So at some point in the training game someone threw out the idea that a 300 pound bench, 400 pound squat and 500 pound deadlift would get most people fairly close to their genetic maximum in terms of muscle mass. And while I can’t say who came up with this initially, I do know that Stuart McRobert of Hardgainer magazine certainly popularized it.
But whenever these values are thrown around, a number of questions tend to come up. The first is that in powerlifting competition, it’s not uncommon to see people squat more than they deadlift. Or, well, it was at one point. Which I’ll come back to. Of course everybody knows someone at their gym who benches more than they squat or deadlift but that’s a separate issue. There are also a couple of dumb strawman argument ideas that show up.
What’s going on? Let’s find out.
Defining the Specifics
So the idea here is that if the general trainee is able to get their bench press to 300 lbs, their squat to 400 lbs and their deadlift to 500 lbs, that will likely take them close to or to their genetic potential for muscle mass.
Now, first and foremost, don’t get too hung up on the numbers. I suspect they were chosen mostly for convenience, at least in terms of the specific values. It certain looks better than the metric conversions which would be the exceedingly useful values of 136, 181 and 227 kg which just look messy. But this was an American idea for American lifters. So it had to be kept simple.
To be honest, I’d personally argue that the 300, 400, 500 doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of how lifters count plates. That is, American lifters tend to think in terms of 25 and 45 pound plates. Everything else is change to us. So poundage increments that matter go 135, 185, 225, 275, 315, 365, 405, etc. One wheel per side, one wheel plus one 25 per side, two wheels per side, etc. That’s just how American lifters think.
Frankly, values of 315, 405 and 495 which is 3, 4 and 5 plates per side respectively would make much more sense. But those aren’t nice round numbers that look as pleasing to the eye as 300, 400, 500 where you get a nice ascending 3,4,5 with the zeroes. And a 495 pound deadlift is just annoying as hell since it’s a mere 2.5 pound plate per side off of 500. Instead, 500 lbs is 5 plates PLUS AN EENSEY WEENSY PLATE on each side.
Now we can (and people do) quibble about the exact numbers and clearly that’s missing the point. Why 300? Why not 325? Or 335. Because stop being stupid is why. The idea is not that exactly a 300 lb bench, 400 lb squat and 500 lb deadlift will get you to your genetic limits. The idea is that lifts in those ranges will.
One big criticism by people is that they are too modest of goals, that even thinking in those terms will hold people back. Others will point out how many surpass those values. I’ll come back to this near the end since there are some other assumptions built into them.
Assumptions About the 300, 400, 500 Values
Beyond the specific numbers, the pattern is what is important here, bench is lower than squat which is lower than deadlift. What should be obvious is that this assumes equal work are being put into each lift. Clearly the typical gym lifter who benches every day and can’t even locate the squat rack (or who puts nothing more than token work into the squat or deadlift) may bench way more than they squat. But that’s not what we’re really talking about.
There are also assumptions being made about the form that is being used. For the bench, it’s assumed that the bar is being controlled and no more than a touch and go bench is being done. I don’t recall if a pause was required but the guy heave-hoing the weight and using his sternum as a trampoline and a “It’s all you” spot doesn’t qualify here.
The squat is assumed to be below parallel. Lots of guys move huge weights in a 1/4 squat. If they didn’t sink it, it doesn’t count. The guy partial squatting is likely to have a much bigger squat than his deadlift. But that doesn’t matter here either.
Deadlifts are a lot harder to cheat on in this fashion although I guess we could get twisted over ramping or hitching. But the guys who get away with shenanigans on the bench and squat can’t do it on the deadlift. When they get tested for real, they usually fail.
An assumption that doesn’t get brought up often enough has to do with height and weight. The 300, 400, 500 values assume a lifter who is roughly 5’9″ to 5’10” (~1.8 m) and 190-200 pounds (~90kg). Smaller lifters would be expected to hit lower values and bigger lifters bigger values.
