Strength Tests - how to know if you're strong

There sat a new test
Much harder that you bought in
As for the unseen

just take care of what you will...                  -Chevelle (Sleep Apnea)

Are you physically strong?

How much force can you generate from dead earth, overcoming gravity's effect on the mass of your body and anything you may want to move? How do you really know if you're strong? The answer is less straightforward than you may think.

There is no single, perfect Gold Standard strength test. So you must define what kind of strength you are looking to measure and how you will be measuring it. I mean, nobody really cares how much you can bicep curl. Many tests that are thought of as measuring strength like running, jumping, throwing, etc, are actually better measures of power. Which leads to point number two.

All strength tests measure more than strength.

Every strength test demands various amounts of flexibility, stability, and coordination. Research has repeatedly shown that a simple test of grip strength correlates very well with other upper body, lower body, and total body tests of strength. My observation from over a decade of working as a physical therapist definitely confirms this. Still, I think it's far more meaningful and interesting to say that "she can squat twice her body weight," or "He can do 20 pull-ups," than it is to simply know grip strength.

Any given strength test poses a different challenge to each person. 

On the surface, you may think that a 250 pound bench press is better than a 150 pound bench press. The one guy successfully lifted more weight so he is indeed stronger in the bench press. But what does that mean? What if I told you that the one pressing 150 pounds only weights150 pounds, 50 pounds less than the other guy? Now who's stronger? Or maybe they weigh approximately the same, but the guy with a 250 pound bench press has arms that are two feet long and a big 55-inch barrel chest, while the other guy is 6' 5", with 45 inch chest and arms almost three feet long? Which one would excel at blocking in a football game? At wresting or rebounding in basketball?

This whole scenario is even more obvious if you take something like a pull up test.

Strength depends on more than big muscles. 

If all else is equal in terms of leverage, motor control, stability, flexibility, and neurological efficiency, a bigger muscle will always exert more force than a smaller muscle. But rarely, if ever, is all else equal. A 35-year old with some degree of normal degenerative "stiffness" in his spine will always be able to dead lift more weight than someone 15 years younger. The younger person requires more stability demand before they can pull the weight off the ground.

Some people have huge muscles simply to help make up for poor alignment or leverage. Have you ever witnessed the huge calves of someone with laxity in their foot and ankles? These people are almost never very fast. Those big muscles are  simply making up the difference for poor stability or leverage.

Strength is context specific. 

In power lifting circles, a "raw" (no belts, wraps, braces, etc) 1.5 X body weight bench press, 2X body weight squat, and 2.5X body weight dead lift are respectable. In most commercial gyms among serious gym rats, these numbers are stellar. In most athletic endeavors and especially in the general population, these numbers are unheard of. In reality, there is strong, and there is strong enough. For athletes interested in sports outside of power lifting and Olympic lifting, I'm most definitely interested in promoting and informing you on how to be strong enough.

Strong enough in the legs and core to run or jump in various athletic pursuits without hurting yourself (minimize the risk of ACL/knee or UCL/elbow rupture). Strong enough to lift a grocery bag or suitcase with good form and without straining something. Strong enough to maintain good congruency between the bones of the shoulder joint when throwing or reaching over head. Strong enough to stand for a while with good posture instead of hanging on the ligaments in your neck and back.

Most people do not possess adequate strength to function well. Honestly, I have to say that even by the lowest standards, most of us are pretty weak. But don't take my word for it. Here are a few of the more simple, not too extreme, ways to see for yourself:

Stability Push Up and Push Up tests:

Deep Squat/Squat tests:

Single leg sit-to-stand test:

Pull Up:

In-line Lunge Test:

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