Strength is the most important quality related to muscle growth. In order to ensure that you are continually growing you should focus on getting stronger on the exercises you have chosen to have in your program. Strength gains over time across the body are usually a good indication that you are gaining lean mass. As long as you are getting stronger in a moderate rep range, and using consistent form you should gauge your progress with strength.
May people feel that looking at the muscles or looking in the mirror is enough? Others believe that a tape measure is a better indicator. This is false. Nutritional and hydration status can alter these measurements far too much. More importantly, these measurements are not directly related to anything you are doing in training. It is important to have a training related gauge of muscle growth. Since training is the specific action you are taking to induce muscle growth you want a measure that takes your training sessions into account. Not only does strength give you an idea of the relative amount of muscle you are carrying, but it is a good indicator of your ability to build and maintain muscle in future workouts. Since strength in so important we need some benchmarks to shoot for.
Strength standards for many of the different lifts have been proposed by many mainstream fitness authors. Unfortunately not all authors can agree on which lifts most important for creating an aesthetic looking physique. While I have my opinions about each method, ultimately it is up to the trainee to decide where they will focus their effort.
Brawn (Stuart McRobert) – In his original work author Stuart McRobert proposed the following standards to achieve the ideal measurements set forth in the “McCallum Formula” for a man of 5’9″ with a 7″ wrist, weighing 190 lbs. This poundages lifted below are an approximation of the weight needed, lifted with a controlled rep speed, to reach the following measurements: Chest 45.5″, Hips 38.7″, Waist 31.9″, Thigh 24.1″, Neck 16.8″, Arm 16.4″, Calf 15.5″, Forearm 13.2″.
Squat 375-400 lbs or 15-20 x 300
Deadlift 450-500 lbs or 15-20 x 350
Stiff-legged deadlift 10 x 275 lbs
Bench press 280-300 lbs or 6-8 x 250
Press 190 lbs 0r 6 x 150
Barbell curl 8 x 100 lbs
Close-grip (about 15″ apart) Bench press 8 x 220
One -leg heal raise 20 with a 50 lb dumbbell
These measurements are pretty good as they give the trainee a few different exercises to work with while still staying relatively simple. Obviously they lack some upper body pulling movements which Stuart McRobert takes care of in his second book Beyond Brawn.
Beyond Brawn (Stuart McRobert) – In his second work Stuart McRobert expands on his strength standards from his first book. McRobert ads exercises and slightly changes some of the poundage listings. Stuart McRobert again uses the “McCallum Formula” for an ideally proportioned man of 5’9″ with a 7″ wrist, weighing 190 lbs. This poundages lifted below are an approximation of the weight needed, lifted with a controlled rep speed, to reach the following measurements: Chest 45.5″, Hips 38.7″, Waist 31.9″, Thigh 24.1″, Neck 16.8″, Arm 16.4″, Calf 15.5″, Forearm 13.2″.
Squat 400 or 300 x 20
Deadlift 500 or 385 x 15
Stiff-legged deadlift 300 x 10
Bench press 300 lbs or 260 x 6
Parallel dip (Bodyweight plus 100) x 6
Overhead press 175 x 6
Pulldown 240 x 6
Chin (Bodyweight + 50-60) x 6
One arm dumbbell row 110 x 6
Barbell curl 120 x 6
Shoulder width bench press 220 x 6
Single-leg calf raises 20 reps with a 60-lb dumbbell
As you can see, the Beyond Brawn standard ads quite a few exercises. Some of the more conventional max effort exercises seem quite heavy. Other exercises, like chins in particular seem a little low. Overall you can see how these strength standards represent what would have to be a pretty well-built individual.
Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger (Mike Matthews) – Mike Matthews is an excellent author who has written a number of outstanding books. His best books by far are his original Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger series as well as his Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger. In this book he gives the below listed strength standards for anyone considering moving on to his advanced programs.
Squat 4-6 reps at 1.75 x bodyweight
Deadlift 4-6 reps with 1.75 x bodyweight
Bench Press 4-6 reps with 1.35 x bodyweight
Chin 4-6 reps with 1.35 x bodyweight
Seated Press 4-6 reps with 1 x bodyweight
These strength standards are pretty good. The only problems I see are that the deadlift strength standard is not very ambitious, while the seated press strength standard is very ambitious. Most strength standards equate a 1 x bodyweight press to a 1.5 x bodyweight chin and press, a 2.0 x bodyweight squat, and a 2.5 x bodyweight deadlift. In this light Mike Matthews’ standards are outliers to some degree. The fact that he emphasizes the seated press and squat over the bench press and deadlift does make sense for an aesthetic focused program. You can see pictures of Mike pressing some pretty impressive weight on his site, so he definitely practices what he preaches.
