Relative Strength: Why Bigger is Not Always Better

Relative Strength: Why Bigger is Not Always Better

“All things being equal, the bigger and stronger athlete will always win!” is a popular motto used in the strength coaching profession. Catchy, but it may not be true.

There is no question that bodybuilders are strong, and generally stronger than most athletes. Ronnie Coleman, 8x winner of bodybuilding’s prestigious Mr. Olympia title, did squats and deadlifts with 800 pounds. Seven-time Olympia winner Arnold Schwarzenegger was as strong as he looked and could bench press 500 and deadlift 700. Franco Columbu, a Mr. Olympic winner and Arnold’s former training partner, could deadlift world records in his bodyweight class. Impressive, but few bodybuilders can match the strength of today’s powerlifters.

Powerlifters have lifted over 1,000 pounds in the parallel squat, deadlift, and even the bench press. A few powerlifting coaches believe that “you can never be too strong,” and that most athletes should strive to be as strong as possible. Certainly, a football lineman who squats 600 pounds has an advantage over one who squats only 400? Well, maybe not.

In the sport of weightlifting (snatch and clean & jerk), performance among athletes of different weight classes is determined by using formulas that look at relative strength (i.e., how strong you are for your bodyweight). One of the most commonly used in competitions to determine the “best lifter” of a meet is called the Sinclair formula. These formulas enable the results of a 100-pound athlete to be measured against those of a 300-pound athlete. Using these formulas, however, weightlifters have often found that after they increased their bodyweight and are lifting more weight, their lifting efficiency decreased.

The issue here is that weightlifting is a sport that requires a high level of power production. In a paper published 2002, Russian sports scientist Igor Abramovsky warned that additional bodyweight for a weightlifter, even if that bodyweight is muscle, “…creates additional loading on the sportsman’s muscles because the weightlifter has to lift this excess weight during the execution of the weightlifting exercises; second, the sportsman’s speed deteriorates.” Let’s look at a real-world example.

In 1984, Russia’s Anatoly Pisarenko weighed 271 pounds at a height of 6’1” and sported a 36” waist. He clean and jerked a world record of 584 pounds. Pisarenko’s world record was eventually broken, but only by 2 pounds and by an athlete who outweighed him by 55 pounds. Unfortunately, Pisarenko’s model of optimal performance has apparently been lost on modern-day lifters. At the 2018 IWF World Weightlifting Championships, 34 years after Pisarenko’s world best of 584, the average bodyweight of the top five lifters in the super heavyweight class was 342 pounds and the average clean and jerk was 536 pounds.

It could be argued that Pisarenko was significantly stronger than most modern-day weightlifters, but this is not true. What was different was that Pisarenko was able to produce an exceptionally high level of muscle tension and effectively use the elastic properties of his tendons. Pisarenko was so efficient that five days before one competition Pisarenko failed to back squat 573 pounds, but at the competition clean and jerked it!

Contrast Pisarenko’s leg strength to that of several super heavyweight weightlifters who have squatted over 800 pounds (and at least two were seen doing 1,000 pounds) but were far from Pisarenko’s best. Russian sports scientist V. Deniskin addressed this issue in 1981 when he wrote that exercises such as heavy pulls and squats “…contribute to the effective development of absolute strength, but they have little effect on the ability to generate explosive force.”

In 2017, sports scientist Bud Charniga reinforced Deniskin’s opinion when he said that the additional bodyweight these super heavyweight athletes acquired “…does not translate into improved or a preservation of the specificity of the motor skills to raise maximum weights.” He also notes that the larger mass requires these athletes to pull the barbell higher (which forces you to use less weight) and that it becomes more difficult to secure the barbell overhead in the snatch.

Moving on to laboratory studies, considerable research has looked at the differences among the muscle fiber types of different types of athletes. The problem researchers have found with bodybuilding protocols is that often such training uses relatively higher repetitions (thus, a more time the muscles are under tension), which comes with it an increase in the size of muscle fibers that do not create the highest levels of tension. This topic was explored in a study published in Experimental Physiology in 2015.

The study involved taking muscle fiber biopsies from 12 bodybuilders, six power athletes, and 14 controls. In examining the fiber types of bodybuilders and power athletes, the researchers found that the training methods of power athletes increase muscle fiber quality and the ability to produce tension, whereas bodybuilding methods “may be detrimental.” Specifically, they postulated that the decrease in muscle tension “…is caused by differences in

myofibrillar density and/or post-translational modifications of contractile proteins.”

The basic guidelines for developing muscle mass quickly include creating a time under tension between 40-70 seconds and use weights that represent 70-78 percent of one’s best for a single repetition (1-repetition maximum, or 1RM). The basic guidelines for improving relative strength are to create a time under tension of less than 20 seconds and use weights that represent 85-100 percent of one’s best for a 1RM. Thus, while an athlete seeking to improve relative strength might perform 1-5 reps in a workout for squats, a bodybuilder might perform sets of 9-12 reps. Detailed workout systems using relative strength training protocols can be found in Workout Systems, Book 1: Strength (Poliquin Group, 2017).

Regarding the application of power production to a skill such as sprinting, the tendons work with the muscles to absorb the force as the foot lands, collect potential energy to stop the knee from bending excessively, and then release that energy as the leg extends. This kind of strength is referred to by sports scientist as the “strength of reversible efforts,” or elastic strength. One of the key athletic qualities that sets Usain Bolt apart from his competition is being able to produce high levels of power to cover a distance in fewer steps. Further, the elastic properties of Bolt’s tendons enable him to spend less time on the ground with each step, which also reduces the time it takes to cover a distance.

While there is merit to having beginners use higher repetition bodybuilding protocols, such as to give them more practice learning lifting techniques, such training may be detrimental to achieving the highest levels of power production if performed for too long. Further, young athletes should focus on performing dynamic movements, such as jumping and sprinting, to help them develop the elastic qualities of the tendons so that they function as “biological springs” that produce more powerful movements.

Weightlifters often joke that doing anything more three reps in any lift is considered cardio, but there is some truth to that when it comes to training to achieve the highest levels of athletic performance. Bigger, and in some cases stronger, is not always better.




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