What are realistic strength goals for natural lifters? One way to answer this question is to look at natural powerlifting records, but just because somebody competed in a natural, drug-tested federation, does not mean they never used performance enhancing drugs. It just means that they didn’t fail the test at that point in time, or weren’t even tested in the first place. Even at the Olympics there have been cases of rigorously drug-tested competitors turning out to be doped long after winning medals. Case in point: the IFBB – home of the Mr. Olympia mass monsters – was only declared non-compliant with anti-doping regulations by WADA in 2022. I know, I couldn’t believe it…
I remember the news like yesterday when WADA told me in 2022 that Ronnie Coleman might not have been natural. It shattered my whole worldview… Shortly after, I was even more shocked that The Liver King might also not be natural. Who would have thought?!
The only way to know for sure that someone was natural is if they lived when androgenic-anabolic steroids (AAS) weren’t even around yet. So before we can look at pre-steroid strength records, we have to know: when did lifters discover the secret sauce?
When did lifters start using steroids?
People were aware of the effects of castration long before steroids. By extension, they were aware that the testes were vital for virile prowess. Eating animal testicles or drinking testicular extracts (yummy!) for strength and fertility had been practiced for well over over a thousand years by various cultures. But only in 1935 was testosterone first isolated from bull testes in Amsterdam. They needed 100 kg of bull testes to produce 10 mg of testosterone, equivalent to a single day’s testosterone production of a healthy man. The chemical synthesis of testosterone was discovered later that year. In 1936, testosterone became available for medical use. Therefore, all lifters before 1936 were unquestionably free from androgenic-anabolic steroids.
Were they all juiced up afterwards? Certainly not. Testosterone was initially only available in the form of slow-release pellets inserted into the skin or pills with methyltestosterone. The pills would certainly sound appealing to many, but to consume enough methyltestosterone for a proper cycle, you’d have to spend a lot of money at that time. Also, your liver would suffer enormously, a fact already known to physicians. Then again, liver damage doesn’t stop present-day bodybuilders from abusing orals either. The injectable testosterone propionate, still used by today’s bodybuilders, was discovered in 1936. However, doctors were not fond of it due to its short half-life (~24 hours), which requires multiple injections per week. Moreover, human trials were scarce and production methods were not scalable until the 40s, so the drugs were very difficult to obtain. If any lifter was using testosterone, it’s unlikely they were using dosages remotely comparable to today’s bodybuilders.
Throughout the 40s, AAS were still certainly not widely used yet, as there’s no one officially on record having used them. There’s also virtually no mention of them in muscle mags. However, there were some sporadic commercial advertisements for steroid-like products and hormone therapy as early as the late 30s. By 1943, there’s a documented attempt by bodybuilding legend John Grimek, “The Monarch of Muscledom”, to inquire about testosterone in a written letter, and at least one pharmacist around that time had a hunch that all the big names were using testosterone. Amphetamine use was also quite widespread in the 40s and even 30s already. By the late 40s, methyltestosterone pills started being advertised more regularly to the public but still mainly for medical purposes and the elderly.
A 1947 ad for testosterone pills.
In the 50s, things became pretty sus. In 1950, Steve Reeves reportedly gained 35 pounds (16 kg) of lean weight in 7 weeks to win the 1950 Mr. Universe title. He went from 190 to 225 pounds (102 kg) at my height of 6’1″ (185 cm), ending up only 10 pounds (4.5 kg) lighter than Arnold Schwarzenegger (who’s slightly taller) in his competition shape. Even with muscle memory and Godly genetics at play, that’s incredible… literally. For comparison, I coach some enhanced lifters and they generally gain about 2 pounds per week during an optimized bulk in that time frame, which is less than half of Reeves’s gains. And Reeves did it while staying lean enough to win a Mr. Universe title.
My face when somebody tells me they gained 35 pounds of pure muscle in 7 weeks naturally.
In 1954, Dr. John Ziegler learned from the Russian team physician that the Soviets were using testosterone at the world championships in Vienna. The Russians were even “abusing the drugs heavily” to the point of needing medical attention. This timeline coincides with an analysis of Olympic weightlifting performance of the Soviet Union vs. the rest of the world. The Soviets got disproportionately stronger in the period of 1952-1955. After word got out of testosterone’s juiciness, the rest of the world suddenly caught up with the Soviets in 1956. Testosterone enanthate, still one of the most popular forms of testosterone, was also FDA-approved in the US in 1953, so it became far easier to obtain. Multiple other sources confirm that the Soviets and the East Germans were doping with testosterone at the Olympic games in the 50s.
