The Concept of Relative vs Absolute Strength
Lately, I have been working on a number that represents an individual’s relative strength with respect to the power lifts: deadlift, bench press and squat. I call it the strength factor and it’s the sum of the three lifts divided by 3x the athlete’s body weight. This makes it a relative measure of strength.
In order to be named an “elite” powerlifter, your combined deadlift, bench press and squat must exceed a threshold number. At the 114 weight class for men, they must lift 1085 pounds, a strength factor of 3.173. To be elite in the 308 division, you must lift 2040 pounds, strength factor of 2.208.
So, relatively, the 114 class of athletes are much stronger than the heavier classes.
Of course, the 308 class of athlete is almost twice as strong as the 114 class, absolutely.
How have you seen relative versus absolute strength in your own life? Perhaps at a young age, you could do more pull ups, more push ups or run a faster mile. Ever wonder what happened? You’re certainly stronger than you were back then.
Here’s the answer: as you grow in height (a linear measure) both strength and the density of your body increase exponentially. Let’s take an example 8 year old boy, 4’2” tall, weighing 50 pounds and let’s say he can squat 75 pounds. Relatively, he can squat 150% of his body weight.
Fast forward ten years, 18 yrs old and post growth spurt. The boy is now 6’3” (he grew 50%, from 50 inches to 75). He now weighs 170 pounds and can squat 170 pounds. His relative strength is now just 100% of his body weight.
How did I come up with those numbers? Well, a linear measure is ‘x’, area would be ‘x2’ and volume would be ‘x3’. Height is our x, strength is closely correlated with area, or x2 and x3 would represent volume, or bodyweight1.
As my high school math teacher would say, let’s plug and chug: height increases by a factor of 1.5 so strength increases 1.52 = 2.25 and body weight increases 1.53 = 3.375. Multiplying my initial numbers lands us at the final numbers and what happened? Relative strength went down.
This is key to sports, does it matter how much weight a gymnast can push? No, it matters how fast or powerful they can move their weight. It’s a sport where relative strength is everything. Does it matter how fast an offensive lineman can move his body? Not really. He still has a 350-pound man trying to steamroll him.
There are sports today where absolute strength is what matters: football, powerlifting, throwing, cycling. Conversely, you have sports where relative strength is more important: gymnastics, pole-vaulting (and all ‘jumps’), figure skating.
Of course, there’s a ton of gray area with sports (technique).
Absolute strength examples: a football player who can squat 400 pounds is more likely to perform better than one who can squat 300 assuming blocking techniques are similar, a collegiate thrower who can shoulder press 100 kg is more likely to throw a 8kg shot further than a thrower who can press 75kg.
So, when you’re training an athlete who’s relative strength is more important, you must increase their absolute strength while using both nutritional and conditioning techniques in order to keep body weight in check (increasing relative strength). Absolute strength sports tend to just become a numbers game. You have to push more weight, more reps, more often.
Shameless plug: at AllPro we understand the needs of each athlete we train. Typically it’s not cut and dry to whether they need absolute or relative strength. Call us and ask about the semi-private, small group and private training programs we are setting up. We tailor athletes’ workouts to be sport specific and time effective.
- Zatsiorsky VM. Science and practice of strength training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 1995.