the joy of strength training


November 13th, 2008 at 12:33 am

How much can you lift?

This is a question as much for my male readers as my female readers: do you have a conception of how much weight women can/should be lifting?

Because relatively few women lift free weights and of those who do, many are new to lifting, it is deemed appropriate to be encouraging about any lifting stats – the mere fact that a woman is lifting being enough.

But if women don’t know the potential, the scope of the lifting talent, they might not push themselves as hard. It is all too easy to be satisfied with too little, to be the big fish in the small pond, the strongest woman at your gym. Without that competitive edge or knowledge of what other women – ordinary trainees, not elite lifters – are achieving, can you really strive to be as good as you possibly can?

It is also true that the mere knowledge that someone has achieved a certain feat makes it easier to imagine yourself achieving it too. It’s about setting your expectations at the right level. Imagine if a complete beginner walked into a gym to have her induction and the personal trainer said to her, “In six months time you’ll be squatting your own bodyweight.” Not knowing any different, she’d probably go on to do just that, or something pretty close.

It also seems that the majority of men have no idea what a good lift is for a woman. This is not surprising; so few women do proper strength training that men don’t have a benchmark to measure against. If you’ve never seen a woman do a pull up, how can you be sure whether 1 pull up, 10 or 20 is a decent number?

But what men think is, in this case, very important! Many women rely on men for information and advice on what is seen as a guy’s sphere of expertise. Many men want to encourage female friends, wives or girlfriends to get involved but don’t know what level to push them towards. Even personal trainers might not really understand the art of the possible where non-elite female weight training is concerned.

In my experience most people underestimate, but occasionally people overestimate too. For example since I am known for being into my lifting, people sometimes assume I have much better lifts than I actually have. Men often think I lift the same as they do – which is kinda sweet but not always true!

I’d like to know what you think. Do you have an idea of what women at different levels (novice, intermediate, advanced) are lifting? What would you say to a woman who asked you ‘how much should I be squatting?’ How much does it matter anyway?

Further reading

Strength standards for women

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  • 1

    Seems like a very tricky question, given the range of different aptitudes, ability levels, ages, weights, and life circumstances out there. Some people gravitate more to lower or upper body work, some people have injuries or mobility restrictions that affect the exercises they can do, or just different goals. The only way to answer “how much should I be squatting?” is with a bunch of questions:

    – How much are you squatting now?
    – Are you improving lately, or stuck at a plateau?
    – What are your training goals?

    … and so on. Similarly, what should “men” be capable of? I can only do 8 chin ups so far, but I would like to do 10, and one day it would be fun to be able to do a muscle-up. Is that a realistic goal? For me, perhaps. Keep trying, hey? 🙂

    Michael on November 13th, 2008
  • 2

    I found this article useful

    I’m not advanced enough to have any idea of how correct it is, but those seem like good numbers to shoot for.

    Daedala on November 13th, 2008
  • 3

    Argh, they require 10 pull ups to reach “decent”. Guess I’m still indecent. Oh well! 🙂

    Michael on November 13th, 2008
  • 4

    Here is another list of standards: with different weight classes.

    Of the top of my head, I agree with many entries in “Good” column of T-nation article.

    Sasha on November 13th, 2008
  • 5

    Those numbers above converted to kilos – Taken from Starting Strenght

    Petr R. on November 13th, 2008
  • Petr R. on November 13th, 2008
  • 7

    Thanks for posting those links guys, but I am curious about what people think of the issue.

    Michael, I hear what you are saying about everyone being different, but don’t you have to have some idea of where you are in comparison to other people?

    I think standards are useful, but I was thinking about something even more basic than that. Here’s an example: most women seem to think that it is acceptable to do press ups on their knees, even if they have been training for a long time and doing press ups for months. In one of the circuit classes I go to, the allegedly ‘advanced’ group allows women to do press ups on their knees.

    Contrast this with an aerobics class I used to go to years ago, where the instructor insisted on everyone doing full press ups, whether they were absolute beginners or hardened gym bunnies. He simply would not accept anything less. Guess what? Everyone did full press ups.

    If it hadn’t been for that guy, I might never have got into strength training as that was the first time anyone made me do something strong and I realised that I actually could do it.

    gubernatrix on November 13th, 2008
  • 8

    I would say the baseline should always be bodyweight for men and women, regardless of their fitness goals. It’s a good standard, fair and achievable for everyone. Ideal bodyweight, rather than actual.

