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Relative Strength: Why Fighters Are Much Stronger Than They Look

Relative Strength: Why Fighters Are Much Stronger Than They Look

  1. Are you curious as to why athletes such as fighters are so strong, but aren’t built anything like Mr. Olympia? 
  2. Did you know that your training is specific to the type of muscle that you’re trying to develop? 
  3. Did you know that certain athletes such as fighters are capable of several feats of strength consisting of both lifting heavy weight and impressive calisthenics? 
  4. Are you interested in building strength and muscular function like that of a fight athlete? 

Relative strength is a hell of a thing. One thing I learned a long time ago from training Muay Thai in a fight gym is that the muscular 250 lb. guy rarely concerns me as much as the 160 lb. slender guy. So why is this? The reason is because fight athletes train in such a way that they have to develop a lot of strength relative to their size due to their sport.

Relative Strength: Fighter Like Strength

The reason for the development of relative strength is because muscular power doesn’t always correlate with muscular size…at least not the excessive size you might be thinking about. This is how a seemingly smaller athlete can possess a high level of muscular strength which is relative to their size…hence the term relative strength.

This is due to a few reasons, but the biggest has to do with the type of muscle fiber that fighters develop in their training compared to bigger athletes such as bodybuilders.

Not all muscle is created equal

Ok the biggest reason fighters tend to be more slender than larger in muscular size is due to how they train. Fighters train for conditioning, speed, and strength where athletes such as bodybuilders train specifically for muscular size.

You see when you train for speed and strength your muscles will tend to be harder and more dense, but not necessarily possess that big ballooned sized look like you would typically see with large bodybuilders. In terms of fight training such as boxing, kickboxing, and MMA you will develop this muscle from hitting pads, the heavy bags, the speed bag, and from sparring.

This why slender athletes such as fighters can throw some devastating strikes. Hell just take a look at Manny Pacquiao, Conor McGregor, and Anderson Silva just to name a few.

These fighters’ muscles are capable of producing a high rate of force production so that they can throw a punch and a kick at a moments notice as soon as they see an opening with their opponent. These guys can literally throw punches and kicks that look like a blur to the casual observer.

Trust me on this because I’ve been both the strength coach and fellow martial artist and have trained with some great Thai fighters over the years. I’ve experienced this firsthand. And yes they all had slender physiques and could hit like a hammer.

There is a scientific reason why fighters tend to develop this different type of muscle mass.

Relative Strength: Muscular Hypertrophy

The increase in the size of muscle cells as a result of weightlifting, or resistance forms of strength training is known as muscular hypertrophy.

With that being said there are two types of hypertrophy. These include…

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is an increase in muscle cell fluid volume, or sarcoplasm. This fluid can account for up to about 30% of a muscle’s size. Though the muscle is bigger there is no dense muscle fiber increase in the cross sectional area of the muscle. Because of this there is no signficant increase in muscular strength.

This type of muscle will more commonly be developed from a bodybuilding protocol consisting of weightlifting rep ranges between 10 and 15 reps. This involves more of a focus on muscular size development rather than muscular strength development.

Myofibrillar hypertrophy occurs when you actually increase the area density of myofibrils. In this type of muscular hypertrophy you will have muscle that is more capable of producing muscular strength, tension and even speed.

This type of muscle is developed more from training heavier weights at lower reps, or from short burst explosive movements.

So you could see how fighters would develop more myofibrillar hypetrophy because they’re honing their skill of strength with bodyweight movements involving calisthenics, medicine balls, and kettlebells.

This is why fighters can be slender in build, but are still capable of lifting heavier weight and are so capable of throwing some explosively powerful strikes and can toss you like a sack of potatoes when grappling.

Relative Strength: The Takeaway

At the end of the day fighters work to possess a higher level of relative strength and are more well rounded and train to achieve a high level of muscular function so that they can compete in hand to hand combat. In order to achieve this they must train their bodies in a specific way to produce strength without necessarily building a lot of muscular size.

Are you training to build relative strength like a fighter? 

Are you training your body to be strong and functional? 

Post up and share here in the comments below. 

Also if you want to learn how to progress this even further then make sure you check out my 90 Day MMA Strength And Conditioning Program right here below! I guarantee it’ll get you into the best shape of your life, or I’ll give you your money back no questions asked.


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Muay Thai National Champion Jeff Perry performing a knee strike on the Thai pads.

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I'm a Certified Strength And Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and author. I have had over 17 years experience in MMA fitness, strength and conditoning, and athletic performance for most every sport. As an author and specialist I've written close to a million words on fitness and strength. I'm also a Muay Thai practictioner and enjoy helping others to reach their peak potential through fitness and performance.

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