Olympic weightlifting championship performances of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) compared to the rest of the world, minus the United States (whose trend was similar to that of the rest of the world).
In conclusion, we can trust that lifters were natural until 1936. Until 1953, most lifters were likely natural, though we cannot exclude that some were using amphetamines or (low) doses of testosterone. From 1953 onward, the Russians and the Germans cannot be trusted to be natural anymore and from 1955 onward, steroid use was too widespread to assume anyone was natural.
So, who were the strongest, indisputably natural lifters in the world before steroids were around and what were their lifts? I’ll discuss the powerlifts and the overhead press, as those are most commonly used as strength standards.
The strict barbell overhead press
The overhead press has a very long history in strength sports, longer than pretty much any other lift, outside of the deadlift. Up until the 20th century, strength sports consisted almost exclusively of Strongman and Olympic weightlifting, and the Strongman events were mostly circus acts. There were no benches or squat racks yet. Lifters just picked up heavy stuff from the floor and tried to get it over their heads. This means most overhead presses were not done with strict technique like a Military Press, where you’re standing up straight and pressing up the bar purely with the upper body, without any leg drive. One exception is probably Thomas Topham’s 200 pound (91 kg) overhead press in London in the 1730s. Dr. John Theo Desagulaiers alleged he gently pressed up the weight with his little finger. I’m not sold on the whole “little finger(s)” thing, but based on his other strength feats, I have zero doubt Topham would have pressed at least 2 plates (100 kg) in modern times. He was a true freak of nature. In fact, some historians alleged he had some type of muscular disorder that made him hugely muscular and strong even before he had any Strongman training.
It wasn’t until about 200 years later, in 1931, that anyone is documented to rival Topham’s numbers with a strict overhead press. Sigmund Klein pressed 221 lb (100 kg) overhead with super strict form in 1931. The Americans were so proud of Klein that they submitted a claim to the world record and title of World’s Strongest Man for him. Klein is also reported to have a 209 lb behind-the-neck overhead press, so his 2-plate Military press is most likely legit. Many lifters managed to get heavier weights over their heads in some manner, but this typically involved Olympic Jerk or push press type lifts or a lot of backward lean. There were also extremely impressive single-arm overhead presses using dumbbells and odd objects from legends like of Eugen Sandow, Arthur Saxon and Henry ‘Hercules’ McCann. These lifters could probably have Military pressed 2 plates, but there’s no record of them doing it.
Sigmund Klein became a natural strength sports legend.
In 1936, the Egyptian sensation Khadr El Touni crushed the competition at the Berlin Olympic Games with a 259 pound (117 kg) overhead press that was reportedly performed in strict fashion. El Touni beat not just his middleweight competition but also the light-heavyweight category above him. This went down as one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history and his world record stood for an unprecedented 13 years. El Touni’s performance was so stunning that even Adolf Hitler – yes, the racist, nationalist Hitler – named a street after the Egyptian.
Khadr El Touni establishing his legacy as one of the all-time greats.
Most subsequent progress in the overhead press was attributable to getting away with more and more backward lean, and after that steroids. In fact, even with major backward lean, most lifters would not beat El Touni’s record. For example, light-heavyweight Anton Gietl won gold at the next year’s German championships in 1937 with a 254 pound (115 kg) overhead press that was performed with a very wide grip and a contortionist level of backward lean. Lifters would even start wearing steel-reinforced belts to be able to bend backwards further. Bill Curry, another one of the greats of that time, noted that his overhead press went from 235 to 285 pounds, a 23 kg gain, with the help of such a belt.
Coming full circle, the overhead press devolving back into a circus act of sorts was the reason the press was eventually removed from the Olympic games altogether in 1972. This was unfortunate, in my view, as there are objective ways to enforce strict technique, such as not allowing the knees to move vertically and not allowing the barbell to pass behind the hips from a side view.
