The Keys to Upper Body Strength Training for Women

Emily Beers


Vancouver, Canada



In the age of becoming more and more gender-neutral, I still respect biology. And biology has shown me in a decade of coaching fitness that women have a harder time gaining upper body strength than men. End. Of. Story.


Many of us females pull and pull and still don’t have a pull-up—it seems that no matter what we do our lats just don’t want to grow. And then we push our hearts out, but still can only do a couple of sad little push-ups.



Below are three ways I have had success helping female clients gain more upper body strength beyond embarking on death by ring row programs or logging box push-ups until the cows come home.


Upper Body Strength Key 1: Tempo

Basically this just means slowing down movements. Learning how to read tempo is definitely beneficial here.


What this looks like in practice:


  • Ring Rows @31x3


This means you’ll hold the rings at your chest for three seconds, lower for three seconds, pause for one second at the bottom and then pull as explosively as you’re able to.



You can add tempo to bodyweight movements like ring rows, pull-ups, and push-ups and also when you’re lifting. For example:


  • DB Shoulder Press @31x3



This means lower the DB for three seconds, pause for one second at the bottom, drive explosively and hold for three seconds overhead.



Adding tempo makes the movement considerably harder and helps you gain more strength and stability, especially in areas of the range of motion you’re currently weakest.


Upper Body Strength Key 2: Isometric Work

By definition, isometrics are a type of training where the joint angle and muscle length don’t change during the contraction. In other words, it’s when you’re essentially holding still, such as during a plank or a hollow hold.


Isometric work, however, can also be useful when it comes to building upper body strength.



Two movements I’m particularly fond of are:



1. Bottom of the Box or Ring Dip Hold


  • Try 3 sets of an 80 percent effort hold. Don’t go to all-out failure, but hold until you start to struggle. See if you can press out of it at the end.



2. Chin Over the Bar Hold


  • Perform 3 sets of an 80 percent effort hold. Try both a pronated and supinated grip here.




Upper Body Strength Key 3: Negatives

A negative is essentially working the eccentric part of the movement, meaning the portion of the movement when your muscle is lengthening as opposed to contracting. On a push-up, this would be when you’re lowering toward the ground, and on a pull-up, it’s when you’re lowering yourself back down into a dead-hang hold.


I have great success helping female clients get their first handstand push-up through working the negative portion of the movement.


1. Handstand Push-Up Negative


  • Log 5 to 10 reps of an 8 to 10-second negative. Rest as needed in between reps.



2. Negative Pull-Up


  • Log 5 to 10 reps of an 8-10 second negative. To make it more challenging, pause for 5 seconds when your arms are at a 90-degree angle. Rest as needed between reps.



Put It To Practice

Not only will adding tempo, isometric, and negative work to your upper body training help you gain strength, it will also help increase your stability and joint strength. And, it will add a little more variety so you’re less bored doing ring rows five days a week as you eagerly await your first pull-up.

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