Absolute Strength vs. Relative Strength

Absolute Strength vs. Relative Strength

Optimal strength training calls for athletes to develop multiple types of strength simultaneously. This is what makes the Conjugate Method so effective; we can adequately train all strength types simultaneously, avoiding the pitfalls of detraining often associated with linear-based training programs. 

At Westside Barbell, we constantly focus on developing our athletes' absolute strength, explosive power, and speed. By training all strengths involved in athletic performance, we build complete athletes who are strong, fast, and resilient. Instead of phase-based training that results in strength gain, skill gain, and deterioration, our athletes consistently improve their strength and skill. 

In sports, athletes need to maintain improvements in strength and skills gained. The Conjugate Method makes this possible by constantly training multiple strengths on a regular basis, resulting in stair-step patterned improvements. Simply put, our methods continuously solidify progress while raising the ceiling regarding overall athletic potential. 

One special strength that is a central focus in our training is absolute strength. Absolute strength refers to the greatest force an individual can produce, regardless of size. This strength is what we consider the King of all strengths because improvements in absolute strength improve the potential for all other special strengths to be improved. At Westside, we focus on developing absolute strength during our max effort training days.

When discussing absolute strength, we must also begin to consider the relative strength of the athlete. Relative strength refers to the absolute strength of an individual compared to their total body weight. Opposed to absolute strength, which only considers the amount of force produced, relative strength compares the amount of force produced and compares that force to the athlete's body weight to determine pound-for-pound strength. 

Below, we will discuss the relationship between absolute and relative strength and the athletic benefits of their development. 

The Importance of Absolute Strength

As mentioned, absolute strength is considered the King of all special strengths. This is because any improvement in absolute strength will result in the likelihood of all other strengths being improved. By increasing absolute strength, athletes raise their capacity to develop all other special strengths relative to their sport. 

At Westside, we implement the maximal effort method twice weekly to improve both upper and lower body absolute strength. When performing max effort training, we focus on working up to a top set of 1-3 repetitions, working with 90-100%+ during the final few sets. By doing this, we can recruit the largest motor units, leading to improvements in absolute strength. With advancements in absolute strength come other benefits; stronger athletes are durable and more resilient, leading to decreased injury rates and improved injury recovery rates. 

It's simple: a stronger athlete is a more capable and tougher athlete. Whether going for a tackle, shooting a takedown, or sprinting in a race, having a high level of absolute strength will improve athletic performance and make you a more competitive athlete. Too often, coaches opt to avoid absolute strength training out of fear of injury. Oddly enough, avoiding max effort training and failing to improve absolute strength will lead to injury. 

The Importance of Relative Strength

While absolute strength is the King of all strengths, there is an aspect of strength that must be considered when discussing absolute strength, and that is relative strength. As previously mentioned, relative strength compares the absolute strength of an individual to their body weight to determine the strongest pound-for-pound athlete. 

In the sport of powerlifting, relative strength comes into play at powerlifting meets, where different formulas are used to determine which athlete lifted the most significant amount of weight compared to their body weight. Without these formulas, the heavier weight classes would win all the meets, considering they lifted heavier weights even though they possess less relative strength than the second-place athlete. 

In conventional sports, athletes often must meet specific weight requirements to play their position correctly. For example, an NFL running back needs to be between 190 and 230 lbs (typically) to be effective on the field. If we are working with an NFL running back, we want to improve their absolute strength as much as possible while maintaining their playing weight within a few pounds. This is how relative strength is improved. 

Powerlifters can rapidly increase absolute strength by combining max effort training with an increased caloric intake, resulting in gains in absolute strength and size. Athletes, however, must focus on maintaining proper playing weight, so the improvements in absolute strength must come from adequately managed training and an optimal diet plan. 

