I’ve churned through over 150,000 emails, social media comments and messages, and blog comments in the last 6 years.
And that means I’ve fielded a ton of questions.
As you can imagine, some questions pop up more often than others, and I thought it might be helpful to take a little time every month to choose a few and record and share my answers.
So, in this round, I answer the following question:
- Being an intermediate lifter, how fast should I progress on the bench press, squat, deadlift, and overhead press when lean bulking?
If you have a question you’d like me to answer, leave a comment below or if you want a faster response, send an email to [email protected].
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7:43 – What are good strength targets for natural weightlifters?
9:57 – What are reasonable strength goals for women?
11:02 – How do you get as strong as possible?
13:30 – What does strength gain look like year to year?
17:41 – Why do strength and muscle gain progress so similarly?
Mentioned on the Show:
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Hey, Mike Matthews here and welcome to another episode of Muscle for Life. Thank you for joining me today. Now, as you can imagine, I have fielded a lot of communication and a lot of questions over the years. I’ve easily gone through over 200,000 emails, social media comments and messages and blog comments since I got into the fitness racket back in 2012.
Some questions pop up more often than others, and some are very topical. Sometimes they are related to things that a lot of people are talking about, and so I thought it would be helpful to take some time on the podcast now and then and answer questions that people are asking me. Ones that I think all of you out there may benefit from or may enjoy as.
So in this episode, I am going to answer the following question, being an intermediate lifter, how fast should I progress on the bench squats, deadlift, and overhead press? When lean bulking, and this is strength by the way, the person was asking about strength gain. How quickly should they be gaining strength not gaining muscle?
And I’m gonna talk about that topic a little bit more broadly, not just lean bulking, but just in general. Again, once your newbie gains are behind you, How quickly should you be gaining strength? What is good, for example, what means that you’re doing the most important things? Mostly right, most of the time.
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All right, so the first thing you should know is that just like muscle gain, strength gain slows down a lot as you become more experienced. So your average dude, for example, he can gain probably about 15 pounds of muscle. Maybe as high as 20 pounds in his first year. A very high responder may be able to do 25, but 15 to 20 means that you responded well and you probably did.
Again, the most important things pretty well. You don’t ever have to be perfect, but you have to be consistent. and you have to focus on the most important things. You have to focus on your energy balance and eating enough protein, and you have to focus on progressive overload and getting enough rest and recovery and so forth.
And so year one, average guy, 15 to 20 pounds of muscle. For a woman, you can cut that in half. Year two, you can cut those numbers in half. So if your average guy does a good job in his second year, he’s looking at probably 10 to 12 pounds of muscle gain, and your average woman can gain about half of that in her second year.
And it basically just haves year. After a year until you reach the vanishing point, until you’re gaining so little muscle that you really can’t even measure it. Now you’re talking about gaining grams of muscle over the course of a month or two months, and maybe you’re getting up to one pound for an entire year, which is like where I’m at, for example.
I’ve gained, let’s see, I started I’m six two and I started lifting when I was 17 or 18, so I’m not sure if I was done growing. Point, but I was certainly at least six feet tall then, so I weighed 155 pounds and I was probably like, I don’t know, 13% body fat. I played a lot of hockey, so I just looked like a, I didn’t look as skinny as you might think, cuz my weight has always been strangely low.
But I just looked like a normal kind of athletic dude who didn’t lift, basically. And now I weigh 1 93 1. Four, I’m around 10%, maybe a little bit leaner. I fluctuate probably between, eh, maybe eight and 10 or nine and 11%. And so I’ve gained, a solid 40 ish pounds of muscle, probably a little bit more when you figure in the reduction in body fat.
So let’s just call it 45 ish pounds of muscle. Since, since I started lifting. And a number of models based on good research have shown that’s about it as far as a natural weightlift. Goes most guys are not going to be able to gain more than 40 to 50 pounds of muscle no matter what they do, no matter how long they train for.
And so I’m at that point where I’m really, I’ve tapped out my genetics, I’ve tapped out also my. Anatomy. My bones, for example, are not very big. I’ve never been a big person. And there’s research that shows there is a direct correlation between the total amount of bone mass. Really you can look at its surface area, bone surface area in your body and the amount of muscle that you can gain.
So people who are big bone. Are capable of getting bigger and stronger generally than people who are smaller bone. So I’m a smaller bone person. My wrists are about six inches around. For example, I can wrap my middle finger and my thumb around the smallest point of my wrist and easily touch them together.
Like with, a little bit of space, I can actually overlap them a little bit. So I was not made to be a big and strong guy, and I’ve gotten pretty big and strong. Given the hardware that I was born with. And as far as strength goes, what is the ceiling for most guys? And for most women, by the way total potential muscle gain, again, is about half that of men.
