People often turn to strength standards — benchmarks for different exercises based on your weight and sex — to see how strong they are compared to the average man or woman, or because they want some strength goals to aim for.
The problem with most strength standards, for a lot of folks anyway, is that they’re not realistic. Many are based on numbers from elite strength athletes, rather than the general population.
And being the Internet, there’s a lot of bullshit and nonsense flying around. Everyone claiming they can bench press this or deadlift that.
In this article, I want to go over some of the weaknesses and limitations with generic strength standards, and explain why many people will do just as well to ignore them.
Let’s dive right in.
Strength Standards: Bench Press, Squat, Deadlift and Overhead Press
The first set of strength standards I came across was in a book called Beyond Brawn, written by Stuart McRobert.
In the book, McRobert suggests that a 190-pound overhead press, 300-pound bench press, 400-pound squat and 500-pound deadlift for a single lift are impressive numbers for a drug-free, genetically average male weighing around 190 pounds.
Percentage wise and relative to body weight, these numbers translate to 100% for the overhead press, 150% for the bench press, 200% for the squat, and 250% for the bench press.
- Overhead Press 1 x bodyweight
- Bench Press 1.5 x bodyweight
- Squat 2 x bodyweight
- Deadlift 2.5 body weight
For recreational lifters (i.e. someone who isn’t a competitive strength athlete) these are impressive numbers. Hitting them will mean you’re stronger than most people in your gym. However, for the reasons I’m about to explain, they’re not realistic goals for everyone.
Strength Standards By Age
Most strength standards don’t take into account how old you are. That matters, because someone in their twenties is going to have an easier time gaining strength than someone in their 40s, 50s and beyond.
How does your strength change as you get older?
The figure below comes from the International Powerlifting Federation, who collected data from a group of 1500 male lifters performing the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
As you can see, strength peaks at around 30 years of age, and tends to decline from that point onwards.
Other studies show similar results. At the age of 40, Olympic weightlifters are about 95% as strong as they were five years earlier . By the age of 50, that number has dropped to around 85%.
This dip in strength isn’t solely down to a loss of muscle. There’s also a decline in neuromuscular function with advancing age . That is, the “chain of command” transmitting signals from your brain to your muscles doesn’t seem to work quite as well as you get older.
While you can gain strength and build muscle as you age, it does get harder. Beyond a certain point, you’re doing well to maintain your strength, let alone increase it.
What Are You Training For? Strength Or Hypertrophy?
Most strength standards center on the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single rep in the squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press.
Given the link between strength and muscle mass, your maximum strength in these lifts is often a good indication of how well you’re progressing in your training.
While gains in muscle size are often hard to quantify, strength is a different story. You can see the weight on the bar going up on a regular basis. Even if it’s just a pound or so here or there, it’s a shot in the arm for your motivation to see that you’re making progress.
When you’re just starting out, gains in strength are relatively easy to come by. But as time goes by, the rate at which you gain strength will slow down. To keep those strength gains coming, much of your training will need to revolve around lifting very heavy weights for a relatively low number of reps.
That’s all well and good if maximal strength is your goal, but what if it isn’t?
Maybe you just want to look fit and strong, and be able to handle much of what life has to throw at you outside the gym. If so, there’s no rule that says you have to train with very heavy weights, or do this or that particular exercise.
Having targets to aim for adds structure to your training, and gives you a sense of purpose. It feels good to hit those targets. Other people may well be impressed when they see how much weight you can lift.
But once you get to a certain level of strength, there isn’t a great deal of point in getting any stronger. The benefits of the additional strength won’t necessarily justify the time and work necessary to acquire it.
For example, if you can squat double your bodyweight, then you’re strong, at least compared to most people.
Are you going to be that much better off by adding another 10 pounds to your squat? Unless you’re a strength athlete or powerlifter, probably not.
Strong enough is strong enough.
Strength Standards and Your Anatomy
Most strength standards make a provision for people who are bigger, in the sense they’re usually based on the amount of weight you can lift at a given weight.
