Q&A Tuesday – Strength Exercises for Women

by Chris on April 26, 2011

This week’s Q&A question comes from Laura, who posted on the Train Better Fitness Facebook Page. Laura asks:

“What are the best exercises, aside from pushups, for women to develop arm strength? My goal is to be able to do at least 1 pull up by the end of the summer”

That’s a great question, and I wish more women would express this kind of interest in getting stronger. Being able to do pullups is a great goal for anyone.

Pushups are one of the best strength training exercises because they are simple, easy to learn and can be done anywhere with no equipment. They are a great exercise for developing the triceps, chest and shoulders, and they strengthen the core, too.

With regard to building strength for doing pullups, however, pushups are not your best bet. Pushups work mostly opposite muscles as a pullup. Pullups primarily train the lats (muscles of the back) and the biceps. They are also one of the best strength exercises period.

If you can’t already do pullups with your bodyweight alone, the best way to train them is to do assisted pullups. I prefer to do assisted pullups, rather than a lat pull machine because they train the body more efficiently for that movement. Lat pulls are easy to “cheat” on and when that happens, you don’t end up using the right muscles effectively. Two of the best ways to do assisted pullups are on an actual assisted pullup machine, or failing one of those, using a resistance band to assist you from a pullup bar.

In the video below Ross Enamait shows how to to a band assisted pullup.

Other exercises for developing upper body strength for women are honestly the same as they are for men. Focus on big, multijoint movements like pressing variations (bench presses, overhead presses, pushups), and different forms of rows. The rows will help strengthen the muscles necessary for doing pullups as well, and the presses are important as they are contra-specific (opposite) of the pulls.

Train your pullups often, and with varying levels of assistance. Do multiple sets in different rep ranges on different days. This will strengthen different muscle fibers and prevent your body from becoming too accustomed to the training, thus minimizing the chance of plateauing and your results getting stale. For example, if you train full body three days a week, you might do pullup variations on days 1 and 3 with day 1 using a 8-10 rep range and day 3 using a 6-8 range. Remember that building strength is an important part of being able to do a pullup, so working in the heavier rep range is vital. Another variation you might want to try is using different types of grips. Training overhand, underhand, neutral and mixed grip pullups can help you make progress. I still believe that training mixed grip pullups was one of the factors that helped me reach a one armed pullup.  As with any exercise, make sure you use good technique. If you do all that, you should be knocking out pullups in no time.

Keep me posted on your progress, and let me know if you have any follow up questions!



Vanessa Gale April 27, 2011 at 6:19 pm

- “That’s a great question, and I wish more women would express this kind of interest in getting stronger. Being able to do pullups is a great goal for anyone.”

PullUps were my goal too! now i do 10!
And I squat 240. bench 135. and Pull 315.

Lets hear it for STRONG WOMEN!

Thanks for this post, chris!

Chris April 28, 2011 at 10:28 am

Thanks for the comment Vanessa. Keep up the strong work.

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