Everyone wants to be strong and get stronger. But how do you know how strong you actually are? What lifts demonstrate total strength? How do you build strength?
These are important questions. The concept of strength is elusive and there is no single way to measure it. But we can use a few proven metrics to gauge our strength and set goals.
In this article, we explore the concept of strength, and how to set strength training goals. We’ll explore the most important strength-based lifts. Finally, we’ll explore reference lifts for the primary lifts.
Read on to understand how to measure and improve your strength, and also to see how you size up to others. We also suggest you read the best pre-workout ingredients for strength and power.
What is strength?
We use strength to describe HOW MUCH we can lift at maximal effort. Strength, like muscle size, is an adaptation to training. While strength relates to muscle size, this relationship is not linear. That means that you don’t get twice as strong when you double muscle mass. People who want to get strong have different workouts than people who want to get big. This is partly why bodybuilders are not as strong as powerlifters. And why powerlifters aren’t as aesthetic as bodybuilders.
Strength training will lead to muscle development. That said, bodybuilding tends to use higher reps and volume, with isolation exercises. Most powerlifters focus their effort on a few compound lifts, as mentioned above.
To measure relative and absolute strength, we usually use the big three lifts – bench press, deadlift, and squat. These are compound lifts. This is especially true for competitive powerlifting. I also like to use the overhead lift as it demonstrates shoulder strength.
These exercises are the gold standard for good reason. They are compound lifts that rely on many primary muscle groups and joints. Also, they involve both active flexion and extension throughout the movement. These are the lifts that truly showcase how much weight a person can move. People compete at these lifts in different weight classes, similar to boxing.
So how do you know how strong you really are? We usually use a 1-rep max to show how much weight we can lift in a single effort. We can apply these to lifters of different levels to see how everyone stacks up. There are other metrics for gauging strength, but we will focus on the 1 rep max as our primary standard. We’ll explore other total body strength standards.
Below are strength reference standards for men and women across 4 primary compound lifts. I included push-ups and pull-ups as bodyweight standards. I classified weights into one of four experience levels:
- Novice: Someone who has been training for 0-2 years.
- Intermediate: Someone who has been lifting consistently for 2-5 years.
- Advanced: Someone with at least 5 years of serious lifting that includes both bodybuilding and powerlifting.
- Exceptional: Anyone with 10 years of consistent bodybuilding and powerlifting experience, and/or someone who competes.
Keep in mind these values may be more or less than you can lift. There are many variables and these standards are not absolutes. These references represent good strength at each level. They should be a good indicator of where you stand.
I listed strength standards for a 165-pound male and 135-pound female.
I sourced these values from a few places, primarily SymmetricStrength and ExRx. Symmetric Strength is a robust resource for exploring different aspects of your personal strength. You can use it to determine ideal lifts, identify your strongest muscle groups, and so on.
Notes On the Movements:
Bench Press: Performed on a flat bench with an olympic size barbell. The bar usually touches or comes very close to the middle of the chest. Hands are wide. Bar passes through a full range of motion.
Deadlift: I prefer the conventional deadlift, but others like to use the Sumo deadlift. Stand at the bar with legs shoulder width apart. Bend forward at the hips and grasp the bar with your elbows inside your knees. Keep your knees mostly straight and don’t round your back. Lift upwards extending your lower back and hips until you are standing upright.
Squat: I prefer the high bar squat, but the low bar squat is perfectly fine. Stand under the bar. Load your shoulders with the barbell and remove the weight from the supports. Squat down by flexing your knees and pushing your hips backward. Keep your back contracted and don’t fall forward. I prefer to end the movement when my thighs are parallel to the ground. But you can go further as your range of motion permits.
Overhead Press: This isn’t a conventional strength movement, but it IS part of the clean and press. It’s also crucial for superior shoulder development. Thus it’s an effective indicator of vertical pressing strength. Sit, or stand, under a barbell. Press the bar upwards, in front of your face. End the repetition just before your elbows lock.
Other Strength Standard Systems
Multiple Rep Max
You don’t have to rely on the 1 rep max to know how strong you are. In fact, many powerlifters only attempt a 1 rep max every couple of weeks. Try a 3 or 5-rep max to assess your strength and progress. Use these to predict your 1 rep max and adjust your training. You can also do them more frequently and as part of your normal training routine. Here’s a nifty tool for calculating 1, 3, and 5 rep maxes.
The Wilks Calculator is a tool that generates an overall strength score. This score demonstrates a lifter’s fitness around a given weight lifted. It is not standardized, but it is widely used by novice and professional athletes alike. It is a novel concept for sure. I recommend watching this video from their website to understand what it means and how to use it.
Factors that Influence Strength
Strength differs dramatically across individuals. Age, height, gender, and genetics influence how strong you are and can become.
Genetics is the factor that ultimately determines everything and is unmodifiable. But genetics is often used loosely in this context. Genetics requires a more nuanced discussion but this isn’t the place. Suffice it to say it dictates everything from muscle composition, metabolism, height, etc.
Height and weight are two factors that can help or hinder your lifts. Tall folks generally have more muscle mass, so they can lift more. They also have a greater distance to travel during a lift. This can inhibit strength gains. Short people tend to have less muscle mass, but a greater bodyweight: strength ratio. There are programs designed to help lifters accommodate their various statures.
A person’s body weight will impact how much they can lift. A lighter lifter can generate more force per pound of weight, and these tend to be the ‘stronger’ lifters. This is how powerlifting competitions determine who wins each heat, or weight class.
