Strength and Conditioning Standards: For Athletes

How strong is too strong? How to achieve game changing performance? How to prioritizing multi-layered training? Answer these questions and and find out how you size up against UFC fighters, professional cyclists, and elite lifters.

Strength and Conditioning Standards: For Athletes
Photo by Wade Austin Ellis / Unsplash

Strength doesn't matter in jiu jitsu, right?  Wrong.  This is an oft touted adage that is flat out inaccurate.  John Danaher describes jiu jitsu as a contest where you need to dominate the areas of:

  • Pace
  • Direction
  • Set Ups

In other words:

  • physicality (strength, size, conditioning)
  • strategy (tactics)
  • technique (efficiency of control / breakage)

Obviously, two athletes of similar age, weight, and skill are going to have the victor determined largely by their tactics and physicality.  In addition to performance we have the physics that muscle mass is literal armor for your body, and from a longevity perspective, muscle mass declines with age – making it the organ of longevity.

I'm a huge fan of Dan John's work because it's clear, simple, effective, and applicable across many disciplines – good coaching is good coaching regardless of the training application.  I developed my personal strength standards around Dan's recommendations (1) which are inline with other resources (2).

I slightly modified Dan's standards to have the same exercise compared at each level of each movement (e.g. comparing back squat to back squat rather than to overhead squat).  Obviously though, you could follow the original standards and increase the difficulty of the movement rather than the load or reps.  At any rate, has a 1RM calculator and "strength standards" for a huge library of exercises.  More on this in a later...

Photo by Alora Griffiths / Unsplash

Strength Movements and Standards:

Dan John and many others describe strength in terms of 4 essential  movements:

  • Push (e.g. bench press)
  • Pull (e.g. weighted / pull up)
  • Squat (e.g. back squat)
  • Hinge (e.g. deadlift)
  • arguably, as Dan does, tumbling and weighted carriers also belong here.

In Dan's view there are three levels for each  movement (which I'll also apply to conditioning / endurance below).

  • Expected (a minimum standard)
  • Game Changer (biggest bang for your buck)
  • Cut Off (point of diminishing returns)
 for men Expected  Game Changer Cut Off

Bench Press

1RM @ BW

Bench Press

1RM @ 1.5x BW

Bench Press

20x @ BW


Pull Up


Pull Up


Pull Up



Back Squat

1RM @ BW

Back Squat

15x @ BW

Back Squat

1RM @ 2x BW



1RM @ 2x BW


1RM @ 2.25x BW


1RM @ 2x BW

Dan John's strength standards landed the cut off point at about the advanced level on  Essentially, if you're pretty strong for a an amateur lifter, but not ready to dive into the specialized minutia to become an elite lifter that's still pretty good!  You're specialization is fighting (or whatever sport we're talking about), not lifting – unless power / Olympic lifting, or strongman are your thing of course.

Fotografía de, se ruega firmar la autoría.
Photo by Antonio Fernández-Coca / Unsplash

Conditioning Standards:

This was a bit more difficult to hone in on because fighters / grapplers have some specific and unique conditioning needs – we use all of the energy system aerobic, anaerobic-lactic (glycolitic), anaerobic-alactic.  The below isn't a training prescription (that's coming soon!), but a reference point... standards.

The UFC did a huge analysis in 2018 (3, VO2 max on page 30) comparing training, performance, and injury variables for their athletes.  Therein are similar categories of: bad, very poor, poor, fair, good, very good, excellent, and world leading.

VO2 Max tends to decline as weight class goes up, but it's no secret that a scrappy featherweight can literally run circles around that juggernaut heavyweight.  However, the UFC reported that the average for men was 58 - 66.  Again though, this is a cream-of-the-crop professional organization's standard.  

  • Cut off for poor range across men's weight classes: 52
  • Cut off for fair range across men's weight classes: 56
  • Cut off for good range across men's weight classes: 59

If you've got "poor" conditioning for the UFC, you're probably still not terrible; "fair" would comparatively be pretty good, and "good" in the UFC would be excellent by recreational standards.  For reference, there are several different methods for testing VO2 Max.

One more important metric for conditioning is power-to-weight-ratio; typically measured in Watts / Kg – cyclists and rowers love this.  Remember, we just want to keep pace with an "advanced amateur" and probably need specialized training (intentionally going beyond the point of diminishing returns) to hit "average professional" levels.

Depending on what equipment you're using to test power-to-weight, you may need a few different calculators:  assault / air bike RPMs to Watts or Speed to Watts / Kg.  I pulled multiple sites (4, 5, 6) to create these reference ranges for general athletes:

  • 2.5 W/Kg @ 20 minutes ("recreational" cyclist)
  • 3.0 W/Kg @ 20 minutes (keep up with "amateur" cyclist for 5 min)
  • 3.5 W/Kg @ 20 minutes (keep up with "amateur" cyclist for 40 min)

If you've followed this far, you're now:

  • Lifting at an advanced amateur level,
  • Can hang with amateur cyclists, and
  • Have average conditioning for the UFC.

Training Prioritization:

On both the micro and macro levels we want to focus on the most specific / technical training first.  In other words: drilling before sparring, sparring before lifting, lifting before conditioning, intervals before steady state.

As I've been harping recently, 70% of athletes need to spend 70% of their time doing the thing they want to get good at.  We can keep this ratio going for that other 30% of the time as well (e.g. strength and conditioning, do note that these are separate skills!).

  • Total Training Time: 10 hours / week
  • Primary Focus (70%, Jiu Jitsu): 7 hours / week
  • Secondary Training Focus (20% of total): 2 hours / week
  • Secondary Training Maintenance (10% or total): 1 hour / week
  • Tertiary Training (odds and ends): film study, tactics discussion, culture

Going back to Danaher's first principles, it's the skills of tactics (first) and the techniques (second) which erode fastest – another reason to make them the bulk of your training; e.g. sport specificity.

In terms of physicality, then, conditioning (particularly lactic-aerobic) depreciates the fastest, but is also the fastest to be re-compensated.  The inverse is true for strength, think "farm strong" or "old man strength" lasting for decades without "training."

I like to think of this in terms of "boiling" whatever it is I want to focus on, and "simmering" to maintain levels of other attributes.  This isn't relevant to just strength or conditioning, but it's components as well.  I may want to achieve "game changer" levels of fitness in all categories (push, pull, squat, hinge, VO2 max, W/Kg) before pushing any one to the "cut off" level.  

Or, I may want to work in "blocks" of a month at a time – focusing on building up to a competition or event.  That is, focusing on strength for a few weeks, then conditioning, then "power endurance" (strength:weight ratio).  Any of those options seem practical and viable and depend highly on your goals, resources, and logistics (below).

Monthly schedule
Photo by Eric Rothermel / Unsplash

A Few Notes on Programming:

The best plan in the world is the one you execute.  Put another way, all your planning makes no difference if you don't follow through on it.  So, I can draw up that perfect 7:2:1 hour split, but it may not fit logistically into my schedule if I (for example) have a long commute to the gym or a day with/out children where it's easier to double up training sessions a couple times per week – or the opposite, a little bit each day.

This is really a topic for another training rather than testing post, but what I will say is that you can / need to find a training protocol that works for your.  Obviously you're not testing / maxing out every day.  So...

  • Test
  • Pick / make a plan you can stick to
  • Do it
  • Test again
  • Adjust the plan
  • Repeat

If you need a place to start, check out these:

To your health and happiness,

Gender Note:  All of the standards above are given for men because I identify as a male and train / with most male athletes.  All of the reference material gives ranges for females as well if you're curious and want to apply the same principles.

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