When I started training back in February 2010, I was sold on the idea that achieving the advanced barbell strength standards was the key to a muscular physique.
In this article, I will discuss whether strength equals size and also give you some realistic expectations for what kind of numbers you can achieve on the big compound exercises if you have below average genetics.
Below you can see the barbell strength standards for the 4 main lifts on a 1 rep max:
The idea behind the standards is that strength goes together with total bodyweight.
A guy who weights 200 pounds will on average be much stronger than a guy who weighs 170 pounds.
Overall, these graphs are excellent barbell strength standards for the average guy who starts training before age 30.
Within 5 years of proper strength training, the average guy can reach the advanced barbell strength standards on every key lift.
For example, if you’re 165 pounds (75 KG) after 5 years of strength training, your should be able to:
- Bench press 255 pounds (116 KG) for 1 rep.
- Press 155 pounds (70 KG) for 1 rep.
- Squat 340 pounds (155 KG) for 1 rep.
- Deadlift 410 pounds (186 KG) for 1 rep.
And if you’re 198 pounds (90 KG) after 5 years of strength training, you should be able to:
- Bench press 290 pounds (132 KG) for 1 rep.
- Press 175 pounds (80 KG) for 1 rep.
- Squat 390 pounds (177 KG) for 1 rep.
- Deadlift 460 pounds (209 KG) for 1 rep.
Below, I will give you a simple method that you can use to estimate your lifts after 5 years of consistent strength training.
Step 1: Find Your Target Bodyweight To Find The Right Barbell Strength Standards
When looking at barbell strength standards, a lot of guys make the mistake to look at what their lifts should be at their current bodyweight.
This is a mistake because the tables above assume that:
- You’ve developed the amount of muscle mass that fits your training level (i.e. an advanced lifter will naturally have more muscle mass than a beginner)
- You have a normal body-fat percentage.
Therefore, when finding your 5 year strength training goals, you will need to first predict what your healthy bodyweight at 10-15% body-fat will be after 5 years of strength training.
When finding your target bodyweight, the best formula is:
Your height in CM – 100 = Your target bodyweight
For example, if you’re 190 CM tall, you can expect to be 90 KG at 10-15% body-fat after 5 years of strength training.
Remember, muscle mass weighs a good amount and you can expect a good 10 KG (22 pounds) to 18 KG (40 pounds) increase in muscle mass over 5 years of strength training.
There will of course be some variation in your final bodyweight.
Guys with thicker bone-structures and higher body-fat levels will weigh more while guys with thinner bones and lower body-fat levels will weigh less.
In addition to this, there will be other factors such as your training, diet, unique response to training and overall consistency throughout those 5 years.
Therefore, your final bodyweight will most likely be higher or lower than your target bodyweight, but your target bodyweight is the best prediction you can make right now.
Step 2: Look at the advanced barbell strength standards for your target bodyweight.
This is what you can expect to lift after 5 years of strength training if you’re genetically average and you started strength training before age 30.
Here are the barbell strength standards again:
Will Guys With Below Average Genetics (e.g. skinny-fat) Be Able To Reach The Advanced Numbers?
When looking at the tables above you have to keep in mind that they were designed with the genetically average guy in mind.
Most skinny-fat guys are genetically below average, therefore the numbers you will be able to reach are slightly lower compared to the average guy.
The best way to see how good your genetics are for strength gain on each lift is to look at your starting strength levels.
I.e. how much can your squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press on the first day you enter the gym?
Then compare your starting strength with the untrained barbell strength standards.
Here are the specifics of how you do that:
1) Find your healthy bodyweight at a Body-Mass-Index of 23
When comparing barbell strength standards, we want to use your healthy bodyweight to ensure that we don’t get skewed numbers that are too high.
You can use the chart here to find your healthy bodyweight:
2) Find the untrained barbell strength standards on each lift for your healthy bodyweight
Again, here are the graphs for each lift:
3) Compare the untrained barbell strength standards to your real starting strength numbers to see how genetically gifted you are for strength training.
If you’re skinny-fat, chances are that your starting strength is far below the untrained standard.
However, this shouldn’t discourage you from getting strong on the compound lifts.
When I started training in February 2010 I was a skinny-fat 198 pounds (90 KG) at 6’2” and my healthy bodyweight at 23 BMI was 82 KG (180 pounds).
Here are the barbell strength standards for an untrained guy at 181 pounds (82 KG).
- Bench press 130 pounds (59 KG) for 1 rep.
- Press 80 pounds (36 KG) for 1 rep.
