 degrees when your foot rests atop it. Start with your feet hip-width apart, and step up onto the box with one foot, focusing on complete foot contact and keeping the opposite leg straight. Drive through the heel of your foot on the box, extending your hip and knee to stand tall. Control the descent by bending your knee and hip of the foot on the box, returning to the starting position with control. Complete three sets of 12 to 15 reps per side with 60 seconds of rest between sets.

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Bulgarian Split Squats

bulgarian split squat, compound exercises for women to get lean

Bulgarian split squats, a step up from traditional split squats and lunges, are a game-changer for women striving for a lean physique. Also known as rear foot-elevated split squats, this variation hones in on the quadriceps and hip muscles, sculpting sleek definition. Amplify the challenge with dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells to boost intensity and accelerate progress toward lean muscle goals.

Perform Bulgarian split squats by placing one foot on a bench or elevated surface behind you and lowering into a squat position. Keep your front knee aligned with your toes and your torso upright. Drive through your front heel to return to the starting position. Alternate legs, and add weights for extra intensity if desired. Complete three sets of 12 to 15 reps per side with 60 seconds of rest between sets.

Kettlebell Swings

kettlebell swings

Kettlebell swings are a dynamic addition to any woman’s quest for a lean physique. This explosive exercise ignites the posterior chain, sculpting lean muscle in the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Incorporating kettlebell swings into a HIIT workout routine adds intensity and calorie-burning power, making it an effective tool for simultaneously torching fat and building strength.

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, grasping a kettlebell while standing tall. Hinge at your hips, maintaining straight arms, then explosively drive your hips forward to swing the kettlebell to chest height, powered by momentum from your lower body. Return the kettlebell between your legs in the hinge position, and repeat the movement. Complete three to four rounds of continuous reps for 45 seconds with thirty seconds of rest between rounds.

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Dumbbell Pushups

The dumbbell pushup may not involve lifting weights. Still, its extended range of motion facilitates lean muscle growth in the chest and shoulders. This exercise engages the core, amplifies abdominal strength, and improves wrist stability. Incorporating it into your routine can enhance overall muscle definition and contribute to a lean physique.

Assume a traditional pushup position while gripping dumbbells shoulder-width apart. Lower your body by bending your elbows until your chest nearly touches the ground, then push back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms. Maintain a straight line from your head to your heels, and control your movements throughout. Perform three rounds of 45 seconds with 90 seconds of rest between rounds.

Side note: Ensure you use dumbbells with flat surfaces and avoid rounded ones when performing this exercise.

Wide Grip Lat Pulldown

lat pulldown illustration

Wide grip lat pulldowns are an excellent addition to a woman’s lean muscle-building routine. By targeting the lats, shoulders, and upper back, this exercise helps sculpt a toned and defined physique. Incorporating wide grip lat pulldowns emphasizes the development of the lateral aspect of the upper and mid-back, effectively targeting the lats.

Sit on the seat with your thighs secured under the knee pad, and grasp the wide bar attachment with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest up, your shoulders back, and your core engaged as you pull the bar down to your upper chest, focusing on driving your elbows down and back. Pause briefly at the bottom of the movement, then slowly release the bar back to the starting position, allowing your arms to fully extend without locking your elbows. Complete three sets of 15 to 20 reps with 60 to 90 seconds of rest per set.

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Reverse Grip Barbell Rows

Reverse grip barbell rows are an exceptional exercise for women aiming to craft a lean and sculpted back while engaging the core and even sneaking in some rear-delt work. This variation hones in on the lower and middle back, biceps, and rear-deltoid muscles with an underhand grip, nurturing muscle definition and strength.

Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and gripping the barbell underhand with your hands slightly closer than shoulder-width apart. Hold the bar in front of your thighs with arms fully extended, palms facing upward. Keep your back straight and your chest up, and engage your core. Retract your shoulder blades, and pull the barbell toward your lower chest, focusing on driving your elbows back and keeping them close to your body. Squeeze your back muscles at the top, then lower the barbell under control. Perform 10 to 15 reps with 60 to 90 seconds of rest between sets.

