Real vs Relative

The following is an article by my friend Phil Stevens. Phil has competed in powerlifting and strongman, and is pretty damn strong. He works with Charles Staley and is a contributor on the Staley Training Systems website.

Real vs. Relative

I often find myself thinking on the subject of strength, and of course the whole relative strength concept, or more so fallacy (fallacy in My Opinion, and remember my opinion is one that’s has seen me as heavy as 320 and light as 165 at 6’1” so it’s pretty damn diverse where I have been) comes to mind. In reality, reality meaning the real world, there is NO such thing as relative strength,. There is ONLY strength. Relative only comes into play in a contrived situation such as a weight classed sport such as power or Olympic weight lifting. In the real world, the one that 99.9% of the population lives in, aside from us athletes, there is NO relative factor to strength. (HMM so why is the relative fad such a highly sought and contrived pinnacle when most people are not in a competitive situation that demands it)

In the real world if there is a task to be done, the task does not care one iota how much the person doing it weighs. The one and only factor is that the job must be done. In such a case, a case that is a many and very much so the majority, strength is the most residing factor to your ability to compete such a task. A factor that by far and large most lack including those that seek and triumph there supposed superior relative strength.

So lets bring the relative world in to the real world. Of course the situation is going to still be contrived, it’s a story, and any story will be, But we’ll make the tasks these two have to complete as real world as we can.

So we have Carl. Carl is a self proclaimed stud. He is a jack of all trades and pretty damn good at pretty much any sport he trains. He’s 6 foot 190. He can run a 6 and a half minute mile, run a 4.3 40, has completed a half marathon, can do 20 dead hang chins, can press 225 (1.18 x bodyweight), bench 275 (1.44 x bodyweight) , squat 475 (2.13 x bodyweight) , deadlift 570 ( 3 x bodyweight)and is Ripped at 8% body fat with HOT Abzz. Those are damn good numbers in relative terms, and dude is Hot and mean he has Abzzz.

Now we have his polar opposite Abbot. Abbot is the same 6 foot but he is 280. He hasn’t ran a mile in ? god knows how long, can still run a 5 second 40, gets sick thinking about running a half marathon hell even walking a half marathon, can do 8 dead hang chins, can press 275 (.98 x bodyweight), bench 345 (1.25 x bodyweight) , squat 490 ( just 1.75 x bodyweight) , deadlift 600 ( just 2.15 x bodyweight) Abbot is over fat with a 23% body fat with not a hint of abs and some killer love handle. He’s strong but his numbers aren’t great. He’s no elite athlete by any means he dabbles in strength training pretty good at making it 2-3 times a week and just trying to get Strong when he does make it. He thinks about some day maybe getting serious and being a power lifter or Olympic lifter but who knows.

Again polar opposite one jacked ripped pretty down strong stud and one guy that’s again has a good level of strength but in relative terms not that great and his capacity for distance is likely crap as he hasn’t done any. What happens when we put these two in a simple real world situation? Meaning a situation that like life doesn’t care what you weigh just that a task MUST be completed?

Abbot and Carl are dropped on an island ( told you contrived but stay with me here remember the definition of real world) They are told you each have 24 hours to do two things or you will face death on this island which has no food and no escape. You have to first cross the island. It is 30miles then you must lift a 580 lb lead weight off of a trigger that will then send the alarm to have the chopper come save you.

OK GO. Carl smokes it he paces himself and to conserve energy and still makes the 30 miles in 6 hours. Abbot on the other hand, he is over fat and not “fit” he slugs along at 30 minutes a mile, takes the time to take in the scenery etc. and makes the trip in a piss pour 15 hours.

What does Abbot find? He find Carl laying on the ground next to his weight to move crying his eyes out knowing he faces certain death even thought he kicked the hell out of Abbots travel time, even though he has HOT abuzz and is a superior physical specimen. Despite the fact his relative strength in as high as three times body weight a HUGE feat in any sports realm he just can’t move the weight, it is 10 lbs more then his best ever effort.

Abbot smiles then waddles his fat as over to his lead weight. He takes a big breath expanding his bowl full of jelly, grunts turns 16 different shades of red as his blood pressure shy rockets due to his over stressed heart but he moves the weight and he lives, While his relatively stronger competitor is destined to die.

