How to Gain General Strength
What’s the best way to develop general strength? We get this question a lot. CrossFit claims to emphasize functional exercises to develop functional strength. Is functional strength a real thing? And does doing functional exercises really improve our general strength?
Strength training sounds like it would be designed to develop general strength, and it certainly can be, but more often than not it’s rooted in powerlifting, and thus built around improving our 1-rep max strength on the low-bar squat, bench press, and conventional deadlift. Those are great lifts, they engage a ton of muscle mass, and we absolutely need to be strong in order to lift a big total. But is our general strength best measured by how much we can lift for a single repetition on those three lifts?
Next, there’s calisthenics. Calisthenics is often said to be ideal for developing real-world strength because we’re learning to lift our body weight and move our bodies through space. If someone is good at push-ups, chin-ups, planks, and planches, and a variety of gymnastics movements, they must have good general strength, right?
Finally, a lot of bodybuilders train to build bigger muscles, thinking that bigger muscles are stronger muscles. And that’s kind of the whole point. People do bodybuilding workouts because they want to look strong. But compared to powerlifters, bodies are often comparatively weaker on the big compound lifts. Why is that?
- What is General Strength?
- The Link Between Muscle Size, Strength & Health
- How Strength & Aesthetics Diverge
- How Well Does Powerlifting Develop General Strength?
- How Well Does Bodybuilding Develop General Strength?
- How Well Does Calisthenics Develop General Strength?
- Should Bodybuilders Test Their 1-Rep Max (1RM)?
- How Strong Should We Be?
- What’s a Respectable Amount of Strength?
What is General Strength?
General strength means different things to different people. Some people think of strength as simply being able to carry a few bags of groceries up the stairs, whereas other people think of general strength as being specific to how much we can squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single all-out repetition (1-rep max). Some people are primarily training to improve their general health and appearance, whereas other people want to be the strongest person they know.
I think one of the better ways to describe general strength is being able to lift heavy things through a large range of motion. If we have strength through a full range of motion in every major movement pattern, then we’ll be strong when we squat even deeper than powerlifters do, we’ll be strong when we lift more than a single repetition, and we’ll be strong on lifts that powerlifting doesn’t measure, such as the chin-up, overhead press, and even the humble biceps curl, making our strength much more versatility.
Speaking of the biceps curl, the other trap to avoid is thinking that only compound lifts develop general strength. That’s not the case. If you want to be able to carry something heavy in front of your body, lifts like the deadlift and front squat can be quite helpful, yes, but what about our biceps? Our biceps are often our limiting factor. And so how much we can curl is a good measure of our general strength, too.
The more narrowly we define our strength, the less versatile it represents. But then on the other hand, the more widely we define our strength, the harder it becomes to measure and improve.
The Link Between Muscle Size, Strength & Health
Our goal with Outlift (and Bony to Beastly and Bony to Bombshell) is to help people become bigger, stronger, healthier, and better looking. If we’re trying to improve in all of those areas, then we can define our general strength in a way that lines up with our other goals.
- What type of strength training yields the most muscle growth?
- Which type of strength training gives us the most versatile strength?
- Which type of strength best improves our health?
- Which type of strength training best improves our appearance?
The good news is that some of the main factors line up:
- Lifting free weights, whether that’s a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells, stimulate maximal amounts of muscle growth and strength gains while also challenging our cardiovascular fitness. Exercise machines and cables can be good for gaining muscle size and strength, too, mind you. The trick is that you choose the best lifts and engage both your stabilize muscles as well as your prime movers. So it’s not necessarily that free weights are better, just that they’re one of several different ways of gaining both muscle size and strength.
- The big compounds lifts, such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up all engage a ton of muscle mass and work those muscles through a large range of motion. That’s great for stimulating muscle growth, taxing our cardiovascular systems, and improving our general strength.
