(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: What do you think would be considered “strong” for my age and size? I’m male, 21 years old, about 5’10, 170lbs and I’ve been working out consistently for about 4 years.
How much weight do you think I should be able to bench press, squat and deadlift at this point? What would you consider “good?”
The reason I ask is because sometimes I see guys in my gym who are a lot bigger than I am, but they lift a lot less weight than I do. But then I see guys on forums who are about the same age and size as I am, but they’ve barely been lifting for a year and are already much stronger than I am. How is this possible?
ANSWER: I get some form of this question every so often. Someone runs down their stats (age, height, weight, experience level, etc.) and their major lifts and asks something along the lines of “is this good?”
I’ve seen this kind of thing come up on various training forums all the time, too.
It seems many of us are overly concerned about our current level of strength on lifts like the bench press (guys especially), squat, deadlift, overhead press, pull-ups, rows, etc.. Hell, I’ve even had people ask me about their bicep curl strength before.
Sometimes it’s because they want to gauge their own progress or lack thereof. But most of the time it seems they want to compare their strength levels to that of other people of the same gender, age, size and experience level and see how they stack up.
Are their numbers considered good or bad? Would they be considered strong or weak? Are their lifts impressive or unimpressive? Do they lift more or less weight than other people?
Before I give you my all time favorite answer to this question, I want to first show you why it’s not always the best question to be asking…
The Problem With Comparing Yourself To Others
Simply put, a lot of what you see and hear from other people isn’t exactly as it seems. This is likely true in most aspects of life. Strength is just one of them. Here’s a few examples of what I mean…
Steroids and/or amazing genetics.
Steroids, amazing genetics or a combination of both can completely throw off any kind of physical comparison you’re trying to make between yourself and someone else, and you won’t even know for sure when it’s happening.
For example, someone using drugs (and/or with amazing genetics) will grow quite well, even if their training isn’t all that great. In fact, steroid users can apparently grow just fine with no training whatsoever. This is one of the reasons you’ll sometimes see fairly big, muscular people lifting surprisingly low amounts of weight.
My old gym used to be filled with people like this. Guys who took a bunch of drugs and then showed up at the gym to spend 2-3 hours doing various high rep/light weight “pump” training nonsense while flexing in the mirror before/during/after each set.
When you look at someone like that and see they look amazing compared to you but yet you’re somehow stronger compared to them, it makes you wonder if you’re lifting heavier than you should be (more about this in a minute).
Then of course you have people who DO train hard and intelligently. And when take someone who trains like that and add elite genetics and/or steroids to the equation, they are going to make progress that can at worst be just fantastic, and at best be so damn amazing it’s not even remotely realistic or attainable for the rest of us.
If you try to compare your strength to someone like that, it’s just laughably unfair. It can make you feel terrible about your own progress, or just make you chase goals you’ll never actually meet.
I’ve already covered this in detail before in terms of the unrealistic muscle building expectations steroid use creates. But, it applies to strength just the same.
Some people are just stronger or weaker than others.
For a period of time early on, I was making decent strength gains. But rather than feel good about it, I’d look around my gym at guys bigger than me (many of which fit into that previous group) and sometimes see them lifting less than me.
This made me question my strength. I mean, it didn’t make sense that I’d be able to lift more than people bigger than me, often significantly bigger than me. It made me think my form must be bad or I must be cheating or something somewhere just clearly wasn’t right.
And so I’d actually reduce the weight I was lifting on certain exercises and work back up assuming I must have been doing something incorrectly.
I’m not gonna lie. In many cases, there’s a really good chance that your form is total crap and you are indeed lifting (or really, attempting to lift) much more weight than you should be. But, that’s NOT the case every time.
Turns out that some people are just naturally weaker, and some people are just naturally stronger. Sometimes at everything, sometimes just at certain exercises or certain types of exercises.
For all you know, you may very well be one of the strong ones. Or, you may just be surrounded by a bunch of the weak ones. Or both.
That’s why comparing yourself to others is kinda silly, and putting limits on yourself based on what other people of a similar age/size appear capable of can be a terrible idea.
Not to mention, the average person in the average gym is clueless, effortless and goalless. Is that really who you want to use as your progress measuring stick?
Two examples of many…
- The average person training pretty hard should probably deload every 6-12 weeks, sometimes more frequently depending on the person and the program. One common deloading approach is to reduce the weight you’re lifting on every exercise by some significant amount (e.g. to 80% of what it usually is) for a week or so.
- A few years ago, after a shoulder injury prevented me from overhead pressing for over a year, I slowly worked my way back into it. I think I started with 15lb dumbbells and gradually increased the weight in small increments each week.
Why am I telling you this? Because these are just 2 examples of perfectly good reasons for why you may see someone in the gym lifting less than you’d think they’d be capable of.
So if you happen to be making your pointless strength comparison between yourself and that other person during an instance like that, it wouldn’t be as accurate as you think it is.
Lies, lies and more lies.
Do you know how many people lie about how much they lift? Especially online? It’s gotta be like… 99% of them. And that’s probably an underestimate.
Unless you’ve seen video to back up a person’s claimed levels of strength, I can almost guarantee you’re being lied to by damn near everyone. At least a little.
Some people will claim to lift WAY more than they can, while others will just throw a few pounds on top of what they actually lift just to pad their stats a bit and make themselves feel a little better about themselves.
I mean, if you bench 190lbs… might as well say you bench an even 200lbs. Actually bench 200? Might as well say you bench 300lbs. Seriously, who the hell is gonna know? Might as well make it 400lbs.
Just like how every short guy adds a couple of inches to his height, every slightly overweight girl takes a few pounds off her weight, every old person says they’re a few years younger, and there’s somehow not a single guy walking the Earth with anything less than a 10 inch penis, people just lie about themselves.
Here’s another point I love to make in this conversation. You know when you’re at the gym, you often see someone load up the bar with a bunch of weight and then proceed to do the most pathetic reps you’ve ever seen?
Maybe they’re using a ton of momentum. Maybe they’re not even going half way down. Maybe their spotter is lifting the majority of the weight for them. Maybe all of the above.
Well, guess what? If you asked this person how much they lift on this exercise, they will respond with the amount of weight they use in the above “pathetic reps” scenario.
I want you to think of this person every time you see someone claim to lift some amount of weight on some exercise, especially online.
Granted, they very well might. Then again, they could just as easily be the person we all laugh at for doing pathetic reps with 10 times more weight than they’re actually capable of using.
So How Strong Should You Be? Here’s My Answer…
With all of that out of the way, it’s now time to answer the original question.
How strong should you be for your age, size, height, weight, experience level, gender, hair color, eye color, sexual orientation, blood type, shoe size and whatever other personal characteristic you can think of?
The best honest answer I can give you is this: stronger than you were last time.
I wouldn’t compare your current strength levels to anyone else’s.
I wouldn’t compare your current strength levels to a percentage of your body weight (e.g. 1.5 x body weight bench press, etc.).
I wouldn’t compare your current strength levels to what someone claims they should be for you at this point.
The one and only thing I’d compare your current strength levels to are your previous strength levels.
Are you stronger now than you were 3 months ago?
2 months ago?
1 month ago?
1 week ago?
1 workout ago?
For most of us, that’s the only comparison actually worth making.