Lifters with more fat mass tend to have more leverage. Especially those with a large waist circumference. A big belly can help to balance a load between the legs. This means more horizontal leverage. Strongman competitors tend to resemble this phenotype.
Limb length is yet another factor that can influence your development. Long arms can mean a greater range of motion for the deadlift and chest press. This means more time spent performing the repetition, and thus greater fatigue. Short arms can help by minimizing the range of motion.
Training technique and time spent training are your most important modifiable factors. These are the true predictors of real and potential gains.
Someone who trains exclusively with heavy weight will likely be stronger than someone who only does bodybuilding. However, bodybuilding increases muscle mass, which promotes strength. So the strongest lifters are likely the ones who combine bodybuilding and powerlifting. Technique also includes the training aids you use, like belts or gloves. How effectively you overload or transition is another technique. So is your individual rep scheme – drop sets, pyramids, giant sets. These all contribute to your personal adaptations to training.
Then there is the commitment to training. The longer you’ve been training, the stronger you will become. The most consistent you are, the stronger you will become. You’ll learn what training methods are ideal for you. You’ll know how to recover effectively. You’ll explore new methods and get good advice. Ultimately you’ll be a smarter, more intuitive lifter, which is the best kind.
Training Tips for Increasing Strength
Here are a few notes on the fundamentals of strength training. This is not an exhaustive list. But it should cover the most important aspects.
The deadlift, squat, and bench press are the gold standards for strength. These are compound movements that require a lot of practice and impeccable form. Novice lifters should practice these, but they are highly specialized lifts. Compound movements such as these are ideal for strength rather than hypertrophy. Include them in any regular exercise routine. Squats and bench presses should definitely be part of a regular program. Deadlifts are great for strengthening the back and legs but are not crucial.
Push-ups and pull-ups are also valuable for assessing body weight or functional strength. I like to include these exercises in my initial client assessments. They help me evaluate mobility and unloaded strength endurance.
- The primary way to build strength is to lift super heavy. Most strength programs rely on compound lifts with a gradual progression to the 1 rep max. Any good program will include hypertrophy-based accessory work to support muscle development.
- Speaking of the 1-rep max, it’s always good to practice all the primary lifts in a wide rep range, progressing down to your ideal max reps. This is often referred to as ‘power building’.
- Programming is important for setting goals and realizing your own trajectory. You should be familiar with lifting techniques and progression. You should also be practicing these heavy lifts regularly before attempting maximal lifts. You can also calculate your 3- and 1-rep max to help you know where to start.
- Intuitive lifting versus periodization is another approach to programming. Some choose heavy days by feel. Others follow a strict rep progression. I recommend both. Novice lifters should follow a stricter macrocycle based on progression. In either case, I think the 5-3-1 program is hard to beat.
- Step outside the strength training box. Sport-specific training is no more. Try exercises such as calisthenics, steady-state cardio, or high-intensity interval training. These provide both a physical and mental ego check, and they work. You’ll learn a lot about your body’s potential by trying new things.
My goal with this article was to define and measure strength in the context of weight lifting. Powerlifting is the gold standard for assessing relative and absolute lifting strength. These strength standards come from generally accepted milestones for lifters of various levels. These standards come from observations from scientific research and competition standards. They are not meant as absolutes. Some may lift above or below their given level. These standards should help readers understand setting challenging, yet achievable goals. Use these standards to see how you compare, but don’t obsess. Ultimately you’re only competing with yourself.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is powerlifting harmful?
No more harmful than running or other exercises. The injury rate in powerlifting is 1-4 major injuries per 1000 hours of lifting. That’s low. Powerlifting has unique risks due to the constant heavy loads. You can overcome these by employing proper techniques and using the right equipment. Also by being a smart lifter.
Can I lift for both size and strength?
Yes. In fact, this is ideal. Training for size builds muscle that supports greater strength. More muscle mass also helps reduce injuries. Your emphasis will shift over time.
Which lift is the most important?
No one lift is more important than any other. Together they support well-rounded development. I do like the deadlift as part of my overall routine. It emphasizes both legs, back, and upper body. However, I don’t recover quickly from heavy deadlift days.
Can I perform high reps for compound movements?
Of course. But be careful. Compound movements require more muscles, so they produce more overall fatigue. We also tend to be less strict with higher reps. This can cause serious injuries if you use heavy lifts for pump work, especially deadlifts. You can do high-volume work with squats and bench presses though.
How often should I max out?
Conventional wisdom suggests no more than once per week. I agree with this. Take maxing out seriously. The more you max out, the more stress you place on your body and mind. Try a 3 or even 5-rep max instead of ego lifts.
Can I do cardio when powerlifting?
Everyone should do some form of cardio. It’s good for your heart, which means it’s good for your muscles. Just be smart when planning your cardio sessions.
Zach Pierce is an experienced blogger and personal trainer. He served in Army infantry, during which time he deployed in support of OEF and OIF. After the military, he pursued an M.S. in nutrition and immunology as well as a Master’s in Public Health, both from the University of California, Davis. There he studied the relationships between gut bacteria, diet, and immune function. He became a CPT shortly after to help bridge the gap in knowledge between formal nutrition and practical fitness. He currently works in clinical research and trains individuals and small groups at the YMCA. He prefers to focus on beginner fitness enthusiasts, traditional strength training, and endurance performance.