Are you relatively strong?

You often hear things such as “they’re really strong pound-for-pound” or “strong for their weight class”. Is this something we should focus on? And if so, when, how, and who should? Let’s have a look at strength relative to bodyweight.

Relative strength and competitive lifting

When it comes to competitive lifters, relative strength is of the utmost importance. The idea of weight classes is that a heavier person has an advantage over a lighter person. Only in the super heavyweight class are we actually concerned with some form of absolute strength because there’s no upper limit to how much one can weigh. In every other class you need to be strong for that size. Getting stronger in a lift without gaining weight is thus advantageous and that’s where skill practice comes in.

I’m normally adverse to holding back bodyweight for competitive lifters unless they’ve actually reached their best proportions or are masters. When a lifter starts out they’re simply too small and they should increase in muscle mass over several years. Staying in a low weight class from the beginning is often a mistake that will ensure the lifter never reach their true potential. For the athletes I’ve trained it’s an exception, not a rule, for them to stay in the weight class they start.

One exception is a lifter who placed 4th in her first National championships in powerlifting. When the Nationals rolled around next year we decided to have her stay in the same category for one more year so she would have a medal in that category. She was close in weight and could go either up or down at that point. To achieve it she had to pay attention to her diet but not only that, she rarely (if ever) during the last few months did sets in the powerlifts with reps above 3. Assistance was pretty much only upper back work. Almost all her training was low reps, high intensity. Said and done, she won the medal and from then on we would never even consider that category anymore. She could comfortably move up a weight class and get stronger.

Realize that gaining weight is not necessarily about bulking in that you eat to be a sumo wrestler. It’s not uncommon to see bad bulks. A competitive lifter will “bulk up”, gaining a lot of weight, get stronger, enter a new weight class… And place worse. How did that happen? In the pursuit of absolute strength they forgot they’re actually competing in relative strength. If you gain so much weight that you enter a new weight class, you better make sure that your strength increases proportionally. Adding 10 kg to your body while gaining 2.5 kg to the bar on your bench press is hardly a good trade off.

As I’m sure you understand, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach all this. To sum up: among competitive lifters the majority should gain weight but not at the expense of becoming relatively weak. The weight gain should be somewhat in proportion to the strength gains.

A fun approach to relative strength for the non-competitive lifter

Relative strength is actually interesting for those who aren’t competitive lifters and only want to look good or simply feel strong. I will cover the aspects of dieting and relative strength in a different article as it takes a very different turn. For now let’s look at a different way of planning your training for relative strength gains.

There are three major goals, easily identifiable for just about anyone, regardless if they’re dead-serious trainees or rank beginners:

  • The first time you do a lift with big plates.
  • The first time you do a lift equal to your bodyweight.
  • The first time you do a lift with triple digit weights.

I think we can agree that these are typically seen as milestones in some form or fashion. A fun way to approach training is using the second point as a goal. Let’s have a look.

The easiest lift to use a weight equal to your bodyweight is the deadlift. After that it’s probably the squat. For upper body the bench press will be the easiest.

Can you deadlift your own bodyweight? Cool, can you do it for 10 reps? Those could serve as your first two goals. Once you can do that focus on doing the same with the squat, then the bench press. Your first six goals have been outlined for you.

Deadlift bw -> Deadlift bw x 10 -> Squat bw -> Squat bw x 10 -> Bench press bw -> Bench press bw x 10.

Those are worthwhile pursuits even if you’re not a powerlifter. They’re actually worthwhile pursuits even if you don’t care about maximal strength and only looking for a better body because adding a bunch of fat won’t help you but you can be certain that your body will respond by adding muscle!

Going further

We can go further by breaking down the three lifts into sub-categories. Keep the goals of each lift to lift your bodyweight for one rep and then for ten reps. Or six or eight or whatever you fancy. Ten is completely arbitrary, the point is to first conquer the weight by doing it for one rep, then to dominate it by repping it.

Let’s have a look at the deadlift:

Deadlift -> Stiff leg deadlift -> Snatch deadlift.

How about the squat?

Squat -> Pause squat -> Front squat


Bench press -> Incline bench press -> Press

EMR suggestion: Absolute beginner presser

I’m just making these lists up as I go. The idea is to pick a lift, conquer it, dominate it, move to a harder variation and do the same, move to another one, and another, and so on.

People doing the Olympic lifts can utilize a similar approach:

Squat -> Snatch deadlift -> Snatch pull -> Snatch -> Power snatch

Clean deadlift -> Front squat -> Clean & jerk -> Power clean & jerk

Feel free to make your own list of lifts and using your own rep schemes to decide what it means to dominate a lift.

Now what?

What’s a suitable program for this? Dig through the Everlifting Module Repository and find something that fits where you’re at at the moment. Did you finish your deadlift goal and are ready to tackle the snatch deadlift? The same module that works for deadlifts probably works for the snatch deadlift. Finished hitting a single in the snatch deadlift? Find a module that build up reps.

This approach isn’t intended to build a future world champion powerlifter but if you’re just looking for some fun goals in your training it could be worthwhile to pursue.

Happy lifting!

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