Relative Strength: Why You’re Stronger Than You Think You Are

Relative Strength: Why You’re Stronger Than You Think You Are

(Last Updated On: August 2, 2020)

Relative strength

How strong are you? You might assume you aren’t as strong as someone else who can bench press 120 pounds, but that’s not necessarily the case. Relative to your size, you might be as strong or stronger as that person who can bench press that much, even if you can press less. How can that be? We tend to look at strength in absolute terms; a person who can lift more weight is stronger. However, it’s more accurate to look at relative strength as a measure of how strong a person is.

What is Relative Strength?

Most people think of strength in terms of absolute strength, the resistance a person can lift irrespective of their body size. The problem with absolute strength is it doesn’t take into account differences in body size. If a 100-pound person can bench press 120 pounds, it’s more impressive than a 200-pound individual who lifts the same amount of weight. Agree?

But why is this the case? The lighter person has less total body mass to generate the force needed to lift that weight, so they are stronger per pound of body mass if they can lift that weight and have greater relative strength. Some fitness trainers refer to relative strength as “pound for pound” strength.  So, don’t assume someone is superhero strong because they can bench press 150 pounds until you know how large they are.

How Can You Determine Relative Strength?

The way you measure absolute strength is via the one-rep max test. You challenge a person to lift as much as they can for one full repetition with good form. Then, divide the one-rep max by body mass. It’s obvious that people with larger body size have an advantage with regard to absolute strength. Their size and the larger cross-sectional area of their muscles makes it easier for them to lift heavy weights.

You can also look at relative strength as the strength-to-weight ratio. Greater strength relative to bodyweight translates into greater relative strength. Having a higher relative strength has advantages. It means you can be more explosive in your movements and generate more power. With high relative strength, you have a lot of strength packed into a smaller body size and that enhances your functional strength and explosiveness.

In contrast, someone who has high absolute strength, but low relative strength, may lack functional strength and not perform as well in certain sports. Another example is a sprinter. If sprinter A has greater relative strength than sprinter B, they can apply more force to the ground when they sprint, and that helps them sprint faster.

You can even compare your relative strength to someone else’s. Simply divide the maximum amount of weight you can lift on a particular exercise by your body weight to get an estimate of your relative strength. Have another person do the same and see who’s stronger.

How to Improve Relative Strength

One way to improve your relative strength is to lift heavy weights or work your body against heavy resistance. If you’re working with a resistance that allows you to complete 10 or 12 reps before fatiguing, you’re not maximizing your strength gains, especially if you aren’t completely fatiguing your muscles. With this approach, you’ll make strength gains in the beginning, but they’ll slow in a few weeks once your body adapts.

For maximal strength gains, use a resistance that you can only do 2 to 5 reps before your muscles are exhausted and you have to stop. You’ll need to hit those high-threshold, fast-twitch muscle fibers early and hard. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are those optimized for strength gains. Much of your training should focus on high resistance and low repetitions with long rest periods between sets. By doing this, you’ll boost your strength without adding a lot of size and this will improve your relative strength.

However, all of your sets every time you train shouldn’t be geared strictly toward strength development using high resistance and low reps. This approach will exhaust your muscles and lead to burnout. Do some sets using high resistance, others with moderate resistance, and some with lower resistance but make a larger proportion of your training in the high resistance, strength-building zone, high resistance, and low repetitions.

Another way to build relative strength is to add explosive training to your workouts. To accomplish this, increase the tempo of the movements you do until you’re moving the weight at an explosive speed. Shift some of your training over to kettlebells and add more kettlebell swings using a challenging resistance. Doing this is ideal for improving your hip hinge too, and that will help you perform other compound exercises more easily.

Boosting the tempo and doing explosive lifts will also activate more fast-twitch muscle fibers and train your nervous system to recruit fast-twitch fibers. Your power capabilities will improve too, so you’ll be able to generate force more quickly. That’s beneficial when you play certain sports. When you train your lower body muscles explosively, it will make you a better sprinter and improve your vertical jump height.

You can also add explosiveness to your training by including plyometric exercises in your routine. Plyo exercises like squat jumps, box jumps, and plyometric push-ups are ideal for building explosive strength. Add a few sets of plyometrics to the end of your routine as a finisher.

The Bottom Line

Now you know the difference between absolute strength and relative strength. By maximizing your strength gains with heavy resistance and low repetitions, you’ll become stronger without adding significant muscle size. Therefore, you’ll be stronger for your size and have greater relative strength. In turn, that relative strength will help you if you play certain sports. Any way you look at it, being strong will serve you well!



  • com. “How to Improve Your Relative Strength to Become a Faster and More Explosive Athlete”
  • Suchomel TJ NS, Stone MH. The importance of muscular strength in athletic performance Sports Med. 2016 46:1419-1449.
  • com. “How to Improve Your Relative Strength to Become a Faster and More Explosive Athlete”
  • Strength and Conditioning Research. “Power”


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