YOUR Drug-Free Muscle and Strength Potential: Part 2

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Marvin Eder - a bodybuilder and strength athlete from the early 50s. He weighed 190lbs at 5'7," and benched 515lbs.
Marvin Eder – a bodybuilder and strength athlete from the early 50s. He weighed 190lbs at 5’7,” and benched 515lbs.

If you haven’t read the first part of this series, go ahead and check it out before diving into this article.  Just a quick recap of the background information from Part 1:

  1. Of the available models for predicting your drug-free muscular potential, muscle:bone ratio is probably the best option, but Dr. Casey Butt’s calculations are based on similar principles, and are much more user-friendly, so that’s what we’re going with for predicting muscular potential.
  2. Strength is part neural, and part muscular.  For people who have all but maxed out their potential for neural improvements in strength (national and world-class powerlifters), there’s a very strong relationship between strength and fat free mass per unit of height.

So now, let’s get down to business.  Use the calculator below to predict your drug-free muscular potential at 12% body fat for men, and 20% for women.  Why 12% and 20%?  Because that’s the level that most people can attain without it impacting their strength too much.  Most elite male powerlifters in weight-capped classes have a body fat percentage between 10% and 15%, and most women have a body fat percentage between 18-23%.  Lower than that, and most peoples’ strength starts taking a hit.  Higher than that, and the extra fat starts negatively impacting relative strength.  To be a successful powerlifter, you need to be both as jacked as possible, and as lean as possible without your strength being negatively affected, so I’m using 12% and 20% body fat here as rough averages for where most people will be in order to be maximally competitive.

 

So, how much ground do you need to cover to reach this bodyweight and body composition?  You can use this handy calculator if you’re a man:

 

If you’re a woman, you can use this calculator to estimate your current body fat percentage (for some reason, I just couldn’t get the women’s formula to work with the plugin I’m using), and the form below to see how much fat you should lose and muscle you can gain:

 

If you’re wondering why it’s asking for your neck and waist measurements, it’s because you can estimate body fat percentage quite accurately with those two measurements, based on a formula developed by the US Navy.  It works quite well for most people; it’s rarely off by more than about 3% (which is actually comparable to body fat assessment by skin folds and underwater weighing).  Most people are pretty bad at estimating their own body fat percentages, and this is the best do-it-yourself method that I’ve come across for getting a close estimate.   If you already know your body fat percentage, you can just fiddle with the neck and waist numbers until the calculated body fat percentage matches your measured body composition.

This should give you an idea of how long it will be until you’ll reach your competitive peak.  Most people can lose about .7% of their bodyweight per week without it negatively impacting their strength, so if you weigh 100kg, that’s about 2.5-3kg per month.  Building muscle takes considerably longer.  After your honeymoon period of “newbie gains,” 2-3kg of muscle per year is a really solid rate of muscle gain, so if you’re 15kg away from your maximum FFM, you’re probably 5-7 years away from your competitive peak in powerlifting.

Now it’s time to look at strength.

From data on elite powerlifters (graphs in the last article), these are the equations that predict your squat, bench, and deadlift based on how much muscle you have per cm of height:

Squat = 679.1(FFM/cm)-10.43

Bench = 474.6(FFM/cm)-14.75

Deadlift = 410.2(FFM/cm)+102.5

Total = 1563.9(FFM/cm)+77.32

Now, keep in mind that those equations are based on data from lifters using early supportive gear.  In an attempt to negate that affect, I’m going to decrease the slopes of the squat and bench lines by 10% (which is, if anything, being generous to the gear in use during the 1990s), giving us:

Squat = 611.19(FFM/cm)-10.43

Bench = 427.14(FFM/cm)-14.75

Deadlift = 410.2(FFM/cm)+102.5

Total = 1448.53(FFM/cm)+77.32

Enter your current lifts below, and let’s see how they compare to your predicted lifts, assuming the same level of mastery as national and world-class lifters:

 

A few notes about this data:

  1. Pay more attention to the total than the individual lifts.  Your bone structure can impact the individual lifts quite a bit, but usually a disadvantage in one lift becomes an advantage in another (for example, long arms make benching difficult, but make deadlifting a breeze).  However, your build generally won’t impact a lift more than 10-15% or so.  If your squat and deadlift are within 10% of the predictions, and your bench is 30% below the predictions, it’s not because you have long arms, it’s because you’re a weak bencher (likewise with the squat and femur length).
  2. You can count an efficiency number between ~85-115% as “perfect.”  Not everyone’s lifts will fall right on the trend line.  About half of the elite-level lifters in the study had lifts a bit lower than those that would be predicted by the trend line, after all, and about half of them had lifts a bit higher than would be predicted by this formula.  It’s entirely possible to get an efficiency score above 100%, and most people should be able to attain such a score for at least one lift.  Likewise, you probably have a lift that’s naturally a bit more of a struggle, and an efficiency score of 90% would be a more realistic goal to shoot for with that lift.

