What, Exactly, Constitutes “Strong Enough”?

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point to another.”
John Dewey

Franco Columbu, movin’ some serious iron…

I receive something like the following, or a close variant of this type question, quite often – it’s probably the second most common (right behind, “dude, how do I get swole?”) training-related question I field – and it’s a legitimate concern for those just getting into the iron game.  In fact it’s of concern – or should be – for anyone in the iron game, regardless of whether the goal is performance-related, or just lookin’ good nekkid.  But before we travel too far down the rabbit hole, let’s check out TTP reader Paul’s question:


I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog and learning more about your application of Evolutionary Fitness. I find myself constantly on your blog, Mark Sisson’s blog, Richard Nikoley’s blog (great for health information and recipes!) and, of course, Art De Vany’s website.

I have a question for you…would you have a recommendation for minimal strength requirements, i.e., something to shoot for on the strength end of the spectrum? For example, I think I read on your site that you think anything more than 2x bodyweight for squats is not very useful. Any other guidelines for pullups, chins, dips, muscle-ups, etc?

The reason that I ask is that I have good lower body strength, but struggle with upper body strength. Should I spend more time working on strength-focused workouts until I can do, say 10 bw pullups, before focusing on speed workouts? Thank you for your help and for your great website..

First off let me say that just asking the question indicates a high degree of sophistication, especially from what I gather to be someone of a fairly young training age (i.e., someone who hasn’t been in the iron game long – nothing to do with chronological age).  Because the truth of the matter is that strength (and relative strength) are the kingpin about which everything weight room related ought to hinge.  Now, why in the world would I make a statement like that, when I’m known to drone on and on about the power-to-bodyweight ratio, and about how speed and agility are what ought to be coveted as far as athletic parameters are concerned?  Quite simply, because strength is by far the easiest of all parameters to train.  It’s also the easiest parameter to manipulate, and – (and this can’t be stressed enough) – it’s also the one parameter that’s most often overdone.

What?  Are you saying that a trainee can be too strong?  Well, not exactly.  What I am saying is that a trainee can easily overtrain strength to the detriment of speed – and yes, if this is the case, then any added strength past the point of speed detriment is, in most cases, useless (strongman-like trainees notwithstanding) .  And even within the power lifting community, the need to maintain speed (and by extension, power) while increasing strength is realized – this is the basis behind Louie Simmons’ Conjugate method of training.  Vern Gambetta recently posted about the phenomena of the wrong-minded pursuit of strength to the detriment of speed over at Elite Track.  And for some good follow-up on that particular post, check out this related discussion thread.  Lots of interesting comments.

So this is just one example of what makes training as much (and more, in my opinion) art as it is science.  All methods work for the trainee who happens to be weak in the area the particular method is designed to address.  No method, however, works in perpetuity.  NONE.  And the greater the training age, the greater the sophistication required to further adequate progression – and the easier it is to do more harm than good.  There is only the right answer for a particular trainee at a particular point in that trainee’s development.  Two weeks from now, a new relative weakness will appear, and that will need to be addressed.  And so it goes, with this “flux” being the only condition that remains in perpetuity.  Adjust, adapt, reassess, change…in training (as in life itself?), there truly is no destination – there is only the ride.

But if that is the danger of the far end of the strength spectrum, what of the other end?  What of the trainee who is truly “not strong enough”?

Meet Allyson Felix

To quickly summarize Allyson’s bio, what we have here is an immensely talented young sprinter (Allyson in her high school years) who was weak relative to both her cns/RFD capabilities and (an educated guess here) to her fast/slow twitch fiber ratio.  Coach Barry Ross put Allyson on a steady diet of basic strength training and, as a result (and not at all surprising), her sprint times plummeted even further.  The ability to transfer a greater force at a given speed (and at a given bodyweight – a very important, yet often overlooked factor) equates to an increased power output.  Easy enough.  The danger here though, of course, lay in the pushing of the strength focus up to (and, in many instances, past) the point of diminished returns.  The magic, if there is any, lay in finding the smallest (training) dose required to elicit a progressive response, not in dishing out the most work that an athlete/trainee can tolerate.  Anyone can beat the dog piss out of a trainee; a true professional doses appropriately, and utilizes recovery to to the maximum.With all of that said, though, what of our friend Paul and his original question?  How much strength should Paul be looking for?

