How Strong is Strong?

Jul 25, 2022

Originally published at

It's interesting, ask a strength coach what a good bench press is for a 200 lb male and chances are you'll get a good answer. Maybe everyone won't be in agreement but, everyone will have an opinion. Ask a good strength coach what constitutes good single leg strength or good vertical pulling strength and I don't think you'll get the same level of agreement or, if everyone will even have an answer. The answer might even be something like "what do you mean?" Last spring and summer I set out to answer both questions. How much single leg strength and upper back strength are actually possible? I think if you are going to train, you need a goal. If we are going to train for strength, we need to know what strong is. The four-minute mile is a great example. In 1957 Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. On that day he broke a twelve year old record. By the end of 1957 sixteen runners had also broken the four-minute mile. It's amazing what someone will do once they have seen that it is possible. Twelve years to break the record and sixteen followers in one year. My goal is to raise the bar on both single leg strength and upper back strength by telling the strength and conditioning world how strong strong might be.

Single Leg Strength

I have written extensively about single leg strength in my books and articles. When I wrote Functional Training for Sports in 2004 I thought it was great that I had athletes who could do a one leg squat. I was an early proponent of unilateral training and pushed both my males and females to be able to perform a one leg squat. However, in 2007 my thoughts began to change. I noticed a sense of complacency among my athletes. They were just like me. They were happy that they could do a one leg squat with some level of external resistance. Some were actually getting pretty strong, routinely use 20-25 lb dumbbells. Again initially, I thought this was great. However, we quickly became stagnant. Part of the problem was that over time the dumbbells became too heavy to properly lift into position and the weight vests we used at the time only went up to twenty lbs. This meant that the top weight we were comfortably able to add was about 60 lbs. The other problem was that we encountered the same issue many coaches encountered in two leg squats. As the load increased, the depth decreased. To solve the loading problem we purchased X-Vests. X-Vests can in theory be loaded up to 80 lbs. We made up 40 and 50 lb vests. Lately, we've moved to the Ultimate Sandbag/ Vest or SandBag Rolls

To solve the depth problem we began to use the same method we used to insure depth on our double leg front squats. We placed a box behind the athlete and asked them to touch it. The only difference was that they were now standing on one leg. Now we could dictate depth and increase load. Sounds like a prescription for success. We were half right. The "pistol type" version we used initially  caused some low back pain in some athletes, particularly those with long femurs. We solved that by using two boxes, one to stand on and one to squat to.

The n ext thing we did was to actually test our athletes. Testing is not the same as training. In test situations, athletes compete. The results surprised me. Jay Pandolfo (former NJ Devils Asst. Capt.current BU Asst Head Coach) did 95 lbs. for 11 reps on each leg.

Our Boston University Hockey captain did 110 lbs (50 lb vest w/ 30 lb DB's) for 5 reps on each leg. The average for our hockey team was 80 lbs for 5 reps. Now I know that when someone asks me to give them a parameter for single leg strength I can tell them that 80x5 is good for a one leg squat and 110x5 is excellent.

The same situation applies to upper back strength and chinups. If someone ask me what is "strong" for a male, I tell them 135x3.

If someone asks me about females, I tell them 45x5.

 The following is a chart of what constitutes "strong" in my experience in some basic exercises for drug free adult males.

Bench 1.25 to 1.5 x's BW ( 250-300 for a 200 lb athlete)

Clean 1.25 to 1.5 x's BW ( same as above) *( I like to see athletes with the same or similar bench and clean numbers. If you don't have this relationship your athletes are spending too much time benching and not enough time on power movements.)

Split Squat ( we don't back squat) BW for 10 reps.) 1 Leg Squat ( see video) .5 x BW for 5 reps ( half of your bodyweight)

Chinup .5 x BW for 1 rep ( half of your bodyweight) * I also like to see the total weight for a chinup ( external load plus bodyweight) be greater to or equal with the bench press 1 RM. In other words, a 280 bench presser who weighs 180 lbs should be able to do 1 chinup with 100 lbs.

If you do 1 RM's I  also like bench=clean=chinup

Another area in which we evaluate strength is by comparing similar or related exercises. It is amazing how many "groove lifters" or specialists you see. In my opinion strength is not about how much you can do in a particular lift you specialize in but, the ability to reflect that strength at numerous angles. With this in mind we developed the following relationships.

Please note that this is in many ways old-fashioned trial and error. Experience over a ten year period has proven this out.

Bench= 100% Ex. 300 lb.

1 RM Incline = 80% of bench or 240 lbs.

1 RM DB Overhead = 40-50% of bench / 2 or 60-75 lbs.

* Overhead pressing is a lost art. It is amazing to see the disparity in overhead pressing strength as it relates to bench press strength. I think most trainees are capable of much more overhead but, no one does it any more. This has been a large area of emphasis for us over the last year.

We also use the following formula for any dumbbell variations. DB weight = 80% of bar weight / 2 So to continue the 300 lb bench press example 80% (or 6-7 RM) would be 240 lbs. DB Bench 6 RM would be 80% of 240 divided by 2 or 95 lbs In other words, a 300 lb. bench presser should be able to dumbbell bench 95 lb dumbbells 6 times.

For incline we again use our 80% rule. So to determine a dumbbell incline 6 RM for a 300 lb bench presser we take 50% of the 1 RM divided by 2 or 75 lbs. ( .8x.8x8= .51). Another method is to simply take 80% of the flat bench dumbbell weight ( .8 x 95= 76, round to 75) So our theoretical 300 bencher should be able to dumbbell bench press 95 x6 and dumbbell incline bench press 75 x6.

If we continue the trend and take 80% of 75 he should also be able to dumbbell overhead press 60 lb as indicated above. The overhead press is where things fall off. Most athletes in this day and age need a lot of work on overhead movements. Watch most athletes overhead press. They will make a concerted effort to turn any overhead exercise into an incline press. This allows the clavicular head of the pec to take over for the deltoids in the pressing action. We have actually begun to utilize seated dumbbell presses to control hip motion better in our beginners. We progress from seated to ½ kneeling to standing to force athletes to learn to use the shoulders versus the chest. One tip. If you want to develop shoulder strength, don't allow athletes or clients to use a bench with a back. They can sit in phase 1 but, not lean back. As soon as they lean they will shift to a clavicular pec version of an incline bench. Bottom line, for athletes strength must exist on one leg and strength must be demonstrated in more than just a bench press. The key is well-rounded strength, not impressive performance on a "pet" lift. Whenever I have an athlete who arrives as a good bench presser, I immediately shift the focus to the hips and lower body. I tell my athletes that if you are going to bad at one of our test lifts I hope it is the bench press. If you are going to good at just one, I hope it is the hang clean. I'll take hip power over supine strength any day.

Michael Boyle is the editor of a website for coaches serious about strength and conditioning. In addition to speaking and writing Boyle owns and operates Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning.