Practical and scientifically-backed guidance on the best kinds of exercises for feeling and looking better
Images throughout are from ESPN’s 2015 Body Issue
A lot of people want to know what exercises they should do to lose weight. Of course regardless of your shape, size or fitness goals, consistent exercise is crucial to living a long and healthy life (not to mention keeping bright and youthful skin).
There’s lots of misinformation and myths out there giving bad advice to those hoping to find the best sport for losing weight, so we’re here to provide some practical and scientifically-backed guidance on the best kinds of exercises for feeling and looking better.
Let’s start with knocking down some of the things you thought were true…
Paige Selenski, Olympic field hockey player
Bench press, deadlifts and pull ups are all crucial for getting field hockey players the strength and endurance they need to run the field – while guiding the ball and stick – during a long game.
Table of Contents
Overall Fat Loss vs. Toning
First things first: throw away every magazine telling you all about the “Best Workouts to Tone Your Arms” or “6 Great Exercises for Toned Thighs”. In fact, let’s all agree to stop using the word “toned”. It is an overwhelmingly common belief that you can “tone” your problem areas with a few targeted exercises a day, but the truth is more complicated.
The “toned” look you may see in fitness magazines is achieved first and foremost by lowering your body fat percentage – and for better or for worse, everyone’s body stores fat a little differently. While your own genetics may predispose you to holding more fat in your belly, your friend may first carry fat in her face, while your other friend may first gain fat in her butt. This is why even with years of diligent diet and exercise to lower their overall body fat percentage, some people still opt for liposuction – it’s all thanks to our pesky genes!
That means the real key to not just losing weight, but also looking and feeling better and achieving a healthier body is lowering your body fat percentage.
So what does that mean for us ladies?
Natalie Coughlin, swimmer and 12-time Olympic medalist
Is it any surprise that swimmers focus on strengthening their shoulders with chest press and rows? Choose swimming for your cardio for strong back and shoulders.
Fitness Challenges for Women
First, the “bad” news (depending on your perspective). You will probably not be surprised to hear that women have a naturally higher body fat percentage. That’s just biology doing its job – we need things like breasts and hips to sustain life on our planet (you’re welcome, mankind). Our bodies, as women, have to maintain a certain percentage of fat because the survival of the human race depends upon it.
So when you hear men talking about lowering their body fat percentage, don’t compare yourself. Here’s what you can realistically aim for instead:
What happens when you burn fat? You lose weight, and yes, if you’re exercising, eating right and recovering properly, you’re building muscle. Does that mean you have to “worry” about achieving a muscular look that you’re not fond of?
Absolutely not. Professional and Olympic athletes train lifetimes to get the chiseled look you see on television. Especially as a woman, building muscle is important, but certainly far from easy, so set any worries you may have about that “muscular look” aside.
The reality is that women exercising are operating on about one tenth of the testosterone that active men are, which not only means that you don’t have to worry about looking overly muscular, but furthermore it means that it’s simply much more difficult for women to achieve the “toned body” they’re working towards.
Brittney Griner, professional basketball player and first NCAA basketball player ever to score 2,000 shots and block 500 shots.
Deadlifts, bench press, squats and rows are all important for keeping basketball players in top shape and injury-free.
Fitness Advantages for Women
Women have an advantage over men in one way, though – at least when it comes to exercise. Women can lift more reps at a higher percentage of their maximum effort than men can because women aren’t as neuromuscularly efficient as men.
Let’s translate: A greater neuromuscular efficiency means that the body is more efficient at applying force and executing movement. Think: convincing your big, strong man friends to help you move house. While this might give men the occasional advantage when lifting heavy things, when it comes to lifting weights repetitively, as we do in the gym, women have the upper hand, because they’re able to exert great effort over more repetitions of the lift. In other words, where a man might lift 90 percent of his maximum weight for three reps, a woman can lift 90 percent of her maximum weight for five reps. Women are pretty awesome like that.
Amanda Bingson, current American record holder for the hammer throw
Throwers need to spend time in the gym perfecting their front squats and bench press lifts. They also need lifts that enhance their sudden bursts of powerful strength, like the power snatch.
Nutritional Needs for Female Athletes
Every athlete – aspiring or otherwise – needs a practical nutrition plan.
Start by calculating your Basic Metabolic Rate (BMR). (Don’t worry, that sounds fancier than it really is.) All you need to do is get a baseline of your current caloric needs based on your physical condition and lifestyle. You’ll use that number to figure out what you’ll have to eat in order to lose weight. There are professional options for calculating your BMR, but you can use online calculators (like this one) to give you an accurate estimate. Fill the form out as honestly as possible in order to determine your maintenance caloric intake. Once the calculator has given you a number, of course you’ll have to eat slightly less than that in order to lose weight. Easier said than done!
Especially when exercising, cutting calories is difficult. Start by subtracting 100 from your BMR and make that your goal for the following two weeks. If you find yourself struggling and lacking energy, try to subtract only 50 instead. Listening to your body – especially when on a new diet and exercise regimen – is important.
Make sure that you’re fueling your body with the correct balance of “macronutrients” (protein, carbs and fat). Try a balance of 40 percent protein, 30 percent fats and 30 percent carbohydrates, but remember to choose your macronutrient sources practically. Chicken is a great source of protein, but duck is high in fat. Nuts are great for monounsaturated fats – fast food burgers are not.
When it comes to carbs, whenever possible stick to those with a low glycemic index (GI), which means carbohydrates that release their sugars slowly instead of all at once. A carb with a low GI, for example, would be a sweet potato, while an example of a high GI carb would be a regular potato.
