The Varieties of Human Strength - Absolute, Explosive, Sustained

The Varieties of Human Strength - Absolute, Explosive, Sustained

There are three distinctive types of Human Strength - each needs individual time and attention

Why is muscular strength so important in athletes? Strength disparities too great cannot be overcome. The reason for weight classes in athletics is size and strength disparities. There is no need to create weight divisions because of cardio or flexibility disparities. The reason for weight divisions is that past a certain point all the technique in the world, all the cardio in the world, all the flexibility or speed in the world cannot overcome being overpowered.

Strength trumps all other athletic attributes. Athletic experience has shown that a good big man beats a good little man and that cliché exists for a reason. Strength is the undisputed King of bio-motor attributes. Strength bleeds over into the other bio-motor attributes; there is no speed without strength and strength positively influences interval aerobics and burst-style cardio. There are three distinctly different varieties of strength…

  • absolute strength
  • explosive strength
  • sustained strength

Strength can be portrayed on a bar graph. On the extreme left of the strength bar graph is absolute strength. Best epitomized by a limit single rep effort in a powerlift, the squat, bench press and deadlift. Absolute strength is epitomized by a maximum payload being moved with slow (relatively speaking) velocity for a short distance.

There are two forms of strength to the left of absolute strength. The “negative” rep eliminates the concentric and only performs the eccentric portion of the rep. A controlled negative enables any trainee to handle poundage 25% greater than concentric-eccentric. The second form of “past” absolute strength is isometric strength, the ability to hold a payload in a static position.

The power lifts exemplify absolute strength. The power exercises are short-stroke prime movers that generate tremendous torque, maximal force exerted for short time and distance and without regard or concern for velocity. This is torque, grind power used to elevate the heaviest possible payload. Low end torque generates the deepest possible muscular inroad.  The powerlifts are classically done for low reps using maximum payload.

In the middle of the strength bar graph sits explosive strength. Best exemplified by a single rep maximum in the snatch or clean and jerk, the explosive strength payload is (relatively) moderate while velocity is maximal. Explosive strength is horsepower, the ability to generate maximum velocity using a moderate poundage.

If a deadlift is dropped mid-rep, the barbell falls to the floor like a guillotine. If a snatch is released during the upward pull, the barbell continues to move upward. Explosive strength creates velocity and velocity creates momentum. This is a critical difference, velocity allows the Olympic lifters the millisecond needed to fling themselves under the rising barbell. Explosive strength is the exact mid-point, the intersection, between short duration grind strength and long duration sustained strength.

At the extreme right of the strength bar graph is sustained strength or strength-endurance. Sustained strength is best exemplified by a lung-bursting kettlebell workout or perhaps an intense sprint workout. Sustained strength requires intense and repeated muscular contractions be performed over an extended period. Absolute strength, explosive strength, sustained strength, optimally all three types are recognized and practiced. What would a strength template look like that paid homage to all three strength types?


                         Absolute                   Explosive                   Sustained

Monday           squat                            power snatch               hill sprints

Tuesday           bench press                 jerk off racks               kettlebell session

Wednesday     deadlift                        power clean                 rowing machine interval training

Thursday         overhead press           high pull w/straps     20-30-40 yard-dash

Friday              arm work                     snatch grip hi-pull     sprint swim, emphasize back strokes

Saturday          front squat                  squat clean                  intense racquet ball

Sunday             off                                 off                                  moderate jog for distance (recovery)

This training regimen is for an advanced man. There is a lot of training happening each day.  Any athlete tying into a routine like this better have their nutrition squared up and a rest-and-recuperation strategy up and running.

On Monday our hypothetical athlete starts his day off with an intense “burst” or interval-style cardio session. Repeated hill sprints, roughly 60 yards, are strung together for the duration of the session. Run up the hill, jog down, repeat. That evening he works up to a 5-rep max set of squats and then does crisp doubles in the power snatch.

On Tuesday, the morning sustained strength workout is a sweaty 40-minute kettlebell session. That evening he works up to a maximum in the jerk off the rack and finishes the session with bench pressing.  Each day our advanced man has two separate training sessions. Sustained strength is done in a morning session while night training is reserved for absolute strength and explosive strength. In this way the athlete can work all three strength types without compromising results.

There is a logical way in which to structure any progressive resistance training program to address and accommodate all three strength types. If the balance can be successfully struck, the simultaneous pursuit of all three strength types accelerates results in an across the board basis. There is a “strength synergy” that takes root, particularly if the comprehensive strength training is synchronized with a nutrient-dense, seasonally appropriate, locally-sourced diet of gourmet power foods. Open your strength horizons and amplify your results.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.