But for this ~200 lb lifter, the numbers would equate to a 1.5Xbodyweight bench, 2Xbodyweight squat and 2.5Xbody weight deadlift. By the various strength standards you can find online, that qualifies as an advanced strength level. No, it’s not elite but not all lifters can make an elite standard because then an elite standard wouldn’t be terribly elite.
If you further assume that those lifts are being done for more than one rep, that would be consistent with someone achieving their maximum genetic muscular potential. Someone benching 315 for 5 to 8 reps is gonna have a big chest, probably as close to as big as it will get.
Note: the value clearly do not apply to women and it’s hard to translate them. Due to differences in women’s general distribution of upper and lower body musculature and strength, you often more variable differentials in the lifts.
Let’s Talk About Powerlifting
So with those assumptions in mind let’s address the powerlifting issue. Certainly here, under some circumstances, it seems that squat numbers are higher than deadlift numbers with the numerical pattern being bench, deadlift squat in terms of poundages lifed. But there are a few issues at work here.
Geared vs. Raw Powerlifting
No, I am not getting into the debate over geared versus raw lifting. However, I think a lot of the idea that the squat is higher than the deadlift in competition comes from geared competition. Factually the squat responds much better to equipment than the deadlift. Consider that the first 1000 pound squat was done decade ago while the first 1000 pound deadlift is relatively recent. Shirts got so crazy that I seem to recall a 1000 lb bench at one point. And that happened before a 1000 lb deadlift.
Consider that Ed Coan, possibly the greatest to ever touch a barbell squatting over 1000 but “only” pulled 900 lbs. And I’d say it was gear related. Even better deadlift suits just don’t seem to help that lift as much as squat or bench suits.
To this I’d add that there are a lot of powerlifting federations and, factually, a lot of them pass high squats. By high I mean not to the classical definition of depth which is crease of the hip below the knee. Back in my day partial squats were called bullshit, not world records.
Yes, yes, it takes balls to even bring out 1200 lbs on your back, I’m not dismissing that. But using an ultra wide stance out of a mono lift and getting credit for what is at most is a 1/4 squat cannot be compared to what Coan, Hatfield or others did walking the weight out and hitting legal depth. Hell, here’s Karwoski doing 1000X2 and he’s well below parallel on both.
To that I’d add that the original 300,400,500 numbers were meant to be done in individual workouts. In powerlifting, the deadlift comes at the end of a very long day after squats (which tire the legs) and bench (which can fatigue the upper body).
The point being that when you look at geared powerlifting/goofy depth stuff, squat numbers get elevated far above what you’d see in a raw federation or when strict depth is required. And keep in mind the assumptions about technique I described above. The squat must be below parallel.
That said, the above fails to hold true when you start looking at RAW powerlifting. Both in terms of competition results and world records, the deadlift is almost always higher than the squat in terms of poundages. How much higher may vary of course.
Different biomechanics play a role and deadlifts are still being done at the end of a long day. But the deadlift numbers are always higher than the squat with the bench being the lowest. For example here is every weight class in the women’s 40-44 age class in USPA (and I choose this one because my lifter Sumi Singh holds state records in two weight classes).
In every class, the deadlift numbers are higher than the squat which is higher than the bench. Yes, fine you will occasionally see the bizarre blip where someone squats more than they deadlift. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m saying that it’s generally unusual in RAW meets.
And if you think about it in terms of what I’ve discussed, this makes sense. If you take gear out of the equation, where squat gets a bigger boost, and mandate a below parallel squat, the deadlift almost has to be higher based on biomechanics alone.
Having to go below parallel in the squat takes the lifter through a big sticking point that above parallel squats don’t hit. The deadlift always starts with the hips higher than that position. So you have to be able to move more weight. It would take something truly bizarre to lift less weight in a movement that avoids the sticking point compared to one that takes you through it.