One helpful rule of thumb that some women use is to eat .75 grams of protein for each pound of your body weight. This number might be useful for some, but remember to enjoy food! Know the numbers you should be aiming for, but don’t become a slave to them.
Remember also: your body needs 5 to 7 servings a day of fresh vegetables (leafy greens are especially good for your skin), and to eat sugar only in moderation – your teeth will thank you! (Natural sugars like fructose found in fruits are the best.) Drink alcohol only in moderation and get plenty of sleep.
Ali Krieger, FIFA World Cup Champion and Olympic silver medalist
Soccer players do lots of squats, deadlifts and other lower body lifts to build strong legs for powerful, short sprints as well the endurance needed for long matches.
This deserves emphasis: Eating properly is key to a successful regimen, but so is your recovery time.
You don’t need to tax yourself for hours a day in the gym. In fact you’re only likely to do damage that way – physiologically and mentally!
Post-workout, rushing to the bar for a drink or staying out late will undo the hard work you’ve done burning fat and building muscle. Recover with lots and lots of stretching, water and a protein shake (or better yet, a healthy meal within 1 to 2 hours of exercising), and most importantly, 8 hours of sleep. Drinking too much alcohol will negatively influence your quality of sleep, which then prevents you from recovering fully and making progress towards your fitness goals.
You don’t have to remake your whole lifestyle. But you do have to make some significant changes if you want to see results.
Sadena Parks, professional golfer on the LPGA tour
Golfers need to follow a practical exercise plan, but they also need to be careful not to overtax themselves. While other athletes will lift at reps of 10, 12 or 15, golfers will stick to lower reps (like 6) at higher weights with longer rest times (like 3 minutes or more).
Recommended Exercises for Overall Fat Burning, Strength Building & a “Toned” Body
For those of us starting from scratch, beginning with the fundamental compound lifts will make the biggest difference. Once you’ve mastered these kinds of routines, you can move on to adding accessory movements to tweak and strengthen your weak spots. But mastering the compound lifts are key to any fitness program and will yield the most significant results for those who stick with them over the years.
The basic movements you need to learn are the squat, deadlift, bench and overhead press. If you have an experienced friend with a home gym or who can join you at the gym, that’s ideal for learning correct form. Performing these lifts with the right form is not just crucial to your fitness progress but furthermore to your safety. Bad form leads to injury so make sure to be vigilant!
Bad form can also be caused by weaknesses. For example, if your back rounds while you squat, it could be because you have a weak upper or lower back or weak abdomen muscles. That’s where the accessory lifts come in handy – focus on your compound lifts but add accessory lifts to improve your performance of compound lifts. Addressing these imbalances and weaknesses will lead to an overall superior performance, keep you healthy, injury-free, and further your ultimate goal of decreasing your body fat percentage.
The deadlift – Start with a Romanian deadlift without a bar. After that becomes comfortable (that may take anywhere from weeks to months), add a bar.
Remember the old adage: “Lift with your legs – not your back!”
The bench – Be sure to try with a partner your first time – the bar is heavy without any weights! Protect your shoulders and keep correct form with this tutorial.
The overhead press – Make sure not to flare your elbows and maintain a narrow grip in order to avoid shoulder injury. Refer to this tutorial from StrongLifts.
Accessory movements like Good Mornings, Bulgarian split squats, barbell shrugs, rows, dips, pullups, planks and more are just that – accessories to your main workout. Perform these at lower weights and frequencies than you would your compound lifts.
Cardio AKA everyone’s favorite part of a good workout! The options are endless – if you prefer a long run, swim or cycle, then go for it, but mix in shorter, higher intensity cardio routines every now and then (at least once a week) like sprints and burpees.
Dallas Friday, professional wakeboarder and winner of 4 X Games gold medals.
Wakeboarders need strong legs to endure rough waters – Romanian deadlifts and accessory exercises like box jumps will make a huge difference, while rows and chin-ups will build strong, sexy arms and back.
Example Exercise Routine / Workout
- 5-10 minutes of warm up (stretching – especially your hips – jumping jacks or jogging to get your heart rate up)
- Squat: 4 sets of 12-15 reps with 1-3 minute rest between sets. (To know what weight to perform this at, you should be able to keep good form throughout, but feel yourself struggling towards the end. Never sacrifice form for weight! Butt back, chest up, knees out and don’t let your chest fall. To change up your routine, substitute with Romanian Deadlifts at least once a week.)
- Bench press for 3 sets of 12-15 reps OR overhead press 3 sets of 10 reps
- Dips or pull ups until failure, twice. (“Until failure” means until you can’t do anymore. Full body dips and pull ups are extremely difficult so relative beginners should try reverse pull ups or bench dips instead.)
- One lower body accessory lift, 3 sets of 12 reps. (Don’t overtax yourself on accessory lifts, but don’t give yourself too much rest between sets, either. 30 seconds to 1 minute should be enough.)
- One upper body accessory lift, 3 sets of 12 reps.
- Cool down (Soft jogging + lots and lots of stretching. Skipping your cool down is a sure way to get injured.)
Aly Raisman, artistic gymnast and Olympic gold medalist
Lifts are great for building strength for all athletes – but gymnasts stand out from the crowd. Gymnastics is so challenging that these athletes use body weight training exercises to build their incredibly strong muscles. Once you’ve mastered a lifting program, you can somebody challenge yourself to a body weight exercise program. Be patient – it takes years to achieve fitness goals like those gymnasts aspire to!
Disclaimer: The information on this website and any related links are for general informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. Do not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating any medical or health condition. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, contact a professional healthcare provider.