Understanding the 4 Types of Strength 
Written by Holden Rethwill

In order to help you better understand the purpose behind your training methods and to help you figure out where you might need a little more focus in your program, we will be going over the four primary components of the strength field as well as some methodologies associated with them and how they can pertain to your training. Here’s what we’re  going to be talking about:

  1. Absolute Strength
  2. Relative Strength
  3. Power or Explosive Strength
  4. Strength Endurance

What is Absolute Strength?

Absolute strength and maximal strength are terms used for the same measurement: The [absolute] maximal strength of a muscle or a group of muscles in a given movement equals the highest external resistance an athlete can overcome or hold with full voluntary mobilization of his or her neuromuscular system according to Platonov (1997) and Tidow (1990). This definition also is found in Science of Sports Training by Thomas Kurz (2016).

In other words…it’s the absolute most weight you can lift for one rep at one point in time. In even simpler terms…1 rep max.

Why is Maximal Strength Important?

Typically in a competitive setting you’ll see some sort of heavy lifting. So if you’ve got great maximal strength, you should do decently well at an event like that. That said, maximal strength typically tends to favor individuals who are a little heavier. Not saying that someone who weighs 150# can’t out-lift someone who weighs 200#, especially when technique is involved… but in terms of maximal strength, I’m talking the major non-dynamic movements i.e. squat, deadlift, press (CrossFit Total type stuff)…and in that domain, we’ve all heard it before, mass moves mass. Absolute strength is the absolute most weight an individual can lift in comparison to others, regardless of weight class.

This can also translate over to short burst sprints on the mono-structural machines (Assault Bike, rower, ski-erg, C2 Bike). No offense to the smaller individuals, but a larger human who has a higher level maximal strength is going to be able to show that level of power in a quick burst on these machines. 

Which Athletes Have the Highest Maximal Strength?

Generally speaking, powerlifters have some of the highest levels of maximal strength across the board. Think of “The Mountain”…yes he weighs about as much as a mountain, but that dude has an epic level of maximal strength, and someone who weighs 100 pounds less than him has a snowballs chance in hell of lifting as much as him.

What’s the Best way to Train Maximal Strength?

Well if I’m being honest, the best way to train this is to gain a lot of weight… but I know very few of us actually want to do that, myself included.

So instead, here’s a few methods that I like for training maximal strength: Maximal Effort Method from Westside Barbell, Wendler 5/3/1 Method, and the Poloquin Cluster Method.

I’ll leave you with a Holden-ism on this one… you gotta lift heavy to lift heavy.

Next we’re going to talk about Relative Strength, and compare it to Maximal/Absolute Strength.

What is Relative Strength?

When we look at relative strength, we’re looking at the amount of strength that an individual has, the amount of weight an individual can move in comparison to his or her bodyweight. So…now the smaller people have got a little evening of the scales with the larger folks!

When we’re talking relative strength, now that 135# individual has an opportunity to compete with “The Mountain” (not saying it will happen, but the opportunity is there) because smaller individuals tend to have a higher amount of relative strength.

Why is Relative Strength Important?

While relative strength won’t necessarily help you much in the pure strength events of a competition setting, it WILL help greatly with gymnastics movements. If you have a good level of relative strength, then you will have a much higher ability to move your body through space than individuals who have low levels of relative strength.

Think of it this way…we’re doing strict pull-ups. Both individuals weigh 150#. Person A has a higher level of relative strength than Person B. Who do you think is likely to have a higher set of max reps pull-ups?

Person A.

Moral of the story…high relative strength is very beneficial for gymnastics movements.

What’s the Best way to Train Relative Strength?

All this said, relative strength and maximal strength do go hand in hand, and training maximal strength will typically increase your relative strength as well (unless you gain 30#, then you’re going to have to lift THAT MUCH more to maintain the same level of relative strength). I’ve found that the best way to actually increase relative strength when it comes to movements like gymnastics, is to add weight while performing strict and controlled movement patterns – i.e. strict pull-ups with weight.

