What is Strong? (How to Get Strong, Part 2)

If you're aiming to get strong, what sorts of numbers should you be shooting for? What is strong?
what is strong

If you’re aiming to get strong, what sorts of numbers should you be shooting for? What is strong?

For longtime readers of this site, the premise of this article may sound familiar, as I’ve discussed strength standards twice before.  However, there’s still plenty of new stuff to stick around for, as this article will also discuss sex differences in strength in-depth and the evolution of the sport of powerlifting.

What you're getting yourself into:

3600 words, 12-24 minute read time

Key Points:

  1. Powerlifters, on the whole, don't seem to be meaningfully improving.  However, the number of competitors has increased almost 5-fold, which accounts for the increases we've seen in world records and top-level competition.
  2. Women respond just as well to training as men do, and the strength gap between the sexes (men lift about 50% more relative to their size than women do) doesn't seem to meaningfully change with training.
  3. Lift ratios aren't particularly predictive of success in powerlifting.
  4. If you want to see how you stack up against the competition, you can find complete strength percentile charts at the bottom of the article, based on actual competition results.

The first time I addressed strength standards was in this article.  It took a theoretical approach, based on data showing the relationship between lean body mass and strength in elite powerlifters.  The problem with this approach is that there’s probably more that separates elite lifters from day-to-day folks than just lean body mass (such as muscle attachment points, normalized muscle force, and many other factors discussed here).  It was still a useful article because it provided a scoring system for each lift based on actual data, but I knew I could improve upon it.

My next stab was this article, which I still think is pretty solid, but which some folks took exception with.  The strength goals laid out in that article were based on a survey I sent out to my readers.  With over 1,800 survey responses, I’m quite confident in the data (and it matches my own observations quite well), but since the sampling was non-random and the lifts were self-reported, there’s a chance that some of the people may have lied about lifts, or that the sort of people who’d respond to a survey like that are fundamentally different from people who wouldn’t respond.

Recently, however, I realized that the USAPL has all of its results online and easy to access.  The complete 2012-2015 spreadsheets are on the website, and /u/ferruix on Reddit helped me get a clean copy of the 2016 results (by the way, if you want to see up-to-date, sortable meet results across all powerlifting federations, you need to check out his site OpenPowerlifting.  It’s an amazing resource).

Since this is about how to get stronger for powerlifting, I don’t think you could find a dataset much better or more useful than “all competition results for the largest federation in the world.”  Obviously, “all drug-tested results from all federations” would be better, but in sticking with one fed, that helps control for slightly different rules and equipment, different degrees of rule enforcement, etc.  For the purposes of this article, I’m only looking at the raw, open class results – with 7,444 discrete results for men and 4,844 for women over the past 4 years, this is a huge, informative, and (surprisingly) clean dataset.

One more note before we dive in:  As consistent Stronger By Science readers are aware, I’m very fond of allometric scaling for normalizing strength to body size as opposed to more commonly used methods such as strength to bodyweight ratios or Wilks scores, so that’s what I’ll be using in this article.  If you don’t know what allometric scaling is, or if you want to learn more about allometric scaling’s usefulness for determining someone’s relative strength, check out this article.

The first question I had when approaching the data is, “are powerlifters actually getting better?”  The sport is growing by leaps and bounds (the number of both male and female competitors increased by 500-600% from 2013 to 2016), and it seems like new records are being set every weekend.

However, by any objective measure, the typical powerlifter today is completely indistinguishable from the typical powerlifter in 2013.  The first way we can see this is via simple average relative strength for each lift.

what is strong – average strength men

what is strong – average strength women

In all three lifts and the total, the average lifter hasn’t changed by more than about 3% comparing any two years.

However, it’s always important to look past the averages.  Maybe the “real,” serious lifters today are actually better than the serious lifters of a few years ago, but the average is getting drawn down by not-so-great lifters entering the sport as it increases in popularity.  If that were the case, you’d expect it to show up in percentile scores.  Most notably, you’d expect the higher percentile scores to have increased, while the lower percentile scores decreased.

That hasn’t happened either, as you can see in these graphs.  The top set of lines are the percentile scores for the total, followed by the deadlift, squat, and bench.  Lower percentile scores are on the left side of the graph (weaker lifters) and higher percentile scores are on the right side of the graph (stronger lifters).

Just to quantify how similar these sets of percentile scores were, I calculated the correlation coefficients between percentile scores for every lift and every year.  In all cases, the r value was 0.99+, which means a near-perfect relationship.

Finally, I calculated the proportion of totals and single lifts that fell within each half-point allometrically scaled strength range (which corresponds to roughly 10kg for an average-sized person).

