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Upper-Body Strength for Women

Written by Matt Danielsson

Nature has doled out strength somewhat unevenly between the genders. Women generally have strong legs and hips, equal to and sometimes stronger than most men. This is good news for jumping, running, kicking and so forth. Unfortunately, once we move above the waistline, men tend to be considerably stronger on a pound-for-pound comparison—in other words, in the back, arms and chest or abs.

That leaves many women at a disadvantage for pushing movements, pull-ups and most types of lifts. The good news is that much of this gap can be bridged through smart training. With discipline and determination, you should be able to see noticeable improvement in a matter of months.

Back

Developing a strong back creates core strength, which is beneficial in pretty much any type of physical exercises. There are a few key components to consider when it comes to back. First off, the anatomy of the back is complex with small and seemingly unrelated muscles layered with larger muscles, yet somehow it is all interconnected. It is important to maintain a balanced muscularity to avoid potential injuries, so make sure to incorporate different types of exercises into each workout.

Secondly, the back is designed to handle a fair amount of work, but it is also easy to get yourself injured. Pay special attention to the safety pointers and make it a habit to tense up your abs whenever lifting anything. Keeping your abs tense is your number one insurance policy against back injuries.

Deadlifts
Deadlifts are arguably the single most powerful exercise there is. They incorporate pretty much the entire body but put the main focus on lower back. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart in front of the barbell as it rests on the floor. Grab the barbell with your hands a few inches wider than your shoulder width. Tense up your abs, flatten your back, and keep your eyes on the ceiling.

Lift the barbell by pushing away with your heels against the floor at the same time as you straighten up your back. Keep the barbell close to your shins and exhale as you lift. Be sure to straighten your back at the same time as you push off with your legs, so that you don’t first straighten your legs and then lift with your back; it should be one single, integrated motion that takes two to three second from bottom to top. At the top, immediately turn and slowly lower the barbell the same way as you brought it up.

Keeping your back flat is critical—it is as bad to arch your back as to round it. Either position puts undue stress on the vertebrae. Have a friend or trainer check your form if you’re unsure. Also, be sure to keep your knees aligned with your feet. In other words, as you bend your knees, they should point in the same direction as your toes.

Pull-downs
Grab the bar a couple inches wider than your shoulders on each side. For the ideal width, try pulling down the bar to the top of your head before you add any weight. Whatever width lets you grasp the bar with your elbows at a 90-degree angle is the optimal width. Then sit comfortably right under the bar with your knees tucked snugly under the pads. Your knees and hips should be at a 90-degree angle.

Let the weight give your muscles a little stretch at the beginning, then slowly pull down the bar straight towards your collarbone. As the bar reaches the collarbone, try to squeeze the scapulas together for a second before resisting the weight on its way back up. Try to keep your elbows pointing straight down through the movement. Keep your abs tense.

Arch your back a little rather than leaning back, and keep the shoulders down/back. This puts the emphasis on the back rather than the arms. There are different types of bars (straight, angled, revolving handles etc.) and they all work; try them out and stick with what works best for you.

Seated Cable Rows
Sit on the pad in front of the rowing machine with knees slightly bent and both feet firmly planted on the footrests. Bend forward and grasp the handle, but try to keep your back as flat as possible; the bend should take place mostly in the hips.

Pull back so that you sit straight up while pulling the bar to your bellybutton. Focus on pulling your elbows as far down and back as they’ll go. Squeeze your scapulas together for a second before resisting the weight on the way back. Keep your shoulders down and back throughout the movement. Avoid leaning too far back; you should not go beyond the point of sitting straight up.

There are different types of handles available. Some people prefer the longer range of motion you get from using a short, straight bar, while others with less flexible wrists prefer something with angled handles. Again, try it out and use whatever works best.

Arms and Shoulders

Some women are hesitant to put too much effort into arm training out of fear of achieving an overly bulky look. Don’t worry—if it was easy to get Arnold-sized biceps, you can bet there wouldn’t be a single teenage boy who didn’t have them on display!

Arm strength, as opposed to arm size, is both attainable and useful. In most cases, it doesn’t take more than a few months to dramatically increase the amount of weight you can lift. This comes in handy for everything from controlling unruly suspects to not having to ask for help when moving heavy office equipment.

Bicep Curls
Grab a barbell or one dumbbell in each hand and stand straight with slightly bent knees and feet shoulder-width apart. Thrust your chest out just a smidgeon and let the arms hang straight down. Slowly curl the weight up as far as it’ll go without moving your elbows from their position, then resist on the way back down. If you use dumbbells, lift both at the same time.

