I have witnessed many people undergo a significant body transformation when they – ironically enough – stop focusing on changing their physique and instead concentrate on improving performance.
When one stops spending hours worrying about the ideal training split, perfect macronutrient balance or best balance between lifting and cardio, and instead focuses on becoming a stronger, better athlete, many physical goals are naturally met. Focusing on clear, quantifiable numbers is a lot more fun than chasing the ever-ambiguous goal of wanting to “tone up”.
Many people have heard this claim before and know that they should be focusing on performance, but are unsure of what strength standards they should be trying to meet. Many people aim too low (i.e. one full push up, a bodyweight deadlift – something almost anyone should be able to achieve within just a few weeks of training, etc) and therefore do not experience any of the associated physical changes. The truth is that you have to challenge your body and make it as strong as possible in order to see a true physical adaptation.
Recently, I read a blog post from a popular healthy living blogger. She was highlighting the benefits of Barre workouts and saying they were preferable to weight lifting as they are not dangerous. Say what? I encourage people to find a form of exercise that makes them happy, but I can promise you that one heavy lifting session will do more than five of these bogus Barre workouts – and weight lifting is not dangerous if done properly. She is probably the kind of person who wonders why she doesn’t see more muscle growth despite lifting a whole 5lbs!
Not only will the following benchmarks make you stronger and fitter, but they will also speed up your fat loss. They will make you more confident in your every day life – knowing you have the strength to carry a body will make the idea of escaping a burning building a little more palatable.
Too many people waste time fussing over the small details when they should be focused on mastering the basic push and pull movements of resistance training. To achieve the following goals, I generally recommend deadlifting once per week and squatting two to three times per week, while also performing the selected accessory exercises once or twice per week. That in itself will dramatically increase your strength and torch a huge amount of calories to enhance your weight loss efforts.
The following is a rough list of performance-based goals I encourage my clients to strive towards. Of course, once you achieve these you can revise your targets upwards. In my experience, once someone can complete all of these things, their body is generally starting to look pretty damn good:
- Bodyweight squat (in case there is any confusion, this means squatting with a bar holding the equivalent of your body weight on your shoulders, not doing an air squat!)
- 1.5x bodyweight deadlift
- 0.75x bodyweight clean
- 1x bodyweight bench press for men, 0.75x bodyweight bench press for women
- 0.75x bodyweight overhead press for me, 0.5x bodyweight overhead press for women
- 15 full-range of motion push ups
- 10 unassisted chin-ups for men, 5 unassisted chin-ups for women
- 15 unassisted parallel dips for men, 10 unassisted parallel dips for women
- 5 consecutive toes-to-bar
- Pistol squat to the floor on both sides
- Handstand for 10 seconds
- Overhead squat with perfect form (weight is not important – it’s more about mastering your mobility)
- Farmers walks holding your bodyweight in each hand
- Push a car (I do strongman training – I had to throw this in!)
And so begs the question: how long will it take to achieve all of these goals? Sadly, there is no easy answer. While I achieved some of these goals a long time ago, there are still some which I can’t do (pistol squats, handstands, etc).
It is also worth noting that, just because you have achieved a goal before, doesn’t mean you will always be able to do it. For example, within just a few months of training I was able to do 12-15 dips but now I’m lucky to manage two. At one stage I could also perform five unassisted chin-ups, but these days I’m lucky to do two on a good day. This is because my goals have shifted so I do not practice these exercises very often, and it also doesn’t help that I have gained 10kg since I started lifting!
Another factor to consider is individual physical limitations. Some people have bad shoulders and will simply never have strong upper bodies. When I first became qualified as a personal trainer I could bang out close to 50 push ups consecutively but, because of my eye condition, I haven’t done a single push up since February 2013. Just because I probably couldn’t do more than five push ups now doesn’t mean I’m not strong; it just means I’m strong in a different way.
To get a better idea of what level (novice, intermediate, advanced or elite) you are at in terms of sheer strength, I recommend using the EXRX strength standards table. Back when I thought I was badass strong, it put me in my (embarrassingly weak!) place quickly. Now, thankfully, I fall between advanced and elite on everything except bench (what a surprise!!).
How many of these benchmarks have you met? What are your current strength goals?