What’s the moral of the story? Abbot was relatively less “fit” ( an abused and over used term) but when the rubber hit the road he could do everything his counterpart could and more. It may take him longer at some things that required endurance but he could do them. While Carl even though he was a human freak and had great relative strength when face with one task vs. a seemingly lesser opponent in all ways except one (maximal strength) LOST.

In the real world, on the field of life. What matters most is your ability to DO the job, not so much how long it takes. If you cant do it, it will by default, take you forever. More times then not in life the reason someone cant do something, be it a chin up, to carry an injured soldier or co worker off the field. The ability to push your car off the street. To beat down an oncoming attacker. Or simply be a useful man and have the ability to move your old washing machine out of its basement home, and move a new one in its place is limited by your lack of maximal strength. All of the other strength qualities, as Mark Rippetoe has a very unique and entertaining way of explaining and I urge you to hear in person by attending one of his seminars, relies first on maximal strength. For example before you can have strength endurance you better damn well simply have the strength. You cant endure without the base level of strength to do one.

This is not me proposing you to become an over fat, un-conditioned but fairly strong slob. It me telling you to wake the hell up and realize you live in a real world, and the real world doesn’t care how much you weigh. If you care about real world ability one of the main things on your mind should not be your Abzz and if you can fit in your skinny jeans and still knock out 25 chins, but that you have the ability to DO the tasks that are asked of you, with no regard to how you look doing it. More times than not that will mean getting bigger, and adding a bit of healthy body fat to get stronger. A healthy focus on performance instead of aesthetics and you’ll find out an amazing fact that if you do so, your form will follow your function.

I’ve had visible abzz myself and I’ve still never seen an ab do a damn thing in this life in the real world. Now go ponder these words and ask yourself really how useful are you, in real, not relative terms.


You can find the link to this article here. And here is some training footage from Phil:

40 thoughts on “Real vs Relative

  1. good writing, I laughed some.

    on the other hand, lets say the world is dying, and the only way to survive is run away (enter some wierd reason, like a sick disease or meteor shower)

    I”m just saying…
    I still like Abbot more.

  2. Nice read Phil.


    2 things to thank you for.

    1. The image of a bouncing ball while squatting has helped me adjust my timing to be less grandma crossing the street.

    2. The Push your ass up cue has worked well with some of the people I work with, some said had no idea how to drive with their butts.

    And you need to youtube Iron Maiden – Prowler. Right now! RIGHT NOW!

  3. Well it”s a bit of a moot point really, you could argue someone needing to run really fast/do a lot of chins in order to survive.

    I still like the article though, and really it”s more of an individual thing in itslef – theres nothing stopping carl gaining more strength through weight gain and nothing stopping abbot from losing weight and increasing conditioning

    – but probably neither of them want to.

  4. Yeah, I weigh 240#, but I recognize there are some things a skinny guy could do better than I. What if to send the alarm Abbott and Carl had to do muscle-ups? Better to figure that you probably won”t be on a desert island with a silly single physical task to complete any time soon and do what is most fun in the gym. For me, that is squatting heavy and doing 3 sets of 5 of compound lifts, but if someone else decides they want to be skinny-fat and run half marathons, at least that”s better than nothing and they are having fun.

  5. He was right that it requires a certain amount of strength to carry an injured soldier off a battlefield, but it also requires that someone else has that strength to carry your ass. I think that is where the idea of “team relative strength” plays a more important role. Do i want my 240 lb buddy carrying me, fuck yeah. do i want my 160 teamate? may not have a choice.

  6. @ LaHabra

    Any chance you could point me in the direction of more detail on those squat cues? I””m still pretty new and any help would be handy!


    Perhaps I should just write about it instead. It will give me something interesting to talk about (thumbs up).


  7. Good article and valid points, although difficult to read.

    I like to think of myself as the
    friend that can help you move your couch, pull you out of your car when it is laying on its side and on fire, and pretty much everything in between.

  8. Ok, I”m a big fan of strength first…but in most real world situations, Carl”s going to have a better chance to survive than Abbott.

    Carl”s lifts are pretty strong (way above mine, so my perspective is admittedly skewed)- a better example would be some 165 pounder who can do a 2 minute Fran but can only deadlift 295 and squat 250 max.

  9. I agree with Phil in that the universe doesn”t care about your relative strength. I live in New Jersey and spent the weekend hauling buckets of water, wet carpet and furniture out of my basement due to the massive rainfall and flooding we had. The stuff I had to move certainly did not care about my Deadlift/BW ratio, only if I was able to move it or not.

