Strength Is a Relative Term

It’s important to ensure we are respecting our bodies and our minds by setting up realistic expectations in our training.

Overcoming resistance is as much as a mental feat as it is a physical one. During training our goal is to get our body, a weight, or sometimes both, from point A to point B. Your gym partner may be able to push 100lb dumbbells within three seconds while you’ll thrust it up within a half a second. Different athletes excel at different aspects of strength.

Overcoming resistance is as much as a mental feat as it is a physical one. During training our goal is to get our body, a weight, or sometimes both, from point A to point B. Your gym partner may be able to push 100lb dumbbells within three seconds while you’ll thrust it up within a half a second. Different athletes excel at different aspects of strength.

Incorporating a variety of strength training modes during certain periods of a training cycle create a well-balanced individual. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) explains that we can obtain and train seven different kinds of strength. In this article, I will briefly explain these types of strength with a focus on relative strength and how it applies to every day lifting modalities.

The Seven Kings of Strength

Strength training could be subdivided based on the desired outcome.

  • Agility: The ability to decelerate, control, and generate muscle force in multiple planes.
  • Strength Endurance: The ability to maintain muscular contractions or consistent muscle force for extended periods of time.
  • Explosive Strength: Produce a maximal amount of force in a minimal amount of time; muscle lengthening followed by rapid acceleration through the shortening phase. The focus is on the speed of movement through a range of motion (ROM). Think of the aforementioned example where you bested your partner in getting the weight up faster.
  • Maximum Strength: The ability of a muscle or specific group of muscles to recruit and engage all motor units to generate maximal tension against an external resistance. Requires high levels of neuromuscular efficiency to enhance both intra and intermuscular coordination. Think of a mother being able to lift a car to protect her child.
  • Speed Strength: The maximal force capable of being produced during a high-speed movement; trained with either bodyweight or a minimal amount of resistance, allowing the movement to be executed as fast as possible.
  • Starting Strength: Produce force at the beginning of a movement without momentum or a pre-stretch to load mechanical energy; start moving from a stationary position. An isometric contraction creates tension, which allows the surrounding elastic fascia and connective tissue to lengthen and store mechanical energy for a rapid rate of force production.

Relative Strength

Relative strength is the amount of force generated per unit of body weight. This can be increased by using all of the various types of strength training to improve the magnitude of force production while maintaining or reducing total body mass.

Think of a 150lb diver versus a 150lb powerlifter performing a squat—who do you think will produce a greater amount of force? If neuromuscular efficiency and muscle force production increase while maintaining a consistent body mass, relative strength will increase. This is the beauty of this mode of training. It incorporates the others and one can grow alongside it.

Understanding this concept is of utmost importance in discerning the end goal of a client or trainee. For instance, would you expect the same strength goals of someone who wants to be 110lbs versus a person who is 200 lbs? As a coach, I understand the purpose of keeping a realistic mindset for strength training for each of my clients, otherwise, I will set up unrealistic expectations for them.

The theory of relativity is not simply bound to physics. It surpasses the convention and produces individual physiques. Relativity, in the sense that I’m referring to, is “the absence of standards of absolute and universal application.” Can you think of the perfect program for each individual on planet earth? No.

We are each unique and yet we try to conform to many standards and “one size fits all programs” to return to where we started. Relative strength also takes into account the factors of neurological deficits, muscular imbalances, and the like. It’s so versatile and yet we take it for granted.

My clients can attest to their individual successes through my programming and, despite their varying body types, they understand why they reach the body composition they do based on their strength gains and individual quirks. I love them and I always learn from them as I create interesting and new programs.

Their growth is never stagnant and as a firm believer in relative strength, I can push boundaries such that a 150lb female can train and successfully squat twice (or even three times) her body weight. I defy the convention of providing the same exercises for each body part for the sake of fulfilling a program sheet.

Relative strength allows a coach to begin with what the trainee can do and over time provide a way to increase force output as they are losing weight and gaining more muscle. Once the trainee has achieved their ideal body weight we will enter a maintenance phase in which we keep the body composition the same but increase and outperform our last check-in.

Typical Problems with Relative Strength

During a cutting phase, some persons tend to undergo an improper nutrition balance and face a loss in strength. Their strength deficit is sometimes a result of improper coaching, improper eating, or both.

The solution to this problem is to talk to your coach about your eating habits and address any problems you have in order to obtain your macros. Eating more calorie dense foods is typically the option for busy people.

Another problem is a plateau. Due to a goal weight being set, most people will grow accustomed to their new weight or body composition and subconsciously believe there is no further room for growth or development. They can use the relative strength test below to prove this wrong.

The Relative Strength Test

It’s important to have a training log. Start this on day one and be diligent in your entries. You will want to record your values and have what I like to call a “test day” each month. We look at the weight of the client when they begin and check their weight a month from the start.

We also test the four main lifts: bench press, deadlift, squat, and press. In the event that I have a client who cannot perform the main lifts, we will do a modification (which I will explain later).

For now, we’ll do a simple calculation of the following:

Relative Strength (RS) = maximum weight lifted in kilograms / body weight in kilograms

We will perform the four lifts for 3 sets of 5 reps in order to warm up the muscle and/or movement then perform a one rep max lift, increasing weight each lift, until the person hits a “strength wall.” The strength wall is where there is even the slightest indication of form degradation. The goal is not to hit PRs in every lift, rather use the lifts as an assessment.

For newer lifters or people who have injuries, we can modify the movements used to incorporate machines or assistive devices such as machine chest press, assisted pull up, assisted dip, Smith machine squat, TRX lunge/weighted lunge, dumbbell or machine shoulder press, etc.

Relative Strength Details

If you’re having issues despite tracking your progress, it’s time to discuss your program with your coach. Stagnant periods will come as a result of adaptations but it isn’t an excuse for complacency.

Perhaps with newfound strength, your current body mass might not be sufficient enough to carry your increased muscle mass. For instance, a 65-year-old male will be subjected to differences in hormones which will affect their ability to maintain their muscle mass and also maintain periods of anabolism. This becomes important in catering to the geriatric or impaired audiences (for instance).

The best thing about relative strength is that it allows for time off from very intense training and allows you to incorporate all the aforementioned strength modalities. However, taking time off does not mean slacking off or using the time off as an excuse for inactivity. Marturana explains in her article that after “two weeks off from training… aerobic conditioning starts to decline.”

What I suggest is to create a plan to take time off in this fashion:

  • Record day 1 of time off from your training modality.
  • Record the substitute training that you’ll be engaging in and for how long.
  • Each day, record changes in how much weight you lift, how you feel, adjustments made to your nutrition to account for the change, the amount of sleep you obtained, and note the amount of recovery time needed between workouts.

This method will keep you on track, and once you’re back in the game you know exactly what to expect.

You Have Individual Training Needs

We are all individuals with unique gifts and talents. Our genetic makeup allows us to be something far greater than what we believe. It’s important to ensure we are respecting our bodies and our minds by setting up realistic expectations within our training.

Lift and love well, my friends!