Fix-It Friday: Brain Over Brawn… A Girl’s Guide To Gaining Brute Strength For Tough DIY Projects

brain over brawn
Fix-It FridayHome Improvement 2 Comments

I’m often asked about the differences between men and women in the construction world. Although I’d like to share a profound insight depicting psychological dissimilarities between the male and female psyche, the truth is, there’s not much to report.

I’ve come across subtle differences, like women having greater patience and paying more attention to finer details. Perhaps an extension of women’s innate ability to nurture, I’ve also found we tend to “mother” projects more than men. But for me, the outstanding difference that separates the sexes is a physical characteristic, namely, strength… especially upper body strength.

strong woman silhouetteAs much as it pains me to admit – a gal who extols the benefits of lifting weights and building muscle, and prides herself on being as strong as an ox – generally speaking, men are naturally stronger than we are, and in the fixing world, brute strength is often needed.

Likewise, women are generally built smaller than men, which may I add, has unexpected benefits: squeezing into tight spaces, like under a sink or behind a hot water tank; fitting a hand in a mini high-hat or electric box.

My cousin Sal, a contractor I worked with for many years in New York, would happily have me save him from the sweating and grunting that goes along with a 210 lb guy trying to cram himself into a powder room vanity in order to replace a shut-off valve.

Of course I’m speaking in generalities. I know for a fact that I’m larger and stronger than plenty of men out there (and have been told I have a bigger “pair” too), but my experience on construction jobs is that I’ve regularly needed more brute strength than I could muscle up.

Instead of whining about being the alleged “weaker” sex (because we all know it takes more than physical strength to be truly strong), I decided the best way to compensate for lack of sheer power is to work smarter instead of harder.

With that in mind, over the years I’ve filled a bag of tricks I pull from whenever I’m short on muscle – cleverly exercising my brain more than my biceps. So take what I’ve learned and be empowered, knowing that the next time you’re on a project and your best heave-ho is still not doing it, you can use my savvy tips to get the job done, no he-man required!

Tackling Tough DIY Projects When Or If You’re Short On Muscle

liquid-wrench-penetrating-oilTip 1: A Little Advanced Notice

  • In advance of your project, drench a stuck and/or rusted fitting with penetrating oil like WD-40 or Liquid Wrench. Be sure to give it time to react… at least 10 minutes.
  • Likewise with cleaning or stripping products – allowing an ample amount of time for the product to sit on the surface will require less elbow grease to get the job done.


Tip 2: Get Your Body Into It

  • Using a power drill above your head or extended away from your body puts you in a physically weak position. Situate your body so your shoulder is behind the drill for more strength and control when drilling or driving.
  • When lifting something heavy, bend with your knees. Women have great strength in their legs. So rely on them for power instead of hoisting with your upper body and blowing out your back in the process!


Tip 3: Take The Weight Off

  • Tbrace a.k.a. deadman braceWhen hanging something heavy – say a cabinet or long shelf – even if you’re working with a partner, the person holding it in place (while the other screws it in) is likely to tucker out before the unit gets hung! Use a temporary brace to prop it up and support the bulk of weight. Now one person can steady the object on the brace while the other does the fastening.
  • To do this, simply build a “T” shaped brace out of two 2x4s and wedge this under whatever you’re hanging. The height and width of the T-brace are determined by the height of where you want to hang the object and how wide the object is.
  • FYI: a version of this support is known as a “deadman brace” and is used to help hang drywall on ceilings (that’s where I got the idea).


Tip 4: Love Leverage

  • pry bar leverageWhen you need to lift something heavy, let’s say to level your stove by adjusting the feet under it (those plastic round feet that spin up or down), place a short length of 2×4 on the floor in front of the stove, parallel to it. Then place a pry bar on top of the 2×4 at the center point, so the pry bar is perpendicular to the stove. Now slide the tip of the pry bar under the stove, push down on the other end of the pry bar, and watch the front of the stove lift up. This kind of leverage will make lifting heavy items shockingly easy!
  • On a tough to turn bolt, nut, or fitting, if lubricating it first doesn’t do the trick, slip a longer length of pipe over the wrench handle. This extension, also known as a “persuader”, adds greater leverage and turning power.


Tip 5: Use The Right Tools

  • When repeatedly using a utility knife, say you’re cutting drywall or carpet, replace blades often. With a sharp blade you’ll need much less force to cut through any material.
  • Black-Decker-Drill-DriverBuy a ratcheting screwdriver for more turning ease, speed, and power.
  • A cute small lightweight hammer may be easier to swing, but won’t give you ample mass for proper pounding. Don’t bother with a hammer that’s less than 16oz.
  • If you’re doing a project that requires screwing into something very dense or sinking many screws, say when installing a fence, invest in an impact driver. I LOVE this type of drill because they drive like a hot knife through butter! They’re noisier than a regular drill but make the job effortless.

Norma sig

Got A DIY Question? Ask-The-Expert!

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Add your question to the comments section below or email it to Women You Should Know.

Fix-It Friday is an exclusive Women You Should Know® editorial series authored by seasoned veteran of home improvement, Norma Vally, the former host of Discovery Home Channel’s series “Toolbelt Diva” and a show on Sirius Satellite Radio by the same name. The weekly column is designed to inspire women – weekend warriors, aspiring handywomen, and even seasoned DIYers – to take on home repairs and maintenance projects with confidence and gusto.


  • Marge

    Norma, You are so correct – females do not have the physical strength of a man. I know I do not. But you always make so much sense, and these tips are simple tricks that can be used to get the job done. Thanks again for all of these great tips.

    • Norma

      You’re welcome, Marge! Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments!