Redefining The Standards of Functional Strength
How strong should you be? That’s a difficult question to answer because there are countless variables to consider. Ask five of your favorite strength experts and they’ll undoubtedly give you five different answers.
If you were to peruse all the research to determine how strong an athlete should be, you’d find only one value: standards for the two-arm loaded carry my colleague, Dr. John Rusin, contributed to. In other words, there’s not any evidence-based way to know how much a hockey player should be able to bench press or a running back should be able to deadlift.
It’s safe to say that superstar quarterback, Tom Brady, would get smoked by the vast majority of NFL guys in a squat or bench press challenge, but it certainly hasn’t affected his performance or longevity. But in most cases, gaining functional strength, especially in key areas where weaknesses are identified, will improve your performance, durability and physique.
The following Functional Strength Standards (FSS) are based on anecdotal evidence, as well as consultations with elite strength coaches from around the world. Therefore, none of the following values should be viewed as “pass or fail,” but instead serve as general guidelines that might improve the performance of an athlete that requires full-body power such as a running back, MMA fighter, or hockey player, just to name a few. We’ll start by covering the Functional Strength Standards for the loaded carry, taken from over 1000 athletes, since it’s currently the only strength value with research to support it.
Two-Armed Loaded Carry
The two-arm loaded carry, also known as the farmer’s walk, is an exercise that requires high levels of stability strength throughout the trunk, pelvis, hips and ankles, as well as a strong grip. This functional, full-body exercise provides numerous benefits to athletes, including strengthening the pillar complex, a term used to described the synergistic activation of the shoulders, hips and core. Indeed, the loaded carry is effective as a test of full-body strength, and as an exercise to enhance it. According t0 performance expert and injury prevention specialist, Dr. John Rusin,
“For testing, developing and displaying functional core strength, nothing beats the loaded carry and many of its derivatives. The loaded carry has the ability to identify and strengthen weak links simultaneously, as the test and training many times is the corrective fix.”
Which variation to test: In most cases, it’s simplest to use a trap bar to perform the loaded carry. There are two reasons. First, many gyms don’t have dumbbells or kettlebells that are heavy enough to challenge strong athletes. Second, it’s relatively easy to load and unload a trap bar during testing. However, it’s perfectly fine to use heavy dumbbells, kettlebells or anything else if a trap bar isn’t available.
Functional Strength Standards: The goal for the general population (non-athletes) is to carry 100% of body weight for 30 seconds. The goal for elite athletes is to carry 200% of body weight for 30 seconds. If the person isn’t strong enough to pull the load from the ground, it can be elevated in order to start the carry.
The next six movement patterns give a Functional Strength Standard for a one-repetition maximum (1RM). However, a true 1RM isn’t recommended to test because of the time, effort, joint strain and neural fatigue it can cause. Therefore, you can find your 2RM, 3RM or 5RM for the exercise (whichever suits you best) and then convert it using the following percentages. I like to find an athlete’s 3RM for most exercises since it typically requires less time and strain to the athlete while being relatively accurate.
Reference: Fabio Zonin, Master Instructor at Strong First.
For example, if your 3RM for an exercise is 300 pounds, it’s 87.5 to 90% of your 1RM. In this case, your 1RM is 333 to 343 pounds (none of this is an exact science). The calculation looks like this:
- 300/0.875 = 343 pounds
- 300/0.90 = 333 pounds
Whether you use the higher or lower value, or a value in between, doesn’t matter as long as you use the same calculation with future tests.
A strong hip hinge is a fundamental movement pattern that can benefit virtually every athlete, regardless of his or her sport. There are 45 different muscles that attach to the pelvis, not to mention other muscles that provide indirect support. Of particular importance to full body power and athletic prowess is the posterior chain, a collection of muscles that runs from the traps down to the hamstrings, with the erector spinae, glutes and many other muscles in between. To paraphrase an old-school strength proverb,
“A strong man is strong in the back of his body.”
