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  • Writer's pictureDaniel McKee

Understanding Strength Part 1

Updated: Jan 28

In previous articles, I defined the Purpose of Training: Driving Adaptation.  We drive Adaptation to develop an athlete/client's Fitness for their own Purpose.

To further understand the process of fitness development, we must first understand its fundamental element- STRENGTH.

Essentially, Strength is the ability of a body to produce Force.  

Force is Mass x Acceleration.  The force of a weight is its Mass (Kilogram) multiplied by Gravitational Acceleration (9.8 MPS squared).

Strength is the biomechanical counterpart of Force. 

Just as Force is the fundamental element of other physics quantities (Work, Power), Strength is the fundamental element of other physiological abilities (Speed Strength, Strength Speed, Muscular Endurance).

The strength of a body is dependent on two aspects-

  1. Structural

  2. Functional

As it relates to movement, we can think of an analogy between the brain-body system and a computer-controlled machine.

 A computer-machine system's structural aspect is the hardware of the machines.  Its functional aspect is the computer (brain) that controls the machine and the networking Cable system (nervous system) that gets the signals to and from the computer to the machines.  

When an action needs to be done the computer sends out a signal via cables to the machine to act. The machine also sends information back to the computer while in action so the computer can alter the action if necessary for success.

Our body’s hardware is our bones, joints, muscles, and skin.  Our brain is the computer, and our nervous system is the network cables. Different movement patterns that we learn (like a certain lift) are like different files in our hard drive, we call up the appropriate file at the right time according to the task.

*This example is not nearly the complete picture of the complexity of the human being in relation to performance, the example is merely to simplistically represent the signal-communication-action process of the brain-nervous system-body for movement. The point is understand that the bones, joints, and muscles are our structural aspect, while the brain and nervous system in the functional.

Structural Capacity

The ability of a body to produce force is first dependent on its structural capacity.   There are five factors affecting a body’s structural capacity.


Structural Factors

  1. The cross-sectional area of the working muscles (the size of the muscle)

  2. The density of individual muscle fibers (the force capacity of the individual components of the muscle)

  3. The density of bones

  4. The integrity of the joints

  5. The efficiency of mechanical leverage across the joint

Fortunately, factors 1-4 are adaptive to strength training.  Number 5 refers to the placement of insertion points of muscle to bone, which is genetic.

When we consider a body’s structural capacity in relation to training, we must consider it in two modalities-

  1. Current capacity

  2. Potential capacity

A body’s current capacity naturally refers to its current development of factors 1-5.  Its Potential capacity refers to its full genetic potential.

The difference is known as the “Genetic Potential Deficit.”  

Potential Structural Capacity - Current Structural Capacity = Genetic Potential Deficit

 One of the fundamental goals of training is to reduce the Genetic Potential Deficit.

Functional Capacity

The ability of a lifter to utilize their structural capacity is dependent on functional factors.

  Functional Factors

  • Neural Integration: the number of muscle fibers contracting simultaneously

  • Firing Rate: the rate of contraction of muscle fibers

  •  Neural Synchronization: the efficiency of synchronization of firing of the muscle fibers

  • The conduction velocity in the nerve fibers: How fast the firing signal can travel from the motor cortex (brain) to the motor unit (group of muscle fibers)

  • The degree of inhibition of muscle fibers which do not contribute to the movement: if muscles contract that aren’t contributing they will inhibit the ones that are

  • The proportion of large-diameter muscle fibers active: “fast twitch fibers”

  • The efficiency of cooperation between different types of muscle fiber: some (slow twitch) fibers will stabilize for the movement, others (fast twitch) dynamically  move the weight

  • The efficiency of the various stretch reflexes in controlling muscle tension: Reflexes like the “Golgi tendon reflex” sense changes in force and rate of it’s change and regulate muscle tension to protect the body from injury

  • The excitation threshold of the nerve fibers supplying the muscles: how difficult it is for the motor cortex or reflex actions to engage a group of muscle fibers

  • The initial length of the muscles before contraction: The more stretched a muscle is, the more difficult it is to produce Force

All functional factors are subject to adaptation; we can improve them through training.


Strength has several modalities in athletic performance: Speed Strength, Strength Speed, Strength Endurance (I will write in detail on these in a future article), and Absolute Strength. 

The image below displays Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky's definitions for Absolute Strength and Maximal Strength.

The maximum force a lifter can produce voluntarily (Absolute Strength) and involuntarily (Maximal Strength) will be displayed in the isometric muscular regime (weight static); in other words when the lifter is pushing or pulling as hard as possible against an immovable object.

Absolute Strength (Po): The maximum amount of force a body can produce voluntarily.

Absolute Strength is the fundamental ability on which the other modes depend.  Before understanding Absolute Strength, we must understand the fundamental mode of strength: Maximal Strength.

Maximal Strength: The maximum amount of force a body can produce involuntarily under electro-stimulation.

When imagining Absolute Strength in relation to training, we imagine concentric strength rather than isometric; we use an athlete's Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift 1 rep maximums as representations of Absolute Strength. Similarly, we can think of Maximal Strength as concentric action under a fight-or-flight scenario.

