The Myth of Relative Strength
I'm noticing a disturbing trend among many of my trainees and people that write me asking questions. In an effort to keep bodyweight gains at bay while focusing on relative strength, or strength per pound of bodyweight, people are afraid of gaining weight or muscle fearing that it will make them slower. People are chronically worried about becoming too heavy fearing any extra weight will make them slower so they end up eating like pigeons. Their focus on being as light as possible destroys their strength gains and they reach plateaus much sooner then they should.
Here's The Truth
First I want to address the notion that it's possible to gain tons of strength without gaining muscle size in the process:
At a muscular level, there is only so much strength you can gain before muscle gain is necessary. In my experience the amount of time you can gain pure relative strength without a gain in muscle size is much less than what is typically promoted on the internet. Maybe your first 3-6 months of training you can gain plenty of strength without size if you're lucky. Once those quick newbie gains are up you're gonna have to get bigger. The exception to this is if you've never done a particular movement before or trained in a particular rep range before you'll initially gain a lot of strength once you do so, regardless of how long you've been lifting. Here the strength gains are due to improvements in intramuscular coordination.
If you do back squats for 3 years and decided to take up front squats you'll initially gain a lot of strength on those front squats. If you’ve never trained with reps below 5 before, and you begin to do so, you’ll probably have some quick initial increases in your poundages. Additionally, if you shed a lot of fat while gaining muscle (which also is very difficult to do for experienced trainees) your strength might go up significantly even though your weight remains the same (or less).
Few people stay completely static bodyweight and musclewise and make many changes of any kind of a long term basis. Pure newbie neurological gains don't come long. Mark Rippetoe has folks drinking a gallon of milk a day on his basic starting strength program which is made for beginners. Wonder why? Probably because he got tired of people not eating enough to make gains. Even top Olympic lifters (who compete in strength classes) go up in bodyweight and size to gain strength then come down to whatever weight class they can make it at the top of. They gain size to get stronger then cut back and try to fit in at the top of a weight class. When they can no longer make weight they go up to the next bodyweight class. Most people who are successful at any other "relative" oriented strength or power sport do the same thing, and that even includes some gymnasts. But on the internet you read stuff implying guys should be able to gain 250 pounds on their squat and only increase their muscle mass 2 pounds? Bull. If you’re currently in a strength rut try gaining a few pounds of bodyweight and see what happens to your lifts.
Next, I'm going to address the notion that muscle doesn't provide any benefits to athletics, and should be avoided:
There have actually been studies done among Soviet Masters of Sport olympic lifters where they compared the vertical jumps from all weight classes and put it into a nice chart. What they found was the best vertical Jumps occured at a bodyweight of around 200 pounds.
Bodyweight and VJ among Master of Sport Weight Lifters
52kilo = 65cm
56kilo = 67cm
60 kilo = 63cm
67.5 kilo = 68cm
75kilo = 71cm
82.5kilo = 70cm
90kilo = 74cm
100kilo = 67
110kilo = 65cm
110+ kilo = 67cm
If lighter is always better how do you explain that? I'm not saying everyone should weigh 200 lbs, but after 20 years of experience it’s been my experience that most people that improve their vertical jumps to a large extent also increase their muscular size to a decent extent in the process.
What Do DB's and Sprinters Have In Common With Bodybuilders?
If you ask me the prototypical ideal "athlete" is an NFL cornerback. They combine the best overall combination of speed, quickness, agility, reaction time, and explosivness. All the qualities that relative strength training is supposedly best for. The average cornerback runs somewhere around a 4.4 forty yard dash, vertical jumps between 35 and 45 inches, runs a 1.4 to 1.5 second 10 yard dash, and completes a 20 yard shuttle drill in less than 4 seconds. These guys have reputations as being small, and they are relative to some of the other positions, but take a closer look. The average cornerback is around 5'11 ~190 pounds with a body-fat percentage of a realistic 7-8% (4% if you believe the hype). That may be small compared to a 330 pound defensive tackle, but compared to the average man that isn't small at all. In fact, take a look at some of Casey Butt's maximum natural muscle mass calculations and you'll probably see a lot of them are good sized even by natural BBing standards.
So, these "small" defensive backs pack nearly as much muscle on their frame as bodybuilders, but they're small? Could it be some of their speed and explosiveness is directly attributed to their muscularity? Most likely. The interesting thing is if you go back to when these guys were in high school most of them gained a minimum of 20 pounds since then. Contrary to popular dogma, they didn't get slower and less explosive by gaining that weight, in fact they became better athletes.
Another interesting observation noted by my buddy Colin Chung is that most natural Bb'ers in the 5'8-5'10" range compete at 165-175lbs after many years of training intentionally trying to put on as much muscle as possible. With a bit more fat and water they'd be around 175-180 lbs, which is a typical sprinter size and bodyweight. The average bro is a long ways off from the muscular development of a decent sprinter.
In my experience nobody ever got slower getting more muscular unless they got fat in the process. As far as strength goes I've never seen anybody get relatively weaker gaining muscle unless it was accompanied by a lot of fat. Typically a few pound gain in muscle will come with a disproportionately larger strength increase as well.
Does that mean everyone needs to go on a bodybuilding protocol and eat theirself up to 220? No, but most people are a long ways off from the point where they need to be concerned with getting overly muscular and actively pursuing muscle at times would in fact speed up their rate of progression by a substantial margin.
So, why is a degree of muscle advantageous?
Muscle size can be a very transferable quality. Muscle creates movement and a bigger muscle creates more force in all activities. In contrast, strength gains can be specific to a given movement or exercise. It’s possible to gain some strength just by getting better or more coordinated at a particular exercise. Those gains may not transfer all that well to other activities. So, if you increase your squat from 200 to 300 pounds but don’t build any muscle in the process you might not run or jump any better. However, increasing your strength ALONG with your muscle mass is more likely to transfer to other activities because those bigger muscles also exert more force when you run, jump, or anything else. The neural (or coordinative) gains you make in a sporting movement like running or jumping are best made by performing that activity. Truth be told this is a major reason why steroids are so popular in track & field.