Of course, there are many exercises that develop the posterior chain, from a good morning to a bent-over row to a power clean. Not all of those exercises, including many others I didn’t mention, are essential to an athlete. A basic hip hinge, however, is essential to sport and life. That’s why the Romanian deadlift (RDL), one of the purest forms of a hip hinge, is the recommended exercise to test. The other reason is because it’s extremely rare for a person to lack the mobility to do it correctly, unlike pulling a deadlift from the floor.
Which variation to test: Have the athlete use a barbell, or hold a dumbbell in each hand. If testing the Romanian deadlift is not recommended for the athlete, such as a pitcher that has excessive downward rotation of the scapulae, you can test a quarter-squat using a barbell.
Functional Strength Standards: 180% of body weight 1RM.
For example, let’s say you determined the 3RM of the Romanian deadlift for a 200-pound athlete. In this case, if the goal is to achieve a calculated 180% of body weight 1RM (i.e., 360 pounds), he should be able to perform three reps with approximately 325 pounds.
The lunge is a functional movement pattern that requires a combination of single-leg and split-stance strength. Single-leg strength is required when only one foot is on the ground; split-stance strength is required when the trailing foot is touching the ground. The lunge mandates sufficient stability strength in the trunk, pelvis, hips, and ankles.
Which variation to test: The reverse lunge is the ideal movement pattern to test, compared to a forward lunge. A reverse lunge allows the hips to perform more work, and it’s a more stable movement. Alternatively, a forward lunge is essentially a forward “fall” that is more difficult to control. The question is: How should you load the reverse lunge during testing?
Contralateral loading, meaning the weight is held on the side of the leg that’s stepping back, has been shown in research to increase activation of the trunk stabilizers in the frontal plane, as well at the gluteus medius and vastus lateralis of the front leg. Since strengthening those muscles is beneficial for virtually any athlete, the reverse lunge with a contralateral load held down at the side is the recommended exercise to test.
Functional Strength Standards: 40% of body weight 1RM.
For example, if you’re using a 3RM test, a 180-pound athlete should be able to perform 3 reverse lunges while holding a 65-pound weight on one side.
A horizontal push, such as a bench press or push-up, primarily challenges muscles that protract the scapulae, horizontally adduct the shoulder, and extend the elbows. Having adequate strength in those muscles increases upper body pushing and punching power, as well as stability of the shoulder complex.
Which variation to test: One of the best exercises to strengthen the horizontal push pattern is the push-up with band. The problem, however, is that it’s difficult to translate the resistance of the band into pounds, and the resistance changes throughout the movement. Therefore, a good alternative to test is the barbell bench press since it’s easy to determine the load, and it doesn’t hinge on the strength of a person’s anterior chain. Use a grip width that’s thumb-distance away from the hips, as shown in the video.
Functional Strength Standards: 125% of body weight 1RM for males or 85 to 90% of body weight 1RM for females.
A horizontal pull, such as a chest-supported row or one-arm dumbbell row, primarily challenges muscles that retract the scapulae, extend or horizontally abduct the shoulder (depending on the shoulder position), and flex the elbows. Note that those movements are the mirror opposite of what a horizontal push strengthens. Since the shoulder complex typically functions best when there’s more strength in the horizontal pull pattern, it’s important to determine if there’s a significant discrepancy between it and a horizontal push. Having adequate strength in upper back increases upper body pulling power, as well as stability of the shoulder complex.
Which variation to test: A chest-supported row is the recommended exercise to test. For females, it’s ideal to use a machine with a pad that can be adjusted to rest against the abdomen, to avoid the breasts. Perform the row with a hammer (i.e., neutral) grip to maximize activation of the lats.
Functional Strength Standards: 140% of body weight 1RM for males or 100% of body weight 1RM for females.
