I developed an embarrassing habit when I began working out seriously a decade ago:
I would wait until the gym was empty to get my sets in on the bench press because I couldn’t even put up two plates a side.
The meatheads had me convinced that the bench press was the true marker of my strength, and because I was weak on that lift compared to the rest of them, my self-confidence suffered.
Every person at the gym who lifts falls into one of two categories:
- Those who think they’re Greek gods (the meatheads).
- Those who are insecure about how much they lift (like I used to be).
My insecurity drove me to research the subject deeply and I discovered I’d been obsessing about the wrong metric for years when it came to my strength.
I was worried about absolute strength rather than relative strength (there’s a big difference) and stressing about judgment from the meatheads for no reason!
Turns out I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was, and so are you. If you’re in that insecure crowd, this article will help you determine your actual strength level.
Why You Should Measure Yourself by Relative Strength
When I was worried about how much I could bench compared to the muscle-bound meatheads, I was gauging how strong I was in terms of absolute strength:
The maximum amount of force one can exert, regardless of their muscle or body size.
The metric I should have used from the beginning is relative strength:
The amount of force exerted relative to one’s body size, or how strong you are for your size (weight).
You shouldn’t make it your goal to lift as much as someone who outweighs you by 100 pounds. That’s unrealistic. Some people are dealt a better genetic hand in that regard.
Look at this video of Hugh Jackman (AKA Wolverine) joining the 1,000lb club with a 355lb squat, a 235lb bench, and a 410lb deadlift.
Jackman (who, again, plays a superhero in Marvel movies) is 6’2” and roughly 200 pounds. By comparison, I’m 5’9.5” and weigh 155 pounds.
Wolverine definitely has me beat in two out of three of those lifts if we’re looking strictly at absolute strength.
But in reality, it makes way more sense for me to measure my strength relative to standards that are appropriate to a guy my size, not someone who’s paid millions for his muscles.
So where do we begin? Well, let’s start by looking at what your relative strength goals should be for the notable lifts.
What Your Goals Should Be for Each Lift
The best guide to relative strength comes from none other than legendary strength coach Mark Rippetoe who sells his best selling book Starting Strength (one of the bibles of compound lifting) through his Aasgaard Company.
Rip’s relative strength standards are based on your body weight and your experience level – the amount of time you’ve been training “regularly”.
Novice level is for newbies with under 1 year of experience. Intermediate is for someone with up to two years of proper training. Advanced is for a person with several years of training experience who is most likely looking to compete athletically in the future. And elite, well, we’ll talk about elite later.
To gauge your relative strength, I recommend this chart. The weights you see listed in Rip’s standards are for a one-rep max.
I’ll use myself as an example to explain how this chart works.
At 155 pounds, I’m in between the 148 and 165 weight tiers.
Next, here are my one-rep max lifts on the four exercises (excluding the power clean) I regularly perform:
- Press: 160lbs
- Bench press: 240lbs
- Squat: 310lbs
- Deadlift: 405lbs
A quick glance at the sheet tells you that, for my weight, I’m between advanced and elite on every lift except the squat (*deep sigh*), where I’m between intermediate and advanced.
Since I don’t carry this chart around in my pocket, I’ve developed my own set of benchmarks that you can use to quickly calculate relative strength goals for each lift based on your weight (if you are an advanced lifter):
Here are those calculations with my weight and whether I meet my own goals:
- Press: 1x body weight = 155lbs (Check)
- Bench Press: 1.5x body weight = 232.5lbs (Check)
- Squat: 2x body weight = 310lbs (Check, just barely)
- Deadlift: 2.5x body weight = 387.5lbs (Check)
On Rip’s chart, these goals fall between the advanced and elite levels.
Let’s bring this back around to Jackman, who should be putting up 440lbs on deadlift by our standards, yet he’s only doing 410lbs according to his Instagram post.
You know what that means: I’m stronger than Wolverine on deadlifts!
Not bad for a 5’9” formerly skinny fat Asian kid, huh? I told you relative strength was the way to go!
Fitness is Always Relative to Something
Your fitness success is always relative to your weight, genetics, goals, type of training, etc.
When you’re working out regularly, don’t look at yourself as just being in either the “failure” or “success” camps. Instead, look at your progress on the spectrum of success.
I’ve been working out for almost 15 years now, so my version of success will look markedly different from someone who is just starting out.
The key is to keep your progress in perspective relative to your situation. Another key is to be realistic with your goals as you begin to see progress in the gym.
This year, I’d love to hit the elite level on all four lifts.
But if we look at Rip’s chart, we see that the elite level is reserved for athletes competing in strength sports and that less than 1% of the weight training population will attain that level.
So yeah, that’s not going to happen. Instead, I’m going to set more realistic goals and focus on improving my squat in 2017.
I want to add 20-30 pounds to my squat and get up to the advanced level this year. If I can turn my weakest movement into one of my strongest, that’s a huge win in my books.
How will you improve your relative strength goals in 2017?