the power to weight ratio is everything
by Alec Enkiri | 10/25/19
How much can you squat?
A lot? Okay.
How much can you power clean though?
A lot? Cool.
But how much do you weigh?
Also a lot? Okay, then let's try this...
How high can you jump?
If you answered "a lot, alot, and a lot" to questions 1-3, then the answer to question 4 will be "not very" because the power to weight ratio is everything.
Big dudes who can throw around monstrous weights are a dime a dozen and I've been running circles around them since I was a 115lbs kid because all that mass doesn't mean shit if you can't move it effectively. It's the equivalent of a 10 inch dong that can't get it up. On the other hand, average sized guys who possess insane levels of strength and power relative to their own body weight seem to be few and far between, and when it comes to movement based performance (i.e. athleticism) I'm far less concerned about the 275lbs guy who can squat 600lbs and power clean 350lbs and far more concerned about the 175lbs guy who can squat 500lbs and power clean 300lbs. The former is stronger in an absolute sense, there's no arguing that, but he's weaker in a relative sense and the level of strength & power that he possesses is far more proportional to his own body weight than the level of strength & power possessed by the smaller athlete.
Consequently, the smaller athlete is going to be a far more versatile human being overall. The bigger guy will be able to hit you harder due to larger levels of absolute power (and simply by virtue of carrying around more mass), but that's about the extent of it. He's likely going to be slow moving, not very agile, and is going to tire quickly (again, simply by virtue of having to haul around so much mass). On the other hand, the smaller athlete will still be able to hit you pretty damn hard - not quite as hard as the big guy but you're still going to feel it - but he's also going to be fast, agile, lightning quick, and have a great propensity for endurance. Overall, he's going to be a lot more dangerous, a lot more versatile, and a lot more useful than the bigger athlete.
The Power To Weight Ratio Is Everything
This concept is really what I want to touch on today because it seems to be a point that is lost on many people within the strength training community. Pretty much every time I post footage of myself performing a heavy lift I list my body weight along with it, and that has led to many snide and ignorant comments in response to that. Stuff along the lines of:
No one asks you how much you weigh after you lift something
Body weight multipliers don't mean anything so he's joking when he lists them.
Except I'm not joking. In fact, I'm dead fucking serious and if I wasn't serious I wouldn't list my weight to begin with. I have never once said that I have any interest in simply becoming as strong and powerful as possible in an absolute sense. I have, however, stated repeatedly that my main goal is to become as strong, powerful, and ATHLETIC as possible. The first two components of that can be accomplished irrespective of body weight, but by adding in the third component your own body weight becomes a point that needs to be paid attention to. You can't just add 50lbs of mostly flubber over the course of a few months and expect to maintain any sort of high level of movement capacity or conditioning. Sure, you'll get stronger and more powerful in an absolute sense, and you'll be carrying more "mass," but in a relative sense you'll undoubtedly become weaker. And in turn, this will make you slower, it will decrease your jumping ability, it will decrease the duration at which you can maintain maximal performance, and it will just make you less physically adept overall. Thus, if you share my same goals then your objective should NOT be to maximize strength & power at all costs. Rather, it should be to maximize strength & power while also OPTIMIZING the power to body weight ratio.
No one asks you how much you weigh after you turn in that 5.5 forty either.
This requires a more careful and long term approach to your ultimate level of development. You will be better served focusing on slow and steady gains in body weight over a period of several years, which serves two important functions:
It allows you to make larger gains in strength & power in a relative sense, even if they are slightly lower in an absolute sense. You can only gain pure muscle so fast. So every pound of body weight gained over a slow and steady period of time is much more likely to yield increases in strength & power that are worth double or triple the extra pound of mass that you now have to haul around. As opposed to rapid increases in body weight which are inevitably going to be accompanied by large amounts of body fat (that's just physiology) and are thus far more likely to yield increases in strength & power that are merely proportionate to the body weight gained or even potentially disproportionate to the body weight gained.
