Decoding Common Strength Training Terminology

The best strength coaches and trainers do an amazing job of making complex topics sound simple. However, as an athlete (or as an aspiring coach), you need to have a solid grasp of basic strength training terminology so you can understand the methodology behind various programs. (Check out STACK Coaches and Trainers.)

I am going to delve into several of the terms most commonly used in the weight room to help you understand what coaches truly mean, and perhaps help you create your own program. This is by no means a complete list, but it will get you started.


Generally defined as the amount of sets and reps performed for a specific exercise, muscle group or workout session. However, weight must also be factored in. For example, if you squat 135 pounds 5 times, the volume for that set is 675 pounds. If you do this for 3 sets, the volume would be 2,025 pounds.

Keeping track of volume is a good way to determine how much total work you got done in a training session. Over time, this can help prevent overtraining. (Learn more about overtraining.)


Intensity can be understood as the amount of weight lifted in relation to your one-rep maximum, expressed as a percentage. It's not to be confused with mental intensity or hard work. It's all about the numbers. For example, if your one-rep max on the Bench Press is 200 pounds and you lift 135 pounds on your first set, then your intensity is 67.5%.

Tracking this quantitative data is essential for structuring your training and creating an effective program. Without it, you are exercising, not training.


Tempo describes the timing of the three phases of a rep—eccentric, amortization (or isometric) and concentric. This is expressed as three numbers—e.g.,  2-0-1. To perform a 2-0-1 Squat, you descend for two seconds, spend as little time as possible at the bottom of the rep, and stand up in one second. (Learn about each phase of a rep.)

Absolute Strength

The maximum amount of force your muscles can produce in a single contraction under involuntary conditions. This is extremely tough to achieve in a normal setting, even when attempting a one-rep maximum. It mostly shows up in life-or-death situations (e.g., when you hear of a mom lifting a car off her trapped son).

Maximum Strength

The maximum amount of force your muscles can produce under voluntary conditions. This is measured by a one-rep max test. (Try this max test.)

Relative Strength

The maximum amount of force your muscles can produce under voluntary conditions in relation to your body mass. Let's assume two individuals: one (Trainee A) weighs 200 pounds and can deadlift 350 pounds; and the other (Trainee B) weighs 150 pounds and can deadlift 320 pounds.

Trainee A may deadlift more weight (demonstrating more maximum strength), but Trainee B is stronger pound-for-pound. He can deadlift 2.13 times his bodyweight, while Trainee A deadlifts 1.75 times his weight.

Rate of Force Development

How quickly you can reach max strength. The faster your rate of force development, the more powerful you are, which is critical in virtually every sport.


You are now armed with the correct definitions of a few common and often misinterpreted strength training terms. Use them to create better programs for yourself and others!

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