    My father used to say you are considered strong when you can lift your own bodyweight. I don’t think it matters how much you lift beyond that, but that everyone should have that goal in the big lifts. And obviously should be able to pull their own weight in pullups/chinups for multiple reps.

    I’m more geared toward casual powerlifting, so my goals are for much more than bodyweight. I say casual, because I occasionally will explore other types of training for a few weeks here and there.

    dingletec on November 13th, 2008
  • 9

    I really don’t know what the baseline is for women, but I do think it’s often set by what we see at the gym. For better or for worse. This time last year I was benching 25lb dumbells, thinking I was doing great. No other women were benching dumbells at all that I could see. Then this ripped young female trainer worked out one day and I saw her bench 35lbs, then 40lbs for about 8 reps each. I was astonished, and got right to work, and in a few weeks, there I was.

    zoey on November 13th, 2008
  • 10

    Good point, I don’t understand doing push ups on knees. It seems that most people should be able to do at least one single push up, even if they have to struggle and squirm a bit. Perhaps they could start doing 1 full push up, 19 knees push ups, then next time do 2 full push ups, 18 knees push ups, until they’re happy doing 20 full push ups?

    On a related tangent: how sad was that scene in Bridget Jones when she gets off the couch and goes to gym, resulting in 30 seconds of mad cycling on the exercise bike? How much cooler would it have been if there was a training montage of her busting out squats, full push ups, chin ups, and swinging kettlebells around like a mad thing? Might have ended up being a different movie, an AWESOME movie.

    How can people know what they are capable of when no one tells them?

    Michael on November 14th, 2008
  • 11

    Fascinating topic! I often wonder if I’m taking it easy on myself, or where I stand. I’ve only been doing any real strength training for just over a year, and most times when I try to go much heavier, I end up hurting something. (possibly because of my age? At 55 should I lower my standards?)

    Some of the “good” standards at t-nation I met: pull-ups and push-ups, planks. But those items that require weights I’m barely at the “decent” level.

    deb on November 14th, 2008
  • 12

    I’ve never understood the “knee pushups are for girls” thing … double standards do no one any good.

    lelak on November 14th, 2008
  • 13

    In the rockclimbing gym, girls did the same exercises as the boys, but fewer reps usually (they pumped out) when doing conditioning off the wall. Some girls did more chin ups than average men. My regular climbing partner (small female) did harder moves and routes than many men. She trained and climbed solely with men, so that was her standard.

    In the gymnastics class I go to now, a many of the girls are a lot stronger than I am, especially in the core. I am a beginner though, so that is to be expected. When it comes to brute power like climbing a rope while holding an L sit, some of the girls do it just as well as the boys, and that is the standard all work towards.

    In the gym when I went there, the girls mostly stayed off the free weights and the bench. Machines was their preference. When urged to do a max lift in the bench or other things, there was a very large spread in strength vs bodyweight (my estimation, I did not ask their weight).

    In my eyes, a female should be able to lift about the percentage of their bodyweight/reps as the men. It might be harder for them to get there, but that is what I think and my standard. I think many females do themselves a great diservice by setting limitations on themself for what they can achieve. Many men do the same. Training in a gym is often very deceptive when you break down what you do their in an analyzis. So many people dont go there to improve, but to get a better conscience, for the social experience, to oogle others or whatever.

    There is so much funny stuff going on in our heads..

    Rolfe on November 15th, 2008
  • 14

    Sorry for the poor language in my last message. I was typing that up while cooking dinner to the family.

    Rolfe on November 15th, 2008
  • 15

    @ dingletec: I agree, bodyweight or multiples thereof is a great standard for everyone to apply and it is easy to comprehend the functional benefits.

    @ zoey: I’m exactly the same – I get a bit complaisant then I see someone else do something impressive and I instantly want to work hard to get to the same standard. A bit of competition is always healthy and keeps the standard rising.

    @ Michael: I agree about the Bridget Jones scene but I think that was just another example of her being misguided!!

    @ deb: I’m unclear how much of a difference age makes. It is possible that, rather than lowering your standards, you just need to adjust expectations about how quickly you will reach them. Perhaps you get injured through pushing a bit too hard too soon (I don’t know, just speculating).

