Relative or absolute strength?

Fitness. Diving. Lifestyle.

Relative or absolute strength?

Strength-to-weight ratio refers to the amount of weight you can lift proportional to your bodyweight.

Much like calling someone the best ‘pound-for-pound’ boxer it means that despite the myriad different body types, shapes and sizes we can still have a meaningful method for comparing each others strength.

So for example the heaviest deadlift ever is currently held by Eddie Hall, a World’s Strongest Man competitor, with a pretty staggering lift of 462 kgs (1018.5 lbs) completed earlier this year.

While it is obviously an incredible number and officially the heaviest weight a person has ever hoisted off the ground (starting with the bar the regulation height) you can see that Hall is not, as you’d expect, a small man.  His most recent stats list him as having a bodyweight of 172 kgs (378.4 lbs), which means his record-breaking lift was 2.7 x bw.

That’s still impressive, but guess what? I just did a 2.89 x bw deadlift (240kgs @ 83 kgs bw), which means in strength-to-weight ratio terms I’m stronger!

Obviously my numbers pale into insignificance when you look at the pound for pound records.  The greatest pound for pound deadlift? That would be a guy called Lamar Gant, who in the 1980s became the first person to lift more than FIVE TIMES his bodyweight of 132 lbs (60 kgs) with a lift of 682 lbs (310 kgs) which comes out as 5.17 x bw, and a record that stands to this day.

Whose lifting is more impressive, Hall’s or Gant’s?  You can argue for either one.

The point to take away is that absolute strength is not everything.  For someone like Eddie Hall he’s obviously just trying to get the most weight off the ground, with no real regard to his bodyweight other than getting bigger so he can get stronger.

For us regular joe’s not attempting to break absolute records it is all too easy to get carried away with the number on the bar and forget about strength to weight.

There are a lot of powerlifitng style programs out there (such as the (in)famous Starting Strength by Mark Rippentoe) which advocate huge calorific consumption to aid your strength goals, with the idea that as long as the number on the bar is going up, then all is well.

It’s part of the whole ‘bulking’ and ‘eat to grow’ mantra that is so popular, but so misleading, in the muscle-building side of the industry.  The reason people follow these programs is because when you eat a lot and put on weight (even if it’s mostly fat, which it will be because naturals can’t grow muscle very fast), you will see strength improvements.

This is especially true in the bench press, simply because if you’re bigger you have a larger and more stable base to push from.  Similarly in the squat total body mass counts for a lot in determining how much you can lift.

You obviously need muscle, but if you increase your total body weight significantly and only a small proportion of that is lean muscle you will still be stronger.

Getting stronger is obviously what we’re after, but if we’re also getting fat then it defeats the point of fitness.

What is more impressive and desirable, a 100 kg bench press at 100 kg fat bodyweight or a 90 kg bench press at 70 kg, where you can also do 15 pull-ups?

If you’re a competitive powerlifter in the heavyweight class, you might not care.  But I think it’s valuable to remember that the number on the bar is not absolute, it’s relative.

When I first started training, my obvious goal was to get as big and strong as fast as possible.  Everywhere I read, I was told to eat, eat and eat, train hard, and before long I’d be racking plates onto the bar whilst being 200 lbs of solid muscle.

This works if you take drugs, like the guys advertising these programs.

If you’re natural, then you might get part of the equation right, but because you’re missing a key element, you won’t get everything promised to you.

In other words you’ll eat and eat and your strength will go up, but you’ll also get fat. 

Your strength to weight ratio will actually go down.

The unpalatable truth (at least for those who don’t like hard work and long term accomplishment) is that real muscle growth takes a relatively long time; increasing strength-to-weight ratio also takes a while.

But stick with it and the end result is that you’ll be strong, fit and healthy, with genuinely impressive strength relative to your bodyweight, rather than squatting 180 kgs but struggling to get in the bottom position because of your belly.

Don’t get caught in the trap and get fixated on how much you’re lifting.  Lean bodyweight and strength takes longer to achieve but it will also mean you’re healthier, more mobile and look better.  Take your pick.


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