So your average woman is gonna probably be able to gain maybe 25 ish pounds, 20 to 25 ish pounds of muscle. And that’s about it now. Your average woman doesn’t want to gain more than that, probably doesn’t even want to gain as much as that per se. Most of the women I’ve worked with over the years are looking to gain, at least the look that they want is probably 15 to 20 pounds of muscle in the right places in their body, a lot more in their lower body than their upper body and a low.
Her body fat percentage, maybe 20 ish is the athletic look that most women, again, I’ve worked with over the years but some women like to look a bit fitter than that, and they do like to push it a bit further. And they do like to have that extra five pounds of muscle, for example, which doesn’t make them look bulky or jacked.
It just makes them look a little bit more jacked than somebody with 20 pounds of muscle. And so anyways, now let’s talk about strength. A. Target for natural weightlifters to shoot for, and this is men is 3, 4, 5, think three plates on the bench. This is one rep max, by the way. So 3 15, 1 rep max on the bench.
Four plates on the squat, so that’s a 4 0 5, 1 rep max on the squat. And five plates, one rep max on the deadlift, or 4 95. Now for women, that obviously is not feasible. While most men will be able to. To those numbers. And it’s gonna take probably at least five years, cuz it takes about five years to gain all the muscle that you can gain and you can continue gaining strength after that.
And of course you do continue to gain small amounts of muscle after that. But again, it becomes so small that you basically can’t even measure it, at least on a week to week for sure. But not even really a month to month basis. Maybe a year to year or like a quarter to quarter. Six months to six months maybe.
And with the small amount of muscle gain comes a little bit more strength, a little bit more potential for strength. You could think of it that way. And there isn’t any direct research on this that I know of. But considering the research that I have looked at on a lot of different things related to gaining muscle and strength and a lot of the anecdotal evidence out there, I think it’s reasonable to say that your average weightlifter can continue getting stronger probably up until.
Maybe 10 years or so. And then beyond that, again, the progress is gonna be so slow that it is only gonna be able to be measured over the course of many months. And I’m talking, working six months to 10, maybe even 12 months to gain or to add five to eight, to maybe 10 pounds on a big lift.
So very slow progress and eventually the progress becomes even slower than that. And that’s just the reality. It’s. Something that many people like to hear. It’s not popular, but it is the truth and a lot of people don’t talk about it because they’re on drugs, and that allows them to continue gaining a lot more muscle and a lot more strength consistently 15, 20 years into training than the rest of us mere mortals.
Now as far as strength goals for women it’s not as clear from the data that I’ve seen as it is with men, but I think some reasonable standards to shoot for is probably mid one hundreds, one rep max on the bench. So let’s call it one forty five to 1 65 and then mid to high, two hundreds on the squat.
So let’s call it one rep max of two 50 to two 70. And probably a little bit more on the deadlift. Probably high twos to low threes on the deadlift. One rep max. So let’s think 2 95 to three 15. And of course there are women out there who can get stronger. And of course there are men out there naturally who can beat the 3, 4, 5.
But again, I’m just talking about middle of the curve here, middle of the distribution, probably 60 to 70% of people who get into weight lifting. Are not going to be able to exceed those numbers by any large amount, and it’s going to take many years to reach those numbers. Okay, so those are the targets, those are the finish lines.
Now what does it take to get there? How does that process look? We know that it takes 5, 6, 7, 8 years maybe is. Maybe as many as 10 years for some people at least to get there on certain lifts. Some people progress faster on the bench press versus the squat versus the deadlift and vice versa, for example.
It’s rare that people will progress equally fast on all of them just because of our analogies. For example, I have long legs, long femurs and that means that squatting has always been difficult for. And I’ve progressed fairly slowly on my squat. I’ve reached high threes, onem never broke into the fours, but got close and I’m getting back there.
I may be able to do that within the next six to eight months, and so that was difficult. Bench pressing has been difficult for me because I have abnormally long arms, and so I did reach three 15 onem, but it took probably. It took too many years because the first seven years of weightlifting, I didn’t know what I was doing, but then it took another four, four years or so on top of the seven of proper weightlift to get to three 15 and my ha, I had to get my body weight up to about 2 0 5 and on the deadlift I got to mid fours, and then I hurt my SI joint.
Not a major injury, but enough to. Make me not be able to deadlift for a few weeks, or I have to kinda start back over with low weight. And I was sick of lean bulking at the, at that point, so I was like, Yeah, I’m just gonna cut and get lean. And of course that doesn’t that, that means no more strength in muscle gain when you’re, when you are an advanced weightlifter.
