Strongman: A Muscular Strength Definition


What makes you physically strong? This is often a source of constant debate and there are many differing opinions as to what constitutes a strong person. That is because there are a number of different types of muscular strength.

What are the different qualities of muscular strength and what is best type to have? Or do we have to train in all aspects of the strength game. If so, what ratio between the different strength types should we aim for?

Lets start first with defining the different types of physical strength there are.



Total Strength

“How much do you bench?” This is the inevitable cliché question that reverberates around any gym and sets many a person's teeth on edge. But it’s the question that represents best what total strength is. The amount weight lifted for a one rep maximum; in a predetermined range of motion is your total strength measurement for whatever type of lift you are doing.

Brooks Kubik, in his outstanding book, Dinosaur Training, suggests that a man  who has achieved the 300/400/500lb ratio in the three big lifts (bench, squat and deadlift respectively) can begin to call themselves strong. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the common measure of strength was a 200lb press overhead, these remember were the days before the squat and bench had come into existence.

How do we increase total strength?

In short, a low rep program, 2-3 times a week utilizing periodic resistance will, without a doubt, increase your total strength. If you are a competitive person you might want to consider joining a powerlifting or weightlifting club in your local area. These sports deal exclusively in the increase of total strength.

Powerlifting and weightlifting are sports that take and compare strength measurements to decide the eventual winner in their respective lifts. A cumulative total of the combined lifts are calculated and the victor is determined. However the inclusion of weight classes in these sports brings another facet of strength into play – relative strength.

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Relative Strength

Relative strength shifts the question from “How much can you bench?” to “How much do you weigh and how much can you bench?”

In the interests of not filling this article full of scientific jargon and technical malarkey, what is the best layman’s definition for relative strength? The easiest way to explain it is the ratio between the total weight being lifted and the total bodyweight of the lifter. The easiest example is a 200lb lifter bench pressing a 300lb barbell. In this case the ratio is 1.5, that is to say, the lifter is bench pressing 1.5 times their bodyweight.

This is an important ratio, possibly the most important strength measurement to consider. Watching a 170lb lifter bench 300lbs is far more impressive than watching the same lift carried out by a 250lb person. Relatively speaking, the lighter lifter is considerably stronger and in the interest of the lifter’s performance it is far more useful to consider.

So is it possible to improve your relative strength?

Indeed you can. Increase your relative strength, by entering into a strength program that consists of a low rep / low sets plan, based heavily in the compound lifts and following a schedule of progressive resistance of small increments each time you lift. Your relative strength will increase in a slow and measured way. Train in this way 2-3 times a week.

5×5 training is a perfect example of this sort of program. Remember this is not about making your muscles bigger (although they will grow in relation to your strength), it’s purely about increasing your strength in relation to your body mass.

There are a few factors to consider here. Initially linear progression (increasing your weight progression each time) is very possible and can last from anywhere from 6-8 months to 18 months, depending on your starting point. But as you transition from a beginning lifter into an intermediate lifter (see the diagram below), linear progression will reach a point where it halts. This is when you have to cycle your lifts following a periodization plan. This is too complex a topic to include here in this article and we will cover it in later posts. 

For you beginning lifters out there, try and keep progressing in a linear way for as long as possible. Ensure you are eating healthily and are getting a solid eight hours of sleep a night. Stick to your low rep program, do not train to failure and have at least 48 hours between training sessions.

The other factor to consider is that your bodyweight will increase naturally as a response to your increase in strength. In most cases this is a good thing, but if you are simply looking at pure relative strength increases then you will have to keep your bodyweight in check as you gain strength. Powerlifters in lighter weight classes understand this inherently. The most sensible approach to undertake, in this case, is incorporate a nutritional program that encourages fat loss over muscle loss and some sort of intense but short conditioning work at the end of each training session. It is best not to do extended steady state cardio work (except for walking) as this can rob you of energy and muscle mass and ultimately strength.

This diagram below for relative strength is for a 5 rep set for the intermediate figures and a 3 rep set for the advanced figures.


Explosive Strength

Explosive strength is best explained by the Oxford Dictionary of Sport Science & Medicine. Their definition: “The ability to expend energy in one explosive act or in a series of strong sudden movements as in jumping, or projecting some object (e.g. a javelin) as far as possible.” So our bench press question becomes, "How fast can you push the bar from chest to lockout in the bench press"

In the iron game this type of strength is utilized most by Olympic weightlifters. This definition has always convinced me that the sports of weightlifting and powerlifting should exchange names. Before you devotees, of either discipline, name me a blasphemer and petition for me to be tarred and feathered in a public place, let me explain why.

Again in layman’s terms, mechanical power in physics can be described as the combination of force and movement. This is where force is defined by mass (the weight lifted) multiplied by acceleration (the amount speed increases between beginning and end point) and movement is overall velocity over the distance travelled (this is a very basic open interpretation which would have Newton turning in his grave).

The Olympic lifts generate greater force through acceleration and reach greater overall velocities over a greater distance meaning that actual power output is more than the three big lifts of powerlifting. In this way, “power” is really the focus of the Olympic lifter rather than the traditional powerlifter.

How do you increase explosive power?

  • Include some Olympic style lifts into your workouts. Power cleans, snatches, clean and jerks and clean and presses (for the traditionalist) will increase explosive power.
  • Plyometric training is especially designed for increasing explosiveness
  • Sprint training. Flat sprints, hill sprints, prowler / sled training and certain jump rope drills all increase explosive strength.


Muscular endurance

In short, muscular endurance refers to the ability to sustain a number of muscular contractions over a sustained period of time. So to use the bench question again it shifts to, "What is the most amount of reps that you can bench for a set period of time?" or just "How many reps can you continuously bench?" Bodybuilders who utilize high volume, high rep training with reduced time between sets certainly have a certain amount of muscular endurance.

The two disciplines of the iron game that would utilize muscular endurance the most would be Crossfit and Strongman competitions. A Crossfit WOD combines compound lifts, bodyweight exercises and sprint work set out in a series of rounds for time. The poundage Crossfitters use are moderate and the repetitions are very high. By comparison, Strongmen lift extremely high poundages and push, pull, throw or carry them over a distance for time. Both of these strength sports require a high degree of muscular endurance.

So how much does the average old school muscle builder need muscular endurance?

A degree of muscular endurance should be an integral part of all training. Even in sports like powerlifting and weightlifting where the need for endurance is not apparent it should be included. We all probably have known people capable of lifting tremendous weight who are puffed climbing a single flight of stairs. Great strength is useless if you are unable to make use of it in “real life” situations. Don’t believe me – then listen to what Arthur Saxon had to say:

“Genuine strength should include not only momentary strength, as proved by the ability to lift a heavy weight once, but also the far more valuable kind of strength known as strength for endurance.” ~ Arthur Saxon

If you are doing extended low rep/high poundage training, then incorporate some conditioning work after your workout or on your off day. After a twelve week cycle perhaps integrate a month of high volume/moderate weight work as a break in your schedule and to refuel for the next cycle.


What aspect of physical strength should we focus on?

As old school trainers, relative strength should always be a primary focus. Depending on what aspect of the iron game you are focusing on, you need to balance out the other three types of strength accordingly. Most importantly do not ignore any of them to your peril. Old school muscle men essentially liked to take a generalist approach to strength and then developed a specialty interest within this. These days, trainees tend to specialize from the outset which leads to imbalances in overall physical strength.

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In Part 2 of this series we will look at the different aspects of mental strength and how we can build on it.