Relative Strength Revelations

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. There's a very simple way to improve your maximal strength almost effortlessly. Surprisingly, it has nothing to do with periodization, sets, reps, intensity, rest periods, exercise selection, neuromuscular coordination, or anything else in the gym with which you're concerned. You won't find it on an infomercial, either.

So what is this Holy Grail of training for maximal strength? Food. Or, more specifically, utter gluttony.

Whether you resistance train or not, eating lots of food will lead to increases in muscle cross sectional area, which obviously has implications in terms of force production. So, it's pretty clear that gaining appreciable amounts of strength in an absolute sense isn't purely a function of training diligently and intelligently.

Why, then, aren't all athletes just shoving as much grub down their gullets as possible in attempts to get freaky big and strong overnight? The answer is very simple: most sports are based on relative strength, whether specific weight classes are demarcated or not.

Just being strong isn't enough; you need to be strong for your size, too. Make no mistake about it, training for strength without markedly increasing body weight is a lot more challenging than just focusing on absolute strength.

Relative Strength Personified

I probably take a lot of heat in the coaching community because I'm not huge. My primary goal – like the majority of athletes with whom I work – is relative strength. Not to sound judgmental, but to be honest, big guys are a dime a dozen. Lift weights, eat plenty of food, sleep enough, and you'll get big. Or, do everything wrong, but rely on good genes and/or steroids, and you'll get big, too.

Hell, I'm typing this article while on a plane, and I'd be willing to bet that there are a half dozen guys on this plane alone that are bigger than I am just because they like to eat (of course, four or five of them probably have type II diabetes, too).

Conversely, you just don't see a "little guy" performing a ridiculous feat of strength every day. If you're at least 25 years old, you can't possibly tell me that you don't remember Spud Webb winning the NBA Dunk Contest at 5' 7" in 1986. If you saw him on the street, though, you probably wouldn't even know he was a professional athlete.

Spud Webb going above the rim at only 5' 7"

As a relative strength athlete, I'm fortunate to have an improved perspective on what my athletes need to do in terms of training and nutrition in order to improve various physical attributes without adding non-functional mass (although mass gain may be desired in some instances).

Convention Wisdom...or Lack Thereof

You'd think that with so many athletes dependent on relative strength, more coaches would have put thought into how to train for these qualities. Unfortunately, because not many coaches worry about relative strength in their own training, they haven't bothered to consider relative strength training methodologies that could be applied to training their athletes.

Instead, they simply accept what they've heard from those who've gone before them. As a result, the same old myths and misconceptions continue to persist. With that in mind, I decided to combine my steadfast devotion to relative strength with my laptop in order to tackle the five most common myths you'll see on this front.

5 Relative Strength Myths Debunked!

1 – You must avoid high reps ("traditional" hypertrophy prescriptions).

Conventional relative strength wisdom holds that if you want to avoid packing on size but still need to make neural improvements for the sake of strength increases, you should simply stick to high-intensity, low volume lifting parameters such as 3 x 3. If you go to 6-8 reps, you'll likely turn into Jay Cutler overnight and your 40-time will skyrocket to eight seconds.

While I'm all for lifting heavy stuff to get stronger (rocket science at its finest), I must ask: what the heck does one do when an athlete is absolutely burned out after three weeks of circa-maximal loading? How do you address muscular imbalances that can only be corrected with extra volume on under-utilized movements? Are you really going to train prehab movements such as shoulder external rotation and hip abduction with 3RM loads? How do you teach an athlete new movements if he's only "allowed" to do a few sets of 2-3 reps per session?

