Death to Strength Standards!

3 Reasons They Just Don’t Work

The next time someone tells you that a person your size should be able to lift a certain amount, tell them to shove it. Here’s why.

What’s a Strength Standard?

You’ve heard many coaches and trainers talk about strength standards. For example, they’ll say that everyone should be able to deadlift 2.5 times their bodyweight or do a double bodyweight squat. This is okay for some athletes and competitive lifters, but not for everyone.

The Bias Game

Everyone talks about the benefits of strength training, and there are of course many, but no one talks about the disadvantages. We can’t go around acting like there’s no collateral damage incurred by constantly lifting heavier and heavier weights on a regular basis, or that our joints and connective tissue don’t suffer functional drawbacks from dealing with such loads (especially for those of us who are really strong).

We’re all products of our environments, at least to some degree. And the creators of these strength standards couldn’t have dreamed up these numbers without having worked with (or been) members of the elite competitor crowd in a given discipline. So, there’s some bias there.

There’s direct benefit for football players, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, or strongmen to strive for such numbers, but there’s a disconnect when we take their strength and try to apply it to Bob from Accounting. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t meet these weightlifting standards. Here’s why.

1. Sometimes the Leverages Just Don’t Work

I’m 6’4" with the longest femurs and arms imaginable. I’m an anatomical outlier in the gym and I’m not built like any elite lifter of any discipline (powerlifter, strongman, or weightlifter).

In other words, I’m a primo example of how a double bodyweight squat or deadlift is much more demanding for someone who has to travel a much greater distance with many more body compensations to achieve a straight bar path.

That’s the reason most titans of CrossFit are under 6 feet and have average lever lengths. Work is the product of force and distance, and both of those factor in huge when you’re racing the clock.

Here’s a scenario: A gangly 6’5" guy and a short, stocky 5’7" guy do squats next to one another. The tall guy is lifting 300 pounds for his sets of 10. The short guy is besting him with 320 pounds for the same reps.

The tall guy has to travel 30 inches each way to perform a rep. The short guy only has to move 18 inches. By the end of the set, the tall guy would have lifted 3000 pounds, but would have traveled 600 inches. The short guy would have lifted 3200 pounds, but would have only traveled 360 inches. That’s just over half. This example sounds severe, but it’s actually shockingly realistic.

With the difference between these demands, who do you think would reach a double bodyweight squat standard first or with less difficulty?

The point is this: If you’re not skeletally built for lifting, you’re going to have more frustration reaching generic lifting standards. No strength standard has taken into consideration the anthropometry of the individual, and it’s time someone called that out.

2. Relative vs. Absolute Strength

Strength standards also take a nosedive when they don’t take relative strength or absolute strength into consideration. Relative strength relates to how strong you are for your size. Absolute strength refers to the max amount of force you can exert, regardless of size.

For instance, a person who weighs 120 pounds and can do 30 pull-ups has a great deal of relative strength, but since that same person only squats his bodyweight, he has poor absolute strength.

With that in mind, it’s worthwhile to remember that there’s no linear correlation between a lifter’s weight and the amount of force he can produce. The “mass moves mass” analogy is true, but only until it’s not.

A 120-pound weakling would clearly be able to pull or push more if he weighed 180 pounds, but his rate of change won’t progress exponentially as he continues to put on size. Smaller people have the potential to possess more relative strength, and larger people have the potential to possess more absolute strength.

That’s the reason why you’ll never see someone with a body type like Bruce Lee squatting 900 pounds, or a 400-pound strongman who can crack out 40 weighted pull-ups with three plates hanging from his waist.

Some strength standards accommodate this distinction by making a provision for larger guys, but there are still drawbacks to getting married to this train of thought since it doesn’t consider the lifter’s leverages, the lifter’s calendar age, his training age, and his possible history of injury. Remember, we’re talking about the general public.

3. Metabolic Standards Aren’t the Same

While they’re not as widespread as strength standards, you occasionally see metabolic standards bandied about. For example, you should be able to complete X number of complexes in X number of seconds or minutes.

The truth is, the size of the individual will dictate just how much relative ease he’ll have when doing a conditioning workout. Energy expenditure demands would lay a big guy flat on his back three minutes into a Tabata workout, whereas a pipsqueak would fare differently.

A poorly trained and misguided judge/trainer would say that one lifter has much better conditioning than the other, when in truth, each person could be just as well conditioned as the other in a relative sense.

You’re Not a Weak Bastard, and That’s Bittersweet News

Here’s the question that no one asks non-competitive lifters: How strong do we NEED to be?

Most ground-shattering feats of strength people post on YouTube are made by lifters in their twenties, with fresher bodies, excellent recovery, and plenty of time to devote to their training. But guys in their thirties and beyond have more figurative “mileage,” and that can’t be overlooked.

That means more wear and tear and years spent lifting heavy things, plus more wear and tear from family, mortgages, and occupation. It also usually includes a few bouncebacks from injuries incurred over time in the trenches because, hey, it happens.

The toughest pill to swallow if you’re a non-competitive lifter looking to last the test of time is this: Beyond a certain point, your strength PR’s are a hobby. There’s nothing riding on you pulling 600 or squatting 525, and there’s no added benefit to any component of your health in achieving these numbers, compared to your old PR’s of say, 300 or 400 pounds.

Put it into context. You’re already regularly moving hundreds of pounds in each direction. You’ll be okay when you’re a senior citizen as long as you don’t stop. If you’ve got your foundation, start employing methods that make lighter weight feel heavy, and reap all the benefits without worrying about the number on the bar compared to your balls-to-the-wall lifetime PR stats.

Staying strong will keep you uninjured, unattached to empty strength standards that probably weren’t made for you, and will ultimately allow you to focus on the one thing your strength training was missing – the training effect it has on you, the individual.