Here’s a common, frustrating scenario:
You’re trying to get stronger for something you enjoy. Maybe you’re working on getting stronger legs so you can get your next stripe in BJJ. Or maybe you’re a surfer working on core strength for more power in your turns. Whatever your thing is, you’ve been strength training regularly for weeks.And sure, you’re getting stronger in some ways. But that’s not translating into better performance in the thing you’re training for in the first place.
At this point, a lot of people tell themselves, “I guess my body just isn’t made for this.” And they move on to something that comes easier for them. But the truth is, the vast majority of people’s bodies are completely capable of doing the things they want to do with the right training.
So what’s really holding them back?
One of the biggest roadblocks for many people is actually pretty simple — they don’t yet know the right ways to train their bodies for their specific goals. Think about it. Most strength training advice is focused on one of two goals: bigger muscles or lifting heavier things. A high-jumper who follows that advice won’t get very high.
If you’ve been working on your strength but not getting much better at the things you actually care about, there are a couple possibilities.
- First, it’s possible that strength isn’t your primary challenge. It could be that your primary limiting factor is actually flexibility or body control (in which case, click on the appropriate link and work on that first).
- Or there’s the second possibility — and if you’re still reading this there’s a good chance this applies to you — that strength is the thing you need, but your current training isn’t building the right kind of strength.
You see, thinking of strength as one singular thing can actually be counterproductive. A rock climber and a power lifter are both strong. But that doesn’t mean their bodies are suited for the same things. The kind of strength you need depends on what you want to do with it.
In this article, I’ll describe three different types of strength, and I’ll show you how to apply three simple principles to build each type.
Plus I’ll share a sample routine for each one so you can really see what I’m talking about. By the end of the article, you’ll be able to see which kind(s) of strength you actually need to work on, and you’ll know how to start building it.
Essential Ingredients for Strength Building to HappenBefore we get into the different types of strength, I want to talk briefly about some things that must be in place in order for you to improve your strength.
If you’re trying to get stronger for a particular activity and you’re not seeing the results you want, it may not only be an issue of the type of strength you’re building. You may also be missing these essential ingredients. Here’s what you’ve got to have in place:
- The Intensity Level Must Be Sufficient – You have to hit a certain threshold of exertion that goes beyond what you do in your daily life.
- Your Practice Must Be Regular – You need to be consistent so that your body adapts and increases strength in response to the stimulation.
- There Must Be Progressive Overload – As you keep training regularly, you will adapt and get stronger, so your workouts have to get progressively more difficult. That ample amount of resistance when you first started will soon become too easy and will no longer be enough to induce any improvements in strength.
In each of they sections below describing the different types of strength, I’ve included a sample program that reflects each of these rules. There are hundreds of ways to make different programs, with as many different philosophies of training, but they all have to obey the above three rules if you want to build strength.
Want to see these rules in action right away? Our bodyweight circuit is a great place to start.
Or keep scrolling to see which type of strength you should be focusing on for the activities you love.
1. Absolute Strength
Absolute Strength is the maximum force your musculature can exert for a particular action, whether it’s a press, a squat, a pull, or any other action.
If you do recreational powerlifting, absolute strength is the name of the game. You’re always looking to improve your 1-Rep Max (1RM) in three lifts – the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
But what if you don’t do powerlifting? When does training for absolute strength come in handy?
It actually can be quite applicable to your regular life – probably not every day, but when situations arise, you’ll be happy to have trained your absolute strength:
- When you’re doing spring cleaning and need to lift your heavy couch to clean behind it, absolute strength will come in handy.
- If there’s a storm coming and your storm shutters have some rust at the joints, being able to pull them shut requires a good level of absolute strength.
- Your car breaks down and you need to move it out of traffic. Absolute strength will help you push your car a short distance.
- If a jar is sealed really tight, absolute strength is what helps you muster the strength to open it (without banging it on the counter a dozen times first).
Absolute strength in regular life helps you pick up (or push, or pull) something very heavy one time. It is not the kind of strength that will help you carry something heavy for a mile (we’ll get to that type of strength shortly).
Application: Sample Program for Absolute Strength
In general, training for this involves lifting weights at 80%+ of the maximal weight you can lift for several sets of a few repetitions. Training with that load makes the intensity level sufficient. As you improve and that load starts to feel less intense, you’ll increase the load so that you always stay at that 80% mark – this is the progressive overload aspect.
Here’s a sample program so you can see this in action. Make sure to get a minimum of 2-3 sessions of this workout in per week so that your practice is regular enough for the results you want.
Some important things to note about this sample program:
- In general, a program using weights will work best for building absolute strength, but a bodyweight program can work as well, so long as the intensity stays at the right level of 80-90%. The bodyweight program below accounts for that.
- Make sure your rest periods are on the higher end, at least 2 minutes between exercises.
- The following program can be done as a circuit if you prefer, but still make sure to rest at least 2 minutes between exercises.
- Start at the lower end of the set/rep range recommended, adding one rep per week until you are up to 8 sets of 5.
|4-8 sets of 3-5 reps||Squat - Use a variation that keeps the difficulty at about a 7. This may be a pistol squat, shrimp squat, or other single leg variation.|
|4-8 sets of 3-5 reps||Push-Up - Use a variation that keeps the difficulty at about a 7. This may be a hollow body push-up, an inverted press, or a one arm push-up.|
|4-8 sets of 3-5 reps||Pull-Up - Use a variation that keeps the difficulty at about a 7. This may be a one arm pull-up progression or a slow motion pull-up.|
2. Power (AKA Speed Strength)
Power considers how quickly you can use your strength.
