“My upper body is so weak compared to my lower body.” It’s a comment we hear from new clients all of the time, particularly women. While it’s true that women tend to excel more with lower body exercises, your upper body isn’t designed to be as strong as your legs anyway. That’s why when gym goers get the question “how much can you lift” from their non gymming counterparts, the question seems a bit odd. Each exercise in the gym uses different muscles, leverages, and angles, which means not all lifts are created equal. Today we’re going to rank the strong to weakest lifts in the gym.
The deadlift typically represents the strongest human movement. Occasionally, someone may squat more than they deadlift, but it’s not common. There are some versions of Powerlifting where the athletes wear special suits that help them lift more weight. The technology is much more advanced in the squat suits, so in that style of competition, seeing people squat more than they deadlift is common. They haven’t yet figured out how to make a suit to help you deadlift as much.
Muscles worked: Hamstrings, glutes, low back, lats, traps, biceps, forearms
2. Back Squat
The back squat is often considered “the king of all exercises,” although some people believe that title belongs to the deadlift. Both are near the limit of human strength. If the deadlift is 100% of your strength potential, the squat is 85-95%. The squat has an extra element of badassery, and that is the mental fortitude it takes to sit down with hundreds of pounds on your back. If you can’t lift a deadlift you simply place the bar back to the floor. If you squat down and can’t stand back up….you better hope you have a good spotter!
Muscles worked: Calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, low back, core.
3. Front Squat
The front squat is like the back squat, only the barbell is racked on the chest instead of on the traps. Because of this, the athlete must maintain a much more upright torso, which takes away the lifting power of the low back. Even though athletes can still lift huge weights in the front squat, it’s never as much as in the back squat. While the back squat and deadlift are competition lifts in the sport of Powerlifting, front squats are not contested in any strength sports, and are seen as an “accessory exercise.”
Muscles worked: Calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, upper back, core.
4. Bench Press
The bench press, the most popular exercise of all time. No one really knows why the general populace views this as the measure of strength, as you can’t lift poundage nearly as big as in the top 3. The bench press is also the king of the “ego lifts” as gym bros around the world spend hours upon hours training their chest on the bench press. Some may argue that the bench press should be behind cleans on this list, but the truth is, there are a lot more people out there benching 300 or even 400lbs than those out there doing that weight in cleans. Perhaps that’s because the bench press takes less skill, but either way, I put it number 4 because of its prevalence.
Muscles worked: Chest, shoulders, triceps, lats
Cleans have a large technical component, but once you become proficient at the technique, you can lift big weights. If your technique is good enough, you may be able to clean as much as 90% of your front squat or more! At first glance the clean looks a lot like a deadlift and a front squat put together, but it requires more speed, timing and agility than the other two, which limits the weight. The clean is part of competition in the sport of Weightlifting, so you may find a lot of Weightlifters that can clean more than they can bench, and the inverse would be true for Powerlifters.
Muscles worked: hamstrings, glutes, low back, quads, traps, shoulders, forearms, core.
The jerk follows the clean in Weightlifting competition as part of a 2 phase event, hence the name “clean & jerk.” It’s been said that the jerk separates the champions from the rest in competition. It’s true that more jerks are missed in competition than cleans or snatches. It’s also common to see collegiate football players cleaning big weights in training, but you hardly ever see videos of anyone outside of the sport of Weightlifting jerking really big weights. With that said, even with a small amount of instruction, you can get someone putting some impressive weights over their head.
Muscles worked: Quads, core, shoulders, triceps, traps, upper back
Most people walking into a gym for the first time can’t do a pull-up, but usually after 3-6 months of good training all but the heaviest trainees can manage a handful. While it’s rare to see people doing weighted pull-ups, if you consider that you are lifting your entire body weight, this puts the pull-up in the top ten. I coach 15 year old boys who weigh 150lbs and can muster 5-6 pull-ups, but struggle to do the same on bench press. While long term your benching potential is greater, the pull-up deserves to be on the list.
Muscles worked: Forearms, biceps, shoulders, lats, traps, core
8. Push Press
The Push press is the cousin of the jerk. You begin by dipping your knees and exploding upward overhead. In the jerk your body drops lower as the bar goes up. In the push press you stay tall all the way after the dip. Some might argue that the push press should be higher than the pull-up, but then I think of the multiple clients I have who can do 2 or more pull-ups, but would struggle to push press their body weight even once.
Muscles worked: Forearms, shoulders, chest, core, quads
The barbell snatch starts with the bar on the floor, and finishes with the bar overhead, getting there by one swift movement. Like the clean & jerk, this is part of Weightlifting competition and is known as ‘the fastest movement in strength sports” taking from 1.5-2 seconds to perform. While the snatch may be one of the most technical exercises on this list, it’s still a strong movement once the technique is understood. You’re not going to find many people snatching at your local globo gym, but it’s staple in Weightlifting gyms, CrossFits, and other strength & conditioning facilities for athletes.
Muscles worked: Forearms, traps, upper back, lats, low back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, shoulders, triceps
10. Military Press
Much like the push press and the jerk, the military press, also known as a “strict press” starts with the bar at the chest, and finishes with it overhead, but this time, the legs are not involved at all. Formerly this was part of Weightlifting competition, it was eventually eliminated in 1972 because of the extreme angle competitors would lean back at to recruit more pec. While some of the poundage the older timers like Norbert Schemansky and Jim Bradford would lift were insane, in general, most people struggle with the military press, come in somewhere between 65-75% of the bench press.
Muscles worked: Chest, shoulders, triceps, traps, core
The Big Guns
This is not an exhaustive. Each one of the exercises listed has dozens of variations, some of which allow the athlete to move a LOT more weight. Some of the variations reduce the range of motion and are left off of this list because they are considered “partial lifts.” Really old school strength athletes will tell you that unless a weight goes over your head, the weight is not truly lifted! Even if you have a strong upper body and relatively weak lower body, you’re still going to squat more than you military press. That’s simply a result of mechanics of the human body. Happy lifting!