Female Strength Levels

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.

Perspective

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.

Assumptions

  •  No anabolic steroids (this changes everything)
  • Typical anthropometry (height, weight, body segment length ratios)
  • Of normal age range (16-50 years old)
  • Proper form (full range of motion – no partial reps)

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.

Beginners

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.

Be the Best “You”

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.

46 thoughts on “Female Strength Levels

  1. jaime

    seriously bret I love this blog post. You hit the nail on the head being realistic about your goals , and not comparing yourself to what you see out there in magazines and on the internet . I have trained a good number of women of all ages,just be boosting up there self esteem with praise goes a long way . be the best athlete you can be!

    Reply
  2. Dush

    Really good post and something I’m always thinking about when I watch youtube. Actually, so does a buddy of mine that trains he says “don’t ever watch youtube videos cause a 8 stone girl will make you feel like an utter pussy”.

    I use the strength standards posted over at exrnet. I’m currently at the intermediate and advanced stages on all core lifts. You still get serious envy when I see a 130lb chick deadlifting more than you will ever achieve lol.

    But the best thing I love about strength training is your main competition is your last PB. That’s it, as long as your past self you feel good.

    Reply
  3. Karla

    HA HA

    You know I am gonna be all over this one.

    What is with this chart? How is it that you do not post coefficients versus this “standard” chart (one size fits all?) sort of thing?

    I mean what exactly does this statement mean?

    [b]Typical anthropometry (height, weight, body segment length ratios)[/b]

    A “typical” woman is this a “Barbie” or an “Olive Oil” height, weight body segment?

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      What up Karla! I hope you’re doing well. It’s funny, I actually had you worked into the article as I anticipated this. :) But I ended up taking out what I wrote, and it included the coefficient issue.

      I believe that coefficients work better with males than females. Men tend to have more lean mass than women so a 250 lb guy is almost always stronger than a 200 lb guy. But with women it’s not so cut and dry. Extra weight often throws off kinematics, so a heavier women sometimes has trouble just doing bodyweight exercises properly. And most heavier women exhibit way more fat than thinner women, so there is less correlation. For example, the 180 lb woman can usually bench press more than the 110 lb woman, but she can’t even come close to performing a chin up, and she probably can’t lunge properly. Of course you’d have to take mass into consideration…

      I suppose I could have created a formula where I incorportated bodyweight into the “total mass lifted” and used coefficients, but quite often women start out at the same level – bodyweight for squats, lunges, and hip thrusts, dumbbells for upper body pressing, etc. Since I train mostly women seeking physique benefits, the goal is to get the larger women leaner (and many can drop 20 lbs their first month by dieting and training hard), so the bodyweights tend to converge since the thinner women put on some weight as I convince them to up their caloric intake.

      In your situation, being surrounded by female football players, the goal isn’t always physique-based and is often strength-based, and there exist more advanced women who have been training for more years and have reached impressive strength levels, so this is where you may see a 160 lb woman at 15% bodyfat who has not used steroids. But if a 160 lb woman enters my facility, she’s usually 40% bodyfat and is no stronger than her 130 lb counterparts. In fact, she’s often weaker and less coordinated in many lifts.

      So in efforts to keep it simple, I refrained from going the coefficient route. I hope some of this makes sense.

      Reply
      1. Carolyn

        As a fat woman, I find your quick dismissal insulting. I’ve only been lifting since February, and my back squats and deadlifts are “elite” and my bench press and incline are both “advanced.” (Although, it is true that I can’t do a chin up.) Don’t be so quick to sell your clients short.

        Reply
        1. Bret Post author

          Carolyn – you want to submit videos? I hear this all the time and then I watch people’s form and it’s horrendous. Please post a Youtube video here and then I’ll respond to your comment.

          Reply
      2. Lisa

        Out of curiosity, what height and weight are you considering to be ‘average’? A chart based on percentage of body weight in this case might be more useful. I’m guessing I’m a bit taller and heavier than your average at 5’7″ and 155, which certainly helps for some lifts, but I still fall in the ‘elite’ range for most lifts (though admittedly my overhead pressing could use some serious work).

        Reply
  4. Eric Moss RKC

    exactly. i am a bit of a big fish in a small pond. people around me can’t compete with what i can do but i can’t compete with what Dennis Rogers can do. everybody has strengths and weaknesses

    Reply
  5. SLS

    Glad to have read this. I’m definitely guilty of comparing myself to many of the trained women you show, but it helps set my goals for sure. However, that chart…. maybe should be bumped up a notch? I rank elite in everything but hip thrusts (cause I’ve never done ‘em) and that’s just consistency in the gym or athletics.

    Women are definitely capable of amazing strength and endurance, more than they realize or give themselves credit for. It’s just blanket inactivity that sets the bar so low. Elite needs to be…. way higher with more room in intermediate. Still, you’ve based this on years in the field so I’m not saying it’s inaccurate, just probably low expectations :p

    By the way, big time congratulations on the Ph.D. program. That’s definitely where you need to be man. You’re a true academic, but thank you for always giving what you know to the public and keeping it real for us all.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Well when I created the chart, I was trying to think of a category above “advanced” and the only term that came to me was “elite.”

      So I left a lot of wiggle room in terms of the elite category because “elite” depends on frame of reference.

      I bet 1 in 1,000 women could perform the lower end of most of the feats of strength on the right side of the column, and probably 1 in 50,000 could perform the upper end of most of the feats of strength on the right side of the column.

      In my book that makes a woman “elite.” Now, if we focus on powerlifting, Oly lifting, strongman, bodybuilidng, and strength-based position sports, then the feats at the right hand of the column are much more typical and probably wouldn’t be considered “elite.”

      Thanks!

      Reply
  6. Ammi

    Great article Bret. Thanks. Although I really struggle to believe that I could really classify myself as “Elite” yet, depsite neatly fitting into that column on nearly all the lifts. That said, I do take the point that I probably am “Elite” when compared to the majority of women, as opposed to just the sub-group of women who lift regularly.

    I would second Karla’s concern about coefficients but can see why you left them out. Again, I suspect that the coefficients only start to be relevant once you are just working with that unique sub-group of women who already lift regularly and for whom the extra weight probably does mean a good bit of extra muscle.

    How far do you think the difference between men and women goes in that respect though? I know that I am still seeing strength gains (though smaller than they used to be) despite currently going througha process of leaning out and dropping some bodyweight.

    I’m rapidly reaching a hypothesis (based on my test group of n=2 – one being me and the other being my partner, Chris Beardsley) that women can get further in their strength gains than men through improving neural efficiency before sheer muscle bulk becomes the driving force in improving strength. Have you noticed anything similar in your clients? If so, do you think it is likely to be because most women start from a much worse position of neural efficiency and therefore have more to gain in that area than men?

    Would be good to know your thoughts.

    Oh, and I’m assuming that your table is in pounds and not kilos… :-)

    Reply
    1. Ammi

      I’m planning on doing my weekly Blog-watch, due to go out in about 11 hours, about this post. Would you mind if I reproduce your table in my post?

      In case I don’t hear back from you before the post goes out, I’ll work on a default of including it but will happily remove again if you wish.

      Reply
  7. Bret Contreras

    Very interesting!!!

    The responses on this post and on my Facebook wall help reaffirm by beliefs. Notice that the guys are all okay with this chart. Several male strength coaches posted on my facebook wall and on here saying that they liked the article – and I’m presuming the chart as well.

    But several women now have posted who are not comfortable with the chart.

    I’m known for being a trainer who loves strength and who pushes the strength envelope as far as possible, and I take women who have worked with top trainers and still manage to get them way stronger. I’ve never in my life as a trainer said, “Don’t push it hard today, you’re already strong enough.” There’s no such thing!

    But women need to realize where they stand so they can be proud of their accomplishments. If you need a goal, look at the upper limits of the “elite” category.

    Reply
  8. Parker

    Interesting take, Bret. I like it.

    As a 25 year old female, I alllllways hear from guys in the gym who feel the need to compliment and then chat about how much I can lift. I rank in the Elite columns on your graph in everything but chinups (I’ll get there) but I rarely compare myself to other girls because I find it to be not the most motivational thing. I’m not content with my levels of strength, and I hope I never am! Where would contentment leave me on training days?

    I used to lift in Brian Schwab’s gym, Orlando Barbell, where they kept posters up on the wall of impressive gym PRs. THAT was both disheartening and incredibly motivating. Not even in my stratosphere, but damn it kept my competitive spirit frustrated and fired!

    I guess I like seeing those feats of insanity sometimes…especially the Olympic lifters who squat and snatch and clean amazing weight. Compliments on my current status are very kind, but they don’t help me get better. Sometimes, only a YouTube video will do. : )

    Reply
  9. allie

    Great post, glute guy. I think that some people upon seeing your chart would be within (or even exceed) the elite category that you put together and argue with you that their strength is not that uncommon. What many people forget, like you say, is that there are SO.MANY.PEOPLE who are not strong at all!

    We (everyone strength training, really) lose perspective of how many people there are in the world who do no exercise, no strength training, and we think we’re not that strong, when really- being the best that we can each be IS very impressive! Thanks for the great reminder!

    Reply
  10. D.Morales

    Gracias for the chart Bret! I realize it has a lot of “wiggle room” but it’s a good frame of reference for my female clients to shoot for! Oh yeah,congrats on the phD!

    Reply
  11. Neghar

    GREAT post Bret. You are 100% right on about the chin ups too. I didn’t even attempt an unassisted chin up until maybe a year and a half ago. There was always this notion somehow that I “needed” assistance. When I actually pulled myself up the first time I was kind of in shock. I compete with me and only me. When I start to venture into competing with other women, I give myself a little kick in the ass, because we all have very different genetics, training ages and abilities. My strengths are very likely someone else’s weaknesses and vice versa.

    Reply
  12. Nancy C.

    Hey Bret! Been lurking here for a while soaking up the great info. I’m a 56 year old woman coming back to training after a looooong layoff and this chart is enormously helpful. I’ve completed changed my training because of what you’ve been posting here and I can’t begin to tell you how much it’s improved my strength and posture. I’m somewhere between beginner and intermediate at this point but it’s good to know that with patience and the right progressions I’ll get into the upper categories someday. I want to be one those those impressive 60+ women you talked about!

    Reply
  13. Lindsey

    For weights listed in categories like the dumbbell walking lunge, are you saying hold 30 lbs total or 30 lb dumbells? Regardless, I’m proud to say that I’ve reached a good number of advanced and elite levels on your chart. When I’m at the gym I always get comments on how heavy/hard I am lifiting…my workout partner and I always get asked if we are athletes or are on a sports team!! Thanks for all of your insight, as usual!!

    Reply
  14. Laura

    This is one of your best posts ever. Thanks for writing it! I’m definitely going to keep that chart in my favorites as a place to find some targets!

    A third of normal weight women do proper resistance training? WAAAAY too high an estimate, in my experience. I’d put that number under 10%.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      You’re probably right about that! Probably a third do some sort of strength-based training, and a third of those people actually have a routine that pays attention to structural balance. So that makes 1/9, which is very close to your 10% estimate.

      Reply
  15. Diana

    Of the 7 exercises that I do on the chart, I am elite in all of them, although there is quite a spread between the low & high end of the “elite” numbers. I guess training for PL really screws up your perspective, because I am a mediocre power lifter (ranked 25 out of 50-ish in my age group). Gives me something to chew on.

    Reply
    1. Bret Contreras

      Diana, are you on the upper end of the elite numbers, thereby making you “really elite?” :)

      Furthermore, I originally had on the chart “full squats.” Since I do so much posterior chain with my clients (really a 3 : 1 ratio now of hip dominant to quad dominant), I try to have them squat in a more quad-dominant fashion. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman full squat 225 lbs ass to grass with an upright posture. Probably a lot of powerlifters and especially Oly lifters could pull it off, I just haven’t really seen it happen. I would LOVE to train a female powerlifting/Oly lifting type though and see how far we could push the envelope.

      Reply
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  17. Niel

    I’m use to Kilgore’s 1RM chart for men and at first thought the same should be done for women, but your chart is so much more practical when training a beginner.

    Any chance you can update Kilgore’s [link below] for front squats, snatches, hip thrust, and other compound exercises?

