"feminine problems"

some form modifications you might find useful
by Krista Scott-Dixon

In the words of every sleazy comedian, "Men and women, they're so different. Back me up on this, ladies." I'll spare you the crappy jokes about the toilet seat (hyuk hyuk) whose "Best Before" dates, like the milk in the back of my fridge, have long expired.

All kidding aside, women tend to have wider hips, shallower pelvises, narrower shoulders, shorter legs and arms, and are more prone to knee problems. In addition, for those of you who like factoids as much as I do, women have more body fat, greater surface area-to-mass-ratio (which means we float better), less lean muscle mass, a lower basal metabolic rate, and lower red blood cell mass. Much of this difference is due less to gender and more to the general characteristics of relative amounts of body fat and muscle mass, since women and men do not differ in muscle fiber type or muscle adaptation. Oh, and women seem to have an advantage in dry heat. You want to smarten up your husband? Take him to Death Valley and show him what being a woman really means!!

Anyway, sometimes minor modifications in form are needed to ensure that an exercise is comfortable for women to execute.

squats

Many women find that the traditional squatting leg position of legs at shoulder width or narrower isn't the best for them, since it seems to put pressure on the knees; many with wide hips do not feel particularly stable in this position either. A good variation is to place the feet wider than shoulder width, as wide as you feel comfortable with. This has the added benefit of giving you a more solid base to support the weight on your shoulders. Turn your toes out a bit. Don't try to make them point forward if they don't want to.

Some women also say that the bar is uncomfortable because they don't have a lot of muscle in their upper back yet. Make sure the bar is sitting low, not up around the neck. While squatting, consciously pull shoulders back and push your chest out so that whatever upper back muscle you do have makes a little shelf for the bar. You can roll the bar in a towel if desired but make sure the padding isn't too thick or it becomes difficult to hold the bar properly.


This is a relatively wide stance. A helpful tip which keeps your back straight is looking up a teensy bit above eye level as you squat. Don't crank your neck up too much. Your body follows your eyes. If you look down, your back tends to hunch.


Ewwkay, let's just agree to ignore the idiotic look on my face and concentrate on the form here. My shoulders are not hunched and my back is straight with a slight arch. Once again it helps to look up slightly here. My knees are just above my toes. Also notice the alternating grip that I am using.


deadlifts

I was having a lot of problems with traditional deadlifts in which the feet are at shoulder width and the arms outside the shins: kept crunching my kneecaps with the bar, leaning over too far, feeling unstable, and generally not really enjoying the exercise. Then I was introduced to sumo deads, which are perfect for short, wide-hipped women like me. The stance is similar in all respects (hips begin low, hamstrings and glutes still do the work, alternating grip if desired) except for the placement of the feet and hands. Think of how a sumo wrestler gets ready to take on his opponent: he stands with feet wide and barely clad butt hanging out (you can eliminate the bowing part). This is how a sumo deadlift is done, with feet wide apart and hands hanging straight down from the shoulders inside the knees. As in the wide stance squat, toes are turned out slightly. This modification allows for greater engagement of hip and glute muscles as well as an easier trip up to the top of the rep.

For more on sumo deadlifts, including pictures and more detailed descriptions, go here.

pullups

These are damn hard for women to do, due to our relatively weaker upper body. Unfortunately they are a great exercise. However, all is not lost. Here's how to see your way to a pullup in the near future.

1. If you're a real beginner, start on an assisted pullup machine, or if that's not available, a lat pulldown machine (make sure you bring the bar in front of your head, not behind). Work on building strength here until you can pull down about 70% of your bodyweight.


One thing which seems to help later on is doing these standing. Stand facing the machine, just as you would to do a seated pulldown, but stand just behind the seat you'd normally sit on (you can also just use a regular cable stack for these). Grab the lat handle as normal, then squat down slightly, push butt back a little, and bend knees just a wee bit. Hold that position, and do your pulldowns, pulling to the chest as you would with a seated pulldown.

2. Assisted pullups. There are three ways to do these, in order of difficulty. The first, and easiest way is to set up a bar in the power cage and then support your lower body on a chair or bench. Bryce illustrates these here (scroll down to the chinup section and look at "easy chinups"). As you get better, support less of your weight.


Here I am using an underhand grip. I find that I am strongest this way. You can also use an overhand grip. Since I am too short to reach the chinup bar, I am using the crossbar at the top of a squat cage.

The second way is to loop a long strip of elastic tubing over the bar in a "U" shape. The top of the "U" is attached to the chinup bar. The bottom of the U is long enough to hang down to wherever your mid-thigh level would be if you were hanging from the bar. Grab the bar, rest your knees in the tubing at the bottom of the U, and use the resistance from the elastic to help you up. Here's a photo using a double length of tubing.

The third method is to use a partner. Hang from the pullup bar, bend your knees 90 degrees, and cross your ankles. Your partner puts her hands or forearms under your lower legs. Then, pull yourself up as your partner pushes up from underneath. This is a handy method because you can vary the level of assistance your partner gives you.

3. Negatives. Push a bench underneath the pullup bar and stand on it so you're at the top of the rep, eyes above the bar. You may have to jump up from the bench to get to the top position. Grab the bar with a narrow (shoulder-width) grip, and SLOWLY lower yourself down. Jump back up there using the bench, and lower down again. Once you can do about 4-5 slow negatives, you can probably try a pullup on your own. Again, use a partner to give you a little push up under your knees if you need help. Soon you'll be doing pullups with VW vans tied to your feet. Reader Nancy Strasser also suggests that for those of you who do full-body or upper-body workouts on a single day, you'll find it easiest if you put pullups at the beginning of your workout.

bench press

The standard bench press bar weighs 45 lbs on its own. When I began bench pressing way back when as a former couch potato, I could never have pressed it properly. I was just not strong enough and it took me a while before I could even balance the dang thing properly with short arms. I began on a machine (ick, ptooey) but if you lack the upper body strength, as many female beginners do, you should begin on dumbbell press to gain the strength as well as some of the balance (although you will still have to get the hang of the bar). Another thing I did for quite some time which worked well for short arms was to use an E-Z Curl bar. That's the bar that is shorter and kind of zig-zaggy. I found it much easier to balance and the perfect width for my hands was right up against the plates on either side. While we're on the subject of chest exercises, here's a suggestion for doing dips. The average dip station (which looks something like two parallel bars) sets the bars too wide for narrower shoulders to accommodate. I found that using these made an unpleasant crunching in my shoulder joints. I switched to a narrow set of bars, found on a dip station with V-bars. These are bars which are set at a slight angle to one another, rather than parallel, so that they form a "V". Using the narrow end of the V solved my problem.