- Squat 120 pounds (55 KG) for 1 rep.
- Deadlift 150 pounds (68 KG) for 1 rep.
And here are my starting strength numbers:
- Bench press 75 pounds (34 KG) for 1 rep. (58% of average).
- Press 33 pounds (15 KG) for 1 rep. (42% of average).
- Squat 75 pounds (34 KG) for 1 rep. (62% of average).
- Deadlift 117 pounds (53 KG) for 1 rep. (78% of average).
Overall, my total strength on the 4 key exercises was just 60% of the average untrained guy at my bodyweight.
To give you some perspective of how weak that is, try to compare my bench press, press and squat numbers to the untrained barbell strength standards on the female graphs below:
Overhead Press Standards For Women:
My starting overhead press was 33 pounds.
Bench Press Standards For Women:
My starting bench press was 75 pounds.
Squat Standards For Women:
My starting squat was 75 pounds.
My squat and bench press were both weaker than an untrained woman at the same bodyweight as me.
My weakest lift, the press was 33 pounds (15 KG) which is almost the same as a petite, untrained 97 pound (44 KG) woman.
My strongest lift, the deadlift was just 117 pounds (53 KG) which is the average for an untrained 132 pound (60 KG) guy who is 66 pounds (30 KG) lighter than me.
As you can see, on 3/4 lifts I had the starting strength levels of an untrained female.
I was clearly on the low end of the genetic spectrum for strength training (probably bottom 1%).
Despite having bad genetics, I made good progress in my strength training.
After working very hard on the compound lifts I added a total of (1082 pounds – 300 pounds = 782 pounds) or 355 KG to my 4 main lifts:
- 283 pounds (128 KG) to the deadlift.
- 233 pounds (106 KG) to the squat.
- 155 pounds (70 KG) to the bench press.
- 121 pounds (55 KG) to the press.
And I ended up with the following lifts:
- Bench press 220 pounds (100 KG) for 1 rep. (76% of standard advanced).
- Press 154 pounds (70 KG) for 1 rep. (88% of standard advanced).
- Squat 308 pounds (140 KG) for 1 rep. (79% of standard advanced).
- Deadlift 400 pounds (180 KG) for 1 rep. (87% of standard advanced).
By looking at these numbers, you will see that my gains were good when considering my genetics.
I was on average 82.5% as strong as the average advanced lifter.
And I’m certain that I could get to 95% of the advanced strength numbers if I continued training for a stronger bench press, squat, deadlift and press. (I stopped focusing on squats, deadlifts and bench presses after just 1 year of training).
As a result, I believe that regardless of how bad genetics you have, you can get very close to the advanced strength training standards for your bodyweight.
Now the big question is whether it’s even worth it to chase big numbers on the compound exercises?
Will Reaching The Advanced Level Make You Look Jacked?
While some people train because they want to get stronger, we have to keep in mind that most people reading this website are skinny-fat guys who want to build a great physique.
And when it comes to that, a lot of skinny-fat guys have been sold on the idea that reaching the advanced numbers on the bench press, deadlift, squat and press is the key to a great physique.
Let me tell you this: If you’re a skinny-fat guy doing heavy barbell lifts with any other reason than simply getting stronger on these lifts or competing in powerlifting, you will get disappointed.
Here’s a photo showing how I looked 7 months into heavy compound training (I use my 7 month photos because I lost my starting photos and there was almost no difference in my physique the first 7 months):
Here’s a photo showing how I looked after 1 year of heavy compound lifts:
And here’s how I looked after 2 years of compound lifts:
These progress photos summarise my physique progress while gaining all my strength on the big compound lifts.
When I saw these progress photos I was disappointed.
I had gained a lot of strength (nearly 800 pounds on the 4 main lifts) but a minimal amount of muscle mass.
I felt like my training time was wasted and I even started to believe that I simply don’t have the genetics to get a great physique.
But I was wrong.
After wasting 2 years with heavy weight training programs I made the switch to bodyweight training and achieved the progress below in just 1 year:
Later I added high volume isolation work for all my weak points and started playing around with advanced bodyweight exercises such as muscle ups and added another 15 pounds of muscle mass:
So what is the conclusion of this post?
If you’re a skinny-fat guy who trains to get stronger on the squat, bench press, deadlift and press then by all means follow the basic, proven compound programs such as MadCow 5×5 and Reverse Pyramid Training.
They will get you close to the advanced level on all those lifts.
With that said, I know most of you don’t care about what your lifts are because you train for aesthetics.