- Moderate rep ranges, such as doing 6–20 repetitions per set, are ideal for gaining muscle mass (study), great for challenging our cardiovascular systems, and good for improving our strength and work capacity. If we dip below 5 reps per set, it’s better for gaining specific 1-rep max strength, but we get less muscle growth (because there’s less total mechanical tension per set), we don’t develop the same work capacity (because less total weight is lifted per set), and our cardiovascular systems aren’t challenged to the same degree (because not as much work is being done). If we rise above 20–40 reps, though, our cardiovascular fitness can become the limiting factor, reducing our gains muscle size and strength.
- Some compound lifts are especially good for both strength and aesthetics. The front squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and chin-up, are great for developing our general strength and improving our aesthetics by bulking up our chests, shoulders, backs, biceps, traps, and triceps while also building a ton of core strength and stability. They make us look good because they make us look strong. And they make us look strong because they genuinely make us strong.
For the most part, training to build bigger muscles is an effective way of gaining general strength, and training to gain general strength is a good way of building bigger muscles.
How Strength & Aesthetics Diverge
However, there are some cases where general strength, health, and aesthetics diverge. For instance, a high-bar back squat is one of the very best lifts for improving our general strength and fitness, but has almost no impact on a man’s attractiveness (study). Male attractiveness is more strongly linked to our upper-body size and strength. So, for example, building bigger side delts give men broader shoulders, which looks great, but side-delt training isn’t an important aspect of our general strength—it’s not used in any major movement pattern—and the muscles are too small to have much of an impact on our overall body composition or fitness.
For women, different disparities emerge. Having muscular hips, shoulders, legs, and backs is great for developing general strength, improving health, and giving more of an hourglass physique. Adding in extra hip exercises to build bigger hips is perfectly healthy and further improves general strength, and seems to have a disproportionate effect on a woman’s attractiveness, so no contradiction there.
On the other hand, doing extra biceps training may not have a noticeable effect on a woman’s aesthetics. It would, however, make it much easier to carry things around in front of them, which is one of the most useful kinds of strength. The same is true with neck training. Building a more muscular neck is an important part of our general strength, especially since it helps to reduce concussive impact, but it probably wouldn’t improve a woman’s appearance.
Finally, for both men and women, most bodybuilding and strength training programs don’t include loaded carries, which are one of the most important aspects of our general strength. Being able to carry weight at our sides, in front of us, in a racked position, and overhead is one of the most important things we can train for. It’s not the best way to improve our muscle size or powerlifting strength, but I’d still argue that it’s an important part of a general strength program.
For the most part, becoming bigger and stronger will make us look better, especially if we can stay lean while doing it. There are disparities between general strength and aesthetics, absolutely, but they tend to be fairly minor. Some men might spend extra time building broader shoulders and some women might spend extra time building a bigger butt without caring how it affects their strength. But that’s fine. The foundation of their training can still have a strong overlap between muscle size, strength, and aesthetics.
How Well Does Powerlifting Develop General Strength?
Powerlifting does measure our strength. It doesn’t measure general, strength, though, it measures a specific type of strength. It measures our 1-rep max strength on three arbitrary lifts, and outside the sport of powerlifting, that probably isn’t the best way to measure our strength.
That’s not to say that the back squat, bench press, and deadlift aren’t great lifts. They are. It’s not to say that they don’t test several aspects of our strength. They do. And it’s not to say that 1-rep max strength doesn’t prove that someone is strong. It does. But there are other lifts, other rep ranges, and other measures of strength that are equally important.
For example, I’d argue that how much we can low-bar squat for a single repetition is slightly less indicative of “general strength” than how much we can front squat for ten reps. With a low-bar back squat, we’re in a bit of a weird position that’s designed to improve our leverage, we’re cutting the range of motion short (at legal powerlifting depth), and we’re trying to create a lot of overlap with the deadlift by sitting back into the lift, allowing us to more fully engage our glutes.
With a front squat, we’re using a more natural movement pattern that’s specifically designed to improve our general strength, we’re bearing around twice as much load with our spinal erectors (given the longer moment arms), we’re sinking far deeper, and we’re working our knees through a much larger range of motion. It’s also a more distinct movement from the conventional deadlift, allowing our two lifts to develop two distinct movement patterns instead of merging them both into one. As a result, I think for many people, the front squat is better for gaining muscle size, strength, fitness, and improving our appearance.