Most individuals would agree that relative strength plays a bit more of a factor into the majority of sports, and even the majority of competitive workouts. Don’t agree with me? Let’s see if “The Mountain” can knock out 10 muscle-ups.

Ok, now let’s move on to…Explosive Strength!!

What is Explosive Strength?

Explosive strength is the speed at which you can use your strength! It involves heavy loading in shorter high speed movements for a few repetitions with long rest periods between. Think one rep max vertical leap, or one rep max snatch/clean and jerk. In non workout terms, think a punch. Someone with a high level of explosive strength is going to have greater punching power than someone with less explosive strength. Here’s 53 year old Mike Tyson demonstrating the greatest explosive strength seen in the sport of boxing.

Why is Explosive Strength Important?

Being explosive typically tends to greatly aid an individual’s ability to lift, especially in dynamic movements. But explosive strength translates over to so much more than competitive fitness. Jumping, bounding, punching, sprinting, and change of direction are just a few of many movement patterns that benefit from higher levels of explosive strength.

Being able to move loads quickly through space and time increases your force output, thus making you more dynamic and capable of lifting higher loads.

For example…I know individuals who do not have great levels of absolute strength, but they are dynamic as all get out, so power cleans and snatches come second nature to them, but tell them to hit a 1RM front squat and it won’t be much different than their power clean.

What’s the Best way to Train Explosive Strength?

My favorite method is light weight and the use of bands, or as Louie Simmons calls it, the dynamic training method. This single method literally changed Westside Barbell in 1983, and we have refined it for 24 years. Here’s the bullet points on how he explains his method:

  • This method is used to replace a max effort workout. Submaximal weights are lifted with maximal speed. Remember: F = m x a. 
  • This method indirectly builds strength by increasing a fast rate of force dev­elopment and explosiv­e strength. 
  • Bands or chains must be used to reduce bar deceleration. Bands will also increase the eccentric phase, which helps build a superior stretch reflex phase. 
  • Reps must be low (1 for pulls, 2 for squats, and 3 for benching). Never go to failure. You must stop if the bar speed decreases. 
  • The bar weight or band or chain resistance must v­ary to cause a change in metabolic reactions and intramuscular coordination and changes in biometrical v­ariables. This is discussed in The Science and Practice of Strength Training by V. Zatsiorsky. The bar speed must be about 8 meters per second or more. 
  • The sets are no less than 6 and no 90 seconds between sets. 

Lifting lighter loads at higher speeds not only builds strength, but it helps prevent injury as well. Other training resources to examine: Special Strengths, Explosive Power Movements, and Plyometrics.

Next up…Strength Endurance!

What is Strength Endurance?

It is the ability to repeatedly exert force against a form of resistance. It is displayed in activities that require a relatively long duration of muscle tension with a minimal decrease in efficiency.

What are examples of strength endurance?

  • Hill Sprints
  • Sled pushes (yuck)
  • ASSAULT bike intervals (double yuck)
  • High volume weightlifting #PUMPCITY

All of these movements are excellent examples of situations where a high level of muscle endurance is exhibited.

Ever been on the sled, or running a hill, or even on an Assault Bike and you feel like your legs won’t lift up? That’s the high concentrations of lactic acid being pushed into your muscles as a result of muscle endurance training. AKA that’s why I said #PUMPCITY…you can get a pump in places other than your biceps…I know, blasphemy.

Strength endurance training might be one of my favorite and least favorite things to do at the same time. It hurts LIKE HELL while you’re in it, but I think it leaves me feeling the most rewarded afterwards. It’s the kind of training that makes you say damn I could use a beer…or sparkling water or whatever you drink.

Summing Up Strength

So there you have it… those are the four primary components of the strength field.

  1. Absolute Strength – 1 rep maxes
  2. Relative Strength – strength in relation to size
  3. Explosive Strength – move shit FAST
  4. Strength Endurance – do crappy things over an extended duration in order to achieve optimal pain/pump

Hope you’ve enjoyed broadening your horizons and hopefully your gains!


Also Check Out…

What’s the Difference Between Absolute Strength & Relative Strength?

Tips for Explosiveness

Lifting Heavy is a Great Stimulus…But not for Everyone


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