If you train to gain muscle mass, the big compound lifts are not the best way to go about it.
In 5 years of running this website I’ve coached hundreds of people and emailed with thousands.
Most of them had previously used heavy barbell training, but similarly to me they never got results with it.
Here’s just one email I got from a blog reader:
I wasted nearly two years so far with Starting Strength/Stronglifts type routines, and all I got was fat with very little to show for it.I went from about 140lbs to 198 (at 5’8) on that routine. I looked better BEFORE I started it. I also made very little strengths gains to go along with it, which makes it even work. At least you made some strength gains. I kept convincing myself that if I just eat a little more, I will make progress.
I would get fat and cut then start it all over again. I am only a week in to another one of these viscous cycles. I had myself convinced that I just need to eat more than I ever did before, then it will finally happen.
Only a week and half in, and my lifts are stalling again, I gained 5 pounds (probably fat), and I already injured my knee from squats. I’ve had enough!I am going to use all the info from your site.Thanks again for sharing your experiences.
To this day, I still haven’t seen a single skinny-fat success story on a minimalist program that focuses on the squat, bench press and deadlift. (I didn’t include the press here because I believe this is one of the best lifts skinny-fat guys can do).
In my case, getting stronger on the deadlift, squat and bench press mostly helped me build up the posterior chain muscles: Thighs, glutes, spinal erectors and traps.
These muscles are important for building an overall functional and strong looking physique.
However, these are not the muscles that transform your upper body proportions.
The muscles that make the biggest difference are the lats, upper back, biceps, triceps, shoulders and upper chest.
These are the 6 most important muscle groups for improving your aesthetics.
To grow these muscles to their maximum potential, you have to perform exercises where you can really feel those target muscles working.
I emphasise really, because most compound exercises will make you feel all muscles working to some extent.
That’s why they’re called compound exercises. They work a lot of muscles at the same time.
For example, if you perform bench presses, you will most likely feel the chest, shoulders, triceps, forearms and even lats working to some extent.
But compare the triceps activation on the bench press to performing rope pushdowns or diamond push ups and you will understand what I mean.
Compound exercises are great if your time is limited, but if you’re looking to maximise the size of a muscle that doesn’t respond well to training, you will not make that muscle respond by doing an exercise that “somewhat” activates it.
If you’re a skinny-fat guy with a low response to training, the only way you will maximise the size of your weak muscle groups is by doing exercises where you REALLY fell those muscles working.
And you have to do these exercises often, when you’re fresh and at a high volume.
For example, if you don’t really feel your triceps working on bench presses, you will not see great gains by adding another 50 pounds to your bench press max.
But you may very well see great gains by changing your main compound movement to weighted dips.
Or by doing 3 arm days per week where you blast the arms with a variety of isolation exercises and high volume training.
The same principles apply to all your weak muscle groups.
Also, for maximum muscle growth, it’s important that you do the most effective exercises first and that can often conflict with your goal of increasing your squat, bench press and deadlift total.
For example, if you go in 3 times per week to squat heavy, you won’t have the energy needed to properly train the muscles that you want to grow the most.
When you start on the exercises that really work your muscles, you will already be drained from the heavy squatting.
You need to think of your training in terms of limited energy.
You only have so much energy and the compound lifts can drain anywhere from 60-100% of your energy.
If the compound lifts aren’t growing the muscles you want to grow, your training is not leading you closer to your goal.
In my case, nearly all of the growth I made on my upper body comes from doing basic bodyweight training and isolation exercises for moderate-high reps.
To be specific, I trained with much higher volume and tried to make the weight feel harder so I could get a better pump and mind-muscle-connection using less weight.
The end-result was that for years I didn’t increase the amount of weight I lifted but my muscles kept growing each year:
This directly proves that:
- Increasing the amount of weight your lift on the big compound lifts is not the only (or even the best) way to gain a lot of muscle mass.
- Contrary to popular belief, high volume and pump training methods do not only work for bodybuilders on performance-enhancing-drugs and guys with great genetics. They work for everyone as long as they’re applied the right way.
If I had continued focusing on increasing my squat, bench press and deadlift, I wouldn’t have made those gains because my energy would have been depleted.
Therefore, the main takeaway is that: If your goal is to develop a muscle to its maximum size, you need to train that muscle often with high volume and with exercises that really make that muscle work.
The popular compound training programs accomplish the goal of training muscles often, but the volume is too is limited and the exercise selection is not optimal for most people.
Be proud but stay hungry!
