It’s pretty normal to wonder how we stack up against the average guy when it comes to muscular strength. Are we weaker or stronger?
In late 2018 the CDC published a document called the “National Health Statistics Reports: Number 122” on the average body in the USA. The latest statistics were from 2015–2016, and the average male between the ages of 20 and 39 was:
- 176 cm in height (5’8 feet tall)
- 89.3 kg in weight (197 pounds heavy)
- 98 cm waist circumference (38.5″ waist)
That would put the “average” guy in the USA with a BMI at 30—not just overweight, but at the entry-level of obese (class 1). (Want to see a visualization? Here’s a 3D model mock-up using slightly older data in an article by the Atlantic.)
Wait, the average young American guy is obese?
It’s pretty scary, to be honest. The average guy being obese is a big problem. Mayo Clinic puts it this way:
Obesity is a complex disorder involving an excessive amount of body fat. Obesity isn’t just a cosmetic concern. It increases your risk of diseases and health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
So, how strong is the “average” guy?
So, we know what the “average” guy looks like. But, unfortunately, we don’t how strong he is.
The Washington Post wrote an article detailing research showing that young millennial men are weaker than young men were in 1985.
Millenials today, aged 20-34, could only grip with 98 pounds of force. In 1985, the average young man could grip 117 pounds of force. That’s a 16% drop in strength in just a few decades.
So while we don’t know how strong the average guy is today—at least we know that we as men today are weaker than we used to be…
(Can you imagine how your grandfather would have scored in his heyday?)
On a side note, Canadian men of the same age scored a bit better with their grip strength averaged out at 48.5 kg (107 pounds.) This is likely due to us having to squeeze the maple trees really hard to get the syrup out.
Can we guess someone’s strength using their grip strength?
Studies are conflicting as to whether grip strength can be used to estimate someone’s total muscular strength. For example, in this 2011 study found that grip strength is a good predictor—meaning that it correlates a bit— someone’s strength and their endurance. (study)
And in this 2006 study on weightlifters, they found that grip strength was a helpful variable when determining someone’s power and potential.
But this 2009 study found that grip strength wasn’t good enough for an accurate prediction for upper body strength. They took American college football players and tested their grip and their one-rep max of the bench press, and found that grip strength did not reliably predict their bench press strength.
Just for kicks, the college football players had an average:
- bench press of 124kg (273 pounds)
- grip strength of 57kg (126 pounds)
These football players were about 29% stronger than the average guy when it came to grip strength (and 8% stronger than the average guy in 1985.)
What can a push-up tell us about the average man’s strength?
There was an article in the Atlantic covering a 2019 study about firefighters, push-ups, and their cardio health. Why the push-up? It’s designed to give you a snapshot of health, like the grip strength tests, but it could be better since it can give us an idea of the person’s whole body capacity since it works the entire body at once.
The more push-ups you could do? The chances are you had lower blood pressure, triglycerides, and blood sugar. You also likely had better cholesterol levels and weren’t a smoker.
In the study, it said if you could do 40 push-ups you were at a much lower risk of a cardiovascular event (heart attack, stroke, etc.) compared to those who could only do 10 push-ups or less. (study)
But here’s the reason I bring this up. The Atlantic included an interview with a researcher at the Mayo Clinic, Dr Michael Joyner. He research mainly focuses on the physiology of elite athletes, blood flow, and heart disease.
And here’s what he was quoted in saying to the Atlantic:
Granted, Joyner and other experts I heard from estimated that the number of Americans who can do a single push-up is likely only about 20 or 30 percent. But that’s an issue of practice more than destiny. “Most people could get to the point of doing 30 or 40—unless they have a shoulder problem or are really obese,” Joyner says.
No, that’s not a typo. The experts interviewed in this field estimated that only 20–30 percent of people could do a push-up (but that those people could radically improve their capacity.)
Can you do a push-up? Apparently, that likely makes you stronger than average.
A survey of 1800 guys gives us a (high) target
While we still don’t how strong the average guy is, we can look at this survey for how strong a beginner might be who’s interested in strength training. The survey was put together by Stronger by Science. (An incredible website ran by Greg Nuckols who has a B Sc in exercise & sports science—well worth your time visiting.)