    @ lelak: definitely right about double standards. Sometimes it can take girls longer to get to the same place but I don’t think of that as a problem. We often have to work harder (and benefit more!) to do what the guys do easily. I know from my own experience that it is possible to overtake guys as well – you just have to be patient and work hard.

    @ Rolfe: I think you have hit on something there. Maybe women tend to have a different attitude if they are doing something they consider to be a sport – like climbing or gymnastics. Perhaps an issue with lifting weights is that people don’t consider it as a sport or don’t attach the same values to it as they do to sport – and therefore achievement and pushing yourself is not as important. I’ve certainly found that deciding to do ‘powerlifting’ as a sport has changed my attitudes towards the power lifts and what I want to achieve with them.

    gubernatrix on November 15th, 2008
  • 16

    By the way, Rolfe, I am glad you mentioned climbing. I have been working hard on my climbing recently and am starting to compete with the guys a bit more, even on boulder problems. However, I am also really motivated when I read about women doing really hard routes. There are 14 year old girls climbing F8a these days so the standard is getting higher and higher!

    gubernatrix on November 15th, 2008
  • 17

    If someone asked me “How much should I be squatting?”, I’d probably ask them “Well, how much do YOU want to be squatting? That’s how much you need to be squatting.”…

    As a general rule, for squatting, 2xbdwt+ for men and 1.75xbdwt for women is very, very good. Most non-athletes may never get to that and it won’t pan out for heavier individuals, but that’s a standard anyway. PLers would have different standards of course.

    Squatting with anything close to bodyweight on the bar with good form for reps is probably a more realistic goal for most general gym-goers (men or women) however.

    Boris on November 18th, 2008
  • 18

    It’s essential for women to know what feasible long term goals are. I envy the guys who learn weightlifting lore just by growing up. They learn as teenagers that if they work they can achieve a 200lb bench press, a 1.5 body weight squat, etc. Women who come to weightlifting often have no idea what is feasible.

    A lot of people think I’m strong, just because I lift weights… meaning that they either compare me to untrained women or to untrained guys. But the proper comparison group is other trained women.

    I have spent a lot of time on the internet and conversing with other lifters, just to calibrate my yearly goals. Now that I am becoming more advanced, this is a larger issue, because there is less information out there. Crossfit North has a great document that helps with goal setting:

    Bonnie on November 18th, 2008
  • 19

    I am pretty small framed (only 5’5 and 108 lbs) but I can squat well over my weight at 120 lbs for 7 reps and I just did 11 pull ups with good form (no legs running in the air)…
    my goal is to hit 13 by Christmas. My bench press is what I keep working on improving and its slow… i only bench 85-90 max but my goal is 100!
    For experience I should say I am personal trainer, and gymnastics coach so I am pretty experienced.

    Taylor Ryan on November 19th, 2008
  • 20

    Good article. I think for men squat /bench/dead of 400/300/500 (pounds) are realistic targets to achieve or 2xbw/1.5xbw /2.5xbw. Lighter people will always find bodyweight goals easier to achieve. Most people will find their deadlift higher than their squat if they are squatting to parallel.

    15 pullups and 10 reps on bench at bodyweight are also good targets for those not training for one rep max.

    I imagine for women a 1.5 x bw squat 0.75 bw bench and 1.75 x bw deadlift would be a good goal

    Unfortunately you’re likely to see most men benching more than they squat or deadlift and few women doing anything but cardio

    Darren on November 19th, 2008
  • 21

    @ Boris: USeful standards, cheers! And yes, I wouldn’t want anyone to panic about how much they ‘should’ be lifting – just to have something to aim for.

    @ Bonnie: your story sounds very similar to mine – it has taken a while to find out firstly what is feasible and secondly what is ambitious, taking it that bit further and getting competitive!

    @ Taylor: Those are good numbers – hopefully your (female) clients are picking up on this and setting their sights high as well.

    @ Darren: I’d go along with those standards. I’d also hope that anyone reading this site is squatting to below parallel if they are able to!

    gubernatrix on November 19th, 2008
  • 22

    It might be a very simple system, but my girlfriend and I both just keep adding the weights until it we can’t lift it, then practise until we can.