This is a dicey, dicey question, and I almost hate to engage it without a list of caveats as long as my arm.  It’s so very easy to dispense with the ol’ 2x bodyweight squat, 1.5 x bodyweight bench press, blather – the truth is, though, that it depends.  It depends on so many factors (and the context surrounding those factors), in fact, as to make blanket thumb rules just about useless. And what manner of factors are we talking about, here?  Well, things like age, sex, build, training age, natural strengths and weaknesses, stated ultimate goals…and the list goes on.  Without knowing too much about Paul, though, I can toss out these ideas for what he might shoot for.  I think they represent a realistic strength base from which the average guy might then diverge into athletic betterment or more bodybuilding-type pursuits:

  • 2xBW deadlift (primary) or 2xbw squat (secondary) – depending upon the trainee’s build (i.e., short & squat vs tall & lean…or somewhere in between)
  • 1xbw military (or btn) press with minimum jerk/push
  • Approx. 7 bw+ 10% chin-ups (hands supinated)
  • Approx 7 bw+15% full dips

The dips and chins also account for someone who might need to shed fat (thereby decreasing the exercise loading, while gaining strength) in order to meet the “standard”.

I’ll delve more deeply into the deadlift vs squat, and why I prefer the deadlift in most instances as a vehicle for both increasing and gauging overall strength, and how this relates to the Allyson Felix scenario, in an upcoming post.  In the meantime, if you have differing ideas on “base strength” standards, please post them.  All I ask is that you qualify your standard by way of trainee goal and “bio” so we can establish some context to the scenario.

7/15/10 Edit: I came across this post from TCU strength & conditioning coach Zach Dechant, keeper of the fine blog, Sports Performance Training.  I wanted to link to it here, as it offers a fine observation on the comparison and correlation of strength and speed.  It’s an interesting read from someone who has to wrestle with this puzzle on a daily basis.

In health,

17 responses to “What, Exactly, Constitutes “Strong Enough”?

  1. I have absolutely no expertise in the matter so feel free to disregard the following. Rippetoe’s Strength Standards might also serve as a guide. Although they are as arbritary as anyone elses.

  2. Keith,

    I really appreciate you posting my question and I hope it generates much discussion.

    Here are similar metrics found at http://www.mtnathlete.com/, a gym in Jackson, WY run by Rob Shaul where they do Crossfit-type training for skiers, mountain climbers, etc.

    2x BW Deadlift
    1.5x BW Bench Press, Front Squat, and Power Clean
    1x BW Military Press and Snatch
    20x Strict Pull-ups
    40x Strict Dips

    As for me and my goals (I know you weren’t really asking, but I’ll throw it out there anyway), I’m 40 and a proud 1st time father of 2 week old twins (not sure when to sleep yet!). I’ve been seriously working out for a couple of years, mainly boot camp/Crossfit-types of workouts. I’ve never been strong in my upper body, but do have good lower body strength and power. My upper body strength and power have not gotten appreciably better over the past two years. Honestly, I’m really tired of sucking at pullups/chinups and want to do something about it! I’m not into bodybuilding. I want to seriously improve my power to body weight ratio, and I’m searching for the right way to start.

    Oh, one more thing that I think is important…I’ve recently come back to the Paleo/EF way of eating after wandering in the wilderness for a couple of years.

    • Curious…are you the “long and lanky” type? And how is you push-up and dip ability?

      Two things to try re: pull-ups/chin-ups: (1) boost yourself up to the top position and do reps of 4 to 5-count negatives. Add weight if needed. Pick a goal in the 20 -25 rep range and perform a rest-pause type workout method (similar to the block I’m currently in) 2x or 3x a week. Let chins/pulls be your main focus for a few weeks, while just maintaining strength in other areas. (2) jump-pulls with same 20 – 25 rep range/rest pause method scheme. In other words, use an appropriate/scaled vertical jump (so as to make for a fluid motion/transition from the jump phase to the pull phase) as a spot to help propel you up to a full pull/chin-up. This will take a little bit of coordination adjustment initially – a bit of a learning curve – but stick it out. Alternate b/t the two methods, workout to workout. So now you hit the weakness from both the strength end and the power/cns end simultaneously. If you decide to give it a go, let me know how it works out for you.

      • I’m clearly not the “long and lanky” type. Right now, I’d say I’m “fat and weak”. I’m 6’0″ and 200 lbs. I feel like I’m carrying about 15 lbs too much for my frame and I know that hurts my pull/chin-up ability – hence my change back to Paleo/EF/Primal, which worked very well for me in the past. I seem to have always battled losing fat, while also needing to get stronger.

        My pushups and dips are weak, but certainly better than pulls/chins. I can do 10 BW dips and 25+ pushups.

        I’m going to go with your suggested protocol. I’ll let you know how it goes. My current capability is 4 chins and 1 strict pullup. Thank you very much for your help.

        • @Paul

          Just my .02 cents regarding pull-ups. I found it valuable to to cross-train kipping and strict pull-ups. The better I got at one, the better I got at the other. Both are great movements.