The key here is to keep your elbows tucked in against your sides. If you let the elbows wander, you shift the emphasis from arms to shoulders, which may lead to overtraining and injury down the road. Dumbbells allow for a longer range of motion, but you can usually use more weight with a barbell. For the best of both worlds, alternate every couple of weeks.

Hammer curls
Sit on a bench with almost-upright back. You should sit up with just a slight lean backwards. Keep your knees shoulder-width apart and your feet firmly planted on the ground for balance. Grab one dumbbell in each hand and let them hang; if your bench is angled correctly, the dumbbells should be just a few inches behind you.

Curl up both arms at the same time as far as they’ll go, but here’s the thing: with hammer curls, your thumbs are facing up rather than your palms. In other words, your will hold your hands in a neutral, knuckles-pointing-out-to-the-sides manner through the entire motion, similar to how you’d hold a hammer when hitting a nail.

As with bicep curls, try to keep the elbows stationary. It may get tempting to swing the arms a little towards the end, but try to keep them still and let the biceps pull the load. In addition to training biceps, this exercise is great for strengthening the forearms.

Cable Pushdowns
Stand in front of the cable pulley with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Grab the bar (knuckles up) a few inches narrower than shoulder-width and tuck in your elbows to your sides. Relax your shoulders and tense up your abs.

Keeping your elbows stationary and in contact with your sides, push down in an arc-like motion. You may lean forward just slightly so that you get almost complete lockout at the bottom. Resist the weight on the way back up. Keep the wrists straight. Failure to do so puts undue stress on the joints and may cause them to ache later.

For best results, alternate between using a short, straight bar and a thick rope (knots on the ends, cable hooks into the middle—most gyms have specially designed ropes for this.) If a straight bar makes your wrist hurt, use an angled bar.

Chest and Abs

The chest is a deceptively easy area to train. Loading on weights on a barbell and pumping away is simple enough, but to get the most out of your workouts you should try to get as much variation as possible. The pectorals, also known as the chest muscles, are among the few muscles in the body that can work in multiple directions. In other words, you train different areas of the chest by simply angling the bench down (decline presses), flat, or up (incline presses).

While this sample workout is enough to get you started on the right foot, anyone interested in optimal progress should definitely look into additional options. Abdominals are important in keeping the body secure and balanced. If your abs are weak, your spine doesn’t have the support it needs and becomes more vulnerable when you try to lift things or need to run, jump or do other athletic activities.

Dumbbell Presses
Lie on your back on a bench with your feet on the pad. Hold the dumbbells straight up. If someone was peering down from the ceiling, your hands should cover your shoulders. Resist the weight as your elbows arc out to the sides. Keep the forearms pointing straight up. Don’t make the common mistake of letting the dumbbells “lean in” towards your torso. Continue down until you feel a decent stretch, but don’t overdo it; push back up even though you could probably go another inch or two deeper.

Keep the wrists straight and focus on letting the chest work. It may be tempting to push out the shoulders and let them pull more of the load, but that is a mistake. Keep the shoulders down against the pad at all times. This is a great time to practice explosive power—as soon as you’ve turned and has begun pushing the weight up, try to accelerate the weight upwards for that extra kicker.

Military Presses
Sit on a bench with a straight back. Keep your knees fairly wide apart and both feet firmly on the ground for balance. Grab a barbell with a shoulder-width grip and hold up against your collarbone with both elbows pointing straight down. Push up forcefully until your arms are almost straightened out above your head. Right before the elbows lock out, turn back and resist the weight on the way down.

Keep the wrists straight and avoid the “monkey grip.” As you get tired you may sway involuntarily for balance, and you don’t want to drop the barbell on top of your head. Alternate using dumbbells. A barbell usually lets you use a little more weight, while dumbbells trains each side separately and prevents uneven muscular development.

Pec Deck Flys
Sit in pec deck machine with knees shoulder width apart and feet firmly on the ground. Put your elbows against the pads so that they are just and inch or two lower than the center of your shoulder. Some machines have handles—avoid gripping them if you can. Push your elbows together in front of you, putting the focus on having the elbows being the main pushing force. This is easier to do if you are not holding the handles.

Just because it’s a machine doesn’t mean it’s safe. Be very careful not to let the weight tug at your shoulder joints as you let the weight pull your arms backwards. Most gyms have this machine, but in case yours doesn’t you can substitute it with good old-fashioned push-ups.

Matt Danielsson is an IFBB-certified personal trainer and freelance writer with 10+ years of experience. He runs www.LearnBodybuilding.com and may be reached at mattdanielsson@hotmail.com.


Published in Law and Order, Jun 2005

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