Question: I can’t get stronger for some reason. Even when I increase my calories, I just start to notice an increase in fat without strength. I am 160lbs and I can lift 155lbs for 1 rep. I can’t seem to get past that. Since you recommend high rep workouts, I obviously lift much lower than 155lbs.
Do I need to gain more strength to gain more muscle? I just do not see myself reaching those strength standards without gaining more belly fat and love handle fat. Like I said earlier, even gaining the fat doesn’t help my strength.
Would focusing on adding reps be better than focusing on strength standards?
You have to go the other way around and focus on gaining muscle mass with bodybuilding training (higher reps, more exercise variety). Once you gain more muscle mass, you will have the potential to gain more strength on a strength program because strength is built on the back bone of muscle mass.
Good article, but it’s not accurate to say that skinny fat trainees will be disappointed with working on barbell training. Barbell training can help get anyone pretty jacked and reach their natural potential for FFMI. Just look at powerlifters or olympic lifters who are sub 200 pounds and need to be lean in their weight classes to make weight and be competitive. Many of them have fantastic physiques that many would say look like athletes or bodybuilders. Oskar, you make good points about the need for body weight training, there’s no denying that, but I’m afraid you making blanket statements about “skinny fat” people not getting results from weight training is misguided and not helpful. It’s a defeatist mentality that only encourages people to make excuses for why they shouldn’t weight train. And there’s no evidence to suggest body weight training is superior to weight training for aesthetics, at least not in the sports and exercise science literature. The fact that you stalled on 5×5 programs suggests that you gleaned everything you could have from them and it was time to move on to periodization programs, with less time spent above 85% of 1rm. Of course you were exhausted from the 5×5 programs. They’re beginner programs for a reason, and you’re not supposed to do them forever. Eventually the weights go up so much that it’s too taxing on the CNS to continue and you need to periodize. Anyways, I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way. I love your content, but I find your views on weight training a little unfair.
Hey Steven, thank you for the comment.
I use weighted pull ups and dips and weight training with nearly all my clients but only after they’ve built a strong base on the bodyweight exercises. It makes sense to learn how to move your own body through space before working with external weights.
Most skinny-fat guys are skinny-fat partly because of their lifestyle which included lots of sitting and minimal exercise. They lack the basic mobility to even perform barbell movements such as the squat and deadlift safely. You can’t just take someone who has a messed up hormonal balance and sat down for 20 years straight with minimal movement and have them do back squats and deadlifts. The alternative of starting with machines or cables doesn’t make much sense either since these exercises work best as assistance exercises for someone who already has a base of strength and muscle. Variations of bodyweight exercisers provide the perfect middle ground. You have the compound movement that gradually improves your whole body’s athleticism, muscularity and overall strength while being extremely safe. I often have clients start with just hanging on the pull up bar for time and doing wall push ups. Later we work on weighted pull ups, dips and squats. (Some can’t do dips due to a different sternum structure so we use an alternative exercise in those cases). That’s the kind of guys I get in shape.
As for heavy barbell programs. I have never seen a true skinny-fat transformation from these programs. It’s well known that exercises that move your body through space such as pull ups, squats, dips and power cleans provide a superior training effect compared to exercises that don’t. With the typical weight training exercises for the upper body (variations of the bench press, row and shoulder press) the body doesn’t move through space. And with the deadlift and squat it does, but those are for the lower body (an area that most skinny-fat guys don’t really want to focus on as much since their hormonal balance makes it extremely hard to gain upper body mass — most androgen receptors are located in the upper chest, traps and shoulders).
You can go to any calisthenics workout place and look at any guys who do muscle ups etc and you’ll see incredible development in the lats, chest, arms, shoulders. Gymnasts are pound for pound the most versatile and most muscular athletes and calisthenics is based on basic gymnastics.
As for powerlifters and olympic lifters. The average competitive powerlifter doesn’t look that great. Usually lots of body-fat and a disproportionally large lower body with an average/slightly above average muscularity in the upper body. In 10 years of going to different gyms all over the world in America, Asia and Europe, it’s very rare that I’ve seen someone train the powerlifting exercises hard while having incredible development. Usually that would be someone with elite genetics (these kind of people would get results in spite of their training and not because of it) or someone that clearly takes anabolics.
With all that said, I don’t have anything against weight training exercises and I include them in all my phase 2 programs. I believe weight training is crucial if you want to reach maximum development. I find especially that the cable pulley is the best weight training equipment because the cables gives a very smooth resistance while putting minimal stress on the joints and maximum tension on the muscles. You can do cable exercises for every muscle group nearly everyday and achieve massive growth because the stress on the joints is much lower. I’ve done this to grow my arms and shoulders the most.
