I remember Dan John writing an article along these lines a few years back. Dan is an extremely good writer, experienced coach, former elite athlete, and a very wise man. Long story short, he’s worth listening to.
He used his checklist to identify weak links and limiting factors. He said that, if you are unable to complete some of the challenges on the list then, they are the things you need to work on. Fixing these issues will enhance other aspects of your training and physique.
To quote Dan,
“Focus on what you need to do, not necessarily on what you want to do. That’s the secret to strength training success.”
This approach to strength training has many similarities to Charles Poliquin’s (another legend of the lifting game), structural balance.
The concept of structural balance is that you develop the ideal ratio of strength and mobility from left to right, front to back, upper to lower body, pushing to pulling, and in the stabilising musculature surrounding joints.
By being structurally balanced you reduce injury risk and have the foundation in place to build your strongest and most muscular physique.
So, inspired by these two gym gods, I began to think through what essential criteria a lifter should be able to pass. This led me to the following list.
On the list, each point has three components:
- The standard you should be striving for
- The gatekeeper exercise(s) which will lay the foundations for the standard to be met. These are like pre-requisites
- How to achieve structural balance on the related muscles/exercises
#1 Bench Your Bodyweight
Being able to bench your body weight is a training rite of passage.
If you consider yourself an intermediate lifter you should be able to do this. Think you are advanced? You should be able to do at least 1.25 x body weight to even consider yourself advanced. A 1.5 x body weight target is a realistic, but extremely challenging goal for most lifters to strive for long-term.
Gatekeeper exercise: Before touching the barbell bench press, I recommend you become proficient at push-ups. The qualifying standard to start bench pressing is 20 perfect, full range push-ups.
Structural Balance: DB Bench Press – You should be able to handle at least 80% of your barbell weight when combining the weight of the two dumbbells. So, if you can bench 100kg for 6 reps, you should be able to do at least 40kg per hand for 6 on DB bench press.
Pressing exercises tend to develop the internal rotators. As a result, strengthening the opposing, external rotators is wise. This will preserve shoulder health. With that in mind maintaining at least a 1:1 ratio of pushing to pulling exercises is smart.
If you have historically, done more pressing than pulling, I suggest you switch to a 2:1 ratio in favour of pulling to catch up. To fully develop the back muscles needed to improve posture and shoulder health I’d make this a 2:1, 2:1 ratio. That is, do 2 sets of pulling for every set of pushing and 2 sets of horizontal rowing for every set of vertical pulling.
Finally, do some dedicated isolation work for your external rotators. The standard established by Charles Poliquin was 9% of your bench press max for 8 reps.
#2 Front Squat Your Body Weight for 6 Reps
Honestly, 6 is good, but 8 is better…but the key point is you should be strong enough to perform multiple reps with body weight on this lift.
I like the front squat because almost everyone can hit good depth with them.
They are also self-limiting when it comes to form. If you lean forward too much because your legs can’t drive you up and you’re relying on your back then you’ll dump the bar in front of you. In a back squat, however, it’s possible to grind out a back-breaking rep using an ugly Goodmorning-Squat hybrid movement which boosts your ego but, potentially bulges a disk out of your back!
Gatekeeper exercise: Goblet Squat for 20 reps holding a DB that weighs 50% of your bodyweight. This exercise drills good squatting mechanics and having the capacity to punch out 20 reps with 50% of your body weight earns you the right to begin loading up a barbell for front squats.
Structural Balance: Develop your strength in split squats. For more info on this see the section on RFESS below.
#3 Deadlift Double Bodyweight
This is one of Dan John’s standards and I agree.
The deadlift works almost every muscle in your body. It is also a “true” test of strength as you can’t use momentum to help lift the weight.
A strong deadlift improves your grip, thickens up your back, builds traps, and packs some meat on your hamstrings, and glutes.
It also makes you more useful in day to day tasks. Need to move some furniture? The strength developed for a 2 x bodyweight deadlift will come in very handy!
Gatekeeper exercise(s): For most people, training the deadlift more than once a week is too fatiguing once they get close to the strength levels required for a 2 x bodyweight lift. So, at this point you should build your deadlift by strengthening the key muscle groups using other lifts the rest of the time.
Need more grip strength? Pull-ups, and heavy rows will help.