In fact, some lifters with horrid mechanics can have deadlifts that are just insanely out of proportion to their squat. My lifter Sumi is a perfect example. She has insanely long femurs which limits her squat. But she can deadlift the absolute world. The poundage differential in her maxes is over 100 lbs at this point.
So I think the powerlifting example doesn’t really apply here. The gear issue, the squat depth issue and the fact that all three lifts are done on the same day all impact the numbers and don’t really apply to how the original values were being described.
Even with all of that, it’s clear that most of this may just be the gear. In RAW powerlifting, with so few exceptions as to be meaningless, the deadlift is always higher than the squat. On biomechanics alone it sort of has to be. So even if the exact number relationships don’t hold, the pattern of bench, squat, deadlift in terms of ascending poundages certainly does.
Aren’t the 300,400,500 Values Too Low/Limiting?
There are two other major criticisms that tend to get brought up against the 300, 400, 500 squat, bench, deadlift numbers. I’ll describe each and then give an easy example to dismiss both.
The first is that they are too low. Or rather, that it’s easy to find people who do more than that. Usually in powerlifting competition. So if you look at the USPA men’s tested state records for Texas, the 90 kg records are a 584 squat, 363 bench and 677 deadlift (squat and bench being held by the same guy). So it’s in the realm of 400, 600, 700 except that the deadlift is held by a different dude.
Well keep in mind that this is the best lifter in Texas so he’s not representative of the majority. Records always select for elite freak athletes who have some characteristic that makes them great. And you can’t apply that to the average lifter or what they might achieve. It’s like the FFMI debate. Yeah, you can find a handful of lifters who get past a value of 25 but roughly 99% of guys busting their ass won’t even get close. The exceptions prove that the rule is a good one.
The second issue is that even thinking in terms of specific values is limiting. Or that the values are somehow meant to be holy writ. And neither is true. The 300, 400, 500 values were never meant to be exact numbers, minimums or maximums for each lift.
Rather, they were simply suggested as good long-term goals for natural lifters to try to achieve. And they happened to be nice round numbers that were roughly reflective of real world goals of 315, 405, 495 for Americans who think in 45 pound plate increments.
Some lifters might never get there while others might surpass those values by large amounts. For some lifiters, they might be better suited to one lift than the other and get a different distribution. That’s all missing the forest for the trees.
The point is that:
- If the average lifter focuses their training on progressive tension overload and works up to benching, 300, squatting 400 and deadlifting 500
- Does so under specific technical conditions (i.e. no bounce on bench, depth on the squat)
- Does those lifts for repetitions
They will probably get close to achieving their maximum muscular potential.
Nothing more and nothing less is being said.
Let’s Reality Check the Values
And some people reading this still won’t agree that these numbers are good goals or whatever.
I want you to ask yourself the following question:
At a bodyweight of 190-200 lbs how many legitimate 315 pound benches have you seen? I mean controlling the weight, touching the chest and pressing with no bounce, no spot, and keeping the hips down. How many have you legitimately seen done?
What about a 405 lb squat that was walked out, sunk below parallel and driven to extension without any help? How many have you seen with your own eyes?
Finally, with no hitching or ramping, how many legitimate 495 deadlifts have you ever seen done?
Again, this is for a lifter at 190-200 lbs.
Unless you train at a hardcore powerlifting gym (where the above weights may be considered warm-up weights), I’m willing to bet the number ranges from zero to maybe one or two. Fine, you’ve seen big boys weighing 250 bench 315 like it was nothing. Maybe you’ve seen them do the squat or deadlift.
But we’re not talking about monstrously heavy guys.
But at 190-200 lbs, how many have you seen do those numbers in anything approximating decent form? Again, I bet the number ranges from zero to a couple at best. And maybe that will make you reconsider any attitudes you have about those numbers and whether or not they are limiting.
Or perhaps it will make you consider that maybe they do represent pretty damn good long-term goals for the average natural trainee. Because factually most people you have ever seen train aren’t even close.