A vertical push, such as a military press or dumbbell shoulder press, primarily challenges muscles that upwardly rotate the scapulae, abduct the shoulders, and extend the elbows. When the exercise is performed standing, it also requires sufficient stability strength of the trunk and hips. Having adequate strength in these muscles increases overhead strength and stability, as well as upper body pushing and punching power.
Which variation to test: First, choose a standing vertical push exercise since it’s a better indicator of the full-body stability necessary to press a load overhead. The barbell standing overhead press is a common exercise to test; however, many athletes feel a dumbbell overhead press is easier on the shoulders since it allows the wrists to move freely. The recommended exercise to test is a split-stance one-arm overhead dumbbell press. There are two reasons:
- The split stance gives the athlete more stability, which can be useful when determining the actual strength of the muscles that perform a vertical push.
- It’s also less stressful on the shoulder due to the position of the ribcage.
Functional Strength Standards: For the standing barbell overhead press, aim for 80% of body weight 1RM for males or 60% of body weight 1RM for females.
For the split-stance one-arm overhead press, aim for half that since just one dumbbell is being used. So it’s 40% of body weight 1RM for males or 30% of body weight 1RM for females. For example, a 200-pound male should have a calculated 1RM of approximately 80 pounds for the split-stance one-arm overhead press for each side.
A vertical pull, such as a pull-up or lat pulldown, primarily challenges muscles that downwardly rotate the scapulae, adduct the shoulders, and flex the elbows. Having adequate strength in upper back increases upper body pulling power, as well as stability of the shoulder complex.
Earlier it was mentioned that it’s a good idea to aim for a balance of strength between a horizontal push and pull. But that balance doesn’t carryover between a vertical push and pull. The reason is because a vertical pull engages significantly more muscle mass, making it a naturally stronger movement than a vertical push. This is one movement pattern where females are often significantly weaker than males, which is reflected in the strength goals.
Which variation to test: An overhand (i.e., pronated) grip pull-up using the grip-width outlined in the video. It’s worth mentioning here that I prefer a hammer-grip pull-up since it’s typically easier on the shoulders while being excellent for building your biceps. The problem, however, is that it’s difficult to standardize a grip-width since the handles are fixed, and the width varies from company to company.
Functional Strength Standards: 140% of body weight 1RM for males or 100% of body weight 1RM for females.
How To Utilize Functional Strength Standards
I want to emphasize that the aforementioned Functional Strength Standards aren’t appropriate for everyone, or all athletes. For example, it’s not necessary for a pitcher to be able to bench press 125% of his body weight, and it might even be detrimental. But a powerlifter would typically need a lot more than that to win a meet. And a rock climber would likely require significantly more upper back strength than a soccer player. Consult with the coach and physical therapist to determine what’s best for the athlete.
The goal here is to help put your body in proper balance so you can reach the highest levels of athleticism. That’s what I teach trainers and therapists in my Corrective Exercise Specialist Certification course that I designed for the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA).
With all those caveats out of the way, if you choose to test any, or all, of the seven aforementioned exercises you’ll not only get a good understanding of the person’s global strength, but it will also potentially expose any significant imbalances. For example, if your athlete can bench press 250 pounds, but can row only 150 pounds, that strength imbalance could decrease performance and increase his risk of a shoulder injury. Or consider a power athlete that performed well on all tests, except the two-arm loaded carry. Adding that exercise into an athlete’s program, until it can performed with 200% of body weight, could significantly increase his or her strength where it’s needed most, and that’s what matters.
*Special thanks to Dr. John Rusin for his professional insights and anecdotal research to derive a number of these strength standards, and to Chris Hitchko for demonstrating the Functional Strength Standards testing protocols from Show Up Fitness Academy located in Los Angeles, California.
About The Author
Dr. Chad Waterbury, PT, DPT, MS received his Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from the University of Southern California, the nation’s top-ranked program. He also has a master’s degree with an emphasis on neurophysiology. Follow him on Instagram and visit his website, ChadWaterbury.com.