Everyone has heard of miraculous feats of strength in extraordinary situations, such as a mother lifting part of a wrecked car off of a trapped child.  In this instance, the woman produces an amount of force she is incapable of producing in a voluntary situation.  In extreme situations, something overrides internal mechanisms that normally prevent us from injuring our body by producing extreme forces. This is known as the fight-or-flight response.  The strength displayed in a fight-or-flight scenario is Maximal Strength.  

Essentially, Maximal Strength is the full engagement of the body’s Functional Capacity to maximize its current structural capacity.  Maximal Strength is equivalent to the current Structural Capacity.

The following image shows the relationships between structural and functional factors and maximal and absolute strengths in the regime of concentric action.

Maximal Strength represents a lifter's Non-Volitional Limit (n).

Absolute Strength, on the other hand, is fully dependent on volition.  Maximum strength has two practical definitions in performance: Training Maximum strength and Competition Maximum Strength.

Take a competitive Powerlifter, for example.  Everyone knows a lifter will Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift more in competition than in training.  In competition, a lifter has significant emotional stimulation, enabling them to reach the extremity of volition.  Typically, emotional stimulation is limited in training, so some amount of volition is inaccessible.

Competition Maximum (CMax) represents a lifter Volitional Limit (v).

Training Maximum (TMax) represents a lifted Emotional Limit (e).

The difference between Maximal Strength (n) and Competition Absolute Strength (v) is known as the “Strength Deficit.”

Maximal Strength - Absolute Strength (CMax) = Strength Deficit

The introduction of Volitional (v) and Emotional Limits (e) highlights a possible third vector of factors affecting strength: psychological factors.  We can then call the difference between Competition Max (CMax) and Training Max (TMax) the Psychological Deficit.

CMax - TMax = Psychological Deficit

A good strength training program decreases both the “Strength Deficit” and the “Genetic Potential Deficit” and increases “Absolute Strength” (both Tmax and Cmax) and “Current Structural Capacity,” facilitating an improvement in “Performance Capacity.”

Consistent lifting will also decrease a lifter's reliance on emotion for the display of strength by habituating the production of force in the lifter’s mind, improving performance from the psychological vector.

Maximum Maximorum

Strength is displayed in a certain movement.  All different movements will have their own TMax and Cmax(es). However development of strength certain movements are more indicative of conducive  to increases in overall useful strength.  Here, the concept of “Maximum Maximorum” comes into play.

Maximum Maximorum refers to a Maximum of all Maximums. Force Maximum Maximorum exercises have a greater effect on the total performance capacity of a body and generally have a positive effect on other (non maximorum) maximums.

The Deadlift (Conventional or Sumo) is the Force Maximum Maximorum of all movements.  It is the exercise in which the human body displays Maximum Force, it is the heaviest weight that one can lift.

The Bench Press is the Force Maximum Maximorum of upper body exercises.

The Squat is the Force Maximum Maximorum of Lower Body exercises. 

The fact that these exercises are Force Maximum Maximorums is the reason they became the events of the sport of Maximum Force: Competitive Powerlifting.  

The most effective strength training programs have effective mathematical progressions for each of these lifts as the foundation.  In further articles, I will get into the specifics of training intensity and rep (Loading) progressions.

Relative Strength

Relative Strength refers to the relationship between one's strength and their body weight.  Mathematically, it is represented by one's strength divided by one's body weight.

Strength / Body Weight = Relative Strength

 Practically, we can use any of a lifter’s CMaxes (or TMaxes) or their total (Bench Press CMax + Squat CMax + Deadlift CMax) to determine relative strength.

Bench Press Max / Body Weight = Relative Upper-Body Strength 

Squat Max / Body Weight = Relative  Lower-Body Strength 

(Bench Press Max + Squat Max + Deadlift Max) / Body Weight = Relative Total Strength 

Relative Strength is very important for comparing the performance of two lifters in different weight classes.  It is also very important to understand the potential of athletes in the same weight class in other sports like Boxing, Wrestling, and other combat sports.  If the sport-specific technical ability is close between two competitors of the same weight, usually, the stronger of the two will prevail.

Relative Lower-Body Strength is also critical (and often overlooked) for runners, from Sprinting to Marathon athletes.  The lighter one’s upper body feels to their legs, the easier it will be to move the body rapidly or to continue moving across a significant distance.  The same is true for jumping in Track & Field.  


I hope this article has given the reader a clear understanding of the biological phenomena of human Strength.

Strength is the fundament from which all Fitness arises; understanding it is the point of departure for the quest of trainers and athletes/clients. 

Through strength training, we decrease a lifter’s Genetic Potential Deficit by improving the Structural Factors on which strength depends, thus increasing their Maximal Strength.

We improve their functional factors, thus increasing Absolute Strength, and over time, we can even decrease their dependence on emotion for effective performance.  In this way, we holistically develop the athlete into a more integrated, capable being with the potential for success in the various circumstances that sport and life provide.

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