The Ultimate Guide to Relative Strength in Calisthenics

What is Relative strength?

Relative strength is the amount of force generated per pound of body weight. The focus is not just on how much weight one can lift (i.e. absolute strength), but rather a measure of how strong you are in proportion to your body weight. It is a fundamental concept in calisthenics because, in the exercises and movements you use your own body weight as resistance.

The 2 ways of improving relative strength

Now that we know what relative strength is and why it is important, it’s time to learn the ways in which we can improve it. There are two primary ways:

1. Improving muscle mass in relevant muscles

The first and most simple is hypertrophy, More muscle = more strength. The force produced is strongly correlated to the Cross-Sectional Area of a muscle (meaning the size of the muscle), As you build muscle, your body weight may increase slightly, but the added muscle mass should provide a greater increase in strength relative to body weight.
Having a higher proportion of muscle relative to body fat is key. Therefore besides building muscle, Reducing body fat will help in improving your relative strength, as you’ll carry less excessive tissue that doesn’t produce force. The same goes for training muscles that aren’t relevant to the exercises you are trying to improve, the leg muscles act as deadweight when doing upper body strength skills therefore growing bigger legs is going to have a net negative impact on upper body strength skills.

2. Increasing Skill Strength

Building bigger muscles is not the only way to increase strength, the nervous system plays a central and critical role in increasing strength especially when it comes to relative strength. Learning and refining specific movement patterns and techniques is a neurological process. Here’s how the nervous system influences and facilitates strength gains:

  1. Neuromuscular Adaptations: Strength training stimulates neuromuscular adaptations, such as increased synchronization of motor unit firing and improved muscle fiber recruitment patterns. These adaptations allow for more efficient and powerful muscle contractions.
  2. Skill Acquisition: Learning and refining specific movement patterns and techniques is a neurological process. Repetitive training allows your brain to refine motor skills and develop efficient movement patterns. This improves coordination, and the ability to perform the exercise with precision and control.

An analogy to understand the relationship between muscle mass and strength skill is to view muscle mass as the foundation (hardware) and strength skill as the specialized software. However, while upgrading the software (improving technique and skill) is important, it can only take you so far if your foundation (muscle mass) is lacking. Therefore, when aiming to maximize relative strength, it becomes crucial to prioritize building a solid foundation of muscle mass.

Final thoughts

To emphasize more skill strength use heavy weight at high intensity, using loads that are around 80-95% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM), lower repetitions per set, and longer rest periods (3-5 minutes). Here the primary emphasis is on neural adaptations and skill acquisition.

To put more emphasis on hypertrophy, aim to use moderate to heavy weight, typically in the range of 60-80% of your 1RM. Hypertrophy workouts usually include higher repetitions per set, shorter rest periods (60 to 90 seconds), and a mix of compound and isolation exercises to target specific muscle groups. While strength gains are a secondary outcome, the primary focus is on increasing muscle size and achieving a better foundation for building strength later.

Integrating both approaches can be achieved through a training method called periodization, a common strategy that involves cycling between phases of strength and hypertrophy training. This approach promotes well-rounded training in both skill strength and muscle size.

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