Ladies Can Do It Too: Stronger Pull-ups, Dips & Pushups

by Chris on March 12, 2013

A question I get all the time from female trainees is how to improve on doing bodyweight movements like pull-ups, dips and pushups. I love getting this question because it shows that these women are interested in getting stronger and haven’t fallen victim to bullshit methods that say you should never lift anything over 3 pounds and only train small assistance muscles to pull the skin closer to the muscle.

There’s a very important thing to remember when it comes to this subject: women don’t need to train for strength any differently than men. The principles are the same so that’s where you are going to start. I’m going to use pull-ups as an example because they seem to be what I get asked about most.

The key to building your pull-up strength is progression. For starters you need to know where you are right now. What’s your strength level? Can you do a single pull-up? A few? None?

If you can’t do any or can only do less than 5 I would focus on developing the strength using methods that most closely resemble the movement pattern. My primary choices would be band-assisted pull-ups and negatives, each done on a separate day. This way you’re training the strength twice a week with a few days of rest in between. For the band-assisted version I recommend doing sets of 6-10 reps. For the negatives jump up to the bar and try to slow your descent as much as possible for a few sets of 1-3 reps.

If you don’t have access to bands (not everyone does) but do have an assisted pull-up machine you can use that as well. I’ve used that machine extensively with many female clients and it has helped them get to the point where they were able to knock out a few bodyweight pull-ups. As with the band assisted version stick to reps from 6-10 and focus on full range of motion.

Now, once you are able to do at least 5 solid reps, no kipping and chin all the way up you can switch things around. At least once I week I would focus on practicing your unassisted pull-ups and aim for a total number of reps for the day in as few sets as possible. If you can only do about 5-8 reps straight shoot for 15-20 reps for the day and increase the total number of reps as you get stronger. You can still benefit from training with an assisted version one more time each week as this will help you get extra reps in and reinforce the movement pattern.

There is another very important thing to pay attention to when it comes to movements like pull-ups. In my experience pull-ups are best trained by avoiding failure as much as possible. Try not to fail reps if you can prevent it. In fact I always prefer to keep at least one or two reps “in the tank” on every set. This has worked very well for me and my clients. Try these methods out and let me know how they work for you.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura Dolce March 12, 2013 at 12:00 pm

This was great. I know I’ve asked you about pull-ups on a few occasion and this article helped clarify the best way to work up to doing more. I started this year not being able to do any, but now I can do at the most 3 (on a good day). I was able to do this by using those gymnastic-looking rings and hanging them off my chip-up bar, building strength by pulling myself up and lowering myself down slowly. I’ve been having trouble doing more than 3 but after reading this article, I will use these tips in my workout. Thank you, Chris! Looking forward to your articles on dips and pushups.

Christopher Smith March 12, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Awesome Laura. Keep me posted and let me know if you need any help.

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