I'll come right out and say it: all relative strength athletes should still utilize all rep brackets in their training – everything from 1 to 20 reps. The most important consideration is how much attention is devoted to each bracket. Broadly speaking, all relative strength athletes can be subdivided into two categories:

  1. Athletes requiring little to no metabolic conditioning: This group includes powerlifters, Olympic lifters, volleyball players, baseball players, and track and field jumpers. They may need short sprinting and agility work, but these efforts aren't enough to make dramatic energy expenditure a huge part of their training sessions and competitions.
  2. Athletes requiring considerable metabolic conditioning: This group consists of the vast majority of athletes, pretty much everyone not included in the first group. These athletes move around a lot more than the first group. All this energy expenditure makes it more unlikely that they'll "accidentally" pack on some non-functional size.

So, it becomes readily apparent that one needs to be more careful with the former group's training and nutrition programs, as there'll be a greater tendency toward "accidental" growth where it may not be optimal. In this group, there should be fewer sets in traditional hypertrophy ranges, and total dietary intake shouldn't provide a surplus of calories. Nonetheless, these athletes still need a substantial amount of higher rep training for a variety of reasons:

  1. To correct muscle imbalances created by sporting movements (e.g. repeated humeral internal rotation and scapular protraction in throwing a baseball must be evened out with plenty of external rotation and scapular retraction).
  2. To provide sufficient volume to teach new movements and replace faulty movement patterns with proper motor programming.
  3. To provide for connective tissue health via strengthening of the non-contractile elements of the muscles and tendons. (This is incredibly important. If you only train heavy all the time, you're going to be hurting sooner than later.)
  4. To allow for sufficient volume during periods when intensity must be reduced, but exercise technique practice must continue.
  5. To allow for training of certain movements that can't feasibly be trained with circa-maximal loading.

What to Do

I'm a big fan of the conjugate method of periodization for these very reasons (among others). I feel strongly that all athletes should train with some sets at slightly higher rep ranges throughout the year – even in-season when volume is lower.

If you're an athlete whose sport requires more metabolic conditioning, you can use these modalities liberally, as it'll be tough for you to pack on size unless you're really trying. Plus, if you're participating in your sport simultaneously to any weight gain that occurs, chances are that it'll grow on you, meaning that it'll be functional mass rather than just dead weight that seems to have come out of nowhere.

If your sport doesn't require as much metabolic conditioning, you can still get away with these higher rep brackets, although they should be included more sparingly. For these athletes, dietary control becomes more of an issue. If you don't provide extra clay, you won't add to the sculpture.

2 – You must maintain the status quo with your physique.

This myth piggybacks on the sculpture comment from the last paragraph. Just because you have to stay at approximately the same body weight does not mean that you can't effect positive changes to your body composition. That lard isn't doing you much good, so why not drop some of it and add a little muscle in its place to wind up at the same net body weight? With proper training and nutrition, it can be done.

Want proof? I had DEXA scans on April 9, 2004 and March 29, 2005. The DEXA is the modern gold standard for bone health and body composition assessment. It seems that nowadays, everyone claims to be 6% body fat. I've got news for you: the calipers and bioelectrical impedance scales that your local unqualified personal trainer uses at the gym don't hold a candle to the DEXA in terms of accuracy.

A DEXA machine

You aren't 6%. In fact, you're probably more than 10%. My point isn't to give you a hard time, but just to tell you that DEXAs are the real deal and don't lie, so what I'm presenting below is legit.

The first date is approximately three months after I devoted myself fully to competitive powerlifting. By the second date (approximately one year later), I'd participated in four meets. In this year, I just focused on getting strong and fast. Here's what happened in that time:

  4/9/2004 3/29/2005 Difference
Bone Mineral Density (g/cm2) 1.236 1.288 0.052
Body Weight 171.6 175.1 3.5
Height (in.) 68 68 0
Body fat % 14.2 10.5 -3.7
Fat (lbs.) 23.39 17.93 -5.46
Lean (lbs.) 141.88 153.14 11.26
Bone Mineral Content (lbs.) 6.86 7.17 0.31

The blubber I dropped (5.5 pounds) wasn't doing much for me, but I can guarantee that the extra lean body mass (11.25 pounds) was doing a lot to help the cause. And the one-third of a pound of bone I added probably improved my stability while reducing my osteoporosis risk and ensuring that I won't break my hip at age 90 while I'm attempting to get into some revolutionary sex position with my 25 year-old wife. But I digress...

