Developing better strength is often a recurring goal of fitness clients. The domain of what encompasses strength training is quite broad. However, for the purposes of this blog, we are going to look at the differences between relative strength and absolute strength training. Why is this important? Professional fitness coaches not only recognize the differences between relative and absolute strength, but they are also able to utilize these concepts in tangible ways to improve their client’s fitness in relation to their unique strength goals.
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Absolute strength is the maximum amount of force exerted, regardless of muscle or body size. Greater amounts of absolute strength favor those with higher body weight and in general, larger individuals. Greater absolute strength will improve relative strength capabilities. Absolute strength can best be represented by a client’s one rep maximum lift. In sports like competitive functional fitness, in which clients are competing without a score dictated by their weight, absolute strength is key to success.
Relative strength is the amount of strength to body size, or how strong someone is compared to their size. This reflects a person’s ability to control or move their body through space, a vital trait in all athletics. All else being equal, smaller individuals have higher relative strength. This is why despite both athletes being in great condition, a 145-pound male with an equal absolute strength to a 180-pound male will apply greater relative forces into the ground and be able to sprint much faster. A common example of a relative strength activity would be gymnastic movements involving only the client’s bodyweight. Clients with a sufficiently high level of relative strength are less fatigued and are likely more efficient at moving their body weight in space.
Many coaches focus on strength-training workouts to get their clients to lift increasingly heavier weights. While improving absolute strength has its merits, improving a client’s relative strength is often considered to be more important in many sports and everyday activities. Relative strength is beneficial to the non-athlete as well—for example, maintaining sufficient relative strength is necessary for independent walking and rising from a seated position in elderly adults.
It should be noted, however, that major improvements in a client’s relative strength can come from absolute strength training. This is only the case if the absolute strength training program has been personalized to the client, their goals and function. Learn the baiscs of desigining and coaching absolute strength exercise plans when you download the free Coach’s Toolkit.