So now, the cool part (and the simple part; all the math is behind us now): Using this data to help inform your training decisions.

If you have an efficiency score below 80% for a lift, that lift needs practice.

Literally, practice.

For the past three years, I’ve been helping people implement Bulgarian-style training – high intensity, high frequency, moderate volume lifting.  Some people do exceptionally well with it, and others don’t do so well.  Often it’ll work really well for one lift, but not another.  I’d tried to figure out a way to predict who it would work well for, based on build, prior training experience, age, sex, etc.  It was all to no avail; I couldn’t figure out the common thread between the high responders and the low responders.

I think I finally figured it out, though.  I got up with a dozen people who made awesome progress with either their squat or bench, and a dozen people who didn’t get much out of Bulgarian-style training, and ran them through this model.

The ones who made great progress with at least one lift all had efficiency scores below 80% for that lift initially, and all plateaued with Bulgarian-style training once their efficiency scores had reached 92-106%.

The people who didn’t respond very well to Bulgarian-style training had efficiency scores between 88% and 102% for the lifts that didn’t respond well.

It’s the trend I expected to see, but before developing this model, I didn’t have a way to verify it.

For your lifts with low efficiency scores, I’d recommend a high frequency, relatively high intensity approach.

It could be Bulgarian-style.  It could be more along the lines of Dan John’s Easy Strength.  Or it could be this simple progression with an exceptionally high success rate that I’ve used with loads of people in this situation:

Week 1

Day 1 – 75% 4×3 (four sets of 3 reps)

Day 2 – 80% 3×2

Day 3 – 70% 4×4

Day 4 – 85% 3×1

Day 5 – 65% 5×5

Week 2

Add one set to each day (so Day 1 becomes 75% 5×3)

Week 3

Add one rep to each set (so Day 1 becomes 75% 5×4)

On day 4, instead of doing 85% 4×2, do one set of as many as possible with 85%.  If you get 6 or 7 reps, add 5lbs/2.5kg to your training max.  If you get 8 or 9 reps, add 10lbs/5kg to your training max.  If you get 10 or more reps, add 15lbs/7.5kg to your training max.  Start back over at week 1 with your new training max.

If you can only train 4 days per week, you can just drop the 65% day.  If you can only train 3 days per week, you can drop the 70% day as well.

Simply practicing the lifts with low efficiency scores frequently will lead to rapid strength improvements for most people, until the lifts are up to where they “should” be based on your current muscle mass.  Note that this may not work if you have a really uneven distribution of muscle (i.e. if you’re trained upper body your whole life, but didn’t start squatting until last month), but assuming you have actually be training your whole body, your muscle mass is probably distributed evenly enough for this to be effective.

For the practice to be effective, you need to have three things in place:

  1. Solid form on all reps.  If you train Bulgarian-style, that means you stop adding weight as soon as there is any form deviation.  Easy Strength and the program I laid out above both keep you far from failure by design; you should never be fatigued enough for your technique to start breaking down.
  2. Maximal effort on all reps.  With submaximal loading, especially when the sets end well before the point of failure, it’s easy to “go through the motions” and just put as much force into each rep as you need to move the bar.  However, you get much better strength gains by keeping the pedal to the metal on every rep; if you treat each rep like it’s a max attempt, it prepares your nervous system to activate your muscles the way it needs to for a max attempt.
  3. You need to be “tuned in” to what you’re doing.  Be aware of where your body is in space, focus on a cue that helps your performance (generally an external cue – something like “throw the bar through the ceiling” or “drive the floor away from me”), and reflect after each set about how it felt, and what you could do better to lift the bar more explosively.

If you have an efficiency score above 80% for a lift, you need to get swole-er

If your lifts are already fairly close to where they “should” be, it’s not your nervous system holding you back; you just don’t have enough muscle mass to lift very much more weight.

This article isn’t meant to be a tome about hypertrophy, so here’s the basic outline of what you should do:

  1. Train each muscle or movement 2-3 days per week.
  2. Eat enough protein (around 1.8g/kg, or 0.8g/lb) and get in a caloric surplus.  If you’re over 20% body fat, you’ll probably gain muscle better if you cut to below 15% first (if you’re curious about why that is, go here and ctrl+f “body composition”)
  3. Do more sets to failure or close to failure.  If you like leaving more reps in the tank for your main lifts, then this is a fine time for more accessory work targeting your prime movers, especially the ones that are most likely to be limiting your performance.  If you’re curious what those limiters are, check out my “No Weak Links” guide.

