Relative strength is a term that has become increasingly more popular in the fitness world. Pound for pound strength has become the new norm, and is now considered the ultimate test of real strength.
The examples are always the same. “If two lifters weigh the same, except one can lift more weight, who is stronger?” Of course, the logical answer would be the lifter who weighs less. However, to the veteran of the iron game, this one-dimensional way of thinking is problematic when comparing the strength of two people.
Let me tell you why.
Lighter Weight Classes
Historically, lighter weight classes have always possessed better pound for pound strength than their heavier counterparts. In every sport to date, whether that be powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, fighting, gymnastics, etc, lighter lifters can lift heavier weights relative to their bodyweight. This makes sense for many reasons.
First, you must consider one’s height. If you take a man who is 5’2 and bulk him up to 180lbs, he will obviously have much more muscle mass and strength than a 6’5 guy who is also 180lbs. In this way, you can see that shorter lifters have an undeniable advantage when it comes to relative strength. It is almost impossible to defeat them because they will come out more jacked 100% of the time.
Additionally, you must recognize that the shorter a lifter, the shorter the limbs. In most cases, this will result in superior leverages, as the exercise’s range of motion decreases tremendously. This can be demonstrated by looking at calisthenics enthusiasts or gymnasts. A simple exercise like a front lever or muscle-up will be much easier to a short person than a tall one.
This has to due with moment arms, (the length between a joint axis and the line of force acting on that joint). Essentially, the longer the moment arm, the heavier the weight will feel on that joint axis because of leverage. This is why holding the edge of a sledge hammer poses a greater challenge than grabbing the center. In weight training, a tall lifter will ALWAYS have greater moment arms, making it far more difficult to do well in the relative strength department. This will make all pressing, squatting, and calisthenics astronomically harder than a short guy (although deadlifts may be easier). Therefore, even though the tall person may be lifting some serious poundages relative to his size, the numbers will unfortunately remain on the lower side.
Masking True Strength
Another major issue with relative strength is that it completely neglects the weight that you are actually lifting. According to pound for pound enthusiasts, a 135lb male who overhead presses his bodyweight has the same strength as a 300lb male who is also lifting his bodyweight. After all, they are both 1x bodyweight, correct? What a bunch of bullshit!
To anyone who treats weights even a tad serious, they will realize that these two feats of strength can NEVER be considered the same under any circumstances. I don’t give a fuck if both lifters are lifting their own bodyweight. You can’t tell me that both of these guys have equal strength! Clearly, the 300lb overhead press is a million times more impressive, and is definitely harder to achieve than a simple 135lb overhead press. A 135lb overhead press can be achieved in less than a year for most lifters, but 300lbs may take a decade or more!
Hell, let’s take this example a step further. Say the 135lb male manages to overhead press 155lbs. Does this mean he is now STRONGER than the guy who is pressing 300lbs over his head, just because his pound for pound strength is better? Seriously, you would have to be a moron to say yes. A slap across your face is what you’d deserve.
You see folks, the sport of Powerlifting recognized this when skinny lifters who were sub-200lbs were defeating heavier folks who had greater absolute strength. So you know what they did to fix this problem? They created the Wilk’s Formula. This is a coefficient that is used to measure the strength of a lifter against other lifters DESPITE their weight differences. It bridges the gap between relative and absolute strength. Below, the formula is expressed.
Take a look at this formula, and compare it to the example I previously mentioned. WHICH DO YOU THINK IS MOST ACCURATE IN MEASURING TRUE STRENGTH? The simple comparison of bodyweight to the weight lifted, or the Wilk’s coefficient? I think you know the answer to that question, and should realize why viewing pound for pound strength in isolation is a real joke. It’s always the skinny guys who like to brag about it! These are also the men that are selling shitty training systems, but that’s beside the point.
Finally, when looking at relative strength, you must ALWAYS have genetics in the back of your mind. It can be the driving force behind one’s pound for pound strength. You see, there are lifters out there who can get massively strong without necessarily becoming too muscular or heavy. These are also the guys that you see in the lighter weight classes (what a coincidence).
Typically speaking, they have insane joint structures and limb lengths, and can add hundreds of pounds to an exercise before they start getting huge. The greatest example I can ever give you is the legendary Richard Hawthorne. Weighing only 132lbs, he deadlifted 602 pounds and bench pressed 308.6lbs, thus achieving a world record.
By the relative strength definition, he should be the strongest man on the planet, but we all know this isn’t true. Those lifts have been defeated thousands of times by heavier lifters! Yet, no one can top him because he is a genetic beast that was born for relative strength. He is short, light, and has leverages of a champion. How can anyone match him if he won the genetic lottery? When you factor these things, it becomes immediately apparent why relative strength is so flawed. It only favors a small minority of people.
In the final analysis, relative strength was shown to possess several flaws. First, the idea that lighter weight classes have historically dominated in the pound for pound sector was explored. Secondly, the Wilk’s score was introduced to help bridge the bias of relative strength and the masking of true strength. Lastly, genetics were found to be a massive influence of how good one’s relative strength is, thus favoring only a small population.
So the next time someone tries to brag about their relative strength, simply tell them what you learned today. Their reaction will be shocking, I guarantee you.
Until next time,