Close Grip Incline Chest Presses

By narrowing the grip on the dumbbells and adjusting the bench to an incline, this variation emphasizes the upper and mid-chest, triceps, and front delts while engaging the core for stability. Incorporating close-grip dumbbell incline chest presses is fantastic for women striving to achieve a lean body comp.

Adjust an incline bench to a 30-45 degree angle, and hold a pair of dumbbells close together with an overhand grip. Lie back on the bench, and press dumbbells above your chest. Engage your core, and lower the dumbbells with control until they tap your shoulders. Press the dumbbells upward until your arms straighten, keeping the weights close together. Complete three sets of 8 to 15 reps with 60 seconds of rest between sets.

Half Kneeling Overhead Presses

This list of compound exercises for women to get lean wraps up with the half kneeling overhead press. This move can be executed using either dumbbells or kettlebells. This dynamic movement effectively builds lean muscle mass in the deltoids and triceps, engaging the core and lower body for stability and strength. By adopting the half kneeling position, you’ll learn to maintain proper alignment, keeping your ribcage stacked over your pelvis, which enhances core stability and overall posture.

Start by kneeling on one knee with your other foot planted firmly on the ground. Hold a dumbbell in one hand at shoulder height with your elbow bent and palm facing forward. Engage your core to stabilize your body, and press the dumbbell overhead, fully extending your arm while keeping your torso upright. Lower the dumbbell back down with control to shoulder height, and repeat for the desired number of repetitions. Perform three sets of eight to 15 reps per side with 60 to 90 seconds of rest between sets.


Frequently Asked Questions

What Are Compound Exercises?

Compound exercises are workouts that engage two or more different joints to fully stimulate entire muscle groups and multiple muscles. They are effective for building strength, enhancing coordination, and boosting calorie burn due to the high level of effort they require compared to isolation exercises, which only work one muscle or muscle group at a time.

Why Should Women Focus on Compound Exercises?

Women should focus on compound exercises because they offer numerous benefits such as improved strength, more effective calorie burning, higher levels of muscle engagement, and time efficiency. These exercises simulate real-world movements and activities, which can enhance functional fitness and reduce the risk of injuries by improving joint stability and muscle balance.

Can Compound Exercises Help in Achieving a Lean Physique?

Yes, compound exercises can significantly help in achieving a lean physique. They are highly effective in burning calories, increasing muscle mass, and improving metabolic rates. A higher muscle mass leads to a higher resting metabolic rate, meaning you will burn more calories even when not exercising, thereby promoting a leaner physique.

What Are Examples of Compound Exercises?

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Lunges
  • Bench Press
  • Shoulder Press
  • Pull-ups/Chin-ups
  • Push-ups
  • Dips
  • Barbell Rows
  • Plank Rows

These exercises target multiple muscle groups across the body, making them ideal for overall strength and conditioning, especially for women aiming for a lean physique.

How Often Should Women Perform Compound Exercises?

The frequency of compound exercises for women depends on their fitness level, goals, and the intensity of the workout program. However, a general recommendation is to incorporate compound movements into workout routines 3-4 times a week. This allows for adequate rest and recovery between sessions, which is vital for muscle growth and preventing injury.

Are Compound Exercises Suitable for Beginners?

Yes, compound exercises are suitable for beginners. They are pivotal in building a solid foundation of strength and coordination. However, it is crucial for beginners to focus on proper form and technique to prevent injuries. Starting with lighter weights or even bodyweight exercises and gradually increasing difficulty is advisable to ensure safety and progress.

Can Compound Exercises be Done at Home?

Absolutely! Many compound exercises do not require gym equipment and can be effectively done at home. Exercises such as squats, push-ups, lunges, and planks require no equipment and still provide significant benefits. For those that typically require equipment, like deadlifts and shoulder presses, substitutes using bodyweight or household items can be employed to mimic these workouts closely.


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