And now my deadlift one m is about four 60 to four 70, so I’m getting. Close to an absolute one room if not already there. But what’s cool is I weigh 1 93, 1 94. Now I weigh quite a bit less. So in terms of relative strength, I am at an all time high. But again, it took a fair amount of time for me to get there.
But the deadlift is something I was able to progress faster on than the squat and the bench because while my long legs work against me in the deadlift, my even disproportionately longer arms work for me. Cuz of course it just shortens the range of motion, shortens the amount of. Distance the bar has to travel.
And so I was able to do decently on the deadlift, probably just normal progress, honestly. And then I had abnormally slow progress on the squat and bench. And so that’s the overall journey. 5, 6, 7, 8 years for most people. But what does it look like from year to year? It actually. Mirrors muscle gain very closely.
Meaning that in your first year, for example, of training, if you do a good job and you respond well, you are going to gain about half of the muscle that you are going to gain over the course of your lifetime. Remember, think back to 20 ish pounds of muscle for the average guy and. First year, about half of that for the average woman and about 40, 45, maybe 50 over the course of his lifetime.
So about half of your gains come in year one. And the same seems to hold true for strength. And so in the case of the average guy, we’re talking about getting to about the midway mark on the 3, 4, 5. So somewhere in the mid to maybe high-ish 100 s. Bench and somewhere in the low to maybe mid two hundreds, and I’m talking about one s here on the squat, and then eh, mid two hundreds or so on the deadlift.
And for women, then that becomes, call it 60 to 80 pounds, one m on the bench press and eh one 20 to probably 1 41 M on the squat and a little bit higher maybe. 40 to one 60 onem on the deadlift. Those are reasonable numbers to strive for in your first year. Now, let’s talk about the second year, and now you are officially an intermediate weightlifter, by the way, by most models, including Mark RTOs model.
Your novice phase takes you through 12 months. So once you’re in your second year, you are now an intermediate weightlift. Now interestingly, what the models show reposes and others is that your average weightlifter will be able to gain about half of the strength in his second year that he gained in his first year.
And that’s in terms of absolute pounds added to the bar on the big exercises. So for instance, if a guy. Goes from, let’s say 90 pounds, one m on the bench press when he starts, and then by the end of the first year, he’s at 150 pounds, maybe 140 pounds. So he’s added 50, 60 pounds to the bar. In his second year, he’ll probably be able to add.
Another 30 to 40 pounds to the bar on that exercise, and the same proportions apply to the other exercises. So let’s say a guy starts with maybe a hundred pound one RM on the squat, and by the end of his first year, He’s probably high one hundreds at this point, and maybe even low two hundreds, so that’s obviously a big jump.
He’s basically doubled his strength. By the end of his second year, going into his third year, he’ll probably be in the mid two hundreds now. He’ll probably have added anywhere from 40 to 60 pounds to that onem. And the same goes for women. The numbers are just smaller. So in the case of your average woman, let’s say, starting on the bench press, and she may only be able to bench the bar, she may not even be able to bench the bar.
She may have to start with dumbbells. That’s common at least with a lot of the women I’ve worked with and interacted with over the years. And of course, she quickly gained strength and let’s say that she can get up to a 70 or 80 pound onem again. 40, 50 pound increase on her one RM by the end of year one.
Then her intermediate phase begins, and over the course of the next year, she’ll probably be able to gain about half of the amount of strength on that lift. So let’s say adding 20 ish pounds. To her one RM on the bench press, and then moving into her third year. This is like the end of the intermediate phase and the beginning of the advanced phase.
She’ll probably be able to add about half of that, so maybe 10 to 15 pounds on her bench. And it basically just haves like that year after year until again, you are struggling just to add five pounds to the bar over the course of six months. And yes, it does eventually get there. Now you may be wondering why strength and muscle gain progress so similarly, why you basically can just have your gains year after year until they are so vanishingly small, you’re not gaining really anything anymore.
And the reason is very simple. The relationship between muscularity and strength becomes very pronounced as. Become a more experienced weightlifter. So in the beginning you can actually gain a fair amount of strength without gaining much muscle at all. That’s been shown in research because you are getting better at the exercises, you are getting better at firing your muscles properly.
Your neuro muscular system is learning to do this better, but that only lasts really a few months. Now if you’re trying to become a competitive weightlift sure you could be working on your form years into it and still making slight tweaks that help you add two and a half pounds to the bar, for example.
But for most of us, as far as our absolute performance is concerned, we are going to acquire all of the skill that we need to express our genetic potential for strength. At least 95% of it, probably within the first six months or so. Maybe. Eight to 10 months. And then after that, if we are going to get stronger, we are going to have to get bigger.