What to Do

The take-home message is to always seek a better way to do things with your training, diet, and supplementation, as you're always in a position to improve your physique – even if that means you're unexpectedly packing on bone mass!

Speaking of supplementation, and call it a shameless plug if you want, but a lot of these body composition changes came about when I started receiving a monthly goody package of Biotest supplements. HMB and liver tablets never yielded these kind of results. Go figure...

3 – Your body weight must not fluctuate throughout the year.

I'll come right out and say it. I may compete at 165, but if I sat at 165 year-round, my progress would probably only be 10% of what it is. For many individuals, it's advantageous to let your body weight creep up a bit in the off-season. (I'm usually 175-180.) In the case of powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and strongman competitors, this gain is more associated with increased glycogen storage, adequate hydration status, and even a little bit of extra body fat (to hit the endocrine set-point at which they function best).

The only time they're really at their competitive weight is at their weigh-in. In situations where there's a 48-hour weigh-in, some competitors have been known to gain over 35 pounds between their weigh-in and the actual competition! Obviously, those with a same-day weigh-in have much less wiggle room, but the point is still valid.

Conversely, "traditional" athletes can afford to gain a little bit of weight in the off-season, as it isn't imperative for them to be in tip-top metabolic condition when games aren't scheduled. Remember, they don't hand out championships for being conditioned in the off-season! This is the time to build strength, power, and (when applicable) functional hypertrophy. Often, an athlete will return the following competitive season with a few extra pounds but considerably improved physical prowess that justifies this weight gain.

Adding some body weight in moderation in the off-season can be good for a variety of reasons. In addition to the aforementioned endocrine set-point rationale, there's definitely the confidence angle; you just feel stronger and more in control of things with a few extra pounds on your frame.

What to Do

In many sports, particularly strength sports, you won't be able to make optimal progress if your body weight stays constant throughout the year. As a general rule of thumb, an increase in the range of 5% would be a good starting point to really see if you can notice appreciable positive results.

A simple way to ensure that you're adding functional mass is to test your vertical jump every two weeks. If it's going up or staying the same as you gain weight, you're doing well. If not, you're likely adding weight too quickly or your training isn't appropriate.

4 – You must starve yourself.

Now, since we've established that the relative strength guys can train a lot more like absolute strength guys than previously thought, how do they avoid packing on the pounds and ruining their strength-to-body weight ratio?

Contrary to popular belief, the answer is not through starving themselves. Instead, a more well planned approach to food selection and nutrient timing is the key. The little guys can actually eat the same volume of food as their larger counterparts (and thus feel satisfied); they just need to opt for less calorie-dense foods. Some examples:

Relative Strength Choice Absolute Strength Choice
Mixed Nuts Oils
Water Sports Drinks (when applicable)
Fibrous, non-starch veggies e.g. broccoli, spinach Starchy Veggies * e.g. peas, corn
Fruit: apples, pears, berries Fruit: bananas, grapes, pineapple
Metabolic Drive® Protein Metabolic Drive® Protein
Lean Cuts of Meat Slightly Less Lean Meat

* Note: Many very large strength athletes will growl, scowl, or burst out laughing at the mere mention of vegetables. Use caution when approaching such creatures.

This chart should serve more as a guide for what relative strength athletes should do and not a justification for how many absolute strength athletes eat. To be honest, I'd like to see more absolute strength athletes eating more along the lines of the left-hand column and looking for more calorie-dense healthy choices to help them meet their energy needs.

As noted, nutrient timing is also of paramount importance for all athletes, and relative strength athletes are no exception. One misconception I've heard on numerous occasions is that lightweight competitors can't afford to use beverages like Plazma™ before, during, and after their training sessions because doing so will lead to undesirable mass gain. This could not be further from the truth.

