You have to appreciate competition...whether it's in sport, exercise, the workplace, or any other facet of life, competition is the driving force behind greatness. At an evolutionary level, it is what is responsible for the advancement of human kind. Competition for resources, for power, and for wealth have been the catalysts for all of the great leaps in human civilization. Today we'll be looking at one of the oldest and most basic physiological forms of competition....strength.
For thousands of years, man has been testing his strength against others. Going back to the ancient Olympic games, human beings have always valued the accumulation and development of raw physical power. But how do we judge how strong a person really is? Today, I'll be explaining the advantages, disadvantages, and differences of the two types of strength, absolute and relative. First we will start with some basic definitions.
Absolute strength is the type of strength the average person is most familiar with. Anyone who has spent any time in a gym has certainly been asked, "How much do you bench?" or "How much can you squat?" These questions refer to absolute strength, or, the maximum amount of force that someone can exert, irrespective of body size or weight. This type of strength is best measured with 1-rep maximum calculations in different weight training movements (i.e. max bench, max squat, max clean).
Relative strength is just what it sounds like....the maximum amount of force that someone can exert in relation to body size or weight. Relative strength is commonly measured with body weight exercises such as pushup and pullups. However, these types of measure are not always accurate as they sometimes measure muscular endurance as opposed to power. For this reason, it is more accurate to use a measure of 1RM and then compare it on a scale of body weight, or use a maximum athletic effort such as the 40-yard dash or high jump.
To make the comparison a little easier, I will use an example. Let's take two athletes...Athlete 1 weighs 150 pounds, can bench press 200 pounds, and can squat 300 pounds. Athlete 2 weighs 200 pounds, can bench press 250 pounds and can squat 350 pounds. So Athlete 2 is stronger right? Welllll, sort of....Athlete 2 does have greater absolute strength, but Athlete 1 actually has greater relative strength (A1 can bench press 1.33 times his weight and squat 2 times his weight while A2 can only bench 1.25 times his weight and squat 1.75 times his weight). So you can see that the "strongest" person is not always the one who can lift the most weight!
So which one is right for you? Well, it depends.....certainly for the average person, relative strength will be the most important factor to consider when discussing power. This is due to the fact that most people don't really have a need to be able to push (bench press) 300 pounds off their chest (unless you frequently get trapped under cars) or stand up (squat) with 1000 pounds on their back (unless you frequently give piggy-back rides to grizzly bears). But athletes need absolute strength right? Ehhh, not really....in athletics, it is actually relative strength that determines how fast you can sprint, how high you can jump, and how agile you are, so relative strength will still be the most important factor for most athletes to consider.
Hopefully that sheds a little bit of light on the different types of strength and how to gauge how strong you really are. But in reality, your strength is not as important as how you feel about your overall health and wellness. If you're "strong", but you hate how you look, have high blood pressure, and are constantly in pain, then maybe it's time to re-prioritize. I know I've been asked a countless number of times how much I bench or how much I squat or yada, yada, yada, and I always have the same answer....just enough to look awesome. ;)