    To keep it competitive between us we go on % of BW, so even if she’s lifting half of what I am, she might still be kicking my butt! This gives us the drive to perform better (mainly so she can gloat!), meaning we slowly work towards what we “should” be lifting.

    Ross on November 20th, 2008
  • 23

    My operating assumption for women is about the same as it is for men – compare based on body weight. If 2 people are just as serious about working out, then a man will probably be able to lift more than the woman, but you rarely see 2 people at the same level of intensity for each gender. So, set the standards as the same, and if the women can’t lift as much, then so be it. There’s plenty that can lift more than I can, though.

    No matter what your gender, start easy, learn good form, and increase the weight when what you are doing seems easy.

    Blaine Moore on November 21st, 2008
  • 24

    Yep, I agree with you guys that focussing on bodyweight is a fair and practical way to assess progress whatever the sex of the lifter. It’s also much more motivating for the person lifting less who may well have a better strength to weight ratio.

    gubernatrix on November 22nd, 2008
  • 25

    Thanks everyone for your comments! You’ve all provided great information and food for thought. I will be condensing this info into another blog post so that the main points are captured concisely, as I think people will find it useful.

    gubernatrix on November 22nd, 2008
  • 26

    […] a recent discussion here on strength standards for women, I have come up with some standards using the collective […]

  • 27


    I recently went to the gym and collected my 1RM’s on some of the gym machines including the seated leg press, lat pull down, seated row, hip abbductors and abductors etc. However, im trying to find baseline averages of what is considered a reasonable standard of weight for women to be able to lift so that i know what i need to work on. Of course it varies according to age, ability etc etc, but need something as a rough guide. Im only 20 and 5’1 so of course standards will vary slightly but if anyone knows where i can find these sort of things it would be greatly appreciated 🙂

    Chantelle on January 14th, 2009
  • 28

    Hi Chantelle,

    I followed this article up with a post dealing with that very topic – strength standards for women. I am using free weights exercises rather than machines but I am sure you can extrapolate.

    Have a read at

    I’ll also add this as a link to this article.

    gubernatrix on January 14th, 2009
  • 29

    Thanks for that, i’ll try and use that as a guide. If anyone else has any other resources that may be useful, especially weight standards specifically related to machine weights that would also be a great help.

    Chantelle on January 14th, 2009
  • 30

    […] a recent discussion here on strength standards for women, I have come up with some standards using the collective […]

  • 31

    Sigh, i think the standard is very much location dependant. In my extremely commercial gym i regularly see PT’s getting fit looking women to do box squats at 25kg 3×10. My back squat is at 95% bodyweight 3×10 and I don’t consider myself even near the standard i require in myself! But this is my standard gleaned from reading your excellent website, among others. If i listened to 80% of the people that talk to me about fitness id barely make it into the weights area lol! In my experience there seems to be a general notion of the inability and weakness of women, even from experienced professionals.

    Alice on April 25th, 2012
  • 32

    I have not studied weightlifting other than reading things for my own interest, so I am not in a position to give advice. I love weightlifting and began with the least weight for three sets of eight reps, gradually increasing as my ability improved over the years. Thirty six years later, I am still passionate about the gym, it is endlessly interesting and makes me feel healthy and toned. The more ladies who are willing to make the gym and the free weights their own space, the better. When an activity makes you feel so good, we should not leave it to the boys and the sizes of weights lifted don’t really matter. Like everything in life, it need not be competitive, just enjoy!

    chris on July 22nd, 2012
  • 33

    Here’s something I use for my own motivation and it works great for me. Whenever I see a woman lifting heavier than I can, it becomes my goal to reach that level and surpass it. For example I heard of a lady wrestler who can bench press 185 pounds. So my goal is to be able to bench 85kg, which is slightly heavier. That’s my initial goal anyway, I’ll move on to another one after that – 90kg and then 100kg. It’s somehow very motivating for me to chase a lady’s target and surpass it. Works for me anyway 🙂

    Thanks for all your tips, gube, you rock!


    Mark on April 11th, 2013
  • 34

    Cheers mate, love that you are inspired by women lifting! My mate Tania can deadlift 200kg – your next target?

    gubernatrix on April 11th, 2013
  • 35

    Thanks, Gube and yes – I’ll make 200kg my next deadlifting target 🙂

    Mark on April 12th, 2013


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