The slow and steady approach also ensures that the body has sufficient time to acclimate to the weight that is being gained. This may be merely conjecture on my part and I have no idea if there is research that supports this idea or not, but I think it makes sense. The body likes homeostasis. Rapid increases in body weight are disruptive to this and this therefore has an impact on many of the body's systems. Just as when a teenager hits puberty and grows 8 inches in a matter of months and becomes clumsy and doesn't know how to move their own body anymore, the same sort of thing would happen if you gained a bunch of weight very quickly. The body simply hasn't been given enough time to acclimate to the dramatic change to ensure that its systems are maintained as they once were. Thus things get wonky - leverages change, hormones get all out of whack, movement efficiency and fluidity decreases dramatically, the cardiovascular system gets weighed down, etc. If you take the more leveled approach, however, you can ultimately gain just as much as muscle mass (side note: I browse lifting forums and trust me, most people - especially those who espouse the idea of "bulking" - think they have far more muscle than they actually do) while continuously improving upon your power to weight ratio and never once disrupting your ability to move powerfully and fluidly or wrecking your cardiovascular capacity and overall health.
Strength & Power Don't Scale Linearly
Negatively feeding into all of this is the fact that bigger guys love to downplay the accomplishments of smaller and average sized athletes by noting that strength and power don't scale linearly. Thus, it's far more realistic for a smaller athlete to squat triple body weight than it is for a bigger athlete to accomplish the same feat. One need only look at any of the world records in any strength sports to see that that is always the case. The heavier the athletes get the more weight they lift in an absolute sense, however, the less weight they lift relative to their own body weight. It's simply the principle of diminishing returns in action, and this is precisely the reason why body weight multipliers are not used to compare skill in strength sports across weight classes, but rather coefficients are used in their place. The Sinclair formula is typically used in Olympic weightlifting and the Wilks formula is typically used to compare powerlifting performances. Note that these formulas do have their own flaws and inherent biases, however they do a better job of "equalizing" performances across weight classes than body weight multipliers would. No one is disputing this phenomenon.
However, just because body weight multipliers are not an accurate gauge of skill when it comes to strength sports does not mean that the concept of relative strength & power is one that should also be shunned and ignored by everyone else outside of that small community. On the contrary, this lack of linear scaling as it pertains to the relationship between strength, power, and body weight that, in the strength world, is so often used to denounce the highly impressive relative strength performances of smaller athletes is PRECISELY THE SAME REASON why it is so important to keep tabs on your own body weight and relative strength levels as you progress through your training career. If you're an athlete optimizing the power to weight ratio is king when it comes to sport performance and overall athleticism and if you become too heavy this task simply becomes impossible due to this non-linear scaling. Thus, at some point along the triple bacon cheeseburger filled road, performance will inevitably begin to dwindle.
Relative strength is often deemed unimpressive, but its performances like this that support high level athleticism.
Now, depending on the nature of the sport, some small sacrifice of relative strength/power in the name of carrying a little bit of extra mass may be warranted or beneficial (think football, for example), but in most sports, especially non-contact sports, focusing on maximizing relative strength & power and optimizing the power to weight ratio is almost always going to be the most beneficial course of action. And if you get too heavy you simply won't be able to do this because human physiology doesn't work that way and the shit just doesn't keep scaling up like that. But you don't have to be an athlete for this be important to you. Like I said earlier, the man who has optimized his power to weight ratio is the most versatile human being. At that point, not only are you likely optimizing your health and longevity as well, but you will also be incredibly strong, jacked, and lean and you'll be able to run and jump with a high level of proficiency as well as maintain a high level of conditioning. You'll pretty much be equipped to handle any challenge life can possibly throw your way, and I don't think that can ever be proclaimed to be a bad thing.
