Relative Strength: Seven Tips to Unlock Athletic Explosiveness

Jared_Cunningham_dunkingThere’s a secret purveyed in most sports performance circles that is misguided.

While, absolute strength gets all the glory as a cure all, relative strength reigns king for athletes. In other words, being strong isn’t enough. It’s vital to be strong for your size, too.

Wait…What?


“I thought being super strong was a cure all?”

There’s a reason athletes don’t train exactly like powerlifters, and a reason powerlifters don’t train exactly like athletes.

They require different skills, have individual needs, and limited resources to train. Plain and simple, your body makes specific adaptations to the imposed demands, or the SAID principle.

To be honest, not everyone needs to be jacked out of their minds and squat 500+ pounds to be a better athlete. Those guys are a dime a dozen– just by following progressive overload, cramming food down your gullet, and sleeping enough you’ll get big and strong.

On the contrary, you rarely see smaller guys performing insane feats of strength, athleticism, and power.

That’s why guys like 5’8″ Nate Robinson throwing down Tomahawk dunks amongst 7’0″ monsters, and 5’6” Darren Sproles juking, sprinting, and running through opponents are so exciting. Their relative strength is vastly superior to their competition, allowing them to sprint, jump, and run faster.

When it comes to movement based athletes, relative strength reigns king.

As a relative strength athlete, and coach of relative and absolute strength athletes, I’m fortunate to have an improved perspective on what my athletes need to emphasize to maximize training and carryover into sports.

Athletes spending too much time adding plates to the bar reach a point of diminishing returns if it causes unnecessary allocation of training and recovery resources and extra body mass.

Stop Taking Every Strength Building Article as the End all Be All

I want to be crystal clear–absolute strength is essential for athletes. To be relatively strong you must have a base of absolute strength.

Relative strength= Absolute Strength/Body weight

But, contrary to what most articles say absolute strength isn’t the end all be all–you must be relatively stronger than your competitors to gain a distinct advantage in sports that that require movement or have weight restrictions.

I love lifting heavy as much as anyone, but there is a point when “strong” is strong enough and the risks of pursuing further strength enhancement outweigh the rewards of a new personal record.

Take the following example:

Ben Johnson, juiced or not juiced, was an absolute beast on the track and in the gym. With a 600lb+ squats at 170-180lbs he was absolutely stronger and relatively stronger than his competition.

But would training to improve his squat as the primary mode of training necessarily improve his performance if other training suffers and he potentially gains weight to accommodate his training?

Let’s say his squat is emphasized and bodyweight also increases ten pounds.

Here are hypothetical numbers:

625lbs squat at 175lbs= 3.57x/bw

650 lbs squat at 185lbs= 3.51x/bw

Or a More practical Example:

405lb squat at 200 lbs = 2.025 x/bw

425 lb squat at 225 lbs = 1.89 x/bw

In both cases, being stronger in an absolute sense doesn’t always improve relative strength, which is more important for movement.

This difference might seem minor, but if the additional weight results in being a step slower, or losing the ability to decelerate the body under control is the athlete really better?

I’d venture not, their probably less explosive, and are potentially at a higher risk of injury.

Relative Strength for Athletes 

There are many factors to consider, but heavy strength training is a tool for improvement, not the end-all be-all in performance.

Does the allocation of resources towards building more strength with potential gains in size outweigh the benefits of higher relative strength and corresponding improvements in agility, speed, power, and coordination?

No, there are always exceptions like absolute strength athletes such as lineman, throwers, and strongman competitors, but when athletes’ sports are movement based relative strength reigns king.

How to Gain Strength without Size

Strength builds a foundation that improves the ability to train all other qualities—speed, power, agility, and endurance are all improved with increased strength.

Although it’s impossible to make only neurological gains or muscular gains with training, emphasizing certain factors will maximize relative strength without unnecessary gains in body weight.

#1 -Lift heavy. Lifting- moderate to heavy loads (80%+ 1-RM) will stimulate high-threshold fast-twitch muscle fibers and improve muscle fiber recruitment. Most initial gains in strength training occur as a result of neural adaptations due to increased muscle fiber recruitment and increased rate coding/firing frequency.

Heavy loads will stimulate gains, but in the absence of high significant volume most will result in myofibrilar hypertrophy—actively strengthening the muscle fiber itself. Essentially, lifting heavy the majority of the time will always get you stronger, but not necessarily much bigger. Ensure the exercise selection fits the needs of your athletes and risk to common injury sites is minimized.

Bottom Line: Heavy strength training is ideal for improving relative strength, but the exercise selection should match the needs of the sport while minimizing risk to common injury sites. Hoist heavy weights!

#2 – Lower training volume. Train high-intensity, but decrease the volume. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is growth triggered by higher volume, more metabolic training and increases the storage of non-contractile cell fluid. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy isn’t itself is non-function, but excessive amounts of hypertrophy are more benifical to stretching your shirt-sleeves than maximizing performance.

Bottom line: Yeah, the occasional pump is okay, but there’s no need train like a bodybuilder if your goals are improved relative strength and performance. Limit your training volume and emphasize intensity to maximize strength gains with additional hypertrophy.