However, simple bodyweight multipliers don’t do a great job of comparing relative strength across a wide range of weights. If you look at powerlifting world records, for example, strength as a multiple of body weight tends to drop off as a lifter gets heavier.
That is, relative to their weight at least, lighter lifters tend to be stronger than heavier lifters.
What’s more, individual differences in anatomy mean that some people will naturally be stronger in some exercises than others. If you’ve got long arms and short legs, for example, chances are you’ll be better at the deadlift than you are the bench press and overhead press.
Why is that?
Long arms give you a biomechanical advantage that favors the deadlift, because the bar doesn’t have to travel as far when you stand up. But those same long arms put you at a disadvantage in the bench press or overhead press, as you have to move the bar further to complete a single rep.
“Favorable lever lengths and body proportions in the bench press are a thick chest and short arms (a.k.a. alligator arms), while favorable lever lengths and body proportions in the squat and deadlift are a short torso, wide hips, and short legs,” explains strength and conditioning coach Matt Brzycki.
“Everything else being equal, those who have favorable lever lengths and body proportions have a greater strength potential in certain exercises because they don’t have to move the weight as far as those who have less favorable lever lengths and body proportions.”
In short, individual differences in body proportions will have a big impact on the amount of weight you’re able to lift in certain exercises, making certain strength standards that much harder to attain.
Constantly pushing yourself to lift heavier and heavier weights can also increase the risk of injury.
Some years back, for example, I was trying to add another 10 kilograms (22 pounds) or so to my max deadlift. I’d hit a 2.5 x bodyweight deadlift, and wanted to push it a bit higher.
There was no particular reason why. It wasn’t like I had any plans to enter a powerlifting contest. It was just something I wanted to do.
But when I tried going heavier, I would always end up with some kind of injury – be it to my shoulder, back or hip – that would mess up the rest of my training.
Eventually, I reached the point where I’d had enough, and decided to jettison the regular deadlift from my training program completely.
I didn’t like the idea of giving up on a goal I’d set for myself. But the idea of sticking with something that wasn’t working appealed even less.
Author and former dot com business executive Seth Godin makes the point that “winners” – individuals who reach the apex of their domain – tend to quit fast and often when they detect that a plan is not the best fit, and don’t feel bad about it.
“We fail,” he says, when we stick with “tasks we don’t have the guts to quit.”
Godin wasn’t suggesting that you give up simply because something is hard. Persistence in the face of difficulty is highly valuable when the road from A to B is long and hard.
The important trick, he says, is staying attuned to whether switching is simply a failure of perseverance, or astute recognition that better paths are available.
Set Your Own Strength Standards
In many cases, rather than comparing yourself to some arbitrary standard that someone else thinks is important, you’re better off establishing a baseline level of strength, and simply trying to improve it over time.
In other words, put together your own set of strength standards, and use them as a benchmark for your own performance. This can work well as a motivational tool, adding an element of competition to your training.
And by strength, I’m not just talking about maximal strength (i.e. your ability to lift a heavy weight for a single repetition). Rather, I’m talking about your repetition strength, or your ability to crank out multiple reps with the same amount of weight.
When I go to the gym, for example, I bring a little notebook with me, where I record what exercises I do, and how many reps I do in each set.
The next time I go to the gym to repeat a particular workout, my goal is to beat what I did last time. That is, if I did 15 reps in the first set of a given exercise, I’ll try to do 16 the next time.
Of course, it doesn’t always happen, and there are times when I end up lifting the same amount of weight, for the same number of reps. However, my focus is always on pushing myself to try and improve.
This is one of the reasons I recommend keeping track of your workouts using a smartphone app or even just a notebook and pen. It lets you see what you did in your last workout, and try to beat it the next time around.
It’s human nature to want to know how you stack up against other people. But really, what’s the point?
Does it matter how strong the average man is, or how you compare to a set of strength standards that somebody else thinks is important? Who cares?
Focus on your own goals. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. How strong do you want to be? How strong do you need to be?
You’re far better off comparing yourself to yourself, and just trying to make yourself better than you were last time. Set your own benchmarks and standards, and work as hard as you can to beat them.
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