Upper Body Strength for Women | Pull Ups After 50

Upper body strength is lacking for many women. If you use your lower body to walk, run, bike, hike you may find you have a fairly strong lower body. If you’ve been more sedentary since COVID? It’s time to get moving. Yes, a few squats and lunges, hiking up hills, or substituting bridges and hamstring curls with a ball may be better for you. Women naturally have a comparable lower body strength to men when you consider the size and muscle mass differences. Upper body, however, is a different story.

This may be the gift you didn’t know you wanted.

A pull up bar (plus a few super bands) may become your new obsession.

There are several protocols I use to improve or get to the point of doing a pull up. Yes, even one, is a good goal. As a strength & conditioning coach dedicated for the last 8 years to women in midlife, establishing range of motion and maintaining is always key. I’ll share several ways of starting and progressing your pull up.

How to Do Pull Ups?

First, you’ve got to either have a pull up bar mounted at home, or use the Flipping 50 Gift Guide, (I’ll insert it here) to find the pandemic toy I got.  

woman with santa hat and face covering

Why Pull Ups? You Ask

Strength is a girl’s best friend. For longevity, metabolism, and improving every physical function you need and choose to do: strength. Upper body strength for women is a must, but especially for some women.

Are you a runner? Running is awesome but it’s not all things. A runner can’t outrun low bone density, and in fact may encourage it if she’s lighter in weight and has a small frame. She also may be more likely to experience muscle losses due to frequent endurance exercise without adequate fuel. A runner, and truly almost any athlete (including intentional exerciser) except for a swimmer or runner – and possibly yogi who does inversions- will have a weaker upper body unless they have a dedicated upper body strength routine.

[Are you having flashbacks to that (or those many) moments in junior high and high school of the arm hang? Hated it. (not more than I hated that 500 yd run but that’s another story). Never fear, I got you.]

Not Motivated? How About a Sexy Back?

I get it. Some of us aren’t moved enough to do something because it’s good for us. What about that moment when you are once again lounging at the club pool and donning that backless dress for a wedding or big event?

Think of it. We’ll all be like, “What did you do over summer vacation – insert pandemic?”  

For many women, especially in menopause, a sexy back can feel like a thing of the past.

Hormone imbalances can cause water retention and fluid imbalance, right along with reduced muscle tone and increased fat deposits.

Exercise can help. But, as you may have already guessed, not just any exercise. The right muscle-stimulating, recovery-optimizing, overload-inducing, hormone-balancing, exercise. [See what I did there? It’s my Bruce Springsteen introduction of the symphony you need for exercise.]

How the Right Exercise Supports Your Balance and Your Pull Ups

Circulation for one gets the lymph system moving. You’ll sweat, too. Both these reduce fluid retention. If you’ve noticed your upper arms and under your arms a little more squishy, you’re not alone. Developing muscle underlying that tissue plus moving the excess water out will result in more tone.

Overall improvements in your body composition (less fat, more muscle, or the combination) will reveal more tone and the pretty muscle you may already have that’s just not getting a chance to shine. (This, girlfriend, should be good motivation to keep up that activity during perimenopause when you may feel like you’ve got a little less control. Once in post menopause, that tone will be easier to see again.)

When you start doing pull ups you will quickly realize how much core is involved in the exercise. If you’ve been looking for the secret to a flat stomach, this is probably one of the best kept.

Eccentric Work

If you have just a pull up bar to work with, this works. You get a bench or chair that allows you to get to the “up” position. That is, you’re chin above the bar to start. You hold yourself there for a second and then act as if you’ve got the emergency brake on as you lower down. Go slowly and under complete control.

I reinforce full range of motion. At the bottom you should be able to stand. Then repeat. To begin, start with 5. Do that the same day of the week you do your other strength training. Twice a week with 72 hours between is ideal for stimulus + recovery necessary for women. Increase by 3-5 each week (not each workout). Be warned, eccentric contractions cause more muscle soreness. Soak in Epsom salt, do a bit of foam rolling, or ask for a massage to facilitate recovery.

Now, to pull up, you can’t only lower down forever. Once you’ve reached the point you can do 15 repetitions going slowly, I want you to pause longer at the top, and pause halfway down before going all the way down. You might do fewer of these. Expect that will be true.

Once you can do 10 pausing, I want you to lower half-way down and then pull back up. Do as many as you can. It might be one the first time. Then complete 10 more eccentric lowering.

Now you’re ready to go all the way. You may start with just one but you’ve got this. Click for video

Super Bands

These are for use with your pull up bar or pull up station. In the video here shared you’ll see I use a box (sub a chair or bench) to get up the pull up handles (palms toward you for now). Then I step my foot into a Super Band. I’ll link to the ones I use, know, and trust.

Here’s an at-home pull up (and core) station that I have. 

Here’s a link to the bands. You’ll want to choose about 3 levels to start and progress from greatest support to least support. 

That band is essentially “spotting” me and part of my body weight. So, while I’m doing the exercise I’m not lifting/lowering 100% of my body weight. In this video I’m probably lifting about 50% of my weight.

As I progressed so I could do 10 repetitions I didn’t want to do more reps like that, I wanted to move toward doing more of my own body weight.

So, I had options:

  • Place my knee in the same super band instead of my foot
  • Switch to a lighter super band that could only support say 30% of my body weight

(I chose the latter, by the way. Knee support was too easy to slip out of – at least in tights).

How Progression Works

Inevitably, when you lift more weight, you’ll do fewer reps at first. Continue to lift with that new resistance until you can do 10. Then again move to lifting more of your own body weight by changing your super band.

Get the idea? Gradually, you wean off of the bands so you’re doing more and more of the weight yourself. Ultimately when you kiss those bands goodbye you might only do one before reaching fatigue. Next time do that one, maybe two, then pull the lightest super band back on and do as many as you can to fatigue.

The Pre-Pull up Challenge

You may already be cementing the foundation for back muscles ready to go to the next level. Have you been doing bent arm pull overs, bent over rows, renegade rows or suspension tool rows (TRX is one well-known brand)? If those have been a regular part of your routine, you’re definitely ready for more.

Have you regularly been rowing (against resistance more than speed) or swimming with power (paddles) or you’ve got a solid stroke and you’re improving your time and efficiency (fewer strokes that go farther and faster)? Also indications you’re ready for more.

At the gym (unless you have weight machines at home) kneeling lat pull downs (seated doesn’t have enough core activation) with heavy weight can also be another exercise to add to your arsenal.

Specific Not Random

Remember that a neither a random or a daily strength exercise plan allow the must-have combination of adequate stimulus and adequate recovery. As always, plan the work and work the plan.

Upper body strength training for women is physically important. But it is way more than that. It is emotionally empowering. You not only will not be invisible in that backless dress or halter top. You will feel invincible.

That, girlfriend, trumps the mirror and shines through your eyes.

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