It is just that simple. We are going to have to gain muscle to gain strength and unfortunately no amount of fancy diets or training protocols or supplements can change that. If you want to keep getting stronger, you have to keep getting bigger because ultimately, Muscle is what drives strength. There’s a reason why the strongest people in the gym are almost always the biggest people in the gym.
Of course, you have your outliers who have very interesting and weightlifting friendly anatomies that allow them to lift a lot more weight than you would think just looking at them. But generally speaking, the strongest people are the biggest people, and. Chances are you don’t have those anatomical advantages because most people don’t.
I don’t have any anatomical advantages. And so then what we have to do is we just have to grind and keep on gaining small amounts of muscle, which allow us to gain small amounts of strength. You could think of the muscle that you gain as potential for strength. So if all you did was train in higher rep ranges, for example, you certainly can gain muscle.
But if you were to plug in your numbers, let’s say on the squat you do just eights and tens, and you were to go plug in what you can do in a one rep max calculator, and then go load the bar with let’s say 95% of that and try to do a set of two. If you don’t regularly do heavy. Training. If you haven’t calibrated your muscles to the heavy training, so to speak, you almost certainly are not going to be able to do it.
But you have the potential, you have the muscular potential for it. You just have to now train for strength. And that’s one of the many reasons why I think that all intermediates and advanced weightlifters should be periodizing. Their training should be training in different rep ranges. And if you wanna learn more about that, just check out.
Beyond bigger, leaner, stronger. It is for intermediate and advanced trainees, and it has a program, of course, a periodized program, but it also talks about the theory of why, and it gives a lot of practical tips if you wanna do your own programming. And obviously it is geared toward men beyond bigger, leaner, stronger, but women can learn a lot from it as well.
And I would say that by the end, Book, you will know enough to make changes to the program. You’ll probably just wanna reduce the upper body volume and increase the lower body volume, and you can do that fairly easily. If you have any trouble with it, you can always email me, Mike, at most for life.com, and I’m happy to help you.
And yes, I will do a Beyond Thinner, Leaner, Stronger. It’s on the list. I’m actually looking forward to doing it, but I just can’t do it yet because my next book is. Going to be with Simon and Schuster. It’s called Muscle for Life, and it’s specifically for middle aged people, men and women, and specifically for people very new to all of this.
People who may not be able to go right into bigger, Lean Stronger, or Thinni Lean Stronger, they need an on ramp. And so Muscle for Life is going to be that on Ramp and that’s coming out in January. And part of my agreement with Simon and Schuster is I cannot self-publish anything until six months after Muscle for Life is out.
So I have to wait. I’m not sure exactly which book I’m gonna self-publish first. I have a couple of manuscripts, more or less ready to go, but thin, Beyond Thin, linear, Stronger will happen. It needs to happen. A lot of women are asking for it, and again, I’m excited to do it. I just have to. Fit it in. So anyway, I think I have given enough of an answer to this question.
I hope you found it helpful. I could talk about some other things that impact how quickly or slowly you gain strength, but really they are just the things that impact how quickly or slowly you gain muscle. For example, if you spend too many months out of the year cutting, you are not going to gain nearly as much strength as if you had spent a lot of that time lean gaining.
But of course, that’s the same with muscle. You are not going to gain very much muscle as an intermediate or advanced weightlifter if you are in a calorie deficit six to eight months out of the year. If you really wanted to maximize muscle gain, you’d have to flip that around. You’d have to try to make sure that you are lean, gaining six to eight months out of the year, and then maybe cutting the remaining of the time just to make sure you don’t get too fat.
And of course, it wouldn’t have to be six to eight months of lean, gaining straight, followed by cutting. Instead, what I would recommend is splitting that up probably. Two cycles. So trying to, let’s say lean gain for four to five months, followed by maybe a month or two of cutting, and then just do that again.
That’s how I would go about it. And so if you do that, you are going to gain a lot more muscle. And a lot more strength than again, if you, by the end of the year, have spent six to eight or even maybe 10 months in a deficit. And so the same thing would go for any of the other major factors that influence muscle gain.
How much protein are you eating? Are you being good on that front? How is your rest and recovery? Are you getting enough sleep? How is your training? Programmed, Are you pushing for progressive overload? Are you actually trying to get stronger or are you just going through the motions, and so on and so forth.
Again, if you want to learn more about all of that, just check out beyond bigger, leaner, stronger I think you’ll really like it. I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.
And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have. Ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share. Shoot me an email, mike muscle for life.com, muscle f or life.com and let me know what I could do better or just what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.
I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you.