Strength Standards: If you go to the gym and lift weights, you are probably stronger than the average person. But how strong are you really? And how do you measure up to other exercisers? If you aren’t a competitive weightlifter or powerlifter, you probably don’t know.
The good news is that, if you’re an intermediate or advanced weight trainer, testing your strength is a relatively quick and easy process. Once you can put numbers to your current level of strength, you can then work on increasing your performance.
What is Strength, and how do you test it?
Strength is your ability to exert maximal force. It is usually expressed as your one-repetition maximum, or 1RM for short. This is the amount of weight you can lift once, but not twice. Being strong can be very useful, and it makes many everyday activities feel easier. For example, if you can deadlift 300 pounds, picking up a 45-pound bag of groceries will present no problem at all.
Strength is also important in sports. The stronger you are, the more easily you’ll be able to overpower the opposition. Imagine being an MMA fighter; if you are strong, you will be better equipped to throw your opponent to the mat. In football, greater strength means you’ll be able to drive the opposing team back more effectively.
Even if you are a bodybuilder, increasing your strength is very beneficial. The stronger you are, the more weight you can lift, and the faster and bigger your muscles will grow. In addition, lifting heavy weights for low weights, which is the best way to increase your strength, can help increase muscle density. This means your muscles will look harder.
In theory, you can test your strength on any exercise, from leg extensions to wrist curls. However, you’ll get better results and more useable information by focusing on a small number of compound exercises. Compound exercises use multiple muscles and joints and often replicate common every day or sporting movements. They also allow you to lift more weight and test your muscles as they work in nature, i.e., in groups and not alone.
Five of the best exercises for testing strength are:
- The squat
- The bench press
- The deadlift
- The overhead press
- The pull-up*
*While you can do weighted pull-ups and use them to test your 1RM, they are better done for maximal reps. Feel free to see how much weight you can strap around your waist and pull up for one rep, but the maximum number of reps you can do with bodyweight is more useful and comparable.
Between them, these exercises involve all of your major muscles, and you should be able to do them in any reasonably well-equipped gym.
Testing your 1RM
Testing your 1RM involves warming up on your chosen exercise, and then doing a series of progressively heavier single reps until you reach your maximum. This is the weight you can lift once, but not twice. If you fail at a weight, meaning you are unable to complete your repetition without assistance or spotting, the previous weight you lifted is your 1RM.
10 reps – 20 kgs (empty barbell)
8 reps – 40 kgs (warm up)
5 reps – 60 kg (warm up)
2 reps – 70 kg (warm up)
1 rep – 80 kg
1 rep – 90 kg
1 rep – 100 kg
1 rep – 105 kg
1 rep – 107.5 kg
1 rep – 110kg (fail)
In this example, 107.5 is the 1RM.
Rest 2-3 minutes or more between each attempt. This will ensure you are fully rested for each effort. You might feel recovered sooner, but it’s better to wait to ensure you can lift the heaviest weights possible.
Because of the large weights involved, make sure you have a spotter on hand for 1RM testing. That way, if you get into trouble and are unable to complete a repetition, they can help lift the bar so that you don’t get crushed beneath it. This is especially important for squats and bench presses.
If you are lifting very heavyweights, you may even need two or three spotters. For added safety, squats, bench presses, and overhead presses should be performed inside a power rack.
Estimating your 1RM
While 1RM testing is an effective way to see how strong you are, it is not without risks. Pushing yourself to the limit using heavy weights could cause muscle tears or joint injuries. The good news is that you can estimate your 1RM by using this equation.
This calculation determines your 1RM based on the number of repetitions you can perform with a given weight. While this is an estimate, it will give you a pretty good indicator of your 1RM. Just rep out to failure with your chosen weight. Ideally, you should select a load that causes you to fail in ten reps or less.
The equation is:
Repetitions performed x weight used x 0.0333 + weight = 1RM
Confused? Don’t be! Here’s an example:
Let’s say that you managed seven reps with 80 kg and would like to know your estimated 1RM. This is how your calculation would look:
7 x 80 = 560 kg
560 x 0.0333 = 18.648 kg
18.648 + 80 = 98.648 kg
Round this number down to the nearest available weight plate denomination, which, in this case, is 97.5 kg.
How do you measure up?
There are lots of strength standard charts available, and each author has an opinion about what level you should be able to reach. For every chart, there will be outliers who cannot reach the minimum level or far exceed the top level. No standard chart can accommodate everybody – there are too many variables at play. For example, your age, genetics, and exercise history all play a part; some people are naturally stronger than others.
Powerlifters, for example, will have no problem achieving “excellent” scores on the squat, bench press, and deadlift. But, they may struggle with the overhead press and pull-ups, both because of their substantial body weight and the fact that they may not do these exercises in training.
These standards charts are an amalgamation of several others and are designed to provide realistic goals for average gym-goers. Remember, though, while it is fun to compare your performance to that of others, the main person you should be competing against is yourself. Providing your 1RM increases, your training is working.
|Squat||1.0 x bodyweight||1.25 x bodyweight||1.5 x bodyweight||1.75 x bodyweight|
|Bench press||0.75 x bodyweight||1.0 x bodyweight||1.25 x bodyweight||1.5 x bodyweight|
|Deadlift||1.0 x bodyweight||1.5 x bodyweight||1.75 x bodyweight||2.0 x bodyweight|
|Overhead press||0.5 x bodyweight||0.65 x bodyweight||0.85 x bodyweight||1.0 x bodyweight|
* Number of reps with bodyweight only
|Squat||0.8 x bodyweight||1.0 x bodyweight||1.25 x bodyweight||1.5 x bodyweight|
|Bench press||0.6 x bodyweight||0.7 x bodyweight||0.85 x bodyweight||1.0 x bodyweight|
|Deadlift||0.9 x bodyweight||1.2 x bodyweight||1.5 x bodyweight||1.7 x bodyweight|
|Overhead press||0.35 x bodyweight||0.5 x bodyweight||0.7 x bodyweight||0.8 x bodyweight|
* Number of reps with bodyweight only
How to get stronger?
Now you know how strong you are, how do you go about getting stronger? The best way is to include squats, bench presses, deadlifts, overhead presses, and pull-ups in your workouts and train using low reps and heavyweights.
Good set and rep schemes for building strength include:
- 5 sets of 5 reps
- 8 sets of 3 reps
- 4 sets of 4 reps
- 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 reps – increasing the weight set by set
Try to increase the weights lifted from one week to the next and then, after 6-8 weeks of training, retest your 1RMs to see how much progress you have made.
Testing your strength is an excellent way to measure your progress, and make sure your workout program is producing results. Even a bodybuilding-style program should make you stronger, albeit less noticeably than a specific strength training program.
If nothing else, testing your strength across several exercises will highlight any areas of weakness. For example, if you can bench press 1.5 times your body weight, but can only do six pull-ups, you probably need to work on your back and biceps strength.
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