Tim Henriquez (T-Nation.com) – Tim Henriquez first proposed these standards on his article titled “Are You Strong?” which was published for T-Nation.com. In the article he says that these lifts are for recreational lifters. While they may seem high, he states that they are not for competitive athletes, and are realistic goals he uses as benchmarks for the people he trains. For anyone who is not familiar with Tim, he is a competitive powerlifter who was at a 700 lb deadlift in the 198 lb weight class. He is also a founder of one of the largest personal training certification companies in the US. Needless to say he has seen quite a few people train. If anything these standards are inspiring.
|Squat||315 or1.5x bw||405 or2x bw||455 or2.5x bw||95 or.75x bw||155 or1.25x bw||205 or2x bw|
|Bench Press||225 or1.25x bw||315 or1.5x bw||365 or2x bw||65 or.5x bw||105 or.75x bw||135 or1x bw|
|Deadlift||315 or1.5x bw||405 or2 x bw||495 or2.75x bw||115 or1x bw||185 or1.5x bw||225 or2x bw|
|Standing Military Press||105||165||225||45||65||95|
|45 1/4 Bent Over Row||225||275||315||65||105||135|
|EZ Bicep Curl||80||135||180||40||60||80|
Greg O’ Gallager (Kinobody.com) – Greg O’ Gallager is a relatively new fitness author that specializes in creating aesthetically pleasing physiques for his clients. He is an expert when it comes to developing relative strength and training for leanness. Out of all the fitness authors his strength standards are the most relevant for those trainees who don’t want to be mistaken for a recreational bodybuilder.
Incline Dumbbell Press 0.5 x bodyweight per dumbbell for 6 reps
Weighted pull up 1.4 x bodyweight (total) for 6 reps
Weighted dips 1.6 x bodyweight (total) for 6 reps
Dumbbell curl 0.3 x bodyweight per arm for 6 reps
Sumo Deadlift 1.8 x bodyweight for 3 reps
Bulgarian Split Squat 0.3 x bodyweight per arm for 6 reps per leg
These standards are awesome. They focus on only the exercises needed to create an aesthetically pleasing physique. You will look good with no added mass on your frame. I highly encourage anyone to check out Greg’s site.
Martin Berkhan (Leangains.com) – Leangains.com is a fantastic site. Martin Berkhan is one of the biggest proponents of relative strength. His articles on intermittent fasting and strength training started a whole genre of programs based around his concepts. While many people have tried to copy Martin, no one can do it better. Martin Berkhan was truly revolutionary in his complete understanding of training. Unfortunately the details of his concepts often times were lost in a sea of watered down and mis-interpreted rip-off programs. For the real deal please go check out his site. The strength standards he proposes are relatively well accepted in powerlifting circles. These are of course intended for noncompetitive lifters.
Intermediate would include anyone who can get all of the below strength goals
“Bench press: body weight x 1.2”
“Chin-ups or pull-ups: body weight x 1.2 or 8 reps with body weight.”
“Squat: body weight x 1.6”
“Deadlift: body weight x 2”
Advanced would include anyone who can get 3/4 of the following goals
“Bench press: body weight x 1.5”
“Chin-ups or pull-ups: body weight x 1.5 or 15 reps with body weight.”
“Squat: body weight x 2”
“Deadlift: body weight x 2.5”
Very Advanced would include anyone capable of getting all 4 of the below lifts, or 3/4 of them with one other one being in the elite category.
“Bench press: body weight x 1.5, or x 1.8 (elite)”
“Chin-ups or pull-ups: body weight x 1.5 or 15 reps with body weight, or x 1.8 / 20 reps (elite)”
“Squat: body weight x 2, or x 2.4 (elite)”
“Deadlift: body weight x 2.5, or x 3 (elite)”
These standards are used by a great deal of authors in the fitness industry, and give an awesome example of what kind of overall strength levels are needed for a lean physique.
Chris Salvato (EatMoveImprove.com) – EatMoveImprove.com is a website dedicated to natural performance enhancement. The website features a great deal of information on cross training for different types of sports. The authors on the site offer one of the most comprehensive lists of strength endurance and gymnastics skills anywhere on the web. They also sell a great book called “Overcoming Gravity” which teaches gymnastics progressions from basic through the elite level. Shown below are the standards taken only from their strength standards section of these skill guidelines page.
