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Understanding Concrete Strength: From PSI To Tips For Pouring Concrete

Updated: Apr 3

Are you working on a construction or home improvement project and wondering if you should use concrete?

Concrete is a popular choice for all kinds of projects since it's one of the most durable and low-maintenance construction materials available.

But nothing in life is completely foolproof, and sometimes concrete fails. Redoing a project because of concrete failure is a huge headache. Worse yet, if your concrete fails, someone could get seriously injured.

That's why it's vital to make sure your concrete is strong enough to do its job!

But how do you measure concrete strength, and how do you make concrete stronger?

At Gra-Rock, we’re ready to put our experience in the concrete industry to use and help you understand concrete strength.

You can read the whole article or click on the section that interests you.

Let’s dive in!

table of contents

Forces Put on Concrete

A big part of understanding concrete strength is understanding the different types of forces or stresses placed on a slab of concrete.

First, there is compressive stress. Compressive stress is a force that is placed upon an object that shortens or compresses the object. For example, if an elephant steps on your toe, you experience compressive stress!

Second, there is shear stress. Shear stress occurs when forces are applied perpendicularly to one another. If you lock your fingers together and pull against yourself, you are experiencing shear stress.

Finally, there is tensile or flexural stress. Flexural stress is a force that is exerted upon an object that lengthens or stretches that object. When you jump into a swimming hole using a rope swing, you exert flexural stress on the rope.

Concrete handles compressive stress and shear stress well, but it performs poorly when it comes to tensile strength. In fact, the tensile strength of concrete is only about 10-15% of its compressive strength.

When considering the strength of concrete, you must consider all the forces that will be exerted upon it.

If it can't withstand the compressive, shear, and tensile strength placed on it, it will fail!

concrete has to withstand different forces

To prevent concrete failure, it's important to test the concrete strength.

Let's explore how to do that!

How To Test Concrete Strength

Before we get into the details of how to test concrete strength, we need to run over the terminology. You’ll hear the term “concrete psi” used frequently. But what exactly is psi?

Understanding Concrete PSI

Psi is an abbreviation for pounds per square inch and is the most common unit for measuring pressure in the U.S.

If an object is receiving five psi, that means five pounds of pressure are being exerted on every square inch of surface area.

We actually deal with psi all the time, even when we don’t know it. For example, the atmosphere exerts about 14.7 psi on your body at all times. The only reason we aren’t crushed by air pressure is that there’s also air inside our bodies, pushing outward at the same pressure.

concrete strength is measured in psi

But let's get back to concrete. Since concrete strength is most commonly measured in psi, it's important for us to understand how to find the correct concrete psi.

Testing the Compressive Strength of Concrete

The compressive strength of concrete is measured in psi.

Compressive strength is tested by compressing cylindrical concrete specimens in a special machine designed to measure this type of force.

In short, the machine compresses the cylinders until they crack or break or completely.

Testing is done according to the American Society for Testing & Materials standard C39.

After the concrete is tested, it is given a psi rating. The ideal psi concrete rating depends on the concrete’s use, but concrete almost always has a psi rating of 3,000 or more.

That’s compressive strength. But how is the tensile strength of concrete tested?

Testing the Tensile Strength of Concrete

The tensile strength of concrete is not recorded in pounds per square inch. Instead, it is calculated in flexural strength or modulus of rupture.

When we discover the flexural strength of concrete (how much it bends before breaking), we are indirectly finding the tensile strength of that concrete.

Since flexural strength measures how much concrete can bend before it breaks, the test is done on a beam rather than a cylinder.

flexural strength measures how much concrete bends

In center-point loading, the load, or pressure on the beam is applied at the center of the beam. The maximum stress occurs at the center of the beam under the load location.

center-point loading
center-point loading

In third-point loading, the load is applied at two points. Maximum stress occurs over the center 1/3 portion of the beam.

third-point loading
third-point loading

Remember—traditional concrete has a significantly lower tensile strength than its compressive strength.

This means that concrete structures undergoing tensile stress must be reinforced with materials that have high tensile strength, such as steel. (For more information on reinforcing concrete, read our blog: Concrete Rebar: Everything You Need To Know.)

If testing the compressive and tensile strength of concrete makes your head swim, don’t worry. We’ve only given a general overview here, and it's the engineers who use specialized machinery and intricate formulas to determine the strength of concrete.

Your job is to understand how much stress will be placed on your concrete and purchase concrete that stands up to the pressure.

So how strong does concrete need to be for a driveway, sidewalk, beam, or bridge?

Let’s find out!

Ideal Concrete Strength For Common Structures

It's difficult to determine the tensile strength of concrete. For that reason, it's common practice to use the results from compressive strength tests.

For the rest of this article, we will refer to the compressive strength of concrete (concrete psi) when talking about concrete strength.

So, what is an ideal concrete psi for some common structures?

  • Most residential projects, such as sidewalks and driveways, require 2,500-3,000 psi.

  • Structural components like beams and footers require a psi of 3,500-4,000. Concrete in this range is also a good choice for concrete pads to store RVs or other heavy loads.

