Strength is normally generalized when it comes to fitness. Someone either is strong or not. You either want to get strong or not. But, it turns out, strength belongs to a spectrum. On one side we find absolute strength and on the other there is relative strength. What is the difference and why are they important?

Good news is, you might be stronger than you were led to believe! The less-good news is that now there are more “types” of strength you can work on!

Absolute strength is the total amount of weight your body can lift.

This is usually what people associate with strength. “What’s your bench? How much can you squat?”. Athletes get caught up with this type of strength as it is easy to see how “strong” someone is. Even though absolute strength is important, relative strength has a big impact on our fitness.

Relative strength is the total amount of weight your body can lift, relative to your body weight.

This is the strength not many people are aware of. A 150lb clean is not the same for someone who weight 200lbs than it is for someone that weighs 150lbs. Being stronger pound by pound is much healthier on joints, bones and overall health. It also helps a lot on body weight movements. The goal with relative strength is to increase your lifts without increasing your muscle mass.

This is another idea that needs to be debunked. Getting stronger does NOT equal getting bigger. Sure, your muscles will be more visible and you will tone, but it does not necessarily mean “bulk”. Growing muscle size is more associated with absolute strength. The force produced by muscles of the same mass is not always the same.

Do you know someone who can squat over 300lbs but has trouble doing push ups? Do you know someone who can rip through pull ups but cannot deadlift more 150lbs? Both are strong, but we tend to categorize only one of these people as “strong”: the former. The first person definitely has an advantage on absolute strength but the latter is probably stronger when it comes to relative strength.

Absolute strength is definitely valuable. If you can clean 300lbs, a workout with a 135lbs bar should be “light” compared to someone who can lift a max 185lbs. It also helps on “cardio machines” like the rower and the bike. And it also creates explosiveness and raw power. Furthermore, if done correctly, it can aid recovery, increase longevity and build the muscle mass necessary to protect your body from wear and tear.

The problem with only caring about absolute strength is that by getting stronger you might actually damper your relative strength. Your muscle mass gain can make it harder for bodyweight movements and overall conditioning. But if you focus on increasing your relative strength, either you will lose weight (but keep your lift’s number) or increase your lift’s number without gaining weight.

In CrossFit we aim to improve both. Most people have a tendency, or predisposition, to be better at one of these types of strength. So it is important to come to class on the days that we work the other type of strength. Another option is to come to Open Gym and work on your weakness. And another option is to meet with a Coach and come up with a plan on how to work that specific area. Let us know how we can help you get “stronger”!


By Coach Matt