Your Strength Potential

So now you have a decent idea of what your muscular potential is, and you know what steps you should take to start moving toward your strength potential – increase strength via neural factors if you have plenty of room to improve via that avenue, and increase strength via hypertrophy if you don’t have much more room to improve via neural factors.

So now, to wrap up, let’s take a look at your strength potential:

 

I did my best to take your personal leverages into account with this calculator.  The baseline for each lift is your current PR in that lift.  The predicted increase in based on the trend line for strength in each lift relative to FFM/cm (so your squat is predicted to increase faster than you bench, which is predicted to increase slightly faster than your deadlift – slopes of 611.19 vs. 427.14 vs. 410.2).  So if, for example, you have long arms that give you some issues on bench but that help you on deadlift, you’ll be predicted to have a higher deadlift and lower bench when you reach your projected total than someone with the same projected total with T-rex arms.

One of the more common questions I got from the last article, and I assume I’d get about this one, is “how accurate are the strength predictions for women?”

On one hand, the predicted total calculator should be accurate, because strength is primarily a product of technical skill and muscle cross-sectional area. Assuming women can become equally skilled (and I believe they can), the muscle mass difference should be the only meaningful difference, so the calculator should give accurate predictions.

On the other hand, torso strength is super important for powerlifting.

In comparisons of maximal force on exercises like leg extensions and leg press, women generally produce about 20-25% less force than men, which is exactly what you’d expect; they generally have about 20-25% less lower body muscle mass.  However, the gap in squat and deadlift performance is often considerably larger than that, because men generally have stronger, thicker torsos to transfer force to the bar from the legs and hips.

Whether that’s a gap that can be closed with training is an open question.

My assumption is that it mostly can be, but we just aren’t seeing it yet in powerlifting because the talent pool for women, quite frankly, isn’t that deep. I compared weightlifting records (worldwide, WL has a deeper talent pool than PL because of Olympic medals and such), and the gap in the overlapping weight classes is about 20%.

Research on Olympic athletes shows that men generally have about 15% more muscle mass than women in the same sport, which explains most of the gap.

That other 5%? I think the difference in talent (since there are still more male weightlifters than female weightlifters) and fiber types (men tend to have a higher Type II/Type I ratio. That’s not too important for PL, but it is for WL) are the biggest contributors there.

In other words, as the sport of powerlifting grows, I expect the male and female records to increase, but I expect the female records to increase a lot more. I expect stuff like this to start happening in PL in the next decade:

https://youtu.be/IeVVesT5CCQ

She competes at 58kg, did this squat at 60kg, and it would break the current 84kg IPF womens squat record.

So, to wrap up:

Remember, none of these numbers are meant to be exact values.  You may be able to gain a little more or a little less muscle than Dr. Butt’s model predicts, and with that muscle, you may be able to lift a little more or a little less, depending on the lifts you’re best built for.  However, these calculations should put you in the right ballpark – not perfectly forecast your destiny or set some sort of hard limit.

Do the models say you have a lot of room to grow and gain strength?  Awesome!  Especially if you’ve been feeling discouraged, this should motivate you and give you some lofty but realistic numbers to shoot for.

Do the models say you’re knocking up against your potential?  Don’t let that turn into a self-limiting belief.  Remember, these numbers aren’t meant to be hard limits – just reasonable estimates.  You very well may be able to gain more muscle, and bear in mind that a lot of highly skilled lifters can exceed the strength estimates.  My total’s about 9% higher than it “should” be based on my FFM/cm according to this model, and most of the people who are competitive at the national or international level that I ran through this model beat the expectations by 5-10%.  Now, I would be pretty surprised if you ripped off a drug-free total (since this is an article about predicting drug-free muscle and strength potential, after all) that’s 25% higher than these estimates, but 15% is a lot of wiggle room.  There are exceptions to every rule, and in this case, you should train with the assumption that you are the exception (which should be your mindset anyways, since expectations greatly impact outcomes).

The next article in this series will deal with how to choose a weight class, and the final article will serve to rectify those awful (completely arbitrary) “strength standards” tables, and offer a more objective way to classify lifters.

Stay tuned!

Quick Note: If you’re interested in dialing in your nutrition, check out our app MacroFactor. You can create a custom macro program, easily and accurately track your food, and stay on track with the app’s smart weekly macro adjustments. Learn more and try MacroFactor for free here.

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