The true expression of relative strength

When we talk about relative strength we always take it for granted in terms of performance. Afterall, it’s an easy way to make an idea about how powerful/athletic somebody likely is without even testing him in that field of expertise.

Basically, if you take a guy with a 2x squat (and a decently-low bodyfat level) you would naturally expect that guy to have good sprinting speed (at least good acceleration, if not top speed)and have a high vertical jump (at least standing vertical, if not running vertical) and most often than not you’d be right. There are a myriad of other factors influencing the expression of strength, with the most important being:

1) Body structure;
2) Nervous system capabilities that compose of:
2a) Recruitment ability (influenced by the person’s mood (laid back/nervous) and tension intensity);
2b) Movement efficiency (as in how well the CNS can replicate a movement with as little effort as possible actively using as much power as possible);
3) Inhibitory signals in the eccentric phase (or eccentric strength overload acceptance), such as the GTO threshold;

These are three things off the top of my head, because there are obviously even more that influence the expression of strength.

So what does this have to do with the relative strength component?

Well, here it gets a little tricky.

Say you have two athletes with no training background whatsoever, who never squatted. They have the same height and weight, identical structures, neural efficiency in the standing vertical jump and GTOs threshold. You put them both on training with squats. Athlete A starts a program that calls him to squat 1 time per week. Athlete B starts doing a program of squatting 4 times per week.

After 6 weeks they both have the same squat, say 2x their bodyweight. Whom would you pick to get a higher vertical jump in between the two? Athlete A or Athlete B? At the first glance you would probably say “it doesn’t matter, they have the same stats and the same relative strength, so they obviously jump the same”. And although it’s a bit counter-intuitive, the most probable result is that Athlete A will jump higher.

Why? Well, let’s analyze the situation for a moment:

Athlete A started doing squats 1 time per week. While that’s a good stimulus for increasing the squatting poundages, it’s not nearly as good as a stimulus for learning how to squat and increasing the squat movement efficiency as the 4 times per week squatting routine would do for Athlete B. So Athlete B will be much more squatting efficient after the 6 weeks of training than Athlete A.

Then after those 6 weeks you will compare two guys with the same apparent relative strength and different squatting efficiency. And like we talked about a few articles back, movement efficiency is movement specific. In other words, being good at squatting doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at jumping or other movements (especially of other dynamics).

So you can argue that Athlete A is actually much more stronger if with a worse squatting efficiency is able to be at the level of Athlete B who squats 4 times per week (obviously, here we ignore fatigue accumulation, work capacity and so on, but this example is chosen to make a point). If we were to take these two guys A and B and continue with another 6 weeks of training, with Athlete A doing this time a 4 times per week squatting routine and Athlete B doing a one time per week squatting routine, we’d probably end up with Athlete A being superior in terms of relative strength than Athlete B.

That’s because Athlete A increased his squatting frequency and therefore increased his squatting efficiency. Athlete B, who already had very good squatting efficiency due to his previous 6 weeks of high frequency squatting didn’t gain too much from his 1 time per week squatting (he could’ve gained in supercompensation from all the accumulated fatigue from the previous 6 weeks, but like I said – this is not the object of this article). The only way Athlete B would really gain more strength would be muscle gain.

Again, and I must make these notes – 6 weeks is a totally arbitrary number, don’t expect to be “100%” squat efficient in real life after only 6 weeks of high frequency squatting.

Anyway, since we reached the point of muscle gain: some people just don’t get it (and I know some of them personally) – you can gain only so much by neural efficiency. You can’t go “yo man, I’ll just stay at this bodyweight and reach a 2.5x squat in some time”. That’s just not right.

And it doesn’t even have to be such a serious number like 2.5x. 1.5x, 1.0x, whatever. You need muscle to generate tension. If you squat and don’t gain any muscle and increase your squat from 1.0x to 1.5x, then the gains come from neural efficiency gain in the squatting movement. This can have a transferrable effect into jumps, sprints and other dynamic movements, but only for uncoordinated/untrained people. Once you’re good at your sport and increase your squat without muscle gain you’re most likely not going to see results.

Let’s take a concrete example:

Say you get a guy named Jumpy to train. He’s very good at jumping but sucks at squatting. He jumps 34 inches for the standing vert but only squats 1x his bodyweight. He obviously thinks “man, I’m such a good jumper but I suck at squatting, man… I guess you can jump high without squatting that much”.

You take him and put him into squatting (whatever frequency because that’s not important for this example) and he gets his squat from 1x to 2x but jumps the same 34 inches! You can expect him to say “you got me squatting so much, I doubled my squat and my jump is the same! Obviously squatting doesn’t work and it’s just a wrong approach”.

What is wrong in that quote is the fact that he probably would’ve been able to squat 2x from the moment of him squatting 1x, just that he didn’t know it. All the gains he made in his squat were from improving squatting movement efficiency and closing the gap between his real strength and his squat-displayed strength!

The only chance for Jumpy increasing his vertical jump would be increasing his strength over 2x with gains in muscle, since muscle can generate additional non-squat-specific tension.

What I mean by that is the fact that if you build muscle through squatting, that muscle can be used to generate tension in other movements as well and not only in squatting (as opposed to the scenario where you’d only gain in neural efficiency of that movement only).

And since this post has become quite a mouthful (but trust me, it was necessary), if you start squatting – focus on improving your neural efficiency in squatting first (higher frequency squatting, higher volume, lower intensity), learn the movement properly, then increase the intensity and lower the frequency and start building muscle for athletic gains. The reason people are afraid of gaining muscle is the addition of body fat, but that can be shedded off later.

The true relative strength gain for superior athleticism is through muscle gain and not squatting efficiency!

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