Visually, you can see that the line charts across each year are very similar, starting with the bench on the far left, the squat next, the deadlift next, and the total on the far right.  You can click to expand the images (which I’d strongly recommend doing.  They look really cool).  If you’re on a mobile device, you can click here for men, or click here for women.

I also checked to see if any of the curves were actually significantly different.  Unsurprisingly, they weren’t.  The lowest p-value was something like 0.9 (nowhere close to significance).

It seems the records are falling in powerlifting not because the average lifter is actually better – which would be indicative of reaching a better talent pool, or advancements in training nutrition, recovery, etc. – but because the entire talent pool is just getting bigger and deeper.  When there are 4-5x more lifters in a sport, your odds of finding slightly freakier freaks naturally increases.

So, since the pool of lifters in each year was fundamentally similar, I was able to combine them all for the rest of the analysis.

Sex Differences

My next order of business was comparing the male and female lifters.

Even though male and female powerlifters are never going to compete head-to-head with each other, I was curious to see whether the results seen in short-term scientific studies hold up when looking at well-trained lifters.

There’s a pervasive and persistent myth that men simply respond better to training than women do.

The reasoning goes something like this:  Men have roughly 10x as much testosterone as women do and testosterone helps you build muscle, therefore men will gain dramatically more muscle and build dramatically more strength than women in response to training.

However, that’s not what you see in the lab.

Menno Henselmans also has a good article detailing much of the research on this subject that I’d highly recommend, but I want to take things a bit further than he did, as you’ll see in a moment.

Men have more muscle than women.  To give us some numbers to anchor the rest of this discussion, men start out with about 50% more lean body mass than women, relative to the size of their frame (kilos of FFM per cm of height):  about 0.32kg/cm versus 0.22kg/cm, and untrained men tend to be stronger than untrained women by roughly 50% as well (a bit more for upper body strength, and a bit less for lower body strength, mainly due to regional differences in muscle mass), since strength scales quite well with muscle mass, particularly FFM/cm.

However, men and women respond to training very similarly, relative to their starting point.  In other words, men are bigger and stronger than women on average, but men and women gain proportionally the same amount of strength and muscle when they start training.  If a man starts with 60kg of lean body mass and a 90kg deadlift while a woman starts with 40kg of lean body mass and a 60kg deadlift, for example, if the man gains 6kg of lean body mass and puts 30kg on his deadlift, you’d expect the woman to gain around 4kg of lean body mass and put 20kg on her deadlift.

Here are a few studies as examples to illustrate this point:

Muscle size responses to strength training in young and older men and women

For the young men, fat-free mass increased by 2kg (3.2%), while it increased by 1.9kg (4.4%) for the young women on the same training program.  Similarly, leg press 1rm increased by 24.5% and chest press 1rm increased by 24.4% for young men, with increases of 33.3% and 33.4% for the young women.

Response to resistance training in young men and women

In this study, biceps, brachialis, and total elbow flexor cross-sectional area increased by 7%, 30%, and 14%, respectively, for men, with corresponding increases of 12%, 51%, and 27% for women.  Machine preacher curl 1rm increased by 46% for the men, and 116% for the women.

Comparison of upper body strength gains between men and women after 10 weeks of resistance training

After 10 weeks of training, elbow flexion strength increased by 11.61% for men and 11.76% for women.

Do sex or race differences influence strength training effects on muscle or fat?

Quad muscle volume increased by 9.2% for men and 8.2% for women.  Knee extension 1rm increased by 23.5% for men and 27.8% for women.

Variability in muscle size and strength gain following unilateral resistance training

Biceps cross-sectional area increased by 20.4% for men and 17.9% for women.  Furthermore, 1rm biceps curl increased by 64.1% for women and 39.8% for men, and isometric strength increased by 22% for women and 15.8% for men.

men vs. women hypertrophy strength Hubal
From Hubal et al, 2005

When looking at these data, we can see that, on the whole, men and women have pretty similar responses to training on average.  Of the studies that do report a difference in hypertrophy, some are slightly in favor of women while others lean slightly in favor of men.  For strength gains, the studies either report no difference, or lean in favor of women.

However, a common rebuttal to these data is that, since they’re based on relatively short-term studies, they can’t tell us that women will continue responding to training as well as men do over a matter of years – women will fall behind again as members of both sexes continue training.  The supposition is that since women generally don’t take part in as many activities heavily reliant on strength before they start training, they’re “behind” where they should be, so they grow quickly at first to “catch up,” but their gains will slow down long before their male counterparts’ do.

