When you start lifting weights, your first, second, and third priority should be this:
Try to add weight or reps to every single exercise every time you step foot in the gym, and don’t worry how you compare to anyone else.
As long as you’re adding weight or reps over time, you’re on the right track.
You still want to get stronger, but now you’re also wondering how you stack up against other serious lifters.
Sure, you can outlift the boomers who only do machines, the gym bros who just do biceps, and the Instagram #influencers who only do hip thrusts, but how do you compare against other people who do heavy, barbell training, like you do?
While some people say you should never compare yourself to others, there are a few good reasons to do so:
This is where objective strength standards can be helpful.
Typically, these charts classify your strength based on your one-rep max (1RM) and body weight.
Unfortunately, though, if you plug “strength standards” into the ol’ Google, you’ll find a hodgepodge of different charts that don’t agree with each other.
For example, according to one chart your squat 1RM might be classified as “elite,” but only “good” by another.
And you’re left wondering . . .
Where do these numbers come from?
How strong am I compared to most serious lifters, really?
Why am I so strong on some exercises and so weak on others?
The short answer is this:
Strength standards are meant to be starting places to help you set goals and focus on weaknesses, and it’s never a good idea to get too fixated on them.
The long story?
Well, that’s what you’re going to learn in this article.
By the end of this article, you’ll know . . .
Let’s start by looking at what I believe are the most useful strength standards for recreational lifters who just want to be healthy, muscular, and strong:
Ready to learn how these strength standards were developed and how to set training goals based on these standards?
Strength standards are benchmarks that show your one-rep maxes for different exercises compared to other lifters of the same sex and a similar body weight.
They’re often shown as tables, like this one from Mark Rippetoe:
As you can see, in this case you would be assigned to different categories—Cat l, Cat ll, Cat ll, etc.—based on your body weight in the left hand column and your 1RM in the corresponding row.
Sometimes, strength standards are also shown as multiples of body weight, like this:
So, where do these standards come from?
Originally, strength standards were created by powerlifting organizations to rank their competitors.
Your “score” in powerlifting is the sum of your squat, bench press, and deadlift 1RM, which is referred to as your total. If you squat 300, bench 200, and deadlift 400, then your total is 900.
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.
Typically, though, you can get a very good snapshot of your whole-body strength by looking at your squat, bench press, and deadlift. If you’re strong on these three lifts, chances are good you’re strong at most lifts.
Powerlifting strength standards are created by looking at all of the totals of all lifters in a powerlifting federation, and then ranking them based on what percentage of lifters are able to achieve different totals.
Then, different categories are created based on these percentiles.
For example, here’s what the strength standards are for the United States of America Powerlifting (USAPL) federation:
If you’re wondering why these numbers seem so high, it’s because they’re powerlifting totals—the sum of your 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, which is already made up of very strong powerlifters. In other words, you’re freaky strong if you’re Elite.
On the other end of the spectrum we have “Class 5,” which includes people who are only stronger than 10% of other lifters in the USAPL.
That still means you’re stronger than most recreational lifters, but you’re at the bottom of the pecking order in that federation.
The numbers at the top of the table are body weights in pounds. 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.
There’s a problem with relying on powerlifting strength standards, though:
They’re entirely based on data from people whose only goal is to squat, bench press, and deadlift as much as possible. Many of them will be genetically gifted for strength sports, and many will also use steroids to help bump up their numbers (even though the USAPL tests for drug use, these tests aren’t difficult to cheat).
If you’re interested in powerlifting then by all means use strength standards for powerlifting. If you’re a recreational lifter who simply wants to be healthy, muscular, and strong, though, then I recommend you stick with strength standards that are based on data from lifters like you, which we’ll get into in a moment.
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All else being equal, the more muscle you have, the more you should be able to lift.
People with more muscle generally weigh more, too, 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.
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 where your tendons attach to your bones.
Your tendons link your muscles to your bones, and where they attach can increase or decrease how much weight you’re able to lift.
For example, if your biceps tendon attaches a few millimeters further away from your below, this improves the biceps’s leverage, which allows you to lift more weight.
If it attaches a few millimeters closer to your elbow, though, this decreases the biceps’ leverage, which reduces the amount of weight you can lift.
This is true regardless of how much muscle you have. It’s possible for one person to be weaker than another despite being more jacked due to having less ideal tendon attachments.
The effects can be huge, too.
Another key anatomical feature that can affect your strength 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 and where our tendons attach to them.
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.
For example, 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.
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 and tendon attachment points, 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.
Summary: Strength standards provide a ballpark estimate of how much most people should be able to lift at various body weights, but your numbers may vary considerably thanks to unique differences in your anatomy.
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, and you will begin to lose strength and muscle mass past a certain age as well.
Take a look at this chart of record strength totals 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 how to use strength standards to set goals.
So let’s get to it.
The strength standards I showed you at the beginning of this article, and the ones you’re going to use to set your strength goals, are adapted from the ones developed by Dr. Lon Kilgore and introduced by Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength.
Together, these two have coached, spoken to, and analyzed more data from lifters than just about anyone else on the planet, which is why these strength standards are considered some of the best around.
They created these strength standards using the same process I described a moment ago, but instead of using data from powerlifters, they used data from recreational lifters—serious lifters but not the genetic elite.