I’ve heard some people argue that the bench press is a less functional movement than the overhead press. But that’s not quite right. The bench press challenges our chest and shoulders at longer muscle lengths than the overhead press, making it better for stimulating muscle growth. It develops many of the same muscles, but it stimulates more growth in them, and so the bench press is quite a good way to improve our general strength in those muscles. However, the push-up does all of those same things, and it can be modified to use a larger range of motion (e.g. deficit push-ups) and can be loaded somewhat easily (such as by wearing a weighted vest or backpack). So the bench press isn’t the only way to get those benefits.
With that said, the overhead press develops core stability, strengthens our shoulders in a different range of motion, puts more emphasis on our shoulders and upper chest, and works our traps quite hard. It might not be better than the bench press, but there’s no reason to train it with any less fervour than the bench press. Both are important.
With the conventional deadlift, it’s hard to argue that it’s not an accurate measure of general strength. It measures how much weight we can pick up from the floor. And most powerlifters practice the deadlift with pretty stellar technique (especially when compared with strongmen, who have over twice the rate of deadlift injuries).
So this isn’t me saying that the Big Three powerlifting lifts aren’t a good way to measure strength. They are. It’s just that there’s more to it than that. Plus, testing our 1-rep maxes on the lifts is unnecessary for most people. There’s nothing magic about training specifically for 1-rep max strength instead of, say, 10-rep max strength. In fact, since training for 10-rep max strength would make it much easier to build muscle, I’d argue that it’s a faster way to develop general strength.
Finally, there’s no reason to favour barbells over dumbbells. Yes, barbells generally allow us to lift heavier, which can mean bearing greater loads with our spinal erectors, obliques, abs, tendons, and bones. That’s an important aspect of our general strength. But dumbbells make up for that disadvantage by requiring greater amounts of stability. There’s no reason to think that someone training with dumbbells would have less general strength than someone training with a barbell.
So, to summarize, strength training and powerlifting are both great for developing general strength, and the squat, bench press, and deadlift are some of the best compound lifts for measuring it. However, outside of the sport of powerlifting, there’s no need to pick those three specific lifts, to do them with a barbell, or to test our 1-rep max.
How Well Does Bodybuilding Develop General Strength?
A bigger muscle is a stronger one. In fact, research on powerlifters shows that the best predictor of muscle strength is muscle size (study). Similarly, research done on recreational lifters training at a university gym found that upper-body muscle strength predicts muscle size, which then predicts how attractive somebody’s body is rated. The stronger someone is, the more muscular they look, and the more attractive they’re rated (study).
Building bigger muscles is by far the best way to gain strength in those muscles. Most of us know that intuitively. But bodybuilders aren’t always able to lift as much as powerlifters. How can that be?
General strength is more than just the strength of our individual muscles. Having big biceps means that we have strong biceps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can carry a lot of weight. After all, even just to curl a barbell, we need to support that weight with our spinal erectors. If someone builds bigger biceps by dutifully doing machine biceps curls, they might not even have the general strength needed to do standing barbell curls.
If we expand this out to the big compound lifts, it’s easy to imagine how someone could have big muscles but be unable to lift very much. Someone might have big traps from doing shrugs, but if they use lifting straps, they might not have the grip strength to even hold the barbell in their hands. If their spinal erectors aren’t strong, they might not have the strength to pick that barbell up from the ground. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see guys with big muscles who can’t squat, deadlift, or bench press much weight. It’s not that their big muscles aren’t strong, it’s just that not all of their muscles are big enough.
However, this problem disappears if we root our training in the big compound lifts. If we do our deadlifts before our shrugs, our spinal erectors and grips get the work they need to grow bigger and stronger. If we do chin-ups and barbell curls before heading to the machine curl, then we don’t need to worry about our spinal erectors not being strong enough.
Besides, having big spinal erectors is an important part of building an attractive physique, both for men and women. They help us stand taller and straighter, and they make our torsos look thicker and stronger. As a result, most bodybuilders who know what they’re doing include lifts in their routines that are designed to bulk up their spinal erectors: deadlifts, barbell rows, good mornings, reverse hypers, and so on.