With a huge dataset of well-trained men and women, I wanted to see if there was any merit to the notion that women’s initial parity in training responsiveness was short-lived.

Starting again with simple averages, however, we can see that male powerlifters roughly maintain that 50% gap in relative strength:  in terms of relative strength (what you lift relative to what you weigh), men are about 48% stronger in the squat, 76% stronger in the bench press, 40% stronger in the deadlift, and have totals 50% higher than women.  The gap in absolute strength is considerably larger, of course.  Men tend to squat 79% more, bench 113% more, deadlift 69% more, and total 81% more, on average, but the average male in this dataset weighed 92.1kg, while the average woman weighed 70.1 kg.

Relative Squat Relative Bench Relative Deadlift Relative Total Absolute Squat (kg) Absolute Bench (kg) Absolute Deadlift (kg) Absolute Total (kg)
Male Averages 9.629 6.584 11.249 27.462 195.2 133.5 227.0 555.6
Female Averages 6.497 3.731 8.036 18.263 109.2 62.6 134.7 306.5
Percent Difference 48.2% 76.5% 40.0% 50.4% 78.7% 113.1% 68.5% 81.3%

Looking at things with a bit more granularity, the relative strength difference also depends on skill in the sport.  The average 10th percentile man is further ahead of the average 10th percentile woman in terms of relative strength than the average 90th percentile man and woman.  By the 99th percentile for both men and women, the relative strength gap is down to 42% for the squat, 59% for the bench press, 30% for the deadlift, and 41% for the total.

what is strong
You can click here to expand the image

Just for fun, I also calculated the odds that a randomly selected female powerlifter would be stronger than a randomly selected male powerlifter, in either a relative or an absolute sense.  Just in terms of totals, you’d expect the woman to be stronger in a relative sense roughly 4.85% of the time, and stronger in an absolute sense roughly 2.36% of the time.  I just point that out because, while it’s undeniably true that men are stronger than women on average, I also think female powerlifters don’t get as much respect as they deserve, and that people tend to be excessively surprised when a woman out-lifts a man.  It’s atypical, but not exceedingly rare.  If you randomly selected 14 pairs of male and female powerlifters, it would be likely for at least one of the pairs to feature a woman who was relatively stronger, and if you randomly selected 29 pairs, then it would be likely for at least one to feature a woman with a higher absolute total, just to put those probabilities in perspective.

Finally, the last thing I wanted to look at in the data was the relationship between the three lifts, the spread in performance in the three lifts, and to see whether success in a particular lift was predictive of overall success as a powerlifter.

Performance Spread

For the men, squat and bench performances were somewhat more variable than deadlift performances.  The standard deviation of relative squat and bench strength was 18-18.5% of the mean, while the standard deviation of relative DL strength was only 16.2% of the mean.  In essence, that means that the spread of “normal” performances is larger for the squat and bench (more very good and very bad squatters and benchers), while it’s a bit smaller for the deadlift (fewer deadlifters who are really good or really bad compared to average).

It’s the same story on the women’s side, but the overall variability is also higher.  For the squat and bench, the SDs were ~22% of the mean, while the SD for DL was only 19.4% of the mean.  In other words, there’s a larger spread in bench and squat talent than deadlift talent on the women’s side as well, but there’s also a larger overall spread of talent for women than for men.

An interesting thing to note is that, for both men and women, totals were slightly less variable than any of the individual lifts (the SDs were a smaller percentage of the means).  This lends credence to the idea that the lifts contested in powerlifting are fundamentally fair and don’t give people with a particular build an advantage (i.e. long arms are beneficial for DL, but they’ll hurt you on the bench), as you see more people bunched around the “average” total.

Lift Ratios

For the men, the squat accounted for 35% of the total, on average, with the bench accounting for 24% and the deadlift accounting for 41%.  Men could bench around 69% of their squat and 59% of their deadlift, and squat about 86% of their deadlift.

For the women, the deadlift is a bit more important, and the bench is a bit less important.  The squat accounted for 35.5% of the total, the bench accounted for only 20.5% of the total, and the deadlift accounted for 44% of the total.  Women could bench around 58.5% as much as they could squat and around 47% as much as they could deadlift, and could squat about 81% as much as they could deadlift.

There was also a considerable range in these lift ratios.