You’ll also find strength standards that are based on self-reported data, like these from Strength Level. While allowing many different people around the world to contribute to the data allows you to gather a lot more information, there are a few problems with this as well:
1. People often exaggerate their strength.
Sometimes they’ll outright lie, but in most cases it’s simply a matter of poor technique. It’s not uncommon for someone to claim they’ve benched 315 pounds . . . without mentioning the fact the bar never touched their chest.
This braggadocious behavior corrupts the data in strength standards charts.
2. People often enter incorrect data because, well, it’s the Internet.
Many people enter incorrect information in online surveys just for the lolz, and there’s no reason to think people wouldn’t do it for their one-rep maxes, too.
That’s it’s probably better to rely on strength standards that are based on data collected by a scrupulous third party, like the ones generated by Lon Kilgore.
You can also find strength standards based on national or world record one-rep maxes from powerlifters, but I don’t recommend you use these for the reasons mentioned earlier:
The only reason to use powerlifting standards is if you want to compete in powerlifting. And if that’s the case, you’ll need to look at the strength standards for whatever federation you want to compete in, as they can vary from federation to federation.
Here are links to the two most popular sets of powerlifting strength standards:
Otherwise, I recommend you stick to the Starting Strength standards in this article.
So, with that out of the way, let’s get into how to set strength goals using strength standards.
You first need to estimate your one-rep maxes for the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.
Strength standards are based on your one-rep maxes, or the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition through a full range of motion with proper form with a given exercise.
If you don’t know your true 1RM off hand or haven’t tested it in the past 12 weeks, use the calculator below to estimate your 1RM based on how many reps you can get with a lighter weight.
If you want to learn more about how to estimate your one-rep max, and why it’s important, check out this article:
If you’re a man, use the strength standards for men. If you’re a woman, use the strength standards for women. If you can’t decide what you are, just make up numbers since they’re fake anyway, like math and triangles.
The reason there are different tables for men and women is that men are more muscular and stronger than women on average, and so both sexes require different standards.
Here are the strength standards again:
First, pick which exercise you want to look at. I’ll use my bench press as an example.
After locating men’s bench press chart, I would locate my body weight in the far left-hand column. If your weight isn’t listed, use the category that’s closest to your weight.
For example, I weigh 185 pounds, so I would use the strength standards for someone who weighs 181 pounds.
Next, follow that row to the right until you find the number that is closest to your 1RM.
If the number is bigger than your 1RM, use the number to the immediate left of it. If the number is smaller than your 1RM, then use that number.
You always choose the lower number because each number indicates the minimum amount of weight you need to lift to reach that category. For example, if I bench pressed 260 pounds, I’d still be in the Intermediate category, because I didn’t quite get 275 pounds (which is the minimum for entering the Advanced category).
Once you’ve found the correct number, follow that column up, and you’ll find your strength category.
For instance, my 300 pound bench puts me in the Advanced category.
Repeat this process with all of your lifts.
Now, if you’re annoyed that you haven’t quite broken into the higher categories for all of your lifts, don’t worry.
Remember that you probably will have one or two lifts that slightly lag behind the others (for me it’s the deadlift), and that’s fine. The whole point of these standards is to find what you need to work on the most and to set goals for your future progress.
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 press and deadlift are both in the Intermediate category, but your squat puts you in the Beginner category. In that case, you need to stop skipping leg day and 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.
You should also consider what parts of your physique you want to improve the most as well. Remember that strength and size are closely correlated, so the muscle groups most involved in whatever lift you focus on are also generally going to grow the most.
For example, if your bench press is your best lift according to the strength standards, but you still want your chest to grow more than your legs, back, or shoulders, then it makes sense to focus on improving your bench versus your squat, deadlift, or overhead press.
Once you’ve decided what exercise to focus on, 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 10 pounds to my bench.”
The closer you get to your genetic potential for strength and muscle gain, the harder it will become to gain strength and muscle, so you’ll need to adjust your goals accordingly. Once you reach the Intermediate level, plan on setting a new personal record (PR) every three or so months.
If you reach the advanced level, plan on setting a new PR every year, and plan on that PR being a much smaller improvement over your old one.
You can also boost your rankings as a lifter by gaining a small amount of strength while losing body fat and dropping into the next weight category.
For example, let’s say you weigh 148 pounds and can overhead press 95 pounds, putting you in the Novice category.
If you were to lose 16 pounds and get your body weight to 132, you’d only have to add 10 pounds to your overhead press to bump yourself up to the Intermediate category.
So, what’s the best way to get stronger, you wonder?
One or more of your lifts is probably lower than you’d like.
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:
Strength standards are benchmarks for one-rep maxes for different exercises compared to other lifters of the same sex and a similar body weight.
Although your first priority when weightlifting should always be to get stronger, strength standards help you see where you can improve the most, how much you’ve improved since you started lifting, and what you should set as your next strength goal.
The downsides of strength standards, though, are that they can over- or underestimate your strength because most don’t factor in your anatomy or age.
Small variations in your anatomy can make you much stronger or weaker than you’d expect based on body weight alone, and you’ll naturally lose strength as you age despite training just as hard.
You can find many different strength standards online, but many of them are either based on self-reported data from random weightlifters or powerlifting records, both of which can be skewed due to various factors.
Instead, I recommend you stick with the strength standards created by Lon Kilgore and first introduced by Mark Rippetoe in Starting Strength.
When deciding what exercise you want to improve the most, here’s what I recommend:
At the end of the day, 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.