    What is stated on the website does not reflect the Cashier’s Office intentions

    Reply
  18. Diana

    Brett, I’m in the middle rep wise, high end if you are talking 1RM. Out of gear I can squat 225×2, to legal IPF depth, for me I don’t see any point in going lower than that ( : My 16 year old girl squats 165 butt to ankles, she is an oly lifter though and, well, 16. Now I know a lady who is “elderly” who is also elite on your chart, but she is a powerlifter too.
    I admit to a skewed perspective because almost all of the women I know who train are either oly lifters or powerlifters. However, I do see how you found these numbers because I train mostly in a commercial gym. They make more sense in that type of environment.
    Regarding pull-ups: I don’t do them anymore because I found they were making me better at doing pull-ups and there was no transfer to the comp lifts. I’ve seen this with another woman who trains PL, she can do them all day long but still can’t bench over 95lbs. I always believed pull-ups to be a very important upper body exercise, but without any transfer, personally I’m better off using a different accessory lift. I focused on them for over a year and was able to do 8-10 in decent form, now I can do 3 but my bench has gone up about 15lbs in that time. What do you think of that, fluke or is there something to it?
    Oh and thanks, that is a thought provoking article, I am passing it along!

    Reply
  19. v

    awesome article, unfortunately will have to wait til i get home to read the chart properly – mobile phone wont let me zoom in. Am one of those heavier (ok.. Obese) girls who loves her strength training.

    Reply
  20. deb roby

    Interesting list.

    I am a 58 year old female who just started lifting 2 years ago. A year ago experienced a SLAP Lesion that was repaired by surgery in September. 3 months out my first attempt at Bench Press – to find my current training weight- went to 65# for 10 reps. The week I injured myself I was about going to take my first attempt at 135#.
    My DB BP is equivalent.

    Deadlift 135# for 10 (3-5 sets) every week.

    Yet I know the injury caused all kinds of muscle imbalances and that my left glute is nearly dead. Can’t back squat -but wouldn’t be comfortable doing more than a bare bar now. And I doubt I ever could military press at the same level.

    I have (what I believe) are modest goals. I’m not a competitor. I want to squat and bench equal to my body wieght and deadlift 1.5X that much. And do it as long as possible.

    Reply
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  23. Tracey

    I totally love this article. I am new to cross fit (3 weeks), though not new to serious exercise (sports training regime). This said I was in peak condiciton then lost it all in a year’s time for various reasons. Thank goodness for Crossfit!. Today, I front squatted 81 lbs (last 3) in the 3-3-3-3-3 WOD (? – Not sure of the terminology). I was online to see how I fit in in the general scheme of things…so I am glad for your chart and your mention of age ranges. This said, I completely resent the reference to 60+ being “elderly.” Elderly doesn’t happen until you are 80! Elderly doesn’t even need to occur in the sentence. This said, I am heading to your FB page to like it to be sure I don’t miss anything more from you. I expect that you will reconsider your perspective and subsequent description of us 50+ folks.

    Reply
  24. Patrick O'Flaherty

    Hey Bret,

    Is the type of push up in your chart standard (toes) or modified (kneeling)?

    Thanks,

    Patrick

    Reply
  25. Hailey

    Ahh! I wish you would have posted the barbell glute bridge data within your chart! I’ve been doing them for the last 4 months and I love them! Now that I’ve been getting to a heavy weight it does get mentally challenging :O but I love a good challenge. Any way you can post those results? :D Also, what is a good weight for the quadrupled pendulum hip extension machine? My gym doesn’t have the actual machine, but i do them on the smith machine. (or try to, lol!) Is 85lbs okay for that exercise? I’ve worked up to that so far. Thanks a lot Bret! I enjoy your articles!

    Reply
  26. Ashleigh s.

    This post was very informative and made realise im in far better shape then I thought. I have been training for about 10 months now at 136lbs and went for not able to do pull ups to 8reps in 4 months and now squatting 8reps @185. Most areas I fall in advanced or elite there are deff other areas that still need some work! Great information thank you for the post

    Reply
  27. Emily

    I can do a pull up! I didn’t know it was so rare. I’m also 30 lbs over weight. I’ve always been able to do pull-ups, in 6th grade I can remember doing three and being the only girl in class able to do them, got embarrassed and just stopped there.

    I’m sure if I dropped the 30 lbs I’d be able to do way more than just 1.

    Reply

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