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Women: Building the Upper Body

Article written by Alanna Casey
I get this question a lot: what should women do to train upper body? My answer is simple, you do what the guys do. Now, if you don’t want a strong upper body, please ignore everything else I say. If you simply want to “tone” your narrow shoulders and little lats, then this article is not for you. This article is for women who want caps for shoulders, a big bench, and lats like wings.
If you’re still with me, then awesome, listen up! Women should train upper body no differently than a man trains upper body. However, I see the opposite happen all the time. Women train hard and end up with big powerful legs, yet lack a developed upper body. The reason for this is simple; they don’t train upper body for power.  

The two main lifts that I identify as a “must” for a powerful upper body are: the bench press and the overhead press. You should do these lifts and/or a variation of these lifts every week. Most importantly, you should do them with heavy weight. I recognized that “heavy weight” is different for everyone but, when doing 3 sets of 8 reps on both exercises, your last 2 reps should be very challenging. As a standard, if you still look pretty during your last two reps, you’re doing it wrong; up your weight.

Additionally, the majority of your lifting time should be focused on upper body. For example, I train 4 times a week. One day I train squats, one day I train bench, one day I train deadlift and one day I train overhead press. Now, when I break down my assistance work, I actually spend more TIME on my upper body. This is because on deadlift day, about half of my assistance exercises are upper body movements (wide grip pull ups, good mornings, barbell row). When you think about the intensity level of a typical Powerlifter/Strongwoman workout, this makes sense. It makes sense because the overall stress you are able to place on the lower body is greater than the overall stress you typically place on the upper body. For example, when you squat or deadlift, you are moving very heavy weight, relative to your body mass.

When you train upper body you end up using lower weights because you’re using smaller muscle groups in the body and less efficient levers. Because it is difficult to place the upper body under as much stress as the lower body, you need to train it more often. I do not mean you should bench 3 times a week. What I mean, is that you should have a variety of upper body movements throughout your weekly training cycle. 

My favorite exercises for wide lats and a big bench: 

Wide grip pull ups: Use a band if you need to, or even push off your training partners hands. If you really need to, use the reverse weighted pull up machine, but make it challenging! Try to get in 40 reps weekly. It doesn’t matter how “assisted” they end up being as long as you get them in! When I first started these I could only do 1 rep. I have to rely on assistance machines for all of my other reps.

Dumbbell flat bench press: Make sure to control the weight, especially on the negative. Using dumbbells as opposed to a barbell will challenge your stabilizing muscles more. 

Single arm dumbbell rows: Go HEAVY on these! Lower the db slowly then crank it up with power!

Seated dumbbell shoulder presses: One these, be sure to bring the dumbbell down low. This means 
your elbows should break the 90 degree plane. Flare your lats through the top of the movement.

Single arm dumbbell snatches: Start with a single dumbbell on the floor. Snatch it overhead in one fluid motion, exploding your hips as you complete the movement. Your weight should mostly be in your heels as you snatch. Keep the barbell as close to your body as possible and in a straight line as you pull.

Overhead barbell lockouts: Set the barbell on safety pins which place the barbell at forehead level. Every rep should be initiated from the safety pins.  Press the barbell overhead, resetting the weight on the safety pins at the end of each rep.

Bent over barbell rows: If you use and overhand grip one week, use an underhand grip the next week. Bend slightly at the hips and pull the barbell to your belly button. Your weight should mostly be on your heels. Use the heaviest weight possible, while still being able to keep your back in a straight line. If you start looking like the hunchback of Notre Dame, lower your weight. 


3 thoughts on “Women: Building the Upper Body

  1. Would you mind posting a typical week for you in terms of what upper body accessory work you are performing? Ive decided my goal is to get big lats like yours 🙂 I realize I couldn’t necessarily do that using the same exact program as you, but just to get some ideas as far as programming goes. I would much appreciate it. Thanks!

  2. I hear you on the pull ups. It took me years to be able to do them for reps but the overall strength it has given me is outstanding.

  3. Okay… so I’m going to be honest here… I’m a 44 year old woman, that is heavy!! Although, with that said, I lift heavy (for me) too. I’m not into the little weights….I lift to failure with every set, and am increasing my weight each week. With that said…. I can’t complete even one pull up. I hate to say it, but I can’t. I live in a small town with no gym….only the high school’s weight room, which leaves a lot to be desired. I really want to start doing these, as I know it will benefit me and my physique….what can I do for this? Do I stand on a chair and pull as I can? Ugh…. I’m so frustrated with how to start trying to incorporate this movement/exercise into my workout. Thanks.

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