If anything, these lightweight individuals – who are likely a lean bunch in the first place – probably need Surge more than anyone else! With considerably less body fat than their absolute strength counterparts, these individuals will generally have higher cortisol levels and a greater overall tendency toward excessive skeletal muscle protein catabolism in response to exercise.

This is one reason why your classic beanpole, emaciated "hard-gainer" can't tolerate much volume without feeling like he's been beaten like an old rug. Toss some Surge in the mix, and you'll be able to keep cortisol down, thus allowing you to do a bit more work per session and maintain sufficient training frequency.

Being able to maintain a high training frequency is of the utmost importance for relative strength athletes. In a broad sense, force production can be attributed to the interaction of neural factors and muscle cross sectional area. Following a training stimulus, neural proficiency as it relates to force production falls off much sooner than you lose size.

Think about it, you rarely hear about people wasting away with injuries that require short-term immobilization, but you'll often hear of people losing the "feel" of something when they don't practice it frequently. Whether you're a pitcher throwing on your off-days or a sword-swallower flirting with instant death on a daily basis, the nervous system is always going to be more high-maintenance than the muscles.

Because relative strength athletes obviously have less muscle cross sectional area than their larger counterparts, they're more heavily reliant on neural factors for force production. Because of this reliance, they need to train with greater frequency to maintain their gains, while absolute strength athletes can get away with skipping more sessions because they have cross sectional area to cover up any detraining that might occur and, in essence, bail them out in the short-term.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I've noticed substantial improvements in my ability to train frequently since the good Dr. Berardi recommended that I give Brain Candy™ a run after my training sessions. Try keeping a bottle in your training bag, and knock it back after your most taxing sessions. I think you'll find a noticeable difference in your ability to come back and hit it hard again sooner.

What to Do

Don't starve yourself! Proper food selection and nutrient timing are just as important as total caloric intake when it comes to maintaining body weight while increasing strength.

5 – You Must Avoid Prolonged Eccentrics.

Somewhere along the line, some coaches came to the conclusion that eccentric exercise is the Holy Grail of hypertrophy training, and therefore the worst thing a relative strength athlete can do. There's always a problem with blanket statements though, and this case is no exception. Prolonged eccentrics (negatives) can actually be very beneficial for relative strength athletes for three reasons.

First, as was the case with classic hypertrophy brackets being valuable for connective tissue health, the same can be said of longer eccentrics. The longer the eccentric, the greater the time under tension (TUT). A longer time under tension is something that's needed to provide for these beneficial adaptations to occur (regardless of whether that TUT comes via more reps or longer reps).

Second, eccentric exercise can be extremely useful in treating tendonosis via stimulating fibroblasts to lay down new connective tissue. Granted, we're talking eccentrics at a much lower intensity here – not anywhere near what you'd require to pack on some size. However, like I said, blanket statements really bug me. And while I'm on the brink of a rant, I might as well add that I think paying $3 a gallon for gas is ridiculous.

Lastly, supramaximal eccentrics are a good way to get maximal tension, build strength, and just become accustomed to having heavy weights on your back or in your hands. Everyone should use these sparingly, though, relative strength and absolute strength athletes alike.

What to Do

So, the final verdict on eccentrics with respect to our discussion is that when used similarly to higher rep brackets, they just need to be incorporated in moderation. If you're using them to treat tendonosis or are working with supramaximal resistance for lower rep brackets, go ahead and use them just as you would for an absolute strength athlete.

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully, this article has opened a few eyes with respect to some of the myths that are out there for lifters who are looking to get strong but not necessarily big. It's important that coaches and athletes alike understand the physiological basis for prescribing or following a specific program.

If your only justification for acting as you do is that some coach said so, you very well may be just helping a well-traveled, never-questioned myth spread even more.