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Girl power: Essential strength drills for women

Mar. 14, 2013 - 08:56AM   |  
Pullups are a key exercise for strength training.
Pullups are a key exercise for strength training. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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Women need to do strength work as part of their everyday routines, for several good reasons:

• It improves everyday functional capability.

• It helps to prevent injury.

• It can be critical in staving off health concerns such as osteoporosis and Type 2 diabetes.

Strength requirements for women to serve in front-line combat jobs now have come to the forefront. The Air Force has been out front on this issue for quite a while. Its Combat Air Crew Fitness requirements, as well as g-tolerance levels for flying high-performance jets, are gender-neutral.

The truth is, no difference exists in the quality of muscle between men and women — only the quantity of muscle mass. Gender differences in upper-body strength favor men because they generally have broader shoulders, more pec — or chest — muscle, bigger arms, etc. There’s much less difference in lower-body strength.

I’ve also observed — though I have not kept any definitive numbers on it — that women seem to drop their gained strength more quickly than men after a long-term training break.

The following are my top strength training exercises that will get you the greatest payoff for your effort. It’s critical to have a knowledgeable trainer show you proper technique so that you maximize each exercise. Pick a weight at which you can do at least eight reps using correct form.

Dead lift

The No. 1 overall strength exercise is the dead lift. If you do only one, it should be this one, which works almost every muscle in your body.

• Start with the bar (with weights) on the floor.

• Grasp the bar in the manner most comfortable for you: 1) hands facing you; 2) hands facing away; or 3) one facing either way, which works best for heavier weights.

• Set up with feet slightly spread (I like them just inside the shoulders) and hands wider than shoulders, back neutral and head up. The trainer is critical during this setup, ensuring that you don’t overstress your back by leaning too far forward.

• Contract your abs, weight evenly set on your feet, and lift with your legs. A trainer can help keep you from shifting the weight to your back. The bar should roll up your shins. At the knees, extend your trunk to an upright position, arms straight down and shoulders back. Hold for a two-count and return the weight to the floor, reversing exactly the way you came up.

• Reset your form and repeat.

Shoulder press

Works all the shoulder muscles, pecs and triceps and has the added benefit of stabilizing the core muscles and helping your balance. Bar should be on a rack rather than the floor. You may want to start with a body bar.

• Grip the bar overhand and rest it on your upper chest. Gripping at shoulder width focuses on the front shoulder muscles that intersect the chest; gripping wider than shoulder width focuses on the medial, or side, shoulder muscles that drop down to the upper arm.

• Stabilize your trunk muscles and smoothly press the bar straight overhead.

• Return to the chest position and repeat.


This is a major new concern for female Marines. In my years of training, every woman who has been on a pullup program has been able to do at least three and has seen improvement in other strength areas. This exercise is essential to overall back strength and spinal protection. The bottom line: You have to practice these every day.

Starting out, use a pullup assist machine if you have access to one or a partner to help you if you don’t. Reduce assistance as you get stronger. Do 10 reps to start.

• Take a wide, overhand grip on the bar. From a fully extended position, pull yourself upward until your chin is over the bar.

• Execute a controlled return to the extended position and repeat.

Ball slam

This is a fun exercise that works explosiveness, upper body and core stabilization. I use a 15- or 20-pound ball that won’t rebound. Most gyms have these. It’s a great exercise for the end of a workout where 15 to 20 reps really get the heart rate up.

• Fully extend the ball above your head. Rise up on your toes for greater velocity in the downward flight of the ball.

• With great force, whip the ball down, aiming for a point just in front of your toes.

• As you lower your arms, flex your knees a bit, eye the target and throw, with force, when the ball is about at chest height.

• Follow through so that you are in a deep squat (back neutral) when you pick the ball up and extend back overhead.


Bob Thomas is director of the Navy Wellness Center in Pensacola, Fla. Email him at

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