When you first started lifting, it seemed like you could touch a barbell and get stronger.
Day in, day out, you added 5-10 pounds to every lift.
You were getting stronger so quickly, in fact, that you didn’t care what other people were doing. You were just happy to be making progress.
Now that you’ve been lifting a few months, though, you’ve realized two things:
You just want to know, “Am I strong or not?”
When you look online for an answer, you find a hodgepodge of various charts and equations, all of which seem either overly simplistic or complicated.
And you’re left wondering, “Where do these numbers come from? Why am I so strong on some exercises and so weak on others? Isn’t there a better way to calculate this stuff?”
Well, yes, there is, although it’s still far from perfect.
Strength is determined by many different factors, and it’s impossible to account for all of them in a single formula.
That said, there are several reliable strength standards you can use to estimate how strong you are compared to others.
By the end of this article, you’ll know what strength standards are and how they’re calculated, the best strength standards for both men and women, how to use these standards to set realistic and challenging goals, and how to get as strong as possible.
Let’s start at the top.
Strength standards are objective guidelines that show you how your numbers stack up against a larger group of lifters.
They’re often shown as tables, like this one from Mark Rippetoe:
Sometimes, they’re also shown as multiples of body weight, like this:
Squat: 2 times your body weight.
Bench: 1.5 times your body weight.
Deadlift: 2.5 times your body weight.
You can find many different versions online, but they all show you roughly how your strength compares to other people of the same sex and body weight.
So, where do these numbers come from?
Typically, strength standards are set by powerlifting organizations to rank their competitors.
Other exercises like the military press, chin-up, and barbell row aren’t used in powerlifting, but many coaches have created standards for those based on what they’ve learned working with thousands of athletes. In this article, we’ll stick with the squat, bench, and deadlift.
Powerlifting strength standards are set by starting with the heaviest weight anyone has been able to lift at a certain body weight—typically a national or world record. Then, categories are created based on how many people are able to get within a certain percentage of that number.
Here’s what this looks like:
(If you’re wondering why these numbers seem so high, it’s because they’re powerlifting “totals,” which are the sum of your best squat, bench press, and deadlift.)
“Elite” in this case means you’re in the top 2.5%. In other words, you’re stronger than 97.5% of the other people in this group.
On the other end of the spectrum we have “Class 5,” which includes people who are only stronger than 10% of other lifters.
The numbers at the top of the table are body weights. Heavier people are generally going to be the strongest, so most strength standards are based on relative strength, or how much you can lift at a given body weight.
In other words, how strong you are pound-for-pound.
Now, you may have noticed that some of these numbers seem shockingly high, and that others seem modest compared to the kind of weights you’ve seen people throw around on social media.
Well, there are good explanations for that, too.
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All else being equal, the heavier you are the more you should be able to lift, which is why strength standards are higher or lower for heavier and lighter people, respectively.
The problem is that “all else” is rarely equal.
There are two main variables that can throw off your estimates:
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
It’s possible to have anatomical features that make it easier or harder to get stronger on certain exercises, regardless of your body weight.
The main wildcard here is your skeletal proportions.
We all have the same muscles and bones in our bodies, and they’re all located in the same general areas, but there can be differences in how long or short our bones are.
These differences tend to be small, only a few millimeters, but that can translate into huge differences in strength.
Your bones function as levers, and how long or short those levers are can drastically affect how much you can lift.
The effects can be huge, too.
For instance, if someone has longer than average arms, they have to move the bar further to complete each rep of bench press. All else being equal, they won’t be able to bench press as much as someone with normal length arms.
That same disadvantage can be helpful for other exercises, though. Long arms make deadlifting easier, because the bar doesn’t have to travel as far when you stand up.
There are some other anatomical differences that can make you stronger or weaker as well, like where your tendons attach to your bones, but bone length is the big one.
So, if small changes in your anatomy can have such a drastic influence on your strength, why bother looking at strength standards?
Well, by definition most people have average length limbs, so strength standards can still give us a ballpark estimate of how we compare to others.
That said, just keep in mind that if you’re significantly weaker or stronger on some lifts, it could be that your anatomy is just better suited to some exercises than others.
The second problem with strength standards is that most of them don’t take age into account.
Logically, someone who’s in their 20’s is going to be able to lift more than someone in their 60’s.
The idea that you can’t gain strength or muscle past a certain age is wrong, but it does get harder.
Take a look at this chart of whole-body strength records for lifters of different ages:
As you can see, most people can keep getting stronger up until about 40. After that, you’re doing well to maintain your strength, much less set new personal records.
