Strength Defined

Today I have a guest blog post from Bret Contreras, the brains behind the awesome new training program called 2×4. As someone who trains hard and strives to get stronger but isn’t involved in powerlifting, I really like how Bret appreciates strength in different forms. I think/hope you’ll like it, too. With that, I’ll turn it over to Bret.


Confession time. I love my squats, bench press, and deadlifts. Having competed in two powerlifting competitions, I can say with confidence that there are few things as exhilarating for a lifter as setting a PR on the platform. That said, I’ve never agreed with the powerlifting mantra that lists the three powerlifts as the ultimate three exercises in existence, with every other lift being relegated to the category of assistance/accessory exercises. It all depends on the goal, and many lifters just want to look and feel good.

After spending more than two decades in the gym, I’m quite confident in my ability to identify feats of strength. In fact, when I conjure up images of feats of strength in my mind, I realize that the defining factor is simply whether or not it impresses me. I can be impressed by absolute strength or relative strength, and I certainly take anthropometry, age, and gender into consideration. Moreover, I’m equally impressed with sets of 3 reps, 5 reps, 10 reps, and 20 reps as I am with maximal singles. Some lifts can be conducive to maximal singles, whereas other lifts are conducive only to moderate and higher reps.

Here are 20 things that impress me in the gym:

• A maximum deadlift (conventional or sumo) with 2.5X bodyweight barbell load or more
• A maximum parallel squat with 2X bodyweight barbell load or more
• A maximum pause bench press with 1.5X bodyweight barbell load or more
• A maximum strict military press with bodyweight barbell load or more
• A maximum power clean with 1.3X bodyweight barbell load or more
• A maximum strict chin up with .5X additional bodyweight or more
• 1 or more strict Nordic ham curls with bodyweight (no arm assistance)
• 5 or more reps in the Bulgarian split squat with bodyweight barbell load
• 5 or more reps in the hip thrust with 2X bodyweight barbell load
• 5 or more parallel front squat with 1.5X bodyweight barbell load
• 5 or more reps in the dip with .6X bodyweight additional load
• 5 or more reps in the close grip bench with 1.3X bodyweight barbell load
• 5 or more reps in the incline press with 1.2X bodyweight barbell load
• 5 or more reps in the Pendlay row with .9X bodyweight barbell load
• 10 or more reps in the one arm row with .5X bodyweight dumbbell load
• 10 or more reps in the barbell curl with .6X bodyweight barbell load
• 10 or more reps in the leg press with 4X bodyweight load
• 10 or more reps in the 45-degree hyper with .5X bodyweight dumbbell load
• 20 or more feet elevated inverted rows with bodyweight
• 50 or more strict push ups with bodyweight

For a 200 lb male lifter, this equates to a 500 lb deadlift, 400 lb squat, 300 lb bench press, 200 lb military press, 260 lb power clean, 100 lb chin up, bodyweight Nordic ham curl, 200 x 5 Bulgarian split squat, 400 x 5 hip thrust, 300 x 5 front squat, 120 x 5 dip, 260 x 5 close grip bench, 240 x 5 incline press, 180 x 5 Pendlay row, 100 x 10 one arm row, 110 x 10 barbell curl, 800 x 10 leg press, 100 x 10 45-degree hyper, bodyweight x 20 feet elevated inverted row, and bodyweight x 50 push up.

As you can see, there are many ways to demonstrate strength and pull off impressive feats in the weight room. The various exercises will transfer over to one another, so building one lift will improve another lift, which will improve another, and so on. Furthermore, working on various pulling and pushing movements for the lower and upper halves keeps the body in balance, so variety is a good thing. However, we can’t perform each and every lift week in and week out or we will overtrain and spin our wheels. Therefore, we must be selective with our exercises and prioritize the lifts that work best for our bodies.

Not everyone is built for heavy barbell squatting, deadlifting, and benching, but nearly everyone can perform movements that are similar in nature to these lifts. Let’s say that a lifter pushed him/herself hard week in and week out on solely single leg exercises for the lower body and solely dumbbells for the upper body. Guess what? He or she would see amazing results over time in terms of both strength and physique improvements.

If you are gradually gaining strength without compromising good technique on a handful of movements that combine to work the entire body, then your program is working for you. But if your strength is stagnant, your joints constantly ache, or your physique hasn’t improved in months, then it’s probably time to switch things up. Many roads lead to strength gains, so don’t get pigeonholed into one approach if it’s not panning out. Experiment to find what works best for your anatomy and physiology.

FYI: Bret’s new 2 x 4 product was just released today and is currently on sale for a limited time. I checked it out and the program is fantastic. He’s put a lot of time into the program both in terms of writing it and testing it, and he actually used it to help him finally break the 600-lb barrier in the deadlift. It’s a 14-week plan that integrates heavy strength work along with special submaximal training and assistance work, and the program will get you familiar with your indicators of progress and various personal records on key lifts. Bret’s guinea pigs saw huge gains on the program, especially the deadlift (and you know I love me some deadlifts).

What I especially liked is that the program can be modified based on your preferences. If you want to build powerlifting-specific strength, you can go that route, and if you want to build strength in other lifts such as single leg, dumbbell, or posterior chain exercises, which is more my speed, then you can go that route too. There’s also a whole section on safe exercise substitutions if you can’t do any exercises in the program for whatever reason, which I really like.

In addition, I feel that the bonus products that come with the gold package are top notch. In fact, I actually think they’re probably the best part of the product if I’m being really honest. The biomechanics of the squat and deadlift document will teach you how to analyze technique so you can make better training decisions, and the glute tips document portrays some pretty fascinating data from Bret’s lab. I learned a lot from the bonus products and it was my favorite part of the program. I highly recommend getting the gold package and feel that you’ll be very happy with the resource. I think Bret could have charged way more for this product and still had happy customers, but since he didn’t, consider yourself lucky and get it while the gettin’s good.

You can read more about the product and everything that comes with it HERE.