    However, the example with Carl and Abbott isn”t a good way to prove this. The test to get off the island could just as easily and fairly be having to run the 30 miles in 4 hours or less and then have to lift a lesser weight off the switch. In this scenario, Carl is probably able to complete it and get, while Abbott has no chance. Endurance-type people can make the same argument for being all 90”s Small with abz by placing the objective number of the challenge on the run rather than the weight to be lifted.

  10. So maximal strength is always beaten by relative strength in the real world.

    As long as the deadlift is the only thing you ever have to do in the real world.

    Look, I hate to be a dick about this, but you can’t sell me on the idea that adding 20 pounds to your squat is worth adding 90 pounds of bodyweight.

    It’s pretty much a fact that strength is the most important athletic quality. But it’s not important enough for Abbot to say he’s a better athlete than Carl.

    Having said that, Phil is an incredible athlete and I always look forward to seeing his training vids for inspiration and new training ideas.

    Your squat to body weight ratio is completely off, especially for 99.9% of people in life, on the internet, or on this site. My squat work sets went up 120 pounds on an increase of 15 or 20 pounds of body weight — quite the opposite of your claim. Obviously your claim is for a more advanced strength trainee, and that individual would decide whatever it is they would want to do. However, for the regular person, the “average”, if you will, this is not the case (that sentence occurred like William Shatner said it).


  11. Why couldn”t Carl ride in the helicopter, too? Could it only carry an additional 300lbs? Why couldn”t Carl survive on the island for a few weeks and gain an additional 10lbs on his max deadlift? Is there nothing heavy to lift? Seriously, WHY must Carl DIE? WHYYYYYYY???!!! Okay, I”ll stop. Still, these questions will plague me. :)

  12. Justin,

    A 120 pound gain on work sets with a 20 pound gain in bodyweight around what people should shoot for. It makes sense.

    I was comparing the made-up characters in Phil””s story: Abbot and Carl. Abbot has a squat 20 pounds better than Carl””s but he””s 90 pounds bigger. But Abbot was chosen as the “real world winner” over Carl – and that didn””t make much sense to me.

    I am NOT saying you need to gain 90 pounds to add 20 pounds to your squat. Quite the opposite. I am saying that doing so would be unreasonable for pretty much anyone.

    It””s even unreasonable for the advanced trainee – if you””re already 250+ it still doesn””t make much sense to gain 90 pounds just to add 20 pounds to the bar. If anything, more advanced lifters gain less muscle when their poundages go up. The body-weight increase someone makes bringing their squat from 700 to 750 will be much less (if anything at all) than the body-weight increase someone will make by bringing their squat from 185 to 225. Mike Tuchscherer and Žydrūnas Savickas are good examples of advanced lifters who haven””t gained much size in the last few years but their strength has continued to increase.

    Roger. I am not arguing one way or another in the article by Phil. For most people the large increase in body weight for a small increase in strength is not going to be reasonable or realistic, although I think the ratio used for the sake of discussion is skewed. The individual will decide whether it is worth it.


  13. I think some of you are missing the point, which is the world does not care how much you weigh only if you can do what is needed or not, and too busy are focusing on the example.

    Just consider your own life as an example…I presonally have needed to lift heavy things many times over the years but I can think of only two times where I needed to preform sprinting/running/ endurance/etc outside of a choosen exercise or sport. One was chasing my damn dog when she dug out under the fence and another was chasing a guy down after he let the air out of my friend”s truck tires…long story. What I found was that slowly and calmly walking up to the dog as opposed to running after her worked much better anyway and after catching her carrying the 75lb dog a half mile home was much easier because of strength training. When chasing the guy it took longer to catch him then it would have when I weighed 170lbs but when I did I was much happier I was bigger/stronger and not smaller/faster.

    I do believe it can be taken to far, i.e. some of the powerlifters who can not walk up stairs without breathing hard, and some balance is needed but overall strength has always been much more useful to me than endurance. Just look at your own life, come up with your own conclusions and train accordingly.

