Bench, squat, deadlift, 300, 400, 500 – Q&A

Question: I’ve seen it suggested that good lifts for a natural lifter are a 300 pound bench, 400 pound squat and 500 pound deadlift and that these types of numbers will take someone pretty close to their genetic maximum.  But I have a question, whenever I look at powerlifting results, it always seems that the squat is higher than the deadlift.   Of course, most guys in my gym can bench more than they squat or deadlift.   What’s going on, are the numbers above wrong or is it something else?

Answer: While I’m not 100% certain where those values come from, it’s probably safe to say that Stuart McRobert and the folks who contribute to Hardgainer magazine have done the most to promote them as good goals for natural lifters.  But, as you point out, occasionally you can find instances where the numbers don’t seem to pass the reality check, usually where the squat exceeds the deadlift.

Part of this is due to some of the assumptions going into those numbers.  First and foremost realize that that exact numbers are easy to get hung up on but were probably chosen as much for convenience as anything.  People like round numbers and 300, 400, 500 has some nice ascending round numbery symmetry to it.

It certainly looks better to most than the Metric conversion (the exceedingly useful values of 136, 181 and 227 kg which just look messy).  I’d argue that, for someone using pounds anyhow, using 45 lb divisions makes more sense.    A 315 bench, 405 squat and 495 deadlift (respectively 3, 4 and 5 plates per side) makes more sense since that’s how pound using lifters think.  But doesn’t look as clean as 300, 400, 500 (the 495 deadlift is especially irritating since it’s only a baby plate per side off of 500 lbs).

But beyond that the pattern is what’s really important here, the idea is that bench is lower than squat which is lower than the deadlift.  Assumed in that pattern, mind you, is that equal work is given to each lift.  Clearly a typical gym lifter who benches 8 times per week and doesn’t know where the squat rack is (or puts nothing more than token work into their squat or deadlift) may bench way more than they squat or deadlift.  It’s really not a relevant example though.  It’s outside of the parameters of what’s being discussed.

Also assumed is something about the form being used: at least a controlled bench (I don’t recall if the bench required a pause), a below parallel squat and something approximating decent deadlift form are all being assumed here.  A guy doing a heave-ho off the chest bounced bench press with a ‘I just touched it’ spot or a 1/8th squat may very well have completely screwy relationships poundage-wise.  Deadlifts are harder to cheat for a variety of reasons so guys that get away with shenanigans on bench or squat get tested for real with deads; and they usually fail.  But that’s outside of the parameters of the values as well; assumed is certain form on each.

The powerlifting example is a bit different and worthy of some analysis.  Certainly here, under certain circumstances, squat results do sometimes exceed the deadlift in competition and this seems to run contrary to the 3,4,5 recommendation or the idea that you should see an increase from bench to squat to deadlift.  But there are a few issues at work here.

The first is equipment.  By and large, the squat responds to equipment better than the deadlift (consider that the first 1000 pound squat was done decades ago, the first 1000 pound deadlifts only recently); even recent deadlift gear doesn’t seem to give the same benefit that squat gear has given for a couple of decades.

As well, many federations nowadays are passing squats that, well…I don’t want to get into this argument about depth or whatever because it will just get stupid in the comments.   Let’s just say that partial squats used to be considered crap, not record setting.  Make no mistake, I’m as impressed as anyone with a guy with the balls to take 1200 out of a monolift.  But don’t squat part way down out of a Monolift and pretend it’s equivalent to what Coan or Hatfield did walking it out and hitting depth.  Olympic lifters may not be able to ‘squat the Sunday paper’ but they can sure go below parallel.

The point being that between gear and federation/squat depth issues, there is some elevation of squat numbers far above what you’d see raw/below parallel which is what the original values are assuming.  And when you combine that with the general lack of deadlift gear (and the limiting factor of grip) which has kept deadlift numbers down a bit, the numbers can get skewed and put squat numbers above the deadlift.

Finally is the fact that, again so far as I can tell, the original 3,4,5 recommendations were meant to be done in separate workouts.  They were just long-term goals to be done at some point in one’s career.  In contrast, in a powerlifting meet, the deadlift is done at the end of a long day after squats (which tire the legs) and bench (which can fatigue the upper body).

So deadlift poundages are often lowered compared to what can be done fresh in the gym (tangentially this is a reason for lifters to occasionally train all three lifts in the same workout, to see how squatting and benching first can impact on their deadlifts so they don’t get surprised some meet day).

But even with that, if you look at RAW powerlifting records, almost without exception the deadlift is higher than the squat.  How much higher can vary (again, keep in mind that deads are being done at the end of what can be a very long day) but higher nonetheless.  For example, here are the USAPL Raw records for juniors aged 20-23.

With the exception of an odd blip in the superheavyweight class, the deadlift records are always higher than the squat records.  If you looked at individual meet results, this would almost universally be the case with the occasional exception where someone did less in the deadlift than they did on the squats.  It’s not impossible for someone to squat more than the deadlift, it’s simply unusual given what I’ve talked about above.

And if you think about what I’ve discussed, assumption of a below parallel squat and something approximating a normal deadlift (again, a lift hard to cheat on) it’s pretty inconceivable that the squat would be higher based on the biomechanics of the two lifts.  Having to go below parallel takes lifter through the big sticking point (which varies significantly depending on the mechanics of the lifter), deadlifts invariably start with the hips above that.

Some lifters with horrid mechanics can have deadlifts just insanely out of proportion to their squat since they don’t have to get the weight through their personally awful sticking point.  It would take a really unusual situation (such as gear, or a stunningly weak upper back and even that would tend to limit squats) for someone to lift less in a lift that avoids their sticking point than in a lift that requires they move through it.

So the powerlifting example doesn’t necessarily apply.  Between the gear issue, differences in squat depth judging and the fact that all three lifts are done on the same day the results don’t really apply to how the original values were being advocated. Squat below parallel, bench with a brief pause (or at least no bounce), a true deadlift off the floor, done in individual workouts with equal attention paid to each.   It would be a rare lifter indeed who didn’t deadlift more than they squatted and squatted more than they benched.

Also keep in mind that the values aren’t meant to be holy writ, minimums or maximums.  Rather, they were always only posited as good long-term goals for natural lifters.  If you think about the number of truly legitimate 300 pound benches, 400 pound squats or 500 pound deadlifts you’ve seen in the average commercial gym, a number probably ranging from zero to a few (if you train in a powerlifting gym, the above may be considered ‘light’ weights) among average lifters of average size, you can see that they probably do represent some good long-term goals.

I should mention that some assumptions about bodyweight are also being made here.  The values assume a lifter who is 5’9-5″10 weighing 190-200 (bigger boys would be expected to do more, smaller guys less) so the numbers correspond to a 1.5 BW bench, double BW squat and 2.5 BW deadlift which are fairly advanced lifts (consistent with the idea that they will take most lifters near their maximum muscular potential).  And the values don’t apply to females, especially as they often see a bigger differential between upper and lower body lift poundages for various reasons I’m not going into here.