Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rating Strength Levels for Women: Squat, Press, and Pull-Up

Strength is a fundamental quality for all movement. Greater strength allows you to perform those movements easier, as you are working at a lower percent of your maximum strength. Simple enough. However, strength is often overlooked, especially with women. Sure, many women, exercise; and, often with activities that are thought to build strength- yoga, Pilate's, body sculpting, etc. However, the reality is that very, very few women are actually strong or even train to actually build strength.
I work with numerous females of all ages and of various backgrounds. Some are sedentary, some are life-long exercisers. Again, very few are strong.

Many will ask, "what do you consider strong?" That is a very good question. We do need a way to quantify strength. Strength is maximum force output. Strength can be evaluated in many ways. In rehab, manual muscle testing is an assessment technique where muscle groups can be tested by having a therapist apply force to a limb with his hands. But, often it is very focused, such as on a single joint. While this information can be very useful during rehab (and for beginners in a fitness program), often force output, or strength is via multiple joints. That is, multiple joints and muscles come into play during movements. This is a more practical evaluation of strength in healthy individuals. While there are many basic movements or when free weights are used, basic lifts. Recently, many clients have been focusing on a few. I often cycle the lifts we focus on for maximal strength. During the current cycle, our focus is the barbell back squat, the standing overhead barbell press, and the pull-up. I make it simple for my female clients to get strong: learn the proper technique, focus on these three lifts, and gradually add weight to the bar. It is pretty impressive what many of these women are able to achieve with consistent training and encouragement.

After supervising lots and lots of female clients training these lifts, I have been able to get a good idea how to rate female's strength levels (none are elite level athletes, but many are recreation athletes or fitness enthusiasts). While there is a lot of variability in body size, most women don't have a lot of strength, especially in the upper body. Interestingly, some of my strongest women clients are the smallest and leanest.

Back Squat (to a parallel thigh level):
Level 1: 65 lb
Level 2: 95 lb
Level 3: 135lb
Level 4: 185lb
Level 5: 225lb

Standing Press:
Level 1: 45 lb
Level 2: 60 lb
Level 3: 80 lb
Level 4: 95 lb
Level 5: 110 lb

Pull-Up (palms facing away, aka prone grip):
Level 1: 80lb *
Level 2: 110 lb *
Level 3: 130 lb *
Level 4: 150lb *
Level 5: 170 lb *

* This weight equals the effective or net body weight lifted, that is body weight minus (with band assistance), or plus (external resistance, i.e. weight plate).

These ratings will help you quantify your strength with these basic lifts. Most females will start at or below level 1. Level 2 is attainable with a few months of training, while level 3 and 4 may take a year or many years. But, simply moving to level 2 moves you, most likely, to the 90th percentile of all women. Where do you rate?


Vitamins Canada said...

I agree that there are very few women that are strong enough to lift heavy iron. They usually want to be fit and slim, but not ripped or buffed.

Dan Hubbard, M.Ed. said...

Ironically, getting stronger will get them fit and slim.

Beth said...

Your page made me feel pretty good -- I'm Level 5 on Snatch Test and Level 4 on most of the strength tests. Coming back from shoulder injuries and issues and having a hell of a time staying healthy i.e. CONSISTENT with training and have been very, very frustrated. Just trying to keep improving.

Dan Hubbard, M.Ed. said...

Wow, Beth, good for you. Those are great lifts. Consistency is key, as you said. Keep up the great work!