He sent out a survey asking both men and women for information about how long they’ve been training, how much weight they could lift, etc. to get an idea of how rapidly you could build strength so people could set realistic goals.
Let me quote Greg here:
The men training for less than 3 months, on average, squatted 102kg (225lbs), and the men training for between 3 and 6 months squatted 132kg (290lbs) on average. Assuming similarity between those groups, this means you can expect to gain about 9-10kg (~20lbs) per month on your squat in your first ~6 months in the gym (and likely even faster at first).
The men training for less than 3 months, on average, benched 85kg (185-190lbs), and the men training for between 3 and 6 months benched 96kg (210lbs) on average, for a difference of about 3.4kg (7-8lbs) per month.
The men training for less than 3 months, on average, deadlifted 130kg (285lbs), and the men training for between 3 and 6 months deadlifted 165kg (365lbs) on average, for a difference of about 11.5kg (25lbs) per month.
So, those new to lifting weights who answered his survey could:
- Bench press: 85kg (187 pounds)
- Squat: 102kg (225 pounds)
- Deadlift: 130kg (285 pounds)
Those numbers seem super high
Greg admitted that those weights seem heavy for beginners, and we’d agree. He suspected those who were weaker to begin with may have chosen not to answer the survey.
I’d add that you’d have to be exceptionally savvy to have visited his website and to be subscribed to his newsletter. While the Stronger by Science website is well known in the industry, it’s not like they’re pitching millions of people every night at 12am on TV 😉 The guys on his list would first have to be actively interested in getting bigger and stronger and searching out an answer online. Doesn’t seem to fit the idea of a total beginner who’s untrained.
Anyways, I think it’s safe to say that if you can do a one-rep max (1RM) bench press with 185 pounds, squat with 225 pounds, and deadlift with 285 pounds—well, I’d bet you’re much, much stronger than the average guy.
“Average” will likely feel different depending on where you live
I lived in the west-end of Toronto for many years—where all the artists, hipsters, and young professionals live (like the Canadian version of Brooklyn or Austin.) Most people around me seemed lean, young, fit, and fairly strong looking.
And then it’d flip when I’d go to a rural town. Recently at a get-together out in the country, I was told by an obese person that I was “skinny.” Things are relative for everyone, and for some, I’m “skinny” because I’m skinny compared to them, even though I’m at the higher-end of healthy BMI for my weight and height (from muscle.)
At a couple commercial gyms I visited, it was obvious that many guys there were on performance-enhancing drugs. If I hung out there all day, I might start to get the idea that every guy had 18″ arms and was on a cocktail of drugs.
So, where you spend a lot of time can definitely influence what you see as normal or “average.”
This is even true when it comes down to states, as there are fitter and stronger states compared to others. The CDC published a report in 2014 detailing what percentage of people were meeting their guidelines on physical activity (both aerobic and strength.)
To meet the guideline, participants needed to do at least 150 minutes of aerobic work over the week and “muscle-strengthening” activities at least twice a week.
Colorado (27.3%), D.C.(26.3%), and Alaska (25%) scored highest for having a lot of fit and strong people living there. Arizona and California were just edged out of the top tier, both around 24%. The lowest score was tied between Tennessee and West Virginia at 12%.
While we don’t know exactly how strong the average guy is, we do have hints of an answer.
- The average guy between the ages of 20–39 in the USA is:
- 5’8 in height
- 197 pounds in weight
- 30 in BMI (Class 1 Obese)
- US men aged between 20–34 can grip 98 pounds of force.
- 98 pounds of grip strength is a 16% drop from what young men were capable of in 1985
- Canadian men of the same age can grip 107 pounds of force
- A small sample of American college football players showed they could grip 126 pounds of force
- Self-reported beginners to lifting weights said they could:
- Bench press: 85kg (187 pounds)
- Squat: 102kg (225 pounds)
- Deadlift: 130kg (285 pounds)
- Keep in mind that these guys were subscribed to the newsletter of a scientific strength website and probably don’t represent the average guy.
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