by Bret Contreras December 15, 2010
We see a lot of YouTube videos these days involving people performing astounding feats of strength. It’s important to not get discouraged or biased when watching these videos. For example, I can full squat around 365 lbs right now, but there are Olympic weightlifters who can bust out 900 lbs. I can deadlift around 565 right now, which is one of my best lifts. But the world record is over 1,000 lbs! If I compared myself to these individuals I’d feel like a sissy!
It’s important to be inspired by these freaks of nature, but it’s also important to always keep things in perspective. When I used to train at commercial gyms, people were very impressed with my workouts. For commercial gym standards, I’m pretty strong. It’s not everyday you see some guy squatting with over three plates per side while going rock bottom, pulling over five plates per side in the deadlift, or hip thrusting with over four plates per side, nor is it common to see a guy performing chin ups with two plates strapped around his waist. I’m very proud of these feats as it’s taken me many years to reach these levels, and when you’re 6’4″ tall some lifts just don’t come easy.
Think about it. Approximately 2/3 or 67% of people in the United States are either overweight or obese. It is quite rare for an overweight or obese individual to be able to perform a proper repetition in the squat, lunge, push up, or chin up.
As for the remaining 1/3 or 33% of the female population who is of normal weight, probably only a 1/3 of them perform proper resistance training. This means around 10% of women are “competing” with you for strength. As a matter of fact, I’d venture to guess that if you are a woman and you can perform a chin up, you’re in the 95th-pecentile in terms of upper body pulling strength. To reiterate, if you took a random sample of 100 women I doubt that more than five could bust out a full range chin up.
While many women are biased because they base their perception of female-strength off of what they see advanced women doing in the gym or what they’ve seen on Youtube videos, I’m here to give you the real-life breakdown in terms of female-strength. I can speak about this with confidence as there aren’t many trainers out there who have trained more women than me in the past decade. At one point several years ago I had over 30 female clients and I managed to train them all by myself week in, week out.
Below is a chart that I created based on my experiences in training hundreds of women over the past decade.
I thought about including front squats, sumo deadlifts, barbell glute bridges, Bulgarian split squats, glute ham raises, close grip bench press, lat pulldowns, chest supported rows, seated rows, inverted rows, and dumbbell curls, but I opted to keep it simple.
Women taking steroids are in a league of their own as they are manipulating their physiology to function more like a man. Actually some of them are exceeding normal male testosterone levels as our juevos only create around 10 mgs of testosterone per day. These women should not be taken into consideration when determining female strength levels.
Anthropometry plays a huge role in the display of strength. It is not uncommon for a tall women to front squat just the barbell but deadlift with over 135 lbs. Women with a tiny upper body with shapely legs may never be able to do a chin up no matter how lean she gets. Bodyweight reverse hypers are an excellent exercise for this type of client as their ratio of lower body weight to upper body weight makes it quite challenging. Conversely, this type of client can bust out bodyweight 45 degree hypers like it ain’t no thang and needs to hold onto dumbbells to make it challenging.
It’s quite impressive for an elderly women (60+) to be able to squat and lunge with her own bodyweight and deadlift and press with a barbell.
Last, exercises need to be taken through a full range of motion to be considered legit. I’ve seen women who can partial squat 95 lbs for ten reps but can’t do a single rep to parallel or deeper with the same weight. I’ve seen women bust out three partial range chin ups who can’t do a single rep when attempting to start from a dead hang and stopping at their sternum. I’ve seen women claim to dumbbell military press a ton of weight, but when forced to use a complete range of motion by starting at shoulder level and progressing to lockout while keeping a tall spine, it’s whole different story.
Typical, untrained women don’t show up at my doorstep being able to bust out barbell full squats. Beginners need to start off with their own bodyweight, ensure proper levels of mobility, stability, and motor control, and use basic progressions. They need to build a foundation by gaining flexibility, getting their glutes to activate properly, learning how to stabilize their core, and building up some scapular muscles so they can perform exercises with proper form. They need to progress optimally in range with range of motion, reptitions, resistance, and exercise variation. For example, goblet squats are a good intermediate exercise that bridges the gap between bodyweight and barbell squats. Barbell glute bridges come before barbell hip thrusts, and rack pulls come before deadlifts. Dumbbells for upper body are often necessary to bridge the gap between bodyweight and barbells. Bands can be used for assistance on chin ups. The angle on inverted rows and push ups can be elevated to make them easier.
I used to envy others and try to compete with my friends in terms of strength. While being competitive is certainly fine, it’s important to realize that some people will naturally have an advantage with certain exercises and rep ranges. One individual may be horrible at squatting but excellent at deadlifting or vice versa. One individual may not be good at maxing out but excels at performing higher repetitions. One individual may suck at upper body pressing but rock the house with upper body pulling. Just be the best “you” possible and try to set personal records consistently when training.
If you’re at the “advanced” or “elite” stage in any of the exercises listed above, be damn proud of yourself, as that means you’ve trained hard and consistently. Hopefully this chart will help many women keep their strength in proper perspective.
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