For the ladies, Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton led the way with an official clean and strict press of 100 lb (45 kg) at a bodyweight of just 115 lb (52 kg) at the 1947 Amateur Athletic Union weightlifting competition. However, weightlifting was very unpopular with women until this time, so it’s plausible other women could have pressed heavier weights if they had trained for it. For instance, Strongwoman Ivy Russell is documented to get 300 lb overhead somehow. Ivy’s strict overhead press numbers are not documented, but she set a Clean & Jerk (C&J) record of 176 lb (80 kg) in 1925 at a bodyweight of 134 lb (61 kg) at just 18 years old. This made Ivy the Amateur Weightlifting Champion of Great Britain and unofficially Britain’s and probably the world’s strongest woman. If we extrapolate from Pudgy’s C&J-to-overhead press ratio, Ivy would have pressed 100 / 135 x 176 = 130 lb (59 kg), just short of her bodyweight.
Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton became an icon of strength sports for women.
Conclusion on natural overhead press strength standards: A bodyweight overhead press, or 80% of bodyweight as a woman, is highly respectable. For most lifters, this is probably as good as it gets naturally. Anything over 2 plates at a healthy body fat level is elite: you could have been a world champion among the Bronze Era’s lifters. Anything over 259 lb (117 kg) is legendary.
The barbell bench press
“How much do you bench, bro?” is currently the most popular strength standard for men, but the bench press was originally mocked for being an ‘artificial lift’. Most lifters instead performed floor presses, which are (exactly as they sound) barbell presses performed from the floor instead of from a bench. A floor press is similarly difficult as a barbell bench press, depending on the person, so we can use it as a reference. You might think it’s easier due to the shorter range of motion, but you start the press in the sticking point from a disadvantageous position without any momentum, and you can’t use any leg drive, so it’s much tougher than it looks.
The floor press.
The first world record in the floor press was set by George Hackenschmidt in 1898. While lying on the floor on his back with his face turned to the side, he rolled the barbell over his head and pressed up 362 lb (164 kg). If we’re going to nitpick, he did use slightly larger plates (19″) than our current Olympic sized plates (17.72″). The Russian Lion’s record stood for 18 years, with Joe Nordquest barely breaking it in 1916 by 2 pounds.
George Hackenschmidt was one of the first legends of natural strength sports.
I’ve been unable to find any validated accounts of higher numbers with strict technique all the way until 1950. Just like people cheated on the overhead press, they also ‘got inventive’ on the floor press. Instead of performing a strict press of the barbell from the floor, many lifters performed a decline press from a hip bridge position, including 388 lb (176 kg) by Joe Nordquest again. Others omitted the press almost altogether and performed a “belly toss press” by using their hips to thrust up the weight from their belly. These techniques started becoming criticized as cheating. At the same time, there was a growing interest in bodybuilding and a realization that most lifters up until this time were relatively flat-chested. This led to the development of the bench press as we know it, which was standardized in 1939 by the Amateur Athletic Union.
In 1950, the 400 pound barrier (181 kg) was officially broken by Doug Hepburn at a bodyweight of around 300 pounds (136 kg). This was a paused powerlifting bench press as we know it today. Over the next 3 years, he broke his own records twice more with a 450 and a 500 lb bench press. Four years later in 1957 he broke his own record again with a 550 lb press. Multiple others suddenly broke the 400 and then 500 pound barriers around this time, coinciding with the rise of anabolic steroids.
Doug Hepburn bench pressing.
So what’s naturally achievable? On one hand, it seems clear based on the historical records that a 364 lb (165 kg) bench press is legendary and was extremely hard to beat for any lean, natural lifter until the era in which we know testosterone doping became popular. Doug Hepburn may well have been natural, at least in the first years, but at nearly 300 pounds with world-class genetics he was hardly representative of what the average lifter might hope to achieve. Even after this era, bench presses over 4 plates were rare. For example, at a 1955 contest from the International Strongman Association in California, the highest bench press was 360 lb, performed by a 263 pound (119 kg) heavyweight that was ironically called Tiny Walsh. This was at the time when strength training taking off in popularity, especially in California, the birthplace of Muscle Beach and the first modern-style gym. The contest’s popularity was evidenced by the inclusion of 10 women, which was very progressive for those times.