This natural decline in strength is caused by a number of physiological changes, and you can minimize it by avoiding injuries, eating a healthy diet, and training intelligently, but your strength will drop as you get older regardless of how much muscle you have.
So, if you’re over 40 and your numbers aren’t as good as you expected, that’s why. And if you’re in your teens and early 20’s, well, you’ve got plenty of time to get stronger.
With those two things in mind, let’s look at how to use strength standards to set weightlifting goals.
At this point, you’re probably itching to know just how you stack up against other lifters.
So let’s get to it.
The strength standards you’re going to use are based on national records from USA Powerlifting, one of the largest drug-tested powerlifting organizations in the world. I picked this group for two reasons:
The downside of comparing yourself to these people?
They’re the genetically elite, and chances are good that you’ll never be as strong as these athletes.
These people were born to squat, bench, and deadlift, and they also have the time, inclination, and desire to spend thousands of hours getting lifting weights.
If you can get even 70% as strong as these people, you’re probably going to be one of the strongest people in your gym.
That’s why the categories are organized like this:
Elite: National record holders.
Advanced: 70% of the national record.
Intermediate: 60% of the national record.
Novice: 50% of the national record.
Beginner: 40% of the national record.
To see which category you belong to, you first need to estimate your one-rep maxes.
Strength standards are based on your one-rep maxes, or the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition of a given exercise.
If you generally train using higher reps, the fastest way to estimate your one-rep max is to use a calculator, like this:
If you want to learn more about how to estimate your one-rep max, and why it’s important, check out this article:
Find the table for the exercise you want to look at. There are different tables for men and women, as men are more muscular and stronger than women on average.
Locate your body weight in the far left-hand column. If your weight isn’t listed, use the strength standards for the next highest weight. (If you weigh 155 pounds, use the strength standards for someone who weighs 160 pounds).
Next, follow that row to the right until you find your one-rep max.
If your one-rep max is between two numbers, use the column on the left (the lower number). You round down because each number indicates the minimum amount of weight you need to lift to reach that category.
Follow that column up, and you’ll find your strength category.
For example, let’s say you’re a 175-pound man and you can bench 245 pounds.
First, you’d find your body weight in the left hand column, and round up to 180 pounds.
Next, follow that row to the right until you find your one-rep max. In this case, it’s between 210 and 250 pounds.
Now, since you haven’t quite benched 250 pounds yet, you’re still in the “novice” category. Remember, 250 pounds is the minimum you need to be considered “intermediate.”
Repeat that process with all of your lifts.
Now, if you’re annoyed that you haven’t quite broken into one of the higher categories, don’t worry.
These categories are all somewhat arbitrary, and what’s considered “novice” according to one set of strength standards might be an “intermediate” on another. The whole point is to use these standards to see roughly how you compare to others, and then use them to set goals.
Let’s do that next.
Now it’s time for the fun part—deciding what you want to improve.
There are a few ways to go about this, but the simplest is to focus on whatever you’re worst at.
Let’s say your bench and deadlift are both intermediate, but your squat puts you in the “beginner” category. In that case, you need to work on your squat.
Or, maybe you’re decently strong on all of your lifts. What do you do then?
Well, you can pick whatever you want to work on most, or get stronger on everything.
It’s really up to you.
A good rule of thumb is to try to move up one category from where you are now. Once you reach the next category, move up again. If you reach the advanced category, though, you may want to set smaller goals such as “add 20 pounds to my bench.”
So, what’s the best way to get stronger, you wonder?
One of your lifts is probably lower than you’d like.
To fix that, you’re going to need to follow a strength training plan that allows you to progressively overload your muscles.
That is, you need to organize your training in such a way that you can consistently add more and more weight to the lift you want to improve.
If you want to learn the best ways to do that, check out these articles:
Once you’re past the “newbie gains” phase of weightlifting, it becomes harder and harder to judge your progress.
Some days you’ll be able to add weight to every exercise with ease. Other days, you’ll struggle to get a single rep with a weight that felt easy the week before.
That’s why it’s helpful to have an objective benchmark of how you compare to other people.
At the end of the day, though, the only strength standard that really matters is your progress over time.
Are you stronger this month than last month? Are you stronger this year than the previous one?
If so, you’re on the right track.
If not, you need to make some changes.
So, while it’s fun to see how you stack up against others, focus on the things that are in your immediate control:
Do that, and you’ll get stronger.
Armistead Legge is the Editor-in-Chief for Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics. He has completed over 100 triathlons and cross-country, cycling, and adventure races, and has researched and written for over a dozen organizations, including the National Institutes of Health. When he isn't helping people get into the best shape of their lives, he's lifting weights, riding his bike, hiking, camping, reading, and making delicious food.