For me, absolute strength is king. It has been and will continue to be my main obsession. Relative strength is impressive, but more important if you have a weight class. It is absolute strength that has the effect of allowing all other attributes to become greater.
Simply defined, absolute strength is the greatest amount of force that can be voluntarily produced regardless of time. It is also called maximal or limit strength.
If you have a goal other than limit strength, that is respectable. But what I am trying to do is shine a light on the differences between training for absolute strength and other attributes like power, strength endurance, stability, speed, static strength, and endurance.
So what’s the difference? As with all journeys, your perspective and mindset determines the outcome. If you think to yourself, “I want to swing the Beast a thousand times in a workout,” then your goal is not absolute strength. It would be endurance or perhaps strength endurance. (A few of you may know that a couple of brave souls actually did just that. They swung the Beast (a 48kg kettlebell) one-thousand times in under an hour. Amazing, really.) On the other hand, if you think, “I want to increase the heaviest weight I can swing correctly,” then you’re thinking of absolute strength.
Getting your mindset for maximal strength is the first step. Staying committed to that decision is the next and possibly hardest step of all. At least, it has always been the hardest step for me.
How Do the Truly Strong People Train?
Every trainer has worked with a student who wants to achieve ten goals at once. “I want to deadlift heavier, work on my Olympic lifts, play ball a few times a week, do plyometric training a couple times a week, train the kettlebell movements, and go to a yoga class with a friend.” Sound familiar?
To these people, I usually say, “Remember when it comes to training, you want your future to thank your past.” When it comes time to re-test your max press at the end of your program, hopefully you will be thankful for the weeks or months leading up to that max.
When you want to be as strong as possible, it is helpful to look at how truly strong people train. Competing strongmen and -women would be the purest display of limit strength. I mean, they are the world’s strongest men and women. Strongmen and -women essentially train directly for their events. Meaning, they train and compete in a deadlifting event, an overhead pressing event, a carry event, and possibly a squatting or pulling event. They train and compete in full body movements that test their limit strength.
Powerlifters and Olympic lifters also both exhibit amazing absolute strength, but it is their relative strength that impresses the judges. That said, all three sports ask how much can your posterior chain actually do and all three also have an affinity for simplicity.
How you write your training program is going to be the best predictor of your progress. Here are some general guidelines when writing your program:
- Use lifts appropriate for training limit strength: If it’s not a full-body lift, then it doesn’t qualify. Deadlifts, squats, bench press (you read that right), snatch, clean and jerks, get-ups, bent press, and farmer’s carry.
- Use a rep scheme appropriate for strength: Sets between 1-5 repetitions are a keystone to great strength programming.
- Take plenty of rest between sets: I suggest 3-5 minutes. Pavel’s new research may say even longer.
- Schedule rest days: Rest means rest. Period.
- Keep it simple: Focus on one or two lifts.
The simplest thing most people can do is to start deadlifting. Pavel told us this in Power to the People! After all, the deadlift allows you to lift the most weight. So, what better way to exploit the overload principle then with heavier weights? (I’m speaking of the barbell deadlift as is taught at the SFL Certification and not the trap bar or hex bar exercises that some will pass off as deadlifting, by the way.)
If you’re an advanced trainee, then I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to those of you who want to do hundreds of reps with light weights and minimal rest. All the while wondering why your press isn’t getting stronger.
Moving on, it doesn’t have to be deadlifts. It can be any full-body lift with which you feel comfortable lifting the heaviest weights. An example: Ike wants to train for his snatch test, but doesn’t want to add a significant amount of volume. So, what does he do? He practices snatching bells one and two sizes bigger to increase his limit strength. With his new-found limit strength, the snatch test is hardly a test at all. Folks, it can be that simple.
Don’t Forget Rest and Relaxation
Scheduling rest days into your program is key for long-term strength development. A rest day in my book is doing nothing more than living. Take a nap if you have time. Cook your favorite meal at home. Do whatever it is that helps you de-stress.A lot of people like active recovery between lifting sessions. That can be great, if it is actually recovery.
A simple method I’ve used in the past is to repeat a four-day set:
- Heavy lifting day (80-95%)
- General conditioning day
- Movement day
- Rest day
Simply repeat this four-day set. Get in tune with how your body feels and is recovering.
This by no means is the only way. Check out my Daily Dose Deadlift Plan for an example of the opposite in training frequency.
The Surprise of Absolute Strength
It never fails that when I go to a StrongFirst event two things happen. First, someone comes up to me and says, “You like to deadlift a lot.” Second, I am amazed when I realize how many people don’t deadlift regularly.
Yes, I do like to deadlift, but you know what I like more? I like having a strong back. I like having a punishing grip. I enjoy having healthy shoulders. I love having strong hamstrings so I can snatch heavier kettlebells.
It’s not about the deadlift. It’s about absolute strength.
To explicate my point, I’m going to tell you a true story. The story begins during registration for my first Kettlebell Certification. While I was nervously waiting for the events of the day, a sweet young lady named Ellen started a conversation with me. She asked if I was nervous. (It was pretty obvious, so I didn’t attempt to hide it.) I told her I had not worked with a coach and I was worried about the snatch test. She replied, “I haven’t touched a kettlebell in over a year.” I thought to myself, “This woman is crazy. What is she thinking?”
Later in the day, when Pavel brought her to the front and introduced Ms. Ellen Stein (SF instructor and Powerlifting World Record holder), it all made sense. Long story short, Ellen blew through weekend with ease. How do you think she did that? Two words: absolute strength. The strength she had gained from her powerlifting training was more than enough to carry her for the weekend. My mind was blown wide open.
That took place eleven years ago. Sadly, I still hear people talk about losing weight so they can certify with a lighter bell. Hey, if you need to lose weight for health reasons, then get it done. Otherwise, focus on methods that will increase your absolute strength. After all, we are StrongFirst and not LoseweighttoliftlighterweightsFirst.
It may seem that I am making a case for deadlifting. Well, I’m not intentionally trying to—or maybe I am just a little. Either way, if you ask me for advice, then I’ll probably ask you, “How much can you pull?”
Hopefully, I have highlighted how important limit strength is for overall physical development. Even more, maybe I have influenced you to rethink your training methods. Most importantly, I hope this helps someone be more focused on reaching a higher level of absolute strength.
If you’re reading this, then you are on the right path. Keep pursuing your education in the best techniques to increase your absolute strength so you can perform your best at one of StrongFirst’s awesome Certifications or whatever other goal you’ve got your sights on.