Thanks for clarifying your stance on things. I agree with you on this: “I believe weight training is crucial if you want to reach maximum development.” I think cables can be of great use in the right circumstances. For example, bent over barbell rows cause too much lower back fatigue, which may decrease one’s maximum recoverable volume. However, cable rows don’t do this, so you can get more volume in without affecting the rest of your training.
I still disagree with your claim that power lifters don’t look that great. I think you are believing a very common myth in the fitness industry- that all/most powerlifters have to be fat. This simply is not true. Look at most competitive power lifter under 200 pounds. Most of them are pretty ripped, around 10% body fat. Most people erroneously lump in the heavy weight power lifters with the rest of us and make incorrect generalizations. And seeing guys with high totals having great physiques is not rare at all- provided they keep their body fat in check. Just look at some of the powerlifters in the 83kg weight class. Also, it’s not really a great idea to just default to the genetics/steroids argument.
Many of the top athletes in the USAPL and other drug-tested federations are well within what’s achievable for a natural trainee in terms of FFMI. Just look at guys like Taylor Atwood, Josh Hancott, Jonnie Candito, John Haack (before he started sarms). Also, check out guys like Dr. Jordan Feigenbaum and Dr. Austin Baraki. Very aesthetic looking physiques, proportionate, and functional.
The other thing I will never understand is many guys having this idea that leg training harms their physiques. Nothing could be further from the truth. As you said, if a guy has disproportionally large legs, it could take away from his upper body. But this doesn’t need to happen because guys could just simply have more upper body volume. Finally some guys can’t control the amount of development in their legs. Someone like me has good genetics for legs so I don’t even need to do much volume and my legs grow. I just simply do extra upper body training to balance things out. I don’t think having large legs is a weakness and if anything it is very attractive. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and many men (and women) see small legs as a weakness. Having a large upper body with chicken legs is just as bad as having large legs and a small upper body.
I would say many powerlifters have better physiques than gymnasts do because gymnasts lack leg development and thus are not that functional for everyday activity. There’s a reason why football and rugby players don’t use rings in their training, and instead focus on compound lifts.
Many people have different goals. My goal is to build all of my muscles, not just my upper body. I want all of my muscles to get as big as possible without drugs.
I totally agree with you on the fact that your target audience (skinny fat/beginners) will gain more benefit from body weight training initially and then focus on weights later. As you said, weights are necessary at one point or another. Someone can do calisthenics for a while but will eventually stall. You can’t effectively and realistically load the upper body in different planes conducive total muscular development with calisthenics alone. Conversely, it would be a mistake for anyone to avoid calisthenics exercises, as they’re very important for not only muscle development, but functional strength as well. At the end of the day, people just shouldn’t limit themselves to one or the other and make informed decisions on how to reach their goals in the safest and most effective ways possible. Thank you for your reply!
Good point about the cable rows. I’ve used cables for nearly 8 years to maximize my physique. (Usually for a few months at a time to even out weak spots. Bodyweight training has always been my foundation). You can hit your muscles daily with cables because of the lower impact on the joints.
On average, gymnasts are the most functional and versatile athletes of all. Gymnastics has the most carryover to other sports.
In my experience, doing bodyweight exercises and bodybuilding style pump training is superior for building a big physique compared to heavy weights. I got to 102 KG at 188 CM and around 12-15% body-fat putting me at 24.61 FFMI without any heavy lifting. (These stats are all on a very lanky skinny frame, I have a tiny neck, wrists and naturally narrow shoulders). Haven’t done any heavy training for over 8 years and in the last month I’ve only worked out just 5 times for 45 min, but most people I meet in person say I look like a steroid user: https://www.instagram.com/p/B5J9nvOFyjy/
My ectomorph clients reach the same size as most of the elite powerlifters you named in around 10 months of workouts. In terms of size, the only ones that are impressive are Jordan Feigenbaum and Austin Baraki. But I doubt any of them were skinny-fat to start with. It’s much harder to put on mass on a skinny-fat guy than a skinny guy. Takes at least 3 times longer because of the need to implement regular cutting cycles and the slower muscle gains. Practically impossible with a typical barbell strength program.
Sport physiologist, Oa Blom
Great article buddy. I totally agree with you, and so does the latest research.
Thank you for the comment. Can you share the latest research with me?
Great Article ????
I hope it saves a lot of people time and effort.