On the other hand, the bench press was not very popular until the 1950s. The equipment wasn’t nearly as good as it is today either: gyms as we know them weren’t even a thing before the 40s. Benches only came into use in the 20s and 30s. People had almost certainly not perfected their technique yet either. So, it’s unlikely the records from this time represent the maximum potential of humanity. In fact, I have personally coached clients up to benching 4 plates, such as Sigvar Garfors, who did it with abs. I’m confident they were natural based on our correspondence and logs. There are also unverified accounts of higher bench presses before the 50s, including almost exactly 4 plates (400 pounds) by weightlifter John Davis. So I’m going to acknowledge Hepburn’s first 3 records up to (but not including) 1957 as natural and legendary.
Conclusion on natural bench press strength standards: For men, the classic rule of thumb of a 3-plate bench press (140 kg / 315 lb) is highly respectable. A 364 lb (165 kg) bench press makes you elite as a natural lifter when performed with visible abs: you could have been a world champion among the Bronze Era’s lifters and a regional champion in the Silver Era. Anything over 500 lb (227 kg) is legendary.
For women, there are no data to speak of until steroids were already too widespread to assume they were natural, but I’d say 150 pounds (68 kg) or a bodyweight bench press is a good guideline. This is a highly respectable but reasonably realistic goal for many women.
The barbell back squat
Squats have been around forever, but without the luxury of a squat rack, most people did them as sissy squats, barbell hack squats or back squats on the tip-toes for high reps. This changed when Henrich Steinborn came to the United States in 1921 and popularized what is now known as the Steinborn squat. Heinrich, thereafter known as Henry, would prop loaded barbells up vertically and shoulder them straight on his back, as illustrated below.
A 560 lb (254 kg) Steinborn squat: a vertical barbell is shouldered onto the shoulders and carried into a squat position before squatting up.
Steinborn was so good at this technique that it allowed him to perform 1 rep maxes. He’s credited with an unofficial 553 lb (251 kg) squat world record. There is no validation of this world record, but it’s probably accurate. Articles in 1921’s Strength magazine reported Steinborn had a 530 lb squat and did 6 reps with 402 lb (182 kg) so deep he “practically sat on his heels” (ATG).
The only people rivaling Steinborn’s squat strength were the giant, one-eyed Hermann ‘The Mighty’ Goerner and Olympic weightlifting world champion Karl Moerke. Their exact squat numbers are disputed, but in a series of personal duels between the 2, Moerke is claimed to have squatted 240 kg (529 lb) in 1920. Multiple sources say Moerke squatted 500+ lb and based on their other strength feats, I have no doubt both would have squatted over 500 in modern times.
Hermann ‘The Mighty’ Görner
Despite the newfound popularity of squats and the existence of squat racks, few lifters even came close to beating the above 3 squatting legends until the 50s. For example, Peary Rader, who founded Iron Man magazine in 1936, won the Midwestern Heavyweight Championship for 7 years while allegedly squatting 450 lb (204 kg).
In the 50s, we again see an explosion of world records from multiple lifters led by the behemoth world weightlifting champion Doug Hepburn with a 575 lb (261 kg) squat in 1952. Hepburn quickly crossed the 600 pound barrier, followed closely by lifting legends Reg Park and Paul Anderson. Anderson would surpass Hepburn a few years later. The optimist in me wants to think this was all due to the greater popularity of heavy squats and squat racks, but the eruption of world records exactly around the time when steroids became popular is quite the coincidence.
Reg Park was very close to Arnold Schwarzenegger in size, so it’s a bit hard to believe he was natty.
Conclusion on natural squat strength standards: For men, the classic rule of thumb of a 4-plate squat (180 kg / 405 lb) is highly respectable and would have won you regional championships in the Bronze Era. A 553 lb (251 kg) squat makes you elite as a natural lifter when performed with visible abs: you could have been a world champion among the Bronze Era’s lifters. Anything over 600 lb (272 kg) is legendary.
For women, there are no data to speak of until steroids were already too widespread to assume they were natural, but I’d say a 200 pound (~90 kg) or 1.5x bodyweight squat is a good guideline as a highly respectable but reasonably realistic goal for many women.
The powerlifting deadlift
The crown jewel of testing brute strength, the act of pulling heavy objects off the ground has been around forever. As far back as 1895, the wrestler Julius Cochard allegedly pulled 300 kg (661 lb) off the floor, although it’s unclear from what height, with what implement and if he locked out the rep. Not to mention if he really pulled this off in the first place (no pun intended). For some baffling reason, many lifters around this time deadlifted the bar only up until their knees.
