I always cringe when I hear the catch-phrase “strong is the new sexy.”
That doesn’t mean I don’t think strong is sexy. I just believe we should keep the two separate. Sexy is sexy. Strong is strong.
But more importantly, strong is useful. Strong is practical. Strong is functional. As a 35-year-old woman, being strong is what will help me defend myself physically if need be. And that’s probably more important to me than my strength being viewed as sexy.
Despite what the old generations taught about women and strength training—“It isn’t feminine.” (etc, etc)—more and more of us no longer believe this. As a result, we want to get strong!
On the same token, I also still believe some things my mother taught me, like men being from Mars and me being from Venus. This is only to say biologically-speaking men and women aren’t the same. And when it comes to gaining strength and mass, we’re certainly not the same.
The obvious difference is upper body strength. Men just have more of it naturally. Period. Women have to work a lot harder to gain pulling and pushing strength. Meanwhile, women tend to be better at sit-ups, most likely because we tend to carry more of our weight in our lower bodies, whereas men have that triangle build with more upper body mass, so they have to lift a lot greater percentage of their body weight during sit-ups.
And on a more subtle level, women tend to be able to maintain a higher percentage of their max effort longer. For example, let’s say your 1 rep max deadlift is 300lbs. As a woman, you might be able to lift 300lbs for just one rep, but you can lift 290lbs for 5 reps. Men, on the other hand, tend to have a bigger drop from their 1-rep max to their 5-rep max. That’s just the way it tends to be, and certainly what I have witnessed in 10 years of being a strength coach.
So, if you’re a woman and you are looking to get strong, here are five very simple exercises you should consider that will develop strength in all the major ways to move: push, pull, squat, hinge, and carry.
It’s not rocket science. You don’t need to concoct all sorts of crazy, sexy movements to gain strength. Like the old acronym “KISS” you learned in school in English class says, keep it simple, silly.
1. Strength Move for Women: The Good Old Push-Up
Don’t worry, we’re not going to place you on your knees as they did in PE class in grade school. I have found with my clients there are two better ways to gain pushing strength than knee push-ups. Doing banded push-ups will get you much closer to a traditional military push-up.
One option is to throw a thin band over the bar and hop in. Stay on your feet and go through the full range of motion until your chest touches the ground, and completely lock your elbows at the top. Though the band is giving you some help, this movement simulates a full push-up much better than a knee push-up, which tends to change the angle and often make it too easy.
Once you can do five sets of 10 with one band, move to a smaller, thinner band. You’re allowed to rest 1 to 2 minutes between sets.
Another option is the box push-up. This is essentially a regular push-up but at an incline. Start with a 30-inch box. As you gain strength, move to a 24-inch box, then a 20-inch box, eventually a 12-inch box, and before you know it you’ll be on the ground rocking push-ups. Same rule here, Once you can do 5 sets of 10 push-ups, move to the next level.
Make sure your body stays stiff at a board and you don’t hinge yourself over at the hips or worm your way up on your lockout.
2. Strength Move for Women: The Ring Row
Women always ask me if I can teach them a pull-up. I always tell them they’re going to have to embrace “Death by Ring Rows,” meaning months and months of logging ring rows before they’re likely to be able to do a pull-up. The point is: I can’t just teach you a pull-up. But you can earn your way to one via ring rows.
I know, a ring row will never be the new pull-up, but it truly does go a long way in gaining strength. In fact, I find I can make these as hard as pull-ups if my angle is challenging enough.
Start as vertical as you need to be to complete 5 sets of 10 with one to two minutes rest between sets. Then start changing your angle by moving one step forward. Like the push-up, increase your angle to being more horizontal once you reach the magic 5 sets of 10. Check out the video to get a better grasp of the angles I’m talking about.
Before you know it, I won’t need to teach you a pull-up—you’ll just be able to do one.
3. Strength Move for Women: Squat Variations
You’ve heard it before—the squat is the king of kings. Get yourself squatting well first without weight before you add load. Then move to a goblet squat and then a back squat.
First goal: achieve a body weight back squat. Then a 1.5 body weight back squat. For some people, eventually, maybe a double bodyweight back squat. If you’re new to the squat, you will need to develop mechanics before you add intensity.
4. Strength Move for Women: Hinge Variations
Though a hinge sounds simple, it’s one of the hardest moves to learn properly. But it’s imperative for building posterior chain strength—meaning your glutes, hamstrings, and back.
Start with a dowel hinge. The idea here is to maintain three points of contact (your head, back, and bum) on the dowel as you hinge. Your shins should be perpendicular to the floor, your spine neutral, and your bum should move backward, as opposed to your shoulders trending forward.
Then move to the good morning, then a KB swing, then a deadlift. In the video, notice how the movement pattern—what the body is doing—doesn’t change much, even though the movements are somewhat different.
5. Strength Move for Women: Farmer Carries
Because grocery shopping and carrying five bags from the car to the house isn’t annoying enough, now we’re going to ask you to carry heavy weights up and down the street.
It’s really simple, keep good posture. Hold two DBs or KBs, one in each hand, and head out for a 100-meter farmer carry. Try not to put the weights down. If you manage that, increase your weight. Farmer carries are also great for grip strength.
Put Your Strength to Use
Remember, pretty much all the movements we do fall into one of these five categories: squat, hinge, push, pull, and carry.
Gaining strength in super simple ways doesn’t make you weak—it makes you smart. And before you know it, that body weight back squat will become a single leg pistol squat, and all that pushing and pulling will result in a strict muscle-up.
Start simple, build from there, and the sexier movements will be just around the corner.