#3 – Limit Excess calories. It might be a shocking revelation, but gaining weight requires excess calories. Without significantly increasing calories there isn’t fuel for muscle growth and weight gain. Consume enough calories to support recovery from training, but avoid surplus and weight gain when it becomes detrimental to performance. Unless you’re a scraggly hard-gainer aim for less-calorie dense foods, leaner cuts of dead animal flesh, and copious amounts of vegetables.

Bottom Line: Find out what your caloric needs are for full exercise recovery and always hit those. Beyond that, save the binge eating sessions at iHop for the hard-gainers and absolute strength athletes.

#4 – Limit Cardio. Too much steady state cardio will take recovery and training resources away from maximizing strength and sports training. Even worse, excessive cardio may lead to transition of type II muscle fibers to less explosive type I muscle fibers when overdone.

Plus, repetitive stress activities such as running lead to a catabolic environment due to constant impact and muscle fiber transition for increased proficiency in aerobic tasks over explosive, anaerobic tasks.

Bottom Line: Sure, tons of steady state training is great if you want to be a marathoner, but if you’re a high-performance beast that lifts, jumps, and throws heavy shit then leave the steady state work to pavement pounders and focus on high intensity exercises.

#5 – Incorporate Explosive Exercises. Most barbell, dumbbell, and body weight exercises can be performed in an explosive manor, but the best are the Olympic lifts, throws, and jumps. Throws and jumps are great for nervous system activation, pure speed work, and improving overall athleticism directly after a warm-up.

Olympic lifts are staples in most resistance training programs unless the performance risks to important body parts for sport performance. Few exercises are as demanding as cleans, split jerks and snatches—performing these along will make workouts more efficient and decrease the training volume needed for performance gains.

Bottom Line: Sprint, throw, jump, and lift explosively to maximize nervous system efficiency in your workouts. By hoisting weights with max speed you’ll activate more muscle fibers and in-turn, become stronger and more explosive. BOOOYAH.

#6 – Increase Rest Periods. Longer rest periods will allow better quality reps, higher training loads, better neural recovery, and decrease the acidic muscular environment. If you’re incorporating heavy and explosive exercises you want to perform them with technical proficiency to increase performance, not mega-setted with a handful of other exercises. Creating a metabolic and acidic environment is also conducive to building muscle—something you’re looking to avoid if you want to maximize relative strength over hypertrophy.

Bottom Line: Keep most weight training heavy and explosive with full recovery rather than being metabolically demanding. You’ll improve technique and maximize performance rather than gasp for air while peeling your sweaty carcass out of the squat rack.

#7 – Incorporate plyometrics. Plyometrics improve the ability of the stretch-shortening cycle to store energy, rate of force development, and increased nervous system recruitment. These are great for improved performance but keep in mind plyometrics are extremely taxing: speed work, jumps, and medicine balls all have plyometric components.

Athletes likely have these programmed in individual practice already, so adding more requires an in-depth at practices before haphazardly programming them.

Bottom Line: Plyometric and explosive exercises are essential for increasing nervous system recruitment and maximizing explosiveness. Implement slowly with full rest periods before your lifting for additional gains in strength and high performance gainz, bro.

Wrap Up

Whether you’re a coach, an athlete, or an iron junky it’s important to have perspective on what different goals entail.

If you’re looking to improve strength and not necessarily gain muscle or bodyweight then these recommendations are right up your alley.

Not every one of these factors needs to be implemented immediately nor year-round, but they should serve as a great reminder on how constant heavy lifting, training volume, lifting speed, rest periods, and dietary choices all fit into the big picture of getting more explosive.

Quality strength training is one of the fastest ways to improve performance, but don’t be obsessed with huge absolute strength numbers as the end-all be-all in performance.

Every aspect of training is a tool in the performance toolbox. Focus on the variables that fill needs of each athlete rather than blindly attaching absolute strength as the holy grail of performance.

About the Author

Headshot bingoEric Bach, CSCS, PN1 is a performance coach at Steadman Hawkins Sports Performance in Denver, Colorado. As an author Eric has been featured in publications such as T-Nation, eliteFTS, and the PTDC.

He is the owner of Bach Performance, a community created to help you take control of your fitness to become stronger, shredded, and more athletic. Join the community at bachperformance.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

3 Comments

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  1. While Relative Strength is absolutely a key factor in athleticism, There is another key factor, that of rate of force development. You address this in this article with additional training beyond traditional strength approaches, such as plyometrics and explosive exercise. But to say Relative Strength is King seems as misguided as saying Absolute Strength is.

    • Fair point here. Just keep in mind that it’s impossible to cover all aspects and avenues of a topic in a single post.

      Furthermore, you could make the same argument for “speed” being king, “conditioning” being king, etc.

      I’m speaking for Eric here, but just keep in mind this is an opinion piece…..

    • Fair point in-deed. Mike hit my thoughts on the head below. My aim in this article was for practicioners to view Performance from a different perspective than absolute strength being an end-all to performance training. I hope this opened some eyes to the importance of relative strength while touching on potential issues pertaining to the overzealous pursuit of max strength.

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