I tend to observe athletes a lot nowadays, whether it is on the court or in the weight room. I have noticed that there are more and more weak athletes. When I talk to them, many tell me that they want to get stronger for a certain sport, yet they seem to use methods reserved for bodybuilding and putting on a lot of mass. Now there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with putting on more muscle but we have to make sure that the muscle is going to be functional and carry over to improvement in prerformance. What many athletes fail to realize that the primary goal should be improving relative strength (in quite a few instances putting on mass is a must also……and they do go hand in hand if you train right). Relative strength is the strength to bodyweight ratio. I will give you an example of two athletes as this will explain things easier:
Athlete A: weight 250 lbs, 500 lb squat
Athlete B: weight 175 lbs, 437 lb squat
In this case everyone would say that athlete A is stronger, which is true in a way…….he is absolutely stronger, but he is not relatively stronger. Athlete B can squat 2.5x his own bodyweight while athlete A can squat 2x his bodyweight, which shows that the former has better relative strength. I am pretty sure that athlete A has better performance on the field/court! So how come more athletes (and trainees in general) don’t use more relative strength methodologies? Most of it stems from myths and misconceptions that get passed down from coaches, trainers, even the “huge guy” in the gym, that have always done it a certain way so that is the way everyone should do it.
I would say that this is a good example of relative upper body strength. You may bench 400 lbs, but you sure as hell aren’t doing that!
When it comes to these situations I always advise for the athletes to start lifting in the lower rep ranges (heavier weights, 1-5 reps) so that their body can also start making neural adaptations through which they will become stronger and also create more potential for growth (when I mention that I know it should raise the interest for those that were looking at me crooked when I mentioned the lower rep ranges). That does not mean that you will be lifting strictly in the low rep ranges, as it is important to lift through different rep ranges depending on your sport and also the goals you are trying to achieve. That is why I love the conjugate method of periodiazation (Conjugate training means to “couple” – you are combining training methods to develop different abilities simultaneously, for example…..strength, speed, functional hypertrophy).
Another way of improving relative strength is by reducing body fat percentage and putting on some functional muscle which would in essence lead you to around the same bodyweight yet with more horsepower. I was discussing some nutritional strategies for athletes here.
Now I know some of you are thinking why should I put all this focus into improving my relative strength when my sport requires a lot of aerobic or anaerobic endurance, agility and/or power. Where is the catch? The fact is that maximal strength is the foundation for all the other attributes! For this explanation I will use an analogy from Eric Cressey’s (genius) Off Season Training Manual.
Imagine you represent two different athletes with an 8 oz glass (Athlete A) and a 4 oz glass (Athlete B). For the sake of this discussion, the size – capacity – of the glass is our maximal strength. In essence, the more strength we have, the more specific physical attributes (fluid) we can put in our glass. These attributes include power, strength, endurance and agility – all of which can be limited by insufficient strength.
This is a shortened version of the example but I hope that you get the point – improve your maximal/relative strength and stop lifting pink dumbells.