How Strong is ‘Strong’?

Written by:

Damect Dominguez

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At the 2009 CrossFit Games, Miko Salo, the overall winner and 2009’s ‘Fittest Man on Earth’, placed 9th in the max snatch event with a lift of 190. Jeff Leonard finished the max snatch in 1st with a lift of 240lbs. Fast-forward to the 2014 CrossFit Games Regionals and you’ll note that in almost every region, the top ten male athletes all snatched, from the hang position none the less, at least 245lbs. Although Weightlifting is not a test of strength alone, those results do contribute to the idea that what we consider ‘strong’ is an ever-evolving concept. The CrossFit Journal defines strength as “the ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.” We would all like to be stronger athletes. However, it is important to keep in mind that strength is relative. You may be the strongest person in your family, but not the strongest at your box. If you’re the strongest at your box, you may not be the strongest in your region, and so on. You may have considered yourself strong when you first started training, but after adding 50lbs to your squat, you now look back at your former self and question that. You can compare your level of strength against your friends, family, your fellow box athletes or even, and probably most importantly, your own standards.

There are many ways in which one can define strength, or identify someone that is strong, but for the purpose of this article, we will seek to define strength comparatively through the worlds of CrossFit and powerlifting. Why these two sports? Well, powerlifters are renowned for their ability to move astronomical amounts of weight in the three lifts that they compete in—the bench press, deadlift and back squat. To be a successful powerlifter, you certainly have to be strong. As for CrossFit, it goes without saying that this is the sport that we are heavily involved in—so we recognize the level of strength the elite CrossFitters must possess in order to make it to the Games.

So, what does it mean to be ‘strong’ in CrossFit and powerlifting?

Powerlifting Strong

One way in which we can define strength in these sports is by looking at the statistics of the athletes that compete in them. Let’s take a few raw powerlifting records as an example (when powerlifters compete ‘raw’, it means that they use no specialized gear to help them lift—no bench shirts, squat suits or lifting wraps):

Statistics taken from

Powerlifting total (back squat, deadlift and bench press)

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Bodyweight (lbs)       Total (lbs)      Name
181                             1,708              John Haack
198                             1,899              Jesse Norris
220                             1,868              Krzysztof Wierzbicki

Bodyweight (lbs)       Total (lbs)      Name
132                             1,045              Jennifer Thompson
148                             1,181              Kimberly Walford
165                             1,262              Taylar Stallings

You may be looking at these numbers, adding up your own powerlifting total, finding that you are some ways behind. So does this mean that you are ‘not strong’? Not necessarily—it may just simply mean you are not as strong as these particular powerlifters; they are record-holders after all.

USA Powerlifting (USAPL) lists the National Qualifying totals for each respective weight class on their website—these are the minimum weights an athlete must hit if they hope to compete in a USAPL National Meet in 2015. One could say that in the powerlifting world, these are the numbers you must hit to meet their minimum definition of ‘strong’.


So, in this example, a 182lb 25-year-old male athlete who lifts 360lbs in the squat, 430 in the deadlift and 275 in the bench (total=1065) would meet USA Powerlifting’s minimum requirements (1013lb total vs 1065lb total).

CrossFit Strong

But what about strength in CrossFit? Let’s look at the numbers of Camille Leblanc Bazinet and Rich Froning as examples:

Weight: 130lbs
Back Squat (as of August 2014): 320lbs
Deadlift: 300lbs

Weight: 195lbs
Back Squat: 445lbs
Deadlift: 545lbs

So now that we have defined what it means to be strong—in the context of certain movements in CrossFit—we can go about seeing how strong we are in relation to these athletes. One way to do that is by simply comparing your numbers with the athletes of the Games, but that doesn’t take into account how strong someone may be relative to an athlete that is heavier (or lighter) than you are. Is there a way to evaluate how strong you are while taking this aspect into consideration?

Yep—it’s called the Wilks Formula.

The Wilks Formula

Also known as The Wilks Coefficient, the Wilks Formula is…well…a formula that is used in powerlifting contests to measure the strength of two lifters that are in different weight classes. In powerlifting competitions, three lifts are tested—the back squat, bench press, and deadlift. While certain competitions may award individual victories for a single lift, most competitions award podium places to competitors who lift the highest combined weight from the three movements. Where two lifters in a class achieve the same combined total lifted weight the lighter lifter is determined the winner.

The Wilks Formula comes into play when comparing and determining overall champions across different weight classes and categories. Essentially, it seeks to establish a number to determine a lifter’s strength regardless of body weight, thus allowing one lifter to be classified as stronger than another—if they are in two different weight classes. For example, in most instances heavier lifters will be able to squat more weight than lighter lifters—but does that mean that they are stronger than them? Perhaps, but more often than not it has to do with the lifter’s mass, not their overall strength. On the flip side, lighter powerlifters are considered to have far higher strength-to-weight ratios than their heavier counterparts, due to the nature of the skeletal system, the shorter leverages of smaller people and a number of other scientific reasons. The Wilks Formula seeks to create a level playing field between heavier lifters—who tend to have a greater amount of absolute strength—and lighter lifters—who tend to lift more weight in relation to their own bodyweight.

The formula itself is rather complex (see it here), but thankfully there is a nifty calculator online that will allow you to enter in your own bodyweight and weight lifted for one of the three lifts (bench press, back squat or deadlift) so that you can find your own ‘true strength’ number—thus allowing you to compare yourself to the best power lifters and CrossFitters out there (in those lifts, remember).

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So, let’s test this out! I want to see how close I am in terms of a true strength number to some of the strongest CrossFitters out there. First, let’s find the Wilks Points for these athletes, using the back squat as our lift:

Rich Froning
Weight: 88.45kg/195lbs
Back Squat: 201.8kg/445lbs
Wilks Points: 130.03

Camille Leblanc-Bazinet
Weight: 58.9kg/130lbs
Back Squat (as of August 2014): 145.15kg/320lbs
Wilks Points: 164.02

Now let’s see where I stand, according to the Wilks Formula:

Weight: 81kg/180lbs
Back Squat: 151.9kg/335lbs
Wilks Formula Number: 102.8

So, for the back squat, I received a score of 102.8, based on my body weight and my current one rep max. If I want to be considered to be as strong as Froning, I’d have to lift in the vicinity of 418lbs—more than double my bodyweight and 83lbs more than I can currently lift.

In the end, remember that strength is relative. It is important that we each define what being ‘strong’ means to us; Is it reaching a certain number on the back squat? Is it moving from scaled to RX? Maybe it’s getting one strict push-up or pull-up. Whatever it is, define it, chase it and conquer it!

Photo courtesy of /CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

About Damect Dominguez

Co-founder of BoxLife Magazine. Author: Training Day: 400+ Workouts to Incorporate in Your Training.

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