When I started lifting again after a serious surgery, the goals my doctors and trainers had for me were not completely in tune with my own. Their conservative target — that I might get strong enough to be crossed off their patient list — felt less ambitious than my hope of one day being able to jump my own height. But even though what we each aimed for was very much different, the benchmarks we set (walking again, doing an air squat, handling a one-mile hike) were the same.
We all train to get somewhere, even if we don’t know where to. Lifters strive to reach checkpoints, either consciously or subconsciously, and progress is automatic if you spend enough time at the gym. Sure, you’ll get stronger quicker if you follow a good program, but those who just have fun at the gym end up progressing a little bit as well.
Some of this is because of the mind-muscle connection — after doing an exercise often enough, you inevitably improve. But are there things lifters should be able to do that can tell how strong you’re becoming instead of just how a workout feels? Are there milestones you should pay attention to?
Here’s how to use benchmarks and milestones to achieve your weight-lifting goals.
Why weight lifters use benchmarks
People love round numbers. A 2019 Washington State University study notes that milestones — calories lost, salary bonuses — are presented with zeros at the end, they have a stronger psychological hold than when they’re listed more plainly. Dieters feel more accomplished losing 300 oz. than 18.8 lbs. A check for $2000 Canadian feels bigger than $1,563 U.S.
So too in the gym. Benching 200 lbs. or squatting 300 feels like a benchmark, and lifters should celebrate when they get there. Round-plate numbers are an even bigger accomplishment. The big, tall plates strong lifters use at most gyms weigh 45 lbs., so when a squat jumps from 130 to 135 — barbells weigh 45 lbs. also — they’ve reached a new level. There’s a real satisfaction to only loading big plates on a bar. Lifting has two kinds of round numbers: ones with two zeros at the end, and the 90 lb. increments. Both measure progress.
Similar standards define non-barbell lifting. This kettlebell chart recommends what weights athletes should use. “Strong gentlemen” should swing a kettlebell no less than 24 kilos (52 lbs.) which is also the upper limit weight for an “average strength gentleman.” A “strong lady” should start at half that; an “average strength lady” two-thirds. So too for chin-ups: novice males should be able to do a handful, intermediate athletes about 10, and advanced ones double that. For women, beginners and novices are both unable to get in one rep, and advanced athletes hover around a dozen. In both cases, exact reps shift according to body weight.
These numbers are broad, and the gendered distinctions for kettlebell weights feel short of specific. But beyond that, the same benchmarks apply to every lifter, regardless of body weight. Couldn’t a “strong man” weigh either 120 or 200 lbs? Aren’t a lighter lifter’s heavier swings more impressive? So too with barbells, where a 225 bench press is less a big deal if the lifter weighs over that mark.
Weight lifting benchmarks based on bodyweight
Once lifters start programming, more accurate strength standards based on bodyweight reveal themselves. There are many of them. One formulation says decent male lifters should be able to squat 1.5 times body weight; good lifters double, and advanced lifters 2.5. Deadlifts hover at around the same ratio and advance slightly past squats as a lifter gets stronger. These benchmarks — reaching a 1.5 bodyweight squat for men, and near-bodyweight number for women — create the foundation of most training programs. Once that number is reached, a lifter is considered adapted — not a beginner — with their strength pathways turned on.
These benchmarks are a function of time. Getting to a 1.5/1 bodyweight squat, all things told, is just about automatic if the lifter is healthy, and puts in the work. (To be sure, the work is a lot.) Two takes a while, and two and a half is quite hard and will take even longer. The triple bodyweight squats put up by competitive powerlifters might take a decade to reach. After a certain point, every pound on the bar gets much tougher.
But bodyweight strength standards don’t take lifters’ histories or the health issues that might hang them up into account. A lifter who can’t move up and down with a bar on their back — because their glutes might be destroyed from a day job, or due to bad cardio — should worry less about hitting a round number during a certain time frame than getting objectively strong and limber enough to get through a workout.
The strength standard that’s required, and which is often overlooked, is being able to get into the gym. It’s an activity standard: moving without injury, and having good proprioception. Lifters who aren’t here yet should work themselves up to activity — through sports, or a general physical preparedness program, or with a trainer — so that they can be strong and controlled enough to move the right way and get actually strong.
Other types of weight lifting benchmarks
Ultimately, strength can be measured by weight on the bar — and some other stuff, too. I often refer new lifters to a list Dan John, a prominent trainer and kettlebell guru, wrote a few years ago, John includes barbell-based strength standards — lifters should be able to bench their body weight, and deadlift double that — and more functional ones, like holding a plank for two minutes and long jumping their height. John also includes non-barbell strength assessments, like farmer’s walking one’s bodyweight.
Taken together, these requirements test whether a lifter is both strong and in shape. Holding a plank for that long a time requires good core strength; sitting in a squat for half a minute, then standing up can only be done with a healthy posterior chain and strong hips. By including functional movements that lifters don’t train at the gym, John’s list encompasses a bigger picture of strength than just weight on the bar.
A couple of requirements on the list stick out even more. On top of benching their weight, lifters should be able to sleep with only one pillow and go from standing to sitting down on the floor without any help. Neither requirement tests strength or cardio. Instead, they’re bellwethers for functional health.
Sleeping with several pillows doesn’t sound unhealthy. What does it have to do with a squat number? But needing a few could be symptomatic. Not being able to lie flat on one’s back or stomach without help can point to mobility issues or muscle imbalances. If a lifter’s neck needs to be propped on several pillows they might have bad posture. This pillow test feels as important as the number of plates on a barbell. What’s the point in being strong if you can’t move correctly? Luckily, bad posture can be fixed, with the right kind of stretches, and exercises — and once it is, lifters can really get strong.
Sitting down on the ground without help tests a lifter’s coordination, flexibility, and strength. A study published by the European Society of Cardiology has found not being able to do so correlates with a higher mortality rate. Going from sitting to standing expresses some aerobic fitness, but also “body flexibility, muscle strength, power-to-bodyweight ratio, and coordination,” according to the study author. It’s likely most younger lifters will be able to pass this test. But they should try it to see if they don’t.
Weight lifting and benchmarks: Strength is a process
Not every lifter will be able to check off every item on John’s list — or on others. Many of us are working up to a double bodyweight squat. That’s the point of the gym.
But as we chase our numbers, it’s worth asking what standards are driving them. Are we chasing round numbers, more plates, a more functional definition of strength, or are we just having fun? As long as we’re moving correctly, that’s up to the lifter. Lifters, unless they’re competing, don’t have to choose. Once they’re healthy, and able to work, serious weight will then go on the bar. It’s this fluid conception of strength and athleticism that leads to true gains.
LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.