While a powerlifter can afford to go up a weight class to improve their total by 100lbs, a running back cannot afford to show up to training camp at 275lbs, with a 525lb bench press, while running the 40-yard dash half a second slower. This is the primary reason relative strength is important to focus on when developing athletes; we are improving the athlete's absolute strength while maintaining their playing weight.

If an individual is athletic and explosive at 195lbs with no focus on absolute strength training, imagine how athletic and explosive that individual could be at 200lbs with improved absolute strength. Maximum gain in absolute strength with minimal gain in body weight is the goal when training athletes. 

Which Strength is More Important?

Absolute strength is the King of all strengths. If we fail to improve absolute strength, not only will relative strength fail to improve, but all other special strengths will also suffer. So, if we are discussing which strength is the most important, there is no question it is absolute strength. However, this does not mean that relative strength is not important. 

One mistake many people new to training make is finding which aspects of strength training are the most important or which training methods will afford the fastest results. However, the secret to developing incredible levels of strength and athleticism is focusing on the development of all special strengths simultaneously. This makes the Conjugate Method the premier strength and conditioning training method. 

While we want to always focus on the development of absolute strength, we also want our athletes to maintain high levels of relative strength as well. Even if an athlete is strength-focused, it is important to maintain optimal physical composition to maintain the ability to execute and recover from training demands. We do not want to sacrifice physical composition and fitness to improve absolute strength. 

If athletes think and train correctly, the focus will be on increasing absolute strength while improving physical composition and fitness. Ultimately, our training goal is to become a better athlete, no matter the sport. Absolute strength provides us with data proving we are increasing our ability to produce force, while relative strength provides us with data proving we are becoming a stronger and more capable athlete pound for pound. 

Absolute strength may be the most important, but we must always consider an athlete's level of relative strength.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is absolute strength?

A: Absolute strength measures the total amount of force an athlete can produce. 

Q: How is absolute strength measured?

A: In a gym setting, we measure absolute strength by performing one-rep max lifts. In a laboratory setting, absolute strength can be measured using machines that utilize isometrics to determine the maximum amount of force an athlete is capable of producing. 

Q: What is relative strength?

A: Relative strength refers to an athlete's absolute strength compared to the athlete's total body weight. 

Q: How is absolute strength improved?

A: At Westside, we improved absolute strength by using the maximal effort method. This method is used twice weekly: one lower max effort day and one upper max effort day. 

Q: How is relative strength improved?

A: Athletes can improve their relative strength in one of two ways: by enhancing their absolute strength while maintaining their current body weight or by maintaining their current absolute strength while lowering their current body weight. 

Q: Is relative strength more important for athletes or powerlifters?

A: Both. Athletes want to maintain a high level of relative strength to ensure they remain athletic, while powerlifters want to maintain a high level of relative strength to ensure they stay competitive. Powerlifting competition winners are often decided based on formula, which rewards the lifters with the highest level of relative strength. 

Stay Dangerous

Absolute strength and relative strength are two aspects of strength all athletes should be concerned with developing and maintaining. Absolute strength is essential not only to enhance brute strength but also to increase the capacity for further athletic improvement. Relative strength is important because it ensures that athletes remain in shape and pound for pound as effectively as their competitors. 

No matter if you are a powerlifter or a conventional athlete, we do not want to sacrifice athleticism in our pursuit of improved levels of absolute strength. When utilizing the Conjugate Method, we aim to create athletes who can produce significant amounts of force in short amounts of time repeatedly throughout the duration of a contest or competition. 

We do not sacrifice an athlete's ability to be fast or explosive to improve absolute strength. We do not add unreasonable amounts of mass to an athlete's body to increase their absolute strength, only to sacrifice overall athleticism in the process. Our training creates strong, fast, physically conditioned athletes with a high level of resiliency. 

As an athlete, developing a high level of absolute strength, explosive power, and conditioning improves relative strength and makes you dangerous. At Westside, we do not sacrifice one strength or athletic trait for another; we train all aspects of athletic performance simultaneously. 


Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.

Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.

Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics

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