Relative Strength Vs Absolute Strength: Defining The Difference

There are two general ways in which strength can be assessed, absolute strength and relative strength

But, what is absolute strength, and what is relative strength? What is the difference between the two? Is it more important to have better relative strength vs absolute strength or vice versa?

In this article, we will discuss relative strength vs absolute strength, covering the basics such as the relative strength definition and absolute strength definition, and then taking a closer look at factors that affect absolute strength vs relative strength.

We will look at: 

  • What is Absolute Strength?
  • What is Relative Strength?
  • Factors That Affect Relative Strength Vs Absolute Strength
  • Absolute Power vs Relative Power

Let’s get started!

A muscular man doing bicep curls.

What is Absolute Strength?

When most people think about strength or measuring strength, they are thinking along the lines of absolute strength instead of relative strength.

So, what is the absolute strength definition?

Absolute strength is essentially a measure or quantification of the maximum amount of weight that you can lift for one repetition of an exercise.

For this reason, the one-repetition maximum (1RM) metric is the gold standard measure of one’s absolute strength for a specific exercise.

For example, if you can lift 200 pounds using proper form and execution for a single rep of the barbell bench press, your bench press 1RM is 200 pounds, and your absolute strength for the bench press exercise is 200 pounds.

Every individual athlete will have a different absolute strength for each specific exercise, such as bench press, back squat, deadlift, barbell biceps curl, overhead press, power clean, etc.

Absolute strength is useful in comparing the strength of two different athletes of the same body weight but places a lighter, smaller athlete at a disadvantage when comparing the absolute strength of two athletes of significantly different body sizes.

A push up.

What is Relative Strength?

You may be able to infer the relative strength definition from the term itself, but for the sake of clarity, relative strength refers to your lifting capacity compared to your body weight.

Rather than being measured by simply adding up all of the weight plates and barbell (or other forms of weight) that you are lifting for an exercise, as is the case with absolute strength, relative strength is calculated by dividing the weight you lifted for an exercise by your body weight. 

For example, let’s return to the case of someone who can lift 200 pounds for the barbell bench press exercise.

If that individual is 150 pounds, their relative strength is 1.33 times their body weight.

When you are comparing the strength or the lifting capacity of athletes of two different body sizes, it is more meaningful to use relative strength vs absolute strength.

This is because it is more difficult for a smaller athlete to lift the same absolute weight as a larger athlete because the amount of weight lifted represents a greater percentage of the smaller athlete’s body weight.

There are also exercises that highlight one’s relative strength fitness.

Examples of relative strength exercises include push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, bodyweight dips on parallel bars, and other similar bodyweight exercises.

Relative strength exercises demonstrate your ability to move or lift your own body weight, so they provide insight into how strong you are compared to your body size (which essentially encapsulates the relative strength definition).

A person doing bicep curls.

Factors That Affect Relative Strength Vs Absolute Strength

There are various factors that affect your absolute strength and relative strength fitness, some factors that affect absolute strength more than relative strength, and others that impact relative strength vs absolute strength more significantly.

As we discuss the various factors that affect strength, we will make a note about whether the factor affects relative strength or absolute strength more significantly or if both absolute and relative strength are impacted similarly.

#1: Body Weight

Your body weight can impact your strength. 

Although not true across the board, people who are heavier or have a larger body tend to have greater absolute strength compared to lighter and smaller people.

The reason for this difference primarily comes down to the fact that if you have a higher body weight, your muscles are accustomed to moving and carrying a greater load in all of your activities of daily living, along with any time you exercise.

A person flexing their bicep.

Essentially, your muscles are always working under greater resistance or a load, so you develop better absolute strength.

To that end, when comparing absolute strength vs relative strength, the key difference is that relative strength compares your lifting capacity relative to your body weight.

Looking at this another way, if you have a heavier body weight, the same one-rep maximum weight will be a lower relative percentage of your body weight than if someone who weighs less has the same 1RM.

Consider the difference in relative strength vs absolute strength in two athletes who can each squat 300 pounds.

Since both athletes have the same squat 1RM, they have the same absolute strength for the squat.

However, suppose one of the athletes is 150 pounds, and the other is 300 pounds.

Here, we see a major difference in the relative strength of the athletes, even though their absolute strength is the same for this exercise.

The 150-pound athlete can squat two times their body weight, while the 300-pound athlete can only squat their body weight.

Overall, body weight is a factor that primarily affects your absolute strength in terms of the maximum weight you can lift, but as can be seen, body weight can also affect your relative strength in terms of the “impressiveness” of how much weight you can lift.

A class of people lifting barbells.

#2: Body Composition 

Your body composition can affect both your absolute strength and relative strength, but there’s a bit of a nuanced difference between how body composition affects relative strength vs absolute strength.

With absolute strength, the higher your lean body mass, the more muscle mass you have on your body to help you produce force. This generally means that you will have better absolute strength if you have more muscle mass.

Although you will also have greater relative strength if you have more muscle mass, perhaps the aspect of body composition that is even more impactful when looking at relative strength vs absolute strength is your body fat percentage.

If you think about the physiological production of force or strength, the tissue that is involved in contracting to generate this force is your muscles.

Adipose tissue, which is body fat, does not contribute to producing any amount of force, so it will not aid or enhance your strength.

As mentioned, relative strength is a measure of the amount of weight you can lift compared to your total body weight.

So, the more fat tissue you have, the higher the denominator of the relative strength calculation (total weight) and the lower the numerator (the amount of weight you will be able to lift) because the more fat you have, the less muscle you have at the same body weight.

Therefore, your body fat percentage will have a significant impact on your relative strength and will play more of a role in impacting your relative strength vs absolute strength because it will affect both parts of the relative strength calculation.

A person doing a plank.

#3: Training Level and Workout Structure

How much you consistently work out, particularly in terms of strength training workouts, will certainly have a major impact on your strength level.

Depending on the particular exercises you do and the way in which you structure your resistance training workouts, you can train yourself to improve both absolute and relative strength or primarily target one type of strength more than the other.

Strength and hypertrophy-based workouts using heavier weights will improve absolute strength as well as relative strength. 

On the other hand, if you focus mostly on relative strength exercises only, such as body weight workouts, you will see more of an improvement in relative strength.

This is primarily due to the fact that when you are not adding additional external resistance, it can be more difficult to increase your maximum strength. 

While you should see some improvement in absolute strength with bodyweight exercises, particularly if you are relatively untrained or new to strength training, these types of movements translate to more significant improvements in relative strength since you are getting stronger at working with your own body weight.

A person pulling on battle ropes.

Absolute Power vs Relative Power

Although the focus here is on absolute strength and relative strength, there is often some confusion about the relationship between absolute power vs relative power and whether that is the same as absolute strength vs relative strength.

Power and strength are independent concepts, though they are related.

Strength refers to the amount of force you can produce, which then correlates to how much weight you can lift.

Power is a measure of how quickly you can produce force, so it is calculated by dividing the amount of force generated by the time it takes to produce that force.

In this way, power is essentially the speed of force generation.

When looking at relative power vs absolute power, a similar concept applies in terms of how each is calculated as relative strength vs absolute strength, except you were looking at the force divided by the speed of that force development for each type of power.

Interested in learning more about how to increase your strength? Check out our guide to the best leg workouts for strength and mass here.

A barbell bicep curl.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.