Does success in a particular lift predict overall competitiveness

Finally, I wanted to see if stronger lifters tend to excel more at a particular lift, or if they’re just stronger overall in a pretty balanced fashion.  In other words, the people in the top 10 at a major meet will obviously be stronger in all three lifts than the average lifter in their weight class, but I’m curious whether that dominance is spread evenly over all three lifts.  I’ve heard people posit, for example, that lots of men have big benches and deadlifts, so squats are the larger differentiating factor, and that since DL is already the lift that makes up a disproportionate chunk of the total for women, the top female lifters are the ones who can really dominate the deadlift.

I didn’t think the data really bore that out at first.  I compared the top 5% of lifters to lifters in the 90th-95th percentile, lifters in the 80th-90th percentile, lifters in the 50th-80th percentile, and lifters below the 50th percentile.  All of them had pretty similar ratios – within about 2% of the average.  The only general trend that jumped out at me is that reasonably competitive women tend to be relatively better squatters.  All the groups above the 50th percentile squatted 82%+ of their deadlift, while women below the 50th percentile squatted 79.5% of their deadlift.

I also ran some simple correlations, and they changed the picture a bit.  Unsurprisingly, strength in each lift individually correlates very strongly with overall strength in the total.  The relationship was a bit stronger for squat and deadlift than for bench for both men and women (r=0.93-0.95 vs. r=0.84-0.86), but that should be expected because the squat and deadlift make up a larger overall percentage of the total.

However, the lift ratios tell a slightly different story.  For both men and women, relative strength in the total correlated with the proportion of the total accounted for by the squat (in other words, the person whose squat is 40% of their total likely has a bigger total than the person whose squat is 35% of their total).  The correlations were weak (r=0.21 for women and 0.23 for men), but they were there.  Similarly, the squat/deadlift ratio correlated positively with the total (r=0.17 for men and 0.18 for women).  Furthermore, the proportion of the total accounted for by the deadlift had a weak negative correlation with the total (r=-0.14 for men and -0.18 for women).  That also makes sense when you think about it, though: Generally, people gain proficiency in the deadlift quicker than the squat, newer lifters are likely to have a more deadlift-heavy total, and more experienced lifters are likely to have a more squat-heavy total, all other things being equal.

Correlations Men Women
Squat vs. total 0.94 0.93
Bench vs. total 0.85 0.86
DL vs. total 0.92 0.94
Squat/total vs. total 0.23 0.21
DL/total vs. total -0.14 -0.18
bench/squat vs. total -0.18 -0.14
squat/deadlift vs. total 0.17 0.18
squat vs. bench 0.72 0.74
squat vs. deadlift 0.79 0.80
bench vs. deadlift 0.66 0.73

It doesn’t surprise me that those relationships didn’t show up when I was only looking at group averages of various percentile range.  Though those relationships existed, they were weak relationships.  Lifters can have a great degree of success (or lack of success) with a wide range of strengths and weaknesses.

The major takeaway of this section is that you shouldn’t get too hung up on lift ratios; they’re not very predictive of competitive success.

One final thing worth noting:  Notice the correlations between the individual lifts at the bottom of the chart.  You’ll see that for both men and women, the strongest correlation is between the squat and the deadlift, which should be expected – both require lower body strength, so if you’re good at one, odds are you’ll be pretty good at the other.  However, also notice that for men, the correlation between bench and deadlift is the weakest of the three.  That may lend some degree of validation to great benchers with t-rex arms who complain that they can’t get their DL up, or great deadlifters with orangutan arms who struggle with bench; strength in the two lifts is still correlated, but the relationship is the weakest out of the three pairs.  It’s also interesting, however, that the correlation between bench and deadlift strength isn’t meaningfully different than the correlation between bench and squat strength for the women.

So, to wrap this article up, what is strong?

There’s not a simple answer to that question.  The best goal, in my opinion, is to aim to be stronger than you are today and let the long-term results take care of themselves after grinding away at progress over several years.  However, if you want to get some concrete targets to aim at, see where you fall on these percentile charts.  They’ll tell you how you size up against the competition.  This is about the most objective strength comparison you can get, based on 12,000+ actual competition results spanning 4 years in the largest, strictest, and most competitive drug-tested organization in the sport.  Simply keep trying to climb up the ladder.  If you’re planning on moving up or down a weight class, scope out your target percentile in the new class first to see how much strength you’ll need to gain/how much strength you’ll need to hold onto to be equally competitive in your new class.

Click to enlarge the charts below.  If you’re on a mobile device, you can click this link for the men and this link for the women.

Men’s strength percentiles:

what is strong – men's strength percentiles

Women’s strength percentiles:

what is strong – women's strength percentiles

Stay tuned!  The next article will address how to identify and assess the factors that are most likely to be limiting your performance so you can start building a training plan to address them.

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