Need to increase the horse power in your quads and the ability to maintain whole body tension?
Front or back squats will help.
Need to refine the hip hinge pattern? KB swings and Romanian Deadlifts will help.
Do all of these exercises across the course of the week. Then, just once per week, load a barbell up heavy, reach down and pick it up.
Structural Balance: Hitting all the lifts listed in the gatekeeper section and increasing your strength on them will go a long way.
Another exercise that will help develop your posterior chain and build your deadlift is the 45-degree hip extension. I particularly like the single leg version of this for structural balance. I wrote a whole article on it here.
#4 Hold a 2 mins Plank, and a 60 seconds Side Plank
These standards are straight out of the school of Dr Stuart McGill (one of the world’s foremost back experts).
To quote/put words in the mouth of Dr Mcgill,
“If you can’t hold a 2 mins plank then either you are obese or your ab training sucks!”
Planks aren’t sexy. Nobody asks how long you can plank for, but having the basic strength to hold a plank (with good form!) for 2 mins protects against back injury. In fact, it is correlated with a significant reduction in your risk of lower back injury.
Note.You don’t have to always hold planks for this length of time. You just need to be capable of doing it. In your training, you’d be better served by doing shorter, more intense variations of planks to challenge your core musculature.
Gatekeeper Exercise: Planks and side planks are both gatekeeper exercises in themselves. Meeting the standards on each one will improve your other lifts and reduce injury risk. So, if you cannot meet the standards yet, simply train these exercises and build up the time you can hold each position until the standards ae met.
Structural Balance: McGill has his “Big 3” core exercises. These are:
- Curl Up
- Side Plank
- Bird Dog
Train these to build a rock-solid core. To complete your core training, I’d add in some heavy loaded carries, which leads me on to…
#5 Farmers Walk with your bodyweight for 30m
Dan John, Charles, Poliquin, and Stuart McGill are all fans of the plank. Both Christian Thibaudeau (top strength coach and fitness writer) and Dr John Rusin (world renowned therapist & strength coach) are also big fans of loaded carries.
Carrying heavy objects is a fundamental lifting pattern and one of the most effective core workouts you can do. They create a synergy of strength in your core allowing for greater force production. They build work capacity, can fix weak links, and reduce injury risk. Doing them packs muscle on to your upper back, traps, and forearms, and improves grip strength.
A pretty compelling argument to do them, right?!
A decent standard for every lifter is to be able to hold half their bodyweight in each hand and walk for 30m. Every intermediate lifter should be able to do this. If you want to be a badass, aim to do your bodyweight in each hand!
Gatekeeper exercise (s): High-rep (8-12 reps in this case) trap bar deadlifts build the strength to pick heavy farmers walks handles up off the floor and builds the grip strength needed to hang on. Aim for 1.5 x bodyweight for 8-12 touch and go reps. Waiters walks and front rack walks help to develop the ability to brace and create tension through the core while walking that will stand you in good stead for heavy farmers walks. Develop work capacity and muscular endurance with sets of 30m on these.
Structural Balance: See gatekeeper exercises
#6 10 Full Range Chin-ups
Being able to pull your body weight through space is a great indicator of relative strength.
Relative strength = strength relative to your body weight.
If you can’t do a chin-up then, you are either fat, weak, or both!
Hitting a setoff 10 is a goal all lifters should tick off.
If you cannot do 10 chins then, I wouldn’t do any direct biceps work. Save those for later. For now, you’ll get all the arm growth you need from dominating chin-ups. Once you can knock out 10 strict reps then adding in some direct arm work might be useful to build your biceps even bigger.
Note.I apply the same rule for dips and direct triceps work – only the standard here is 12 reps. So, no pushdowns or kickbacks until you can crank out 12 good dips!
Gatekeeper exercises: Develop the strength to do chin-ups by utilising lat pulldowns, band assisted chins, and eccentric chins (jump up and lower yourself down slowly). These exercises will develop the strength and muscle mass needed to perform chins. The assisted chins and eccentrics also improve your ability to manoeuvre your body through space and around the chin-up bar.
Structural Balance: Do at least one set of rows for every set of chins, pull-ups, or pulldowns you do. Ideally do two sets of rows.
