After a recent discussion here on strength standards for women, I have come up with some standards using the collective wisdom of All Round Strength Training! Click to go straight to table of strength standards for women (below)
There’s not much general knowledge about what is “good” for women’s strength training. In many cases, a woman simply lifting weights at all is considered amazing. But this – even if kindly meant – is patronising. If we are to take women’s strength training seriously, women need to know what to aim for as they progress. As reader Bonnie comments:
“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.”
Using bodyweight as a measure
It may surprise you but if you use comparison with bodyweight as a measure, women’s strength standards are not greatly different from those of men. Using bodyweight therefore levels the playing field and makes it much easier to compare people of different sexes and weights. After all, “men” can vary greatly in size so saying that xxx kg is good for a man is not particularly fair either. And as reader Darren points out,
“Lighter people will always find bodyweight goals easier to achieve.”
You can use bodyweight either as a percentage or as a multiplier. For example if you weigh 60kg and squat 60kg, you can say that you squat 100% bodyweight or that you can squat 1 x bodyweight. Reader Ross comments:
“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!”
There are also “bodyweight” exercises such as press ups, pull ups and so on which are generally done with no extra weight and therefore often used as a strength standard. Again the gap between what men and women can achieve is narrower than you think. Because much of the emphasis is on the upper body in these exercises, it can take longer for women to build up to the same standard but this does not mean it is not possible to get to the same level. (In a recent episode of TV show Superstars, Kelly Holmes kicked Jason Gardener’s ass on dips!) There are also bodyweight exercises that women generally find easier than men, such as the single leg squat. Reader Dingletec says,
“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.”
Boris of SquatRX concurs:
“Squatting with anything close to bodyweight on the bar with good form for reps is probably a … realistic goal for most general gym-goers (men or women)”
The first point to make is that there is no “standard” standard. The second point is that it depends on whom we want to compare ourselves to. Do we want to know how good we are compared to all lifters, from beginner to elite? Or do we want to know how good we are compared to others in the gym?
I looked at a bunch of strength standards from different people or organisations. Some go from ‘untrained’ through to ‘elite’, covering every possible stage. Others go for the simpler ‘decent, good, great’ classification, comparing regular gym goers. My sources were:
- Lon Kilgore, Weightlifting Performance Standards on exrx.net (these are also available in the book Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore, which I highly recommend)
- Crossfit North Athletic Skill Standards
- Are You Strong? Find out right now with these strength standards! by Tim Henriques (from T-Nation)
I put together a side-by-side comparison of these standards based on a female of bodyweight 60kg (132 lbs) which you can see in PDF format in Strength Standards comparison. But what I really wanted was an overall figure applicable to anyone, a single standard to refer to. So I came up with a ‘middle of the pack’ figure from this comparison table. I also took into account the figures suggested by readers of this website and my own experience.
These standards should be relevant for adult women who are strength training on a regular basis so I chose three levels of Good, Very Good and Excellent. It’s important to say that Good is good compared to other gym goers, not compared to untrained people. So Good is certainly a level to be proud of. Good is a level of strength that it is possible to gain after six months of regular training but is likely to be a couple of years or more for many trainees.
Very Good can take another couple of years on top of that and requires commitment and consistency. Reaching this level would put you above the majority of gym goers, even those who do regular strength training.
Excellent is a very advanced level, where you are probably starting to compete at national or international level. At this point you want to be comparing yourself to the other athletes in your federation and weight class rather than your fellow gym goers. Here are the standards, expressed as percentage of bodyweight:
|Deadlift (1 rep max)||150 %||175-200 %||225 %+|
|Squat (1 rep max)||125 %||150 %||175 %+|
|Bench (1 rep max)||50 %||75 %||100 %+|
|Press (1 rep max)||33%||50%||75 %+|
|Pullups (dead hang)||1||5||10+|
* This table was revised in May 2011. See bottom of post for further details.
You can see from these figures that Good is pretty impressive compared to the average gym goer but it is a level I believe anyone can aim for if they are serious about their strength training.
Commentary on the standards
From what I have seen and read, there is not much controversy over the standards for the power lifts. The trickiest area I found is deciding where Very Good ends and Excellent begins; here is where your own predilections will make a difference. For example a woman with a particularly good squat but slightly weak bench might think that 175% bodyweight was a tad low to be Excellent, whereas a 100% bodyweight bench was about right.
The bodyweight exercises are more difficult to determine, partly because this is an area where many women are too weak to begin with. Often women shy away from upper body or bodyweight exercises altogether because they feel so weak in this area and think that they will remain so. This is not the case; women can get very strong in the main bodyweight exercises.
The bodyweight exercises standards from the T-Nation chart in particular were quite low – reinforcing the idea that women are rubbish at these exercises (I don’t exactly blame the T-Nation author; he is probably reflecting what he sees in the gym). Conversely the standards from Crossfit North are very high and while I admire their ambition (and it should be noted that the numbers are for men as well as women), many women might look at those numbers and think them impossible.
So the aim was to strike a balance and reflect women’s true potential without going completely out of range.
Don’t be disheartened if you feel that Good is a long way away – it is attainable!
Setting small, achievable goals is often more motivating than one far-off overarching goal unless you are the rare type of person who is not intimidated by that. So use these standards as background information but set goals that are relevant to you, your training history and your own ambitions. As reader Zoey observes:
“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.”
Most people are naturally better at some lifts than others. It is a rare person who is consistently good across all exercises. So while it is good to work on your weaknesses (and essential if you are aiming for the top), don’t panic if one or two exercises seem to be falling behind. Over the long term you can work to even out these imbalances.
Update May 2011
I have revised the table of standards based on feedback in the comments and my own continuing experience of being involved with women’s strength training for a few more years! The table was compiled around 2.5 years ago and is therefore due for an update.
The squat and deadlift standards have been slightly increased for ‘good’ and ‘very good’, reflecting slightly higher standards as more women are doing these lifts (e.g. as part of Crossfit).
I have added differentiation between bench and press following comments which – rightly – point out that bench is usually heavier than press.
I have also reduced some of the numbers for the bodyweight exercises. This is not to reduce standards, but to provide a better progression from ‘good’ through to ‘excellent’. For men, the difference between 5 and 10 reps on, say, dips or pull ups is not that much, but for many women this represents a big gap and a lot of work (months and possibly years). So the standards now reflect this.
As always, your comments and feedback are welcome!
Women of Power – profiles of top female powerlifters
Lon Kilgore, Weightlifting Performance Standards on exrx.net
Are You Strong? Find out right now with these strength standards! by Tim Henriques
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