Train With Confidence Using This Beginner Gym Workout For Women

Magnus Lygdback training Alicia Vikander
(Image credit: Unknown)

When you’re new to the gym it’s very easy to stay in your comfort zone, hitting your cardio machine of choice for a bit then sliding right on out of there. There’s nothing wrong with a cardio workout, of course, but do the same thing over and over again you’re unlikely to experience any benefits and you’re likely to get hella bored – a surefire combo to start you skipping sessions and regret joining every time you see the direct debit go out.

To avoid that fate follow this simple gym workout for women from Magnus Lygdback, who trained Alicia Vikander ahead of her role as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (2018).

“If you’re new to the gym it’s important to build up the fundamentals,” says Lygdback. “Make sure you keep good form and don’t go too hard. But the philosophy remains the same for me whether you’re a beginner or more advanced. If you want to tone up and build some muscle mass I’m a big fan of a three-split programme. You work through your whole body in three days.”

How to follow this gym workout for women 

Lygdback’s gym workout for women involves doing three 45-60 minute sessions. Every workout starts with 15 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), before moving on to strength exercises that target different areas of the body for 30-45 minutes.

“HIIT is always a good idea, whether you’re a beginner or not,” says Lydgback. “I always start the first ten to 15 minutes of my session with some intervals. It could be on a treadmill, a rower or a bicycle. Warm up for five minutes, then do 60 seconds at your maximum capacity, then rest for 60 seconds. As a beginner I’d do that three to five times.”

The gym workouts for women should be done in the order listed below for best results, but you don’t have to do them on set days each week.

“I will let my life determine when I work out,” says Lygdback. “Personally I’m on a four-split programme and I just keep that rolling. Sometimes I rest on a Wednesday, sometimes I rest two days in a row on the weekend, and sometimes I work through the weekend. I listen to my body and let life dictate a little, because we all have a life outside of the gym!”

When it comes to the strength sections of the workouts it’s important to work the target areas from all angles, but Lygdback suggests it’s not vital to have an exact list of exercises to follow when you walk into the gym. Lygdback has suggested some exercises for each of the workouts but make sure you mix it up and target the muscles from different angles each time. You’ll find plenty of options on our exercise guide pages.

For each workout, Lygdback recommends five or six exercises, doing three sets of high numbers of reps – 20 for exercises where you alternate the main limbs involved, like lunges, and 15 for non-alternating exercises like front squats. For all exercises he recommends mastering the form first before worrying about how much weight you use.

"Form is number one,” says Lygdback. “Weight is secondary. Never push the weight and never compromise on good form.” 

If you’re unsure, ask one of the PTs at the gym – that’s what they’re there for.

Gym Workout For Women Session 1: Legs And Core

After your 15 minutes of HIIT concentrate your session on the legs and core, making sure to hit all the major muscle groups in the legs as well as your glutes.

“A goblet squat is a very good exercise for beginners,” says Lygdback. “Hold a kettlebell or a dumbbell in front of your chest and then do a regular squat. The reason for the weight in front of your body is that you activate the core and the lower back, because you make those muscles fire before you squat.

“I’m also big fan of lunges, which work the back side of the legs, the hamstrings and glutes. And also skater jumps, which work your fast-twitch muscle fibres and activate the small glute muscle fibres as well. That’s a nice little combo anyone can do.”

RECOMMENDED: Leg Exercises | Core Exercises

Here’s a sample legs and core workout:

1. Goblet squat

Goblet squat

(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 15

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest in both hands. Lower, bending at the knees and pushing your hips back until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then push through your heels to stand back up.

2. Lunge


(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 10 each side

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, then take a big step forwards with your right foot and lower until both knees are bent at a 90° angle. Push back up through your front foot to return to the starting position. Alternate which side you lunge on with each rep.

3. Skater jump

Skater jump

(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 10 each side

From standing, leap to the side and as you land, bring your trailing leg behind your standing leg. Take a beat to balance on one leg, then leap in the opposite direction and repeat the action.

Gym Workout For Women Session 2: Back, Shoulders And Core

“On day two I would say work your back, shoulders and core again, but maybe the obliques with more rotational movements instead of the inner core muscles,” says Lygdback.

“I would do one straight pull, like a lat pull-down. You can’t expect anyone to do a pull-up in the beginning. Then a rowing exercise. There are so many options, from a standing dumbbell row to a sitting row with a cable machine. Then something else for the back, to change the direction of pulling. Then for the fourth exercise some kind of reverse flye to activate the rhomboids and shoulders. Then work the outside shoulders with the fifth exercise, something like a lateral raise.”

RECOMMENDED: Back Exercises | Shoulder Exercises | Core Exercises

Here’s a sample back, shoulders and core workout:

1. Lat pull-down

Lat pull-down

(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 15

Sit on a lat pull-down machine and choose an appropriate weight, which is one that will make the final few reps of each set challenging. Hold the bar with both hands above your head. Pull it down to your upper chest, retracting your shoulder blades and squeezing your lats at the bottom of the move.

2. One-arm dumbbell row

One-arm dumbbell row

(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 10 each side

Lean on a bench supporting yourself on one arm so your back is parallel to the ground, and hold a dumbbell in the other hand, letting it hang down. Bring the dumbbell up to your chest, drawing your elbow up past your ribs and concentrating on using your back and shoulder muscles to lift it, rather than your arm. Do all your reps on one side, then switch.

3. TRX row

TRX row

(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 15

Grab a set of TRX ropes and lean back so you’re supporting your weight with your arms. The further away your feet are from the handles (ie the less you lean back), the easier the move is, so adjust your position as required. Pull your chest up to meet the handles, again focusing on using your back and shoulder muscles rather than your arms.

4. Reverse flye

Reverse flye

(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 15

Hold a dumbbell in each hand, hinge forwards at your hips so your torso is parallel to the ground and let the weights hang down. Keep a slight bend in your elbows as you raise the dumbbells out to the sides until they reach shoulder height. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, then lower the weights back to the start.

5. Lateral raise

Lateral raise

(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 15

Stand holding dumbbells by your sides. Keep a slight bend in your elbows as you slowly raise the weights until your arms are extended and parallel to the ground. Then lower them back to the start.

Gym Workout For Women Session 3: Chest And Arms

“After interval training move on to the chest, then the biceps and triceps,” says Lygdback.

"For the chest it could be press-ups, chest press or bench press – anything where you’re pushing. And then biceps curls and triceps press-downs. Just switch it up. The most important thing is to work the right muscles.”

RECOMMENDED: Chest Exercises | Arm Exercises | Biceps Exercises | Triceps Exercises

And finally, a sample chest and arms workout:

1. Press-up


(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 15

Start in a press-up position with your hands under your shoulders and feet together. Lower your chest towards the floor, then push back up.

2. Biceps curl

Biceps curl

(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 15

Hold dumbbells by your hips in an underhand grip, palms facing forwards, with your arms against your body. Bend at your elbows, keeping your upper arms tight to your body, and lift the dumbbells up to your shoulders. Then slowly lower back to the start.

3. Triceps press-down

Triceps press-down

(Image credit: Unknown)

Sets 3 Reps 15

Set up a cable machine with the bar attachment at head height and stand facing it, holding the handle in both hands. Keeping your elbows tight to your sides, pull the cable down until the handle reaches your thighs.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.