  14. With no disrespect to Phil, I find these type of thought experiments to be a weak tool: it’s just too easy to construct a (frankly, more likely) counter-hypothetical that favors the lighter, quicker man. What if, for example, in his haste to cross the island, Carl slipped and fell into a ravine, and the only way to save him is to either climb down the ravine and provide first-aid, or seek help on the other side of the island before Carl bleeds out? Is Abbot up to the task? Unlikely.

    I personally am much more intrigued by arguments based on genetic potential. In particular, do we, as a species, have a much greater well of potential strength than we have been led to believe? Have cultural forces (e.g., in the west, a narcissistic obsession with “abzz” coupled with a largely sedentary existence) warped our conception of our own strength potential and the proper means to access that potential? In short, are humans meant to be bigger and stronger than we actually are? This is why I find the example of Zach so powerful, and why you bringing that example to the world has evoked such a visceral reaction from some. It simply does not fit our pre-conceived notions of what is possible for the average man or woman with hard work and dedication.

  15. I would add, I do agree that strength is the variable most likely to determine success or failure in real-world physical situations. This is, in my view, the major flaw in the GPP model of fitness: this model gives equal weight and importance to all physical attributes, while the world most certainly does not. Watching any nature show where one animal seeks to challenge another’s dominance illustrates this point graphically: the stronger individual almost invariably prevails.

    The major flaw in the GPP model is that it is not understood that strength increases GPP directly.


  16. LOL. thanks all I knew when I hurried up and jotted this that it would cause some ripples and that the bigger picture would be missed by many.

    The picture being not that you must be all of your other qualities are reliant on strength in real life and by and far the majority of people in the world need to give a clean hard look at some Basic Strength work and they would then be amazed at how everything else seems to come along for the ride. Be it endurance, mobility, speed, endurance… None of the above will be on par with what you demand without limit strength. You can increase each of the following by simply getting stronger, BUT, increasing those qualities alone will not increase another.

    Like our subject Abbot he was not by any means in any type of endurance fitness shape, but simple by being fairly strong he is able to endure. A strong healthy person is also able to control ones self through space and full ROM. Where as a very flexible weak person wont be mobile do to simple lacking the strength to control ones self efficiently. You want to get faster, some limit strenght training is a MUST. Whats the best way to be able to move say 50kg fast. Its not by moving 50 KG fats its gaining the ability to move 100kg making 50 KG very light and easy to man handle.

    All I was getting at was the lost on many importance of getting stronger in order to reach all of their others physical goals


  17. I just hit the wall and I don””t know what to do. I have been doing the starting strength program and today I could not finish my 3 sets of 5 @ 235. What should I do? And yes I am drinking a gallon of milk a day and trying to get my skinny ass to 200+. Thanks for anny help.

    Well, how tall are you and how much do you weigh?


  18. This is the most feasible scenario. Carl and Abbot are on the island. They have 24 hrs to cross 30 miles of island and “GET TO THE CHOPPA!”. The chopper only has enough room for one of the men and the lucky evacuee will be selected via a “hot abzz” competition. Carl and Abbot both set out for the other side of the island. Abbot picks up a rock and hits Carl in the head, caving in his skull with brute fat boy strength. Abbot wins the competition by default.

  19. Justin,

    I am 6””3 and currently weigh between 190 and 195. This is my 4th week of training and I am up from weighing 175lbs. I have not missed any training days or a gallon of milk. Below are my squat numbers for the last three weeks. 220 was a PR from 6 months (went back to crossfit and eating like a 90””s small guy)

    week m – w – f
    1 150 – 165 – 180
    2 190 – 200 – 210
    3 220 – 225PR – 230PR
    4 235 Failed

    Thanks for any help in my quest to become a MAN.

    Well, I am not sure why you failed. Sounds like a technique issue to me.


  20. I understand Phil”s point but just for the sake of argument, being stuck on a desert island is not really a realistic scenario anyway (although I think most crossfitters wish this would actually happen to them) but how about just helping a buddy move? I doubt someone would say “I should call X to help me move cuz he can run a mile in under 5 min or cuz he just ran a marathon.” but I bet they would say “I should call Y cuz he”s strong as shit.” All in all when doing almost every practical every day life activity strength is much more useful than speed or endurance.

  21. Justin,

    I didn”t know if I was ramping up to fast or if it”s just my form needs help. Should I reset at a lower weight and build back up with 5lbs jumps and really focus on my form?