Before everyone gets all in a tizzy, I don't want people to get confused and think I'm saying don't gain ANY weight or deliberately try to keep muscle gains to a minimum and just try to gain strength & power instead because that is absolutely not what I'm saying at all. In fact, deliberately holding back the body's natural "want" to add tissue is going to do nothing but stifle progress. What I am saying is that there is a certain body weight for every athlete where there will exist a perfect marriage between overall mass, absolute strength & power, and relative strength & power. This particular body weight is going to vary from individual to individual based on a myriad of factors that are beyond the scope of this article.
I'm not saying don't gain weight. I'm saying pay attention to the weight that you do gain and make sure that it is quality weight (i.e. predominantly muscle tissue) and use your relative strength & power capabilities as a gauge to make sure you are on the right path here. To optimize your power to weight ratio you will ultimately have to add a decent amount of muscle mass and that means adding a fair amount of body weight from your initial starting point. There is simply no other way to create substantial gains in this regard without adding significant muscle tissue. There will come a time however where a point of diminishing returns is reached and further increases in body weight will yield proportionally smaller and smaller increases in strength & power, thereby reducing your capacities in a relative sense even though they are still likely increasing in an absolute sense. If your goal is optimize your relative capabilities, and thus your overall health and performance, then you need to find the point just before this starts to occur.
Using myself as an example here, when I first started training with weights I weighed about 115lbs at a height of 5'6" and was somewhere around 10% body fat. I had almost no muscle on my frame, I was very weak, and I lacked power. My absolute strength was low AND my relative strength was low. However, I could run fast and I was very quick & agile due to a combination of having a low body weight, possessing a natural propensity towards reactivity, and spending my entire youth playing sports. Now fast forward to the present day and this morning I weighed in at just a hair under 165lbs. I'm still 5'6" and I'm still undoubtedly somewhere around 10% (or less) as of this moment. So in my time training I've gained roughly 50lbs of body weight, the overwhelming majority of which is muscle, and I can now squat 530lbs, deadlift nearly 600lbs, power snatch 220lbs from the high hang, perform kettlebell swings with nearly 300lbs, rep 185lbs on the strict overhead press, and run faster and jump higher than I ever could before I discovered the weight room. I can even run a faster mile now than I used to run even though I never run distances anymore simply because my relative power outputs are so high that maintaining that sub-maximal running pace is pretty easy for me (basically I don't believe I have a very high VO2 max even though I can run a decent mile).
Absolute strength on the X axis and relative strength on the Y axis. Point 1 shows high relative strength but low absolute strength. This athlete would be small and easy to overpower. Point 3 shows high absolute strength with low relative strength. This athlete would be slow and easy to get away from. Point 2 shows an athlete who has optimized their power to weight ratio. Both relative strength and absolute strength are as high as they can be without one infringing very much on the other. This athlete is going to be very well rounded and formidable.
My absolute strength is not out of this world, but it puts me firmly in the formidable category. On the other hand, however, my relative strength & power are very high and my power to weight ratio is optimized. The gains I've made in this regard have far outpaced the increases in body weight that have come along with them over the years. Thus, I am able to vastly outperform my younger self in all facets of athleticism and overall functionality. I have also built an enduring base of muscle, strength, and power that will serve me well and protect my general health as I age. However, when my body weight starts to creep into the 170's and higher the gains in power no longer seem to outpace the gains in body weight. My relative strength & power drops. I get slower. I can't run or jump as well. I'm a little bit stronger, but I'm A LOT less well rounded. My 115lbs self would start to be able to run circles around me because I'm no longer optimized. I've learned that for me the power to weight ratio is optimized between 160-165lbs. This is where I end up with the highest absolute strength & power levels without any detriment to my relative strength & power levels. It's a balancing act and this is the sweet spot. If you can find this point for yourself then you too will be able to optimize your power to weight ratio and in turn you will gain all of the performance maximizing benefits that come along with it. Remember, the power to weight ratio is everything.
4 flights, 70 stairs in under 9.5 seconds.