#7 A Pull-Up with 140% body weight
Pull-ups are done with an overhand grip. The exact width of the grip for this doesn’t matter too much. I’d suggest just outside shoulder width, but a little wider or a little narrower is fine and can be based on your preference.
Strap 40% of your body weight to a dipping belt and perform a perfect single rep.
Gatekeeper Exercise: I’ll keep this simple…body weight pull-ups. Get good at those first before you add weight. I like people to be able to do 10 strict reps before I add any external load.
Structural Balance: Same as #6
#8 Bulgarian Split Squat 5 reps with 100% body weight in your hands
This standard is taken straight from Dr John Rusin and it’s a beast of a challenge.
The Bulgarian Split squat AKA Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS) is a test of single leg strength and whole-body stability and balance. Being able to punch out 5 reps with 50% of your body weight in each hand is a tough challenge. This is one for the more advanced lifters out there.
Because of the inherent instability of single leg lifts like the RFESS, I would suggest most of your training is done lighter and for higher reps. Generally, working in the 8-15 rep range. Don’t chase heavy sets of 5 all the time. Reserve those for periodically testing your strength NOT developing your strength.
Important note.Building strength and testing strength are not the same thing!
Testing your capacity on the lift occasionally, however, can give you a good gauge of leg strength and identify any discrepancies from left to right.
Gatekeeper exercise: Offset DB RFESS – holding a single DB in the same hand as the front leg shifts your centre of mass out to the side and this increases the challenge on your core, glutes, and QL, to keep you upright. While you won’t be able to go as heavy with this variation, it will build the stability needed for heavy RFESS and front squats.
Structural Balance: All split squat variants are excellent for structural balance. I’d also include step-ups for maintaining even strength levels from left to right.
#9 Run a Mile in Under 10 minutes
Look, running a mile in under 10 minutes isn’t very impressive.
Roger Bannister ran one in 4 minutes in 1954!
But, it shows you have got a least some level of aerobic health. It doesn’t mean you are an endurance athlete it just means you haven’t become so obsessed with getting jacked and strong that you’ve neglected your general conditioning too much.
As mentioned, this standard isn’t particularly impressive. It just shows you haven’t taken your eye off the ball too much.
It is actually a standard I took from Chris Shugart. Here’s what he has to say about it…
“The one-mile test is a combination of heart health and a body fat test. Can’t run a mile in 10 minutes? Then either your cardiovascular fitness is lacking or you’re just carrying around too much fat.”
I really hope you can pass this test! According to Dr Jarett D. Berry, failing this test officially puts you in the “unfit” category.
Shugart says there are 3 categories you can fall into with this test. These are:
- I can’t do it! – Then you’re out of shape
- I can do it, no problem! – Then you’re at least in okay shape
- I can do it…barely. – You probably have some work to do
Shugart sums up the 10-minute mile challenge nicely by stating that…
“The goal here isn’t to get faster, or to start revolving your training around running. The goal is simply to be able to do it with relative ease and ALWAYS be able to do it with relative ease.”
Make sure the above statement is true!
Gatekeeper Exercises: Walk, take the stairs, generally be active, use compound lifts, and keep your rest periods relatively short at least some of the time.
#10 Sit down without using your hands, knees, or shins & get back up again (or at the very least be able to get off the sofa or toilet without using your hands!)
This is one of Dan John’s standards with an added element/regression based on your current level.
The ability to sit on the floor without assistance from your hands, knees, or shins, and then stand back up again without using anything other than your legs strongly predicts life expectancy, long-term flexibility, coordination, and overall strength!
Now, sadly many of you will fail this test. Don’t believe me – try it and find out!
It’s a humbling experience.
So, for those of you that can sit down, but not stand back up without assistance, let’s work on a progression. Simply ensure you can get back up off the sofa and toilet without using your hands or generating momentum by swinging your torso. Simply drive through your feet to stand up. This sounds extremely simple, but you’d be surprised how lazy we get when it comes to leveraging ourselves up from sitting positions.
Gatekeeper Exercises: The goblet squat test previously mentioned, and Turkish get-ups are both useful exercises for allowing you to pass this test.
Structural Balance: The two gatekeeper exercises plus all the ones mentioned in the RFESS section will help you to pass this test.
So, there you have it. 10 challenges every lifter should be able to pass. How do you fair? Is your score a perfect 10? Or do you have a few things to work on?