  • Concrete used in warehouses, factories, and other large-scale commercial properties often require 4,000-5,000 psi.

  • Nuclear power plants and other areas of possible radiation contamination need a psi over 6,000. (Concrete with a compressive strength greater than 6,000 psi is considered high-strength concrete.)

Ideal concrete psi for driveways

It's totally fine to use concrete with a higher psi rating than you need, but it will be more expensive!

Getting the right psi is simple: If you call your local concrete provider and tell them what psi you're looking for, they will take care of mixing the concrete and delivering it to your home or job site! They're also a good resource if you're unsure of what psi you need for a certain project.

contact your concrete contractor of concrete advice

How To Make Concrete Stronger

There are some things you can do as a homeowner or contractor to strengthen your concrete. But before we explore that, we need to know what affects concrete strength.

Factors Affecting Concrete Strength

Several factors affect the strength of concrete. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

  1. Water-to-cement ratio: A lower water-to-cement ratio makes for stronger concrete, but it also makes the concrete more challenging to work with. You must find the right balance to achieve the desired strength while maintaining workability.

  2. Concrete porosity: Voids in concrete can be filled with air or with water. Air voids are an obvious and easily-visible example of pores in concrete. The more porous the concrete, the weaker it will be.

  3. Strong aggregates: Aggregates are the larger stones used in concrete, bonded together by the cement. Weak aggregates make weaker concrete, while strong aggregates result in stronger concrete.

  4. Curing: If concrete is allowed to dry out while curing, the hardening process will stop. Though the concrete may seem hard, it will fail more quickly if it is not able to cure completely (concrete sets within 24-48 hours, but won’t cure for around 28 days).

  5. Other materials: Some concrete additives and materials like steel reinforcing bars or reinforcing fibers increase concrete strength.

Tips For Increasing the Strength of Concrete

Considering the factors that affect concrete strength, let’s discuss how you (not the mixer or engineer) can make the concrete stronger.

tips for increasing the strength of concrete

First, consider the weather when pouring concrete. Concrete poured on a hot day with little humidity may set too quickly, leading to shrinkage and premature curing. (If you’re interested in how to pour concrete in hot and cold weather, read our blog: Guide To Pouring Concrete in Any Weather.)

This doesn’t mean that more water is always better when pouring concrete. Remember, concrete porosity is also a problem - and too much water makes pockets in the concrete and doesn’t allow it to bond.

That’s why our second tip is not to use excessive water when pouring concrete.

Instead, mist concrete 2-3 times a day for three days after you pour it. By wetting the concrete’s exterior during the curing process for three days, the concrete develops a strong internal bond.

Third, vibrate the wet concrete. Vibrating does two things to strengthen the concrete:

  • It encourages the wet concrete to filter into voids in hard-to-reach places, such as the space below a basement window.

  • It removes tiny bubbles from the wet concrete, making the final product more solid.

Fourth, always reinforce your concrete.

Traditionally, concrete has been reinforced with rebar or steel mesh. Both of these materials work well, and we recommend using them.

In fact, compressive strength of 5,000 psi in concrete is considered quite high in most settings. This can be achieved using a premium concrete mixture and traditional reinforcing materials.

However, if you need extremely strong concrete, there is another step you can take.

Ultra High-Performance Concrete

Ultra High-Performance Concrete (UHPC) is a new concrete technology with greater strength properties than traditional concrete across all strength ranges.

ultra high performance concrete is a new concrete technology

How is this strength achieved?

UHPC achieves incredible strength by using integrated fibers in its makeup. These fibers are added to the concrete mix and account for 20 to 25 percent of the end product.

The fibers vary from polyester to fiberglass bars, basalt, steel, and stainless steel. These integrated fibers create a progressively stronger end product, with steel and stainless steel delivering the most significant strength gains.

In the end, UHPC doubles the tensile and compressive strength capacity of traditional concrete.

After just 14 days of curing, UHPC has a compressive strength of 20,000 psi. This number can increase to 30,000 psi when fully cured for 28 days.

And while UHPC isn’t a feasible solution for most applications, it is worth checking into if you are building a bridge or constructing something that requires enormous strength.

UHPC is a good concrete option for building bridges


Concrete is known as a reliable and durable construction materialand most of the time, it is!

However, concrete is not immune to cracking or breaking. And if you don’t know how strong the concrete needs to be for your next project, you might end up with concrete that doesn’t meet your expectations.

Thankfully, you can now confidently assess how strong your concrete needs to be and take practical steps to ensure the concrete is as strong as possible.

For more information on pouring concrete, check out our related blog posts:

And if you are looking for a concrete supplier in Northern Indiana, contact us at Gra-Rock.

We’re excited to offer you the many benefits of working with us:

  • Hundreds of proven mixes and designs

  • Over 15 years of concrete experience

  • Quality concrete to ensure longevity and optimal performance

  • 1-2 business day delivery

  • Available concrete hand tools for rent

  • Contractor rates

We sincerely hope we can help you with whatever project you are working on!

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