Bodybuilding is a great way to develop general strength, especially if the routine includes a variety of compound free weight lifts that train the various movement patterns through a full range of motion. If that’s being done, then building bigger muscles means gaining more general strength.
How Well Does Calisthenics Develop General Strength?
Yes, calisthenics is one of the better ways to train for general strength, especially when the workouts are designed for building muscle.
When compared against the other ways of training for general strength, calisthenics has some advantages and disadvantages. One the one hand, bodyweight training tends to engage quite a lot of muscle mass, the lifts have natural strength curves, and we’re quite strong at them, making it good for gaining muscle size and strength.
On the other hand, it can be hard to progress the lifts, some of the best lifts will eventually become too light (such as deficit push-ups), and some of the more advanced variations aren’t as good for gaining size and strength (such as one-arm push-ups).
The main limitation with calisthenics, though, is that it makes training some movements and muscle groups much harder. There’s no bodyweight movement that successfully mimics a heavy squat or deadlift. Yes, we can train our quads, hamstrings, and spinal erectors with bodyweight training, but it’s hard, and it doesn’t put the same load on our tendons or bones.
The best way to train for muscle size and general strength, then, is to combine the best of calisthenics with the best of barbell and dumbbell training. We can do deficit push-ups and bench presses, chin-ups and rows, barbell squats and pistol squats. And we can do deadlift variations. That’s not the only way to gain muscle size and strength, but it’s the most efficient and the most effective way.
Calisthenics, bodyweight training, and gymnastics are great for developing general strength, but just like powerlifters would be well served by adding in the chin-up, gymnasts tend to develop better general strength with the addition of free weights.
Should Bodybuilders Test Their 1-Rep Max (1RM)?
So, as we’ve covered, strength training, bodybuilding, and calisthenics can all be great ways to develop general strength. However, each different form of training has a different way of measuring that strength. If we measure strength via our 1-rep max (1RM), then people who do strength training will seem stronger than bodybuilders. But is that fair? Yes and no.
On the one hand, our 1RM is indeed a good measure of our maximal strength. The bigger our muscles are, the more force they can potentially produce, and so the more weight we can lift. Yes, there’s a neurological component to it as well, which is where strength training shines—we learn how to activate all of our motor units at once—but how much we can lift will still be determined by the size of the relevant muscles. This creates a strong link between our 1-rep max, our muscle size, and our general strength.
On the other hand, testing our 1-rep max can introduce a needless risk of injury, and it also means specializing in something we may not be interested in. Does the average bodybuilder want to spend a couple of months every year strength training so that he can test his 1-rep max? After all, he won’t be building very much muscle during those months. And is that worth the risk of getting an injury? Maybe not. Powerlifting isn’t very dangerous, but it’s quite a bit more dangerous than bodybuilding.
As a result, most bodybuilders will prefer to test their rep maxes (RM) instead of their 1-rep max (RM). For instance, if you typically do the bench press for sets of ten repetitions, then you can test your 10-rep max (10RM) to see how strong you are. And that 10RM will be a good indicator of your muscle size, general strength, and progress over time. Just as good as your 1RM, and likely quite a bit better, since that’s a test that you’ve been training for this entire time. What’s even better about measuring our strength using our preferred rep maxes, though, is that the test itself causes muscle and strength gains.
When we’re testing our 1RM, we’re interfering with our training. We’re introducing fatigue, injury risk, and spending time doing something that isn’t going to help us make any progress. So the more often we test our 1RM, the lower our progress becomes. When we test our 10RM, though, that set is ideal for stimulating muscle growth. The more often we test it, the faster we grow. And the more we grow, the stronger we get. There’s no downside to measuring our progress anymore.
Unless you’re a powerlifter, it’s probably better to measure your progress, muscle size, and general strength with rep maxes instead of 1-rep maxes. For instance, if you’re training for muscle size with a typical bodybuilding routine, you might want to test your 10-rep max instead.
How Strong Should We Be?