If you enjoy playing basketball, power is an important part of playing well. Obstacle course racing also requires power in certain parts of the challenge. And if you do a sport like Muay Thai (or other fighting sports), power is what will allow you to land your punches and kicks with the right amount of force and speed.
You may have a high level of strength, but if you lack speed, you won’t be able to do these activities with the necessary amount of power.
In your daily life, power comes into play when you have to use strength very quickly:
- If you’ve ever had to sprint to catch a bus, you know how important power is.
- When you quickly jump into action to catch your daughter before her head hits the ground, you’re relying on your power to see you through.
- Bounding up the stairs, taking them two at a time, is all about power.
Power is important for many types of sports, but as you can see, you probably rely on power (or could benefit from it) often in your daily life.
Application: Sample Program for Power
Training for power usually involves lighter forces in high-speed movements for several repetitions with long rest periods. This encourages explosive performance with low fatigue.
The high speeds and repetitions allow for sufficient intensity. And just as with absolute strength, the progressive overload will come from increasing the intensity by adding either weight or repetitions, when the intensity starts to level off.
With this sample program, you’ll make your practice regular by training 2 days per week.
Some important things to note about this sample program:
- As with absolute strength, in general, weights do work better for building power. The bodyweight program below will work well, however, as it includes explosive movements.
- Keep your rest periods long, at least 3 minutes between exercises, to allow for nearly complete recovery between exercises.
- The following program can be done as a circuit if you prefer, but alternate upper body and lower body movements, and maintain long rest periods.
- Start at the lower end of the set/rep range recommended, adding one rep per week until you are up to 5 sets of 3.
|3-5 sets of 1-3 reps||Jump - Use a variation that you could do 20-25 reps with. This could be a standing broad jump, jump for height, or bounding (jumping forward with one leg).|
|3-5 sets of 1-3 reps||Explosive Push-Up - Use a variation that you could do 20-25 reps with, but make your movement explosive.|
|3-5 sets of 1-3 reps||Explosive Pull-Up - Use a variation that you could do 20-25 reps with, but make your movement explosive.|
For help with your jump, see our detailed tutorial.
3. Strength Endurance
Strength Endurance is defined by Mel Siff in the classic text Supertraining as “the specific form of strength displayed in activities which require a relatively long duration of muscle tension with minimal decrease in efficiency.”
If you do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, running, or climbing, this is the most important type of strength for you to train. You need to be able to sustain your strength for a long period of time without burning yourself out.
We’ve all experienced the need for strength endurance at some point in our daily lives:
- Your friend asks you to help him move. Carrying heavy boxes and furniture for several hours requires a good level of strength endurance.
- When the elevator at work is broken and you have to walk up 16 flights of stairs to get to your desk, that’s a good example of strength endurance in action.
- If your son trips and twists his ankle while you’re on a family hike, you’ll need strength endurance to carry him back to your car.
This is definitely one that comes up fairly often in daily life.
Application: Sample Program for Strength Endurance
Training for strength endurance is pretty darn uncomfortable and has you working at high levels of force with as little rest as possible. Too little rest and you’ll burn out, too much rest and you won’t get the effects desired.
Remember, it’s all about reaching sufficient intensity. You can work on increasing the force or decreasing rest over time to ensure progressive overload.
For this sample program, be sure to train 2-3 days per week so your practice is regular.
Some important things to note about this sample program:
- Unlike absolute strength and power, bodyweight exercise is best for building strength endurance.
- Your rest periods will be much shorter, 1 minute or less between sets.
- Circuit training is optimal for building endurance, so that’s how the following program should be done. You’ll have little to no rest between exercises, and rest up to 1 minute between rounds.
- Start with 1 set of 20 for each exercise, adding 1 set per week until you’ve reached 3 sets of 20. Then add 5 reps per week until you max out at 3 sets of 50 reps per exercise.
|Circuit: 1-3 rounds of 20-50 reps per exercise.||• Squat - Use a variation with which you can start at 20 reps.
• Push-Up - Use a variation with which you can start at 20 reps (may need to do them on your knees).
• Pull-Up - Use a variation with which you can start at 20 reps (horizontal/Australian pull-up).
If your squat can use some help, our detailed bodyweight squat tutorial will help you out.
What About Relative Strength?
Relative strength isn’t really a type of strength, but rather a reflection of your current state of being. It is the ratio of your level of strength relative to your bodyweight.
While there isn’t any particular style of training that will impact your relative strength, it can be modified.
If you currently have some weight to lose, you can impact your relative strength by maintaining your current strength level while lowering your bodyweight. Conversely, you can maintain your current bodyweight while increasing your strength (using any of the three strength types described above).
For the most part, you don’t have to worry about modifying your relative strength. If you’re working on getting stronger, that’s all that matters.
Build the Right Strength for the Activities You Love
As you can probably guess, one type of strength does not negate another. And many activities call upon more than one type of strength.
What’s important is that your efforts match your goals.
If you’re not seeing your performance in the activities you love improving, in spite of spending time on strength training, then it’s likely you need a different approach.
We designed our Integral Strength program with the best parts of different types of strength training. It helps you assess your weaknesses and address what you need to work on the most, so that you can do better at the activities you love.
One client, Laura, is a rower and marathon runner, and used Integral Strength to help her prepare for a race:
Get Strong To Do Better at What You Want
Over eight weeks, Integral Strength will help you build the kind of strength that carries over into the demanding physical skills and dynamic sports you love.