Athletes often focus so much on lifting as much weight as possible that they forget about relative strength, or strength relative to their body weight.
For example, someone who weighs 150 pounds and can squat 300 pounds has greater relative strength than someone who weighs 200 pounds and can squat 350 pounds. And chances are that athletes with greater relative strength will perform better in their sports. Arizona Cardinals Director of Sports Performance Buddy Morris says its best: “I don’t care how strong you get, if you can’t move, you can’t help us.”
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It all comes down to your strength-to-weight ratio. If two athletes weigh the same but one is stronger, the stronger one will be able to put more force into the ground and run faster. It’s the same concept as putting a bigger engine in a plane to make it fly faster. Relative strength ultimately dictates how explosively you can move on the field. Even sports skills like throwing a ball can depend on relative strength—although some pitchers are heavy and have poor relative strength, making them exceptions to the rule.
Testing Relative Strength
There are three ways to test your relative strength and see if you are improving.
One of the easiest and truest tests of relative strength is a simple Pull-Up. If you have greater relative strength, you will be able to perform more Pull-Ups. Simple as that. If you are getting stronger in other exercises but your Pull-Ups don’t improve, there’s a good chance you are adding bad body weight. Even football linemen, who need to gain both strength and size, need their max Pull-Ups to increase. This means that even though they are gaining a lot of weight, they must be able to maneuver that weight efficiently. I’ll take a maneuverable lineman with good hips over big boulders any day.
Another simple test of relative strength is a Plank. Master strength coach Dan John asserts that if you can’t hold a Plank for 2 minutes, “you’re either a) too fat; b) too weak; or c) doing something wrong in your workouts.” To perform at their best, athletes must work on moving their bodies as one cohesive unit, and the core is an essential component.
Calculate Your Strength-to-Weight Ratio
Take your max on an exercise and divide it by your weight. That’s your strength-to-weight ratio. If that number increases during your training program, your relative strength is improving.
Improving Relative Strength
There are several things you can do to increase your relative strength:
Perform heavy lifts for fewer reps rather than performing muscle-building workouts. The goal is to get stronger, not add a ton of size.
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Perform Explosive Exercises
No training program is complete without explosive exercises, such as plyometrics or strength exercises with a moderate weight and a focus on speed.
Train Your Entire Body
Many programs neglect mastery of body weight and movement quality to emphasize how much an athlete can lift. You need to master all fundamental bodyweight exercises before adding weight, and you must perform a comprehensive program that trains all movements—not just ones you are good at or make you look good in the mirror.
Watch Your Diet
If you want to maintain your weight and/or add lean muscle mass, your diet must support your goals and not add unproductive weight to your body.