To be completely honest, most of us can develop a healthy amount of strength quite quickly. Within a year or two of serious weight training, most of us can be handling a barbell with a couple of weight plates on either side, doing dozens of push-ups, and doing a few chin-ups with a full range of motion. For our general health, that’s probably all we need.
There’s no reason to think that going from a 405-pound deadlift (4 plates) up to a 495-pound deadlift (5 plates) will improve our general health, but some people will spend a decade trying to do it. If we define general strength as useful or healthy strength, that might be overkill. We might be better served by doing more cardio.
What’s a Respectable Amount of Strength?
Sometimes it’s fun to get stronger than we need to. Sometimes we want to be impressively muscular or lift fearsome amounts of weight. That’s where general strength takes on a bit of a new meaning. We aren’t asking what type of strength is the most practical, we’re asking what type of strength is the most impressive.
This is quite subjective, but depending on who you ask, there are a few impressive lifts that a man can have:
- The bench press: if you can bench 225 pounds for a few reps, most people will find it respectable. If you can bench 315 pounds for a single rep, most men will be jealous. And your wife will probably want to post a video of it online.
- The squat: most people consider a 315-pound back squat to be respectable and a 415-pound back squat to be impressive. Front squats are less well known, but a 225-pound front squat is good, and a 315-pound front squat is great.
- The deadlift: most people consider a 405-pound deadlift to be respectable and a 495-pound deadlift to be impressive. Some people are more impressed by conventional deadlifts because it requires more back strength.
- The overhead press: doing reps with 135 pounds on the bar is respectable. Lifting 185 for reps or 225 for a single is impressive.
- The chin-up: doing 15 bodyweight chin-ups is respectable. Being able to do reps with 100 extra pounds is impressive. So is being able to do a chin-up with one arm.
- The barbell curl: most people won’t care about how much you curl until you can curl 135 pounds, at which point it becomes incredibly impressive.
For women, there are some other feats of strength that tend to crop up:
- Push-ups: being able to do 10 decent push-ups is respectable, and if you can do 20 push-ups with a full range of motion, it’s impressive.
- Chin-ups: being able to do 1–3 chin-ups through a full range of motion is respectable, and being able to do 5–10 chin-ups is incredibly impressive.
- Squat: being able to squat 135 through a full range of motion for reps is respectable, and being able to squat 225 for a single rep is quite impressive.
- Deadlift: being able to do moderate-rep sets with 135 pounds is respectable, and being able to lift 225 pounds for a rep or two is impressive.
Do we need to be impressively strong to keep ourselves in good health, have an attractive physique, and have enough strength to go about our lives? No. But it’s still cool.
Making our muscles bigger is the best way to make them stronger, training in moderate rep ranges is the easiest way to build bigger muscles, and we don’t need to train in low rep ranges to develop general strength. Our 1-rep max is no more indicative of our general strength than our 10-rep max. That means that some aspects of bodybuilding are quite good for developing general strength.
But it’s not enough. Practicing the big compound lifts is crucial for developing the muscles that we need to be generally strong, such as our spinal erectors. Progressive overload is an important part of consistently gaining both muscle size and strength. And free weights tend to do the best job of developing strength that translates to everything we do. That’s why strength training brings a lot to the table.
Calisthenics can be good for developing general strength, too, especially in our upper backs and biceps. The two main bodyweight exercises, push-ups and chin-ups, rival the very best strength training lifts. If our goal is to become bigger and stronger, they’re worthy additions to our bulking routines.
The good news is that none of this is mutually exclusive. We can build our workout routines around big compound lifts, such as the squat, deadlift, bench press/push-up, overhead press, and chin-up. We can lift in moderate rep ranges to build muscle mass and improve our work capacity. And we can focus on gradually growing stronger, always fighting to outlift our past selves.
If you can lift a lot of weight on a well-rounded selection of big compound free-weight lifts, you’ll be generally strong. Feel free to test your 1-rep max, 5-rep max, or 10-rep max. It doesn’t matter. Both low and moderate rep ranges measure general strength. The same goes for the specific lifts you choose. We favour the “Big Five” hypertrophy lifts, but you can choose lifts that suit your body and your goals.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. If you liked this article, I think you’d love our full programs.