        • Paul,

          Just my 2 cents.

          I tried to do Crossfit WODs alone in order to improve my pullup numbers, but I think it was like smashing a round peg into a square hole.

          My pullup numbers didn’t improve dramatically until I stopped doing WODs and took a more planned-out strategy on pullups. I concentrated on weighted pullups with low reps for a while, etc. What you’ll need is probably different, but just continually doing WODs may not work.

          And of course, as Keith said, improvements in overall body composition will have a huge impact on your pullup ability.

  3. My opinions on this topic are always in flux, varying between “I absolutely must pull 3x BW before I’m 30” to “Why on earth would I ever need to pull 3x BW, especially since I’ll probably hurt myself trying?”

    I think a more pertinent question for me, personally, would be: “How strong is TOO strong?” I’m not suggesting that I’m even close to being too strong, but I feel I’d be better off now if, when I first hit a 2xBW deadlift, someone came up to me and said: “Ok, nice job, now stop training strength and work on mobility and power.”

    A 2xBW deadlift is a good benchmark, but should one push past a 1.75xBW Dead when they can’t pull a 1xBW RDL with excellent form? In my opinion, probably not.

    I wonder if, for the average guy, there isn’t a safe level of strength at which we TTP’ers would feel comfortable saying “Ok, that’s strong enough, now increase your range of motion and your power output, and don’t worry too much about adding 20lbs to your bench.”

    Incidentally, Eat. Move. Improve. Had an extremely detailed strength standards post recently. Very thorough. The site isn’t loading for me right now, so I can’t find the specific link.

    • This gets back to the ol’ n=1, strength relative to individual circumstance/goals/etc. issue. The flip side of this question could be asked “if *not* strength, then what else?” Does a pudgy housewife who wants to lose a few pounds and “get in shape” need a 2xbw DL? Probably not. But then again, does she need a high power-to-bw ratio? Speed enhancement? Striving toward a 2xbw dl would certainly help her out in the weight-loss department, though. More bang for the buck, imho. Contrast this with a competitive swimmer. A double bw dl here? Well, I’d have to say… it depends 😉

  4. Yes, yes, yes! An excellent question, and one really to the core of the training game from Paul, and a great response from you, Keith.

    I always have two responses to the above question: a human should be as strong as they *can* be, relative to the amount of (non-detrimental) training time they can put in; and–goals, goals, goals!

    The goals context is huge. If you’re an aspiring strongman competitor, then strength is the end-all, and other training modes fall back. If you’re a mountain bike competitor, then strength and power output is important and necessary, but there are other factors to train to.

    I don’t know if there are arbitrary rules for strength levels for a general purpose human, but something like your training practices are as close to optimal as I’ve seen.

    My own goals are for general purpose and health, but tweaked in particular for human-to-human fighting with or without tools, in various of states of distress, so I train with that in mind. It may compromise my ability to train for max raw power output, or day-long endurance running, but I’m aware of that and embrace it. Goals!

    • Me, too. But then again, I’m built for (and therefore biased towards) pulling. I try to reconcile this by taking a trainee’s build into account, and then gauging what will be the best indicator for that person’s inherent abilities. It would’ve been ridiculous, imho, to have put Allyson Felix under the squat “microscope”, as she’s as far from a natural-built squatter as one could be. Like all “rules”, “train what you suck at” must be viewed in context of natural abilities and future goals.

  5. For me 2xBW deadlift came easily (along with ~1.5xBW squat). 1xBW press is a way off, and I’ve only got maybe 15 pullups on a good day. Yet I could probably bench 1.5xBW (haven’t maxed in a while but I’ve done ~90% for sets of 5). So for me your (Keith) and the Mountain Athlete standards seem a bit off. I have a relatively long torso compared to legs, and possibly short arms (though I’ve never really thought about).

    My goals are 2.5xBW deadlift, 2xBW squat, BW dip, .7xBW pullup, BW press. I think that covers all the strength I’m going to need. I’m hitting SS for the moment to see if I can milk any gains out of it. Will then probably move to the Texas method to get where I want to be, and then finally bias towards power training. However it’s entirely likely life will intervene before I achieve all this.

  6. The problem with the whole “how strong should I get” thing is that its so individual, even if we’re talking about a given sport. Some people’s genetics make them naturally more explosive than others, and so they can arguably continue to build strength longer than someone who is much less explosive in that same sport.

    That being said, I think defining some base level of strength standards is fantastic because if you aren’t involved in some sort of sport where you have tons of peers to measure yourself against, you don’t really know for sure whether or not your abilities are evenly developed. For instance, I’m great on deadlift and not so hot on squat. Improving my squat numbers is definitely a big goal of mine.

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