- Weighted dip (PB)
- Level one – 3 reps at BW
- Level two – 1.4x BW
- Level three – 1.7x BW
- Level four – 1.9x BW
- Level five – 2x BW
- Weighted pull up
- Level one – BW
- Level two – 1.4x BW
- Level three – 1.7x BW
- Level four – 1.9x BW
- Level five – 2x BW
- Bench press
- Level one – .85x BW
- Level two – 1.2x BW
- Level three – 1.5x BW
- Level four – 1.75x BW
- Level five – 1.9x BW
- Level one – .5x BW
- Level two – .75x BW
- Level three – .95x BW
- Level four – 1.1x BW
- Level five – 1.2x BW
- Level one – 1.5x BW
- Level two – 2x BW
- Level three – 2.4x BW
- Level four – 2.75x BW
- Level five – 3x BW
- Back squat
- Level one – 1.25x BW
- Level two – 1.75x BW
- Level three – 2.15x BW
- Level four – 2.4x BW
- Level five – 2.6x BW
- Overhead squat
- Level one – .65x BW
- Level two – 1x BW
- Level three – 1.3x BW
- Level four – 1.45x BW
- Level five – 1.65x BW
- Weighted dip (PB)
The list is closely related to many of the above, but shows a few additional exercises, and has more levels to work from. The definitions of the different levels are found on the site. They basically span from level 1 beginner to level 5 world-class. I highly suggest talking a look at the whole skills page Here.
All these strength standards can be mixed and matched to provide goals for your straining. Having a goal that you can see yourself working towards helps on the days when your physique might not reveal your progress. Well defined strength goals give you benchmarks that can be broken down into intermediate checkpoints. Once you have checkpoints, you have specific short and long term goals for each lift. Simply pick a handful of the above exercises and a level of strength you want to obtain. While it would be unrealistic to use too many of these at one time, working toward 4-5 of these would be ideal. This one step will improve your chances of reaching your ideal physique more than anything you can do in the gym. Each time you enter you simply keep track of how much weight you did on the same exercise at the last session. The weight you do relative to your last session provides a strong measure of biofeedback. This biofeedback over the long term will be the key to your progress. Are you getting stronger or weaker? How does the weight feel. That way you know where you have been, and you know where you are headed.
The topic of training to reach specific strength goals is a big one. In this article on high frequency training I discuss a few different ways you can break down a normal bodypart split to make better strength gains. This is an example of an appropriate template for a few big exercises like the ones listed above, along with a supporting cast of supplemental exercise. You still want to be keeping track of your supplemental exercises, and weights used; you just don’t need to have specific long term goals for these smaller lifts. You can also look at a full training program that includes conditioning and 2-4 days of lifting per week. The linked program is ideal for anyone looking to create an aesthetically pleasing physique. It is fairly flexible and includes options for both lifting and conditioning. The program is written in four parts. Part 1 describes the program, part 2 talks about the women’s program, part 3 discusses the men’s program and part 4 details the training templates.
The training templates above will work; however, anyone looking to reach the higher levels of strength listed above will need a deeper understanding of the principles used in their program. One thing to keep in mind, that keeps many people from reaching their strength goals, is the amount of time you stay with an exercise. You need to experiment with how long you keep an exercise in your program. Like many aspects of lifting, how long to keep an exercise in the rotation depends. Switching exercises too often is just as bad as not switching them enough. Generally you should keep an exercise as long as you are making strength gains on that exercise. You should not throw an exercise out simply because you stall once. You need to do some troubleshooting first. You can lower the weight and increase the rep range temporarily. You can increase the weight and decrease the rep range temporarily. You can drop one session of training a specific muscle or movement out of the program for a workout or two. Ultimately there are many ways to go about this. Knowing which method to employ takes time in the gym. Anyone who does not know how to properly troubleshoot a plateau would be better off attempting to stick with an exercise for at least a few weeks. If you have no idea where to start go with 3-6 week on a program. This will give you enough experience about a program to know whether or not your body is responding. If you have more time in the gym you should already know what exercises you should be using.
Once you have decided on your exercise you will need to set up some type of rotation. You want to be able to train exercises that work your body in a manner similar to that of your chosen strength standard. Say for example you want to train the deadlift. You want to be able to maximize the amount of attention you give the muscles involved in that lift. If you train the deadlift for 5 weeks making progress and then stalling, what can you do? Well, the easiest answer is to use a very similar exercise such as the Romanian deadlift, the straight-leg deadlift, the sumo deadlift, or the snatch grip deadlift. This is not an exhaustive list, but it does give you an idea of how many possibilities there are. Another example is for the seated barbell shoulder press. You could alternate to the seated behind the neck shoulder press, the standing military press, the seated dumbbell shoulder press, or seated Arnold press. By waiting until you hit a plateau and then switching to another similar exercise you will be able to build up and return to the original exercise stronger than before.
There are many intelligent ways to cycle exercises and prevent burnout. If you set up a simple program, rotate exercises and prevent burnout you will make great progress on your physique and strength goals. Ultimately, trying to make steady strength gains, in the long term, will give you the physique you crave.