Additionally, adding muscle mass is really the only viable way to increase the proportion of fast twitch fiber in your body. As everyone knows fast twitch fibers are advantageous in sport. When you add muscle size thru resistance training it is the fast twitch fibers that increase in size. Let's say you're currently 50% slow twitch and 50% fast twitch with 18 inch thighs. You put 8 inches on your thighs, which equates to an extra 8 inches of FT muscle. Now your thighs will be more like 75% fast twitch and 25% ST from a distribution perspective.
Two Important Things
There are 2 caveats for functional growth to reap dividends for you. These are:
A: You have to be coordinated and power efficient to begin with. If you're slow and have recruitment impairments, mobility issues etc. it probably won't work as well.
B: You have to build muscle mass in the right places.
See this article for more on those topics:
No Glutes = No results
A couple of other things worth noting are:
A: Body-part specific hypertrophy:
Even relatively scrawny looking sprinters and jumpers often have specific muscles that carry a lot of development relative to others and even to the rest of their physique. For example, the avg. 6'3 150 pound (or whatever) triple jumper will often have disproportionaly better developed hamstrings and glutes than many weighing 40 pounds more.
B: Growth is specific to the individual
For each individual body structure there is an "optimal" muscular bodyweight that optimizes their forces and leverage for sport. Look at the NFL combine. On a fairly consistent basis defensive lineman and outside linebackers consistently jump as high if not higher than all the other positions. Why is that? They combine fairly long levers with a lot of muscle which they can really benefit from because of their length. Someone with shorter levers might not need that much. Some people naturally produce plenty of force for their structure, however, more often then not this is not the case. Just because someone performs well and looks like a rail also doesn't mean they haven't grown. For example, see the development of Usain Bolt’s physique over time:
A young Bolt compared to the '08 olympics Bolt- (Note the difference in thigh muscularity)
Even though he's considered thin it's still apparent he's done a lot of growing.
Does this mean bigger is always better? No. For example, for a lot of folks the hypertrophy associated with squatting carried to the extreme can cause a muscle balance and postural situation that negate the optimal alignments needed to drive off the balls of the feet with power. A large percentage of heavy powerlifters seem to have this "look." Having said that, unless you're very large and squatting well over 2x or more your bodyweight that's very unlikely to be an issue.
Another exception is pure uni-lateral explosive events like the high jump, long jump, triple jump, and running 1-leg jump for height. These events don't always respond favorably to added bodyweight of any kind.
What Relative Strength is Really About
Does all of this make the entire concept of relative strength useless? Not exactly. The idea of relative strength is solid, it's better to have more strength per pound then less. Where the idea goes wrong is when people worry about it to an extent that they fail to make strength gains. The average bro with more than 6 months of training experience doesn't make good strength gains unless he's adding muscle.
A Real World Definition
In the real world relative strength is really more about body-fat than muscle mass. You want to be somewhat lean but you don't need to be concerned with carrying too much muscle. My target for most athletes is ~10% body-fat.
Remember one of my formulas for success in the Vertical Jump. The day you'll be satisfied with your Vertical Jump is the day you:
A: Can squat double bodyweight
B: At 10% or less body-fat
C: With the movement efficiency to jump back and forth over a midshin level cone or string 20 times in 10 seconds.
In no part of that formula is their anything about how much you actually weigh.
It so happens that hitting those strength numbers will more often then not take a good amount of muscle growth in the process but your strength will go up substantially more then the muscle you add.
In my observations the vast majority of people who increase hypertrophy while staying fairly lean are rewarded in a good way.
"But I can't gain strength without gaining muscle and everytime I add muscle I add fat too?"
This is why cycling weight and body-fat works so well. You take your bodyweight up a bit to gain some muscle then take it down a bit to shed some fat. It's a great way to gain relative strength and power. If you always stay at a given bodyweight gains are hard to come by. Go up 10 pounds and not only do those strength gains come easy, but when you cycle your weight back down 10 pounds you'll almost always be a heckuva lot stronger and more powerful at that same bodyweight then you were before.
What about functional vs non-functional hypertrophy?
One last thing: There is another thought that the type of hypertrophy you build varies substantially based upon your rep range. Bodybuilders that train with higher reps are said to build “non-functional” hypertrophy, known for being all “fluff.” Lifters that train with lower reps are said to build “functional” hypertrophy – or muscle as strong as it looks.
The reality is, within reasonable parameters, the type of muscle you build won’t be affected by your rep range. The more overall volume you train with (and the shorter your rest intervals), the more you promote increased glycogen storage in the muscle, and this extra glycogen gives the “pumped” look bodybuilders are known for. It’s simply easier to get that extra volume doing sets of 10 than sets of 1. Train with enough volume with short rests at any rep range and you can get that extra glycogen storage. Lower reps allow you to practice maximally activating your nervous system to a greater extent and build the neural aspects of strength, while higher reps place less loading on the joints and make it easier to get the volume necessary for growth stimulation, but either can build strength and either can build muscle. Progression of load over time is the most important thing, regardless of whether you do sets of 1 or sets of 10. If you add 100 lbs to either your 1 rep max or your 10 rep max you can expect to build a lot of strength and muscle in the process. Nutrition is the limiting factor for muscle gain with either approach.
The take home point? Don't be afraid of getting bigger and more muscular to increase sporting power. As long as you're not piling on excessive amounts of fat over time or rivaling juiced up bodybuilders in the size department any muscular gains you make will likely be worthwhile.