Rob Shaul, the founder of Military Athlete, couldn’t give a rip about your tricked out biceps or Oak-like chest. As a trainer of tactical athletes—as well as those who simply aspire to have military-grade conditioning—he is much more concerned about what you can do with all that muscle.
“Relative strength refers to strength per your individual bodyweight,” he says. “I believe relative strength, not maximal strength (or the most you can lift), is most important for military, law enforcement, and rescue athletes because you must travel over ground and carry your engine. We’re not training powerlifters or bodybuilders here. You’ve got to be able to run, climb, sprint, jump, and move.”
The good news is that those are all traits that benefit everyone, regardless of how jacked you want your physique to be. All of those things, when trained regularly, can help as much with body composition as they can with pure athleticism.
Shaul has devised a test that he feels is powerfully indicative of where you stand with your own levels of relative strength. If you’re the least bit curious as to where you stack up against the M&F community, post your (honest) results in the comments section below.
Relative strength test
Weigh yourself on a scale for present bodyweight.
Active warm-up: Try four rounds of a barbell complex (various multi-joint exercises performed back-to-back without rest) using 45lbs (women) or 65lbs (men). Suggested moves include deadlifts, hang cleans, overhead presses, rows, and upright rows. Shaul recommends four rounds, going for about 10 reps of each move, with about a minute between complexes. He suggests following this with light stretches of your ankles and hip flexors.
(1) Work up to 1RM Front Squat
(2) Work up to 1RM Power Clean
(3) Work up to 1RM Bench Press
(4) Max Reps Pullups
“The test involves three classic, simple barbell exercises: front squat, power clean, and bench press,” Shaul says. “We finish with max reps of strict bodyweight pullups.”
The barbell reveals truth in a lifter. Either you’re gonna beat gravity, or you’re not. And since barbells allow for the coordination of multiple muscle groups at once, it’s important to be a master of these moves. The front squat is a departure for the many among us who have become too comfortable with back squatting—it calls for greater core strength and shifts the muscular emphasis to your quads. The power clean is a very technical movement that requires a high degree of athleticism. Getting that bar from A to B is a purely alpha accomplishment that recruits a ton of muscle while also training your central nervous system. The bench press is perhaps the most familiar movement for most lifters and it remains a stalwart indicator of upper-body strength.
Relative strength equation for barbell moves:
1RM Front Squat Load + 1RM Power Clean Load + 1RM Bench Press Load divided by your bodyweight
Example for Shaul (165lbs):
250lbs + 195lbs + 250lbs = 695lbs
695lbs / 165lbs = 4.21
“A big difference in your 1RM front squat and bench press numbers points to a strength imbalance, one way or another, between your upper and lower body,” Shaul says. “The two should be close for good relative strength.”
Shaul suggests working briskly toward your 1RM on each lift, trying to get there in 10 minutes, or about 5-7 progressively heavier sets, not done to failure.
Shaul scores pullups separately. You can use whichever grip works best for you. The only parameter is that your hands may not leave the bar once you begin your set. So if you can manage to complete additional reps without letting go of the bar, those reps will count toward your total.
“There is no time limit but both hands have to remain on the bar and you can’t touch anything with your feet,” says Shaul. “I generally rep out seven, then start doing singles. I’m weird, I know, but this seems to work for me.” The key, he says, is finding out what works best for you. Just summon whatever intestinal (and muscular) fortitude you can to get your chin to that bar.
Example for Shaul (165lbs):
Being “relatively” strong
“Some guys are just physical mutants, like my assistant coach Jordan—huge lungs and very strong,” Shaul says. “But most of us aren’t like this, unfortunately. And if you’re a normal guy with a score above 5.0, I’m betting you’re in love with the barbell and that your speed, running, endurance, and sprinting have suffered. Mine sure would.”
Rob Shaul, CSCS, is founder of Military Athlete (www.militaryathlete.com) in Jackson, Wyoming. Military Athlete specializes in day-to-day programming for military and law enforcement athletes, as well as focused, sport-specific training plans for military fitness tests, special forces selections and training schools.