Somewhat more credible numbers emerge in 1913, when our friend Hermann Goerner was credited with a 277 kg (620 lb) deadlift by the Deutsche Athletik Verband. Goerner The Mighty was also credited with a 297 kg (653 lb) deadlift in 1935 by the Encyclopedia of Sports Games and Pasttimes. However, Goerner’s lifts are disputed and it’s unclear how exactly the deadlifts were performed. Many of his lifts turned out to be exaggerated and just getting a weight off the ground was often considered enough at that time.
By multiple accounts, the ‘official’ deadlift world record all the way up until 1946 was 650 lb (295 kg), although it’s unclear who actually held it. What is clear is that Bob Peoples set a new official world record of 651 lb in 1946 while weighing only 175 pounds (79 kg). The following year, Bob bulked up a bit and became the first man in history to deadlift 700 pounds (318 kg). In 1949, he again broke his own world record with a 725.75 pound deadlift. This record was described by Iron Game History as “the lift heard round the world”.
Bob Peoples was certainly blessed by the deadlift Gods, outperforming far larger men.
Bob Peoples’s deadlift record stood tall (I promise I’m not doing this for the puns!) all throughout the steroid revolution until 1961, when Ben Coats became the first person to deadlift 750 lb (340 kg) at a much higher bodyweight of 270 lb (122 kg). The runner-up was our friend the giant Doug Hepburn again. To illustrate how far Bob Peoples was ahead of his competition, the highest recorded deadlift at the 1955 California meet of the International Strongman Association was 625 lb (283 kg) by Tiny Walsh at a bodyweight of 263 lb (119 kg).
For women, the highest deadlift record with any documented credibility is 369.5 lb (168 kg) by Ivy Russell in the 30s, nearly 3x her bodyweight. She was the Amateur Weightlifting Champion of Great Britain and was frequently called the World’s Strongest Woman.
An honorable mention goes out to US weightlifting champion John Terry. While his 610 lb (277 kg) deadlift wasn’t an absolute world record (and it seemed to be an unofficial lift in the York Barbell Club in the 30s), he did it at a bodyweight of just 132 lb (60 kg), making him the pound-for-pound strongest deadlifter in the world. A 4.6x bodyweight deadlift is still ludicrous even by enhanced standards and he was almost certainly steroid-free given the time.
John Terry was America’s top featherweight in the 30s and one of the strongest pound-for-pound lifters in history.
Conclusion on natural strength standards for the deadlift: The world record was relatively consistent around 650 lb (295 kg) throughout the entire Bronze Era of indisputably natural lifters, so anything over 600 lb (272 kg) is elite strength. Anything over 700 lb is legendary, unheard of before steroids were around and even rare during their advent. In terms of what’s realistic for a person with average genetics, I’d say the old rule of thumb of 300/400/500 for the bench press/squat/deadlift is a simplistic but quite reasonable guideline of highly respectable strength for men with abs.
For women, over triple bodyweight or 4 plates is legendary and I’d classify double bodyweight as elite.
While her exact barbell lifts are undocumented, the circus strongwoman Katie Sandwina deserves an honorable mention for her feats of strength that exceeded that of many men. She perfectly demonstrates that given the same baseline height (she was 6’1″ / 185 cm) and lean body mass, women have a similar muscular potential as men.
There you go, the history of powerlifting and strength standards for natural lifters all in one. Enhanced powerlifters are sure to call me out because they feel exposed and some blue-pilled believers of Mike O’Hearn may have had their dreams crushed, but I believe having realistic standards is best in today’s culture filled with e-standards and fake natties. However, these numbers do not represent any sort of hard limit of what’s naturally possible. Our training and nutrition knowledge have improved greatly, strength training is more mainstream now and the population size has more than tripled since 1953. Therefore, there are most likely natural lifters with sigma genetics among us that can shatter even the legendary strength standards. It shouldn’t matter to you if so and so is natty or not in the first place. What matters to you is what you, with your genetics, could achieve. These strength standards serve as an informative guideline for this purpose. And ultimately, what matters most for you is how strong you are today compared to how strong you were yesterday, not how strong anyone else is.
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