An athlete is defined in Webster’s as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina”. I would slightly adjust the meaning for today’s athletes to be anyone who is required to perform tasks regularly that require physical strength, agility, or stamina, not just in a competitive or game scenario per se.
Simply put, if physical activity is a part of your daily life (and it certainly should be), then you are by definition an athlete of some sort. That being said athletes come in a very wide variety of shapes and sizes wildly differing in their physical capabilities and skills. However, that being the case there are a few universal factors that nearly every athlete on the planet requires in order to perform at a high level.
Every athlete must have the requisite biomechanical skills to perform their given sport or task, every athlete must have the mental fortitude to complete their task against varying forms of adversity, and every athlete must have an amount of absolute and relative strength. Of those factors, strength is the most universal skill.
Absolute and Relative Strength Defined and Contrasted:
There are two forms of athletic strength, equally important and closely related. Absolute strength is the absolute force applied in an activity, while relative strength is the amount of strength or force applied in relation to the athlete’s body size. For example, gymnasts have incredible relative body strength as evidenced by their acrobatics and agility, while competitive power lifters have incredible absolute strength evidenced by the high loads they are able to successfully lift.
Both have their merits and their relative importance will vary depending on the activity in question, however the prime difference lies in that absolute strength is applicable across all spectrums and will increase relative body strength, but the opposite does not always hold true. For example, if a gymnast or sprinter, two of the best athletes in the world in terms of relative body strength, also increased their absolute strength, their relative body strength would most likely also increase as a result. However, if a competitive power lifter changed his training regimen to focus on relative body strength, he would most likely lift less weight overall and thus negatively impact his performance.
These are broad examples with a wide array of other variables, however the point is absolute strength has a broader application than relative body strength and thus should often take priority in a training program.
When to Apply Absolute Strength Training: Not for the Novice
Absolute strength training is nearly universal in its beneficial results for practitioners of nearly any athletic pursuit. However, training for absolute strength with completely untrained or deconditioned clients is a recipe for injury and malpractice. Absolute strength implies moving high loads through a full range of motion primarily in fundamental lifts such as the deadlift, squat, and bench press. However, these are complex multi-joint exercises that someone with a movement deficiency will have trouble completing correctly.
Poor form leads to poor results; thus always begin by creating the simple foundation for absolute strength, comprised of basic movement skills and an initial level of strength consummate with the ability to execute fundamental lifts. Translated to basic terms, before having an athlete train for absolute strength, make sure they are healthy, understand and can complete the movements associated with their training program, and have the basic conditioning level to begin.
As an example, if you have an athlete who has become severely overweight and can’t squat their own bodyweight, get them in shape first or you’ll have a rough time progressing past body weight squats and building any strength. Or if you have an athlete who just finished their season and has nagging injuries and tightness, help them heal before undertaking the next big program, lest you train too hard too early and an injury derails the program. It seems elementary but fundamentals are the most important and most forgotten components of training.
A third and perhaps more prevalent example is the athlete or client who is just plain weak, perhaps with no history of strength training (think of a basketball player or martial arts practitioner who has only trained in their respective activities but never worked for absolute strength; they may be fantastic athletes but are complete novices in the lifting arena, and should be treated as such). For long term health and results it may be necessary to spend a few weeks or even months on some basic hypertrophy then progressing to absolute strength training. Always be mindful of these factors and train appropriately.
Absolute Strength: Benefits (beyond the obvious)
Now that we have established a baseline of fundamentals for absolute strength training, let’s examine its benefits. The obvious: you will get really damn strong! At the end of the day that is the simple fact of it, train for absolute strength and you will get strong and reap all the benefits that come from that. However, there are more benefits from training in this modality that can transfer to greater performance. Getting strong is great, but for many athletes, improving Rate of Force Development (ROFD) and developing the skill to dig into the Central Nervous System (CNS) for performance can be just as beneficial.
Rate of Force Development (ROFD)
Rate of Force Development is one of the hardest aspects of physical performance to improve, and frankly it is even harder to improve if you aren’t training against a high resistance of some sort. ROFD essentially refers to the speed at which force can be produced. Sprinting, jumping, punching, kicking, and throwing are all examples of simple human activities with high ROFD. The classic example is that of Bruce Lee, who was by any measure a man of small proportions, but through his speed (or ROFD) could knock opponents across the room with a single punch.
What makes ROFD especially hard to train is its narrow emphasis on the concentric muscular contraction. Most lifts and common weight training emphasize the eccentric portion as this is where the strength and size of the muscle are created (time under tension). ROFD is developed in the explosive concentric contraction of muscles, such as the upward portion of the vertical jump.
Athletes with high levels of absolute strength will have the ability to explosively generate power and leap. Just the same, athletes with high levels of absolute strength will probably be able to deadlift a good amount and have a great box squat as well; two lifts of absolute strength with very high ROFD potential. If an athlete does not have a foundation of absolute strength, progressing to complex lifts that increase ROFD will be nearly impossible or certainly unsafe.
Digging Into the Central Nervous System
The ability to tax the Central Nervous System (CNS) and dig deep is a hard skill to learn, and one only learned under extreme duress. It is seen most in activities that require maximal or absolute effort such as an all-out sprint, a fight for your life or in our terms, lifting something really heavy.
A key benefit of training for absolute strength is the ability to tap into this primal ability to dig deep into our CNS for that last bit of energy to complete the task at hand. To engage our fight or flight response and our bodies consequential reaction whether it be the muscular or endocrine system, gives us enormous power in those moments. There are few arenas in life where one can tap into this and train it, and absolute strength training is one.
If you’ve ever felt the adrenaline rush and extreme focus present in a fight or flight situation and the crash or relief afterwards, you will recognize that feeling after fighting to complete a beast of set of deadlifts; the intense focus during that blocks out all distractions, and the dizziness that follows which is your nervous system crashing back downwards and restoring its normal balance. In nearly every athletic scenario, there are moments that require our fight or flight response to kick in and dig for that last little bit of energy to complete the task. If you’ve been training for it, you will be more prepared (as well as being bloody strong strong!)
How to Train for Absolute Strength
In simplest terms: go move something really heavy, wait a couple minutes, and do it again. In all seriousness, absolute strength has immense benefits and can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be, the moral of the story is that if you ignore it you will be missing a big part of your athletic foundation. That being said, to train for absolute strength you need to focus on major, multi joint exercises that require you to move something really heavy. You will have to train at a high level of intensity near your max, and for long term improvements you will have to periodize your training.
A few favorites of mine include front and back squats, deadlifts, farmer walks, sled pulls/pushes and weighted pull ups, to name a few. My recommendation is to first identify the key movements or exercises necessary for performance. Plan to work with high sets, low reps, and lots of recovery time.
Finally, be sure to periodize the program based on your goals, get a few de-load weeks in there and train hard and safe. At the end of the day, regardless of your sport, activity, or general position in life, we can all do with being a bit stronger. Train for absolute strength and your performance will improve across many facets of your life; the only question left now is why are still reading this and not lifting something!