Cells require adhesion to survive, proliferate and migrate, as well as for wound healing and many other functions. The strength of contractile cell forces on an underlying surface is a highly relevant quantity to measure the affinity of cells to a rigid surface with and without coating. Here we show with experimental and theoretical studies that these forces create surface stresses that are sufficient to induce measurable bending of macroscopic cantilevers. Since contractile forces are linked to the formation of focal contacts, results give information on adhesion promoting qualities and allow a comparison of very diverse materials. In exemplary studies, in vitro fibroblast adhesion on the magnetic shape memory alloy Fe-Pd and on the l-lysine derived plasma-functionalized polymer PPLL was determined. We show that cells on Fe-Pd are able to induce surface stresses three times as high as on pure titanium cantilevers. A further increase was observed for PPLL, where the contractile forces are four times higher than on the titanium reference. In addition, we performed finite element simulations on the beam bending to back up the calculation of contractile forces from cantilever bending under non-homogenous surface stress. Our findings consolidate the role of contractile forces as a meaningful measure of biomaterial performance.