  22. I also have to say that this comparison seems terribly skewed to me.

    I”ve been really happy since I stumbled upon 70”s Big (many months ago), bought “Starting Strength,” went on GOMAD, and started getting much stronger. This site has helped me get over the need to be under 200lbs. Now I am proud to be over 200 lbs (around 210-215 lbs). I”m much stronger than I was 4-5 months ago, but I still want to get stronger (and I know I will through hard work. However, much of the recent content seems to be coming across a little skewed. Now I often feel like I need to put on as much weight as possible. The thing is…I don”t want to. While it is not my goal to be “Carl” it is also not my goal to be “Abbot” just so I can be “real world” stronger.

    I”d like to be as strong as I can get, while looking and feeling good. I want to live to see my kids grow up and have kids of their own, but if I”m hauling around 23% body-fat and eating everything in site, just so I might get a little stronger then I”m probably not going to be doing myself any favors in prolonging my life.

    Again, I agree with Rip, “strong people are harder to kill.” And I like a lot of what Justin and others have to say on this site. I just don”t want to be a fat strong guy. I”d like to find a good balance of strength-to-weight, plus I want to be conditioned to play recreational sports with my friends, keep up with my kids (and down the road grandkids), and have rowdy sex with my wife, without gasping for air, or smothering her beneath my excessive body-fat.

  23. The article was good in that it brought the point of absolute strength being incredibly important to light – good job on that Phil!

    However, I”ve gotta say that the premise was a little silly – the “real world” contains infinitely many scenarios requiring different combinations of attributes, and no one can be good at everything.
    Abbot is more useful if the crisis is alleviated by lifting something too heavy for Carl (of course, they could just work together :P). Carl is more useful if they are stuck in a steep rocky ravine and someone has to climb a cliff to get help.

    As much as being really really strong is awesome and way more useful for practical, everyday scenarios, in terms of stuck-out-in-the-wilderness, survivorman-style survival, it”s good to have a good mix of physical attributes, rather than one or two that dominate. You”d need them all.

    I think 20repsquats” post was pretty much right on the money. Just get good at what you like/need to do. One provision though: whatever it is you”re doing you have to work your ass off, otherwise you”re being a pussy.

  24. Also ia”s post makes a great point.

    Absolute strength – best for moving objects.
    Relative strength – best for moving yourself from A to B (i.e. running, jumping, climbing).
    Both are useful, and are not mutually exclusive of each other.

  25. Abbot could change his programming and become conditioned in a month and be within striking distance of Carl while still being a strong mother fucker. Carl would have to take some pretty advanced steps to increase his strength to that of Abbot.

  26. Ding ding, LaHabra Got it. Strength improves conditioning, and is harder to achieve time wise. So it needs to take precedence And for all the skinny guys here that don”t dead 3x your skinny weight, write down that number and gain whatever weight necessary to achieve that level of strength. Dude deadlifts 570, I am pretty certain most of you little guys complaining don”t pull that much redgaurdless of body weight. Reach the strenght goal, then either re-evaluate goals, or lean out and improve conditioning until satisfied.
    Good post Phil.

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  28. I don”t disagree that strength needs to take precedence, or that absolute strength is a more useful measure than absolute.

    However, that story was stupid. Admitting it was ridiculously contrived doesn”t somehow make it any more valid.

  29. Abbot could become conditioned in a month? Hell no!

    How “conditioned” are we talking here? What is conditioning, even? Cardiovascular fitness aka being able to maintain a relatively high percentage of one”s maximum speed/output for a long period of time?

    Is this just like when distance runners talk about “getting strong”, when really all they mean is squatting bodyweight and being able to do some decent lunges?

    Having a background in competitive distance running, I can tell you that even Carl”s 6:30 mile sucks ass. At 160# my mile was 4:32, which is still barely competitive at DIII. Now at 190# (and climbing!), and having not trained seriously for running in over a year, I don”t doubt that I could still go out and throw down a 5:20 if I really had to.

  30. Okay, okay, the story was contrived. We get it, ’nuff of the examples folks. However, if you read further:

    “What matters most is your ability to DO the job…”

    I think we get to the heart of the matter. I’m training so I can rip a zombie””s head off his shoulders with my bare hands. Chainsaws need gas, choke holds are too time consuming, and joint locks will get you bit.

    And cardio?

    Cardio is too selfish. Who could run knowing all your friends would be devoured?

    Think, people. Think.

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