Absolute strength, relative strength, and maximal effort

301016 Absolute strength, relative strength, and maximal effort

By Danny M. O’Dell, M.A. CSCS*D

Absolute strength, relative strength and maximal effort all contribute to the coaches training plans. But just what is the difference in these three classifications?

Absolute strength is the maximum muscle strength a body can summon up plus the protected reserve from the autonomic nervous system. This leaves the body open to severe injury and is not a usual occurrence in everyday life. Most assuredly not in a weight lifting competition. This is the type of strength displayed by the parent in protecting the child in an overturned vehicle when they are able to lift the vehicle off the child.

Absolute strength should not be confused with maximal effort. “The resulting force depends on both the motor task and the athlete’s abilities” to develop maximal effort. This display of strength appears in contests and is a trainable attribute. However just because you lifted the weight may not necessarily mean you will win the contest. Perhaps the other lifter was lighter than you and ended up with the same total. Now the bodyweight formulas come into play.

The formulas used in competition compare body weight to the weight lifted. This is a relative strength comparison. Relative strength is found by dividing the absolute strengths’ approximate value by the cross section of the muscle. Again, an impractical method of determining strength in the everyday lifters world.

Comparing these two types leads us in yet another direction. The absolute strength of a person in a particular movement totally disregards the individual’s bodyweight. Relative strength on the other hand equals absolute strength divided by bodyweight. This is a valid method of measurement between two lifters of unequal body weight.

Did you ever wonder why it seems the relative weight formula seems to favor the lighter lifters? Here is the brief and to the point answer. It is because the body mass of the heavier lifter is proportional to the body volume of the lifter (cube of its linear dimensions) but the strength output on the other hand is proportional to the cross section of the physiological measurements of the athlete’s body or the square of the linear dimensions.

Putting this into terms that I understand; as the body grows larger, the mass grows faster than the strength increases. An exception to this case is where the increase in body size is directly attributed to muscular hypertrophy. In this case the concurrent strength gain of the muscle group will be greater than the weight gain due to the increase in mass. Strength trained hypertrophy in the muscles helps to offset the mass and relative muscle strength formula but not entirely.

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