The Importance of a Positive Power-to-Weight Ratio
BY MARK TWIGHT
Size matters, but not necessarily the way you want it to. Relative strength (positive power-to-weight ratio) is more important than absolute strength for functional movement. If one trains in a manner that causes muscle hypertrophy (increased size) in order to bench or squat greater weight the ability to run or do pull-ups is compromised. At Gym Jones we stress this concept by combining a big guy move (deadlift) with a little guy move (pull-ups) in single effort. The movements, loads, effort and recovery intervals we use are designed to stimulate increases in myofibril density, the fibers that actually contract rather than increases in sarcoplasma volume, which merely enlarges the muscle due to fluid volume increases without necessarily making it stronger.
We do this because, for most of the athletes we train muscle recruitment (neurological efficiency) is more important than muscle volume. An average person is able to contract a meager 30% of any active muscle when giving his utmost. Top athletes can engage 50% so the muscle must be twice as large as would be necessary if he could activate 100% of the muscle. Improving the ability of nervous system to synchronize the electrical impulses that cause the muscles to contract and act in concert produces greater capacity to generate power than does merely increasing the size of those same muscles. And the athlete remains lighter, which places less stress on the system during locomotion. Maintaining minimum muscle volume also improves oxygen efficiency; when running uphill a big upper body, though not being used demands constant delivery of oxygen and fuel sources, robbing the legs of that same blood and reducing their capacity to produce force and continue doing so.
To illustrate our reasoning I will use my own experience as an example. Many of the training methods or ideals at Gym Jones develop from lessons learned by climbing on the hardest and highest mountains of the world. The benefits of training the maximum possible strength into the minimum body mass and weight are immediately apparent to the climber. Attaining this ideal should be attractive to other athletes as well. And my experience as a climber is easy to extrapolate to other athletic disciplines.
Most successful mountain climbers and those indigenous to the mountains are relatively small in stature with efficient rather than large musculature. In my prime speed climbing period I weighed 148lbs (5'9") and was able to gain 4000'/hour on foot. At 165lbs the best I could manage (on foot) was 3400'/hour and this pace was achieved following an 18-month period during which I consciously shed upper body mass, shifting muscle and energy supply to my legs. Then, after coaxing the muscle from my legs back to my upper body while maintaining 165 pounds I lost approximately 8% of my ability to gain altitude, falling back to 2900-3000'/hour. I was faster when I was lighter and I could still carry a pack and pull almost twice my bodyweight on the lat pull machine. My fitness was very sport-specific, which is to say that I was imbalanced, and weak in areas not applicable to climbing. I could only bench press 65% of my weight, I could not do dips, and though I had pretty abs I had no genuine core strength.
During 2003-04 I modified diet and training, aiming for better balance. Although I dropped to 152 pounds, I can easily bench my weight, clean and jerk more than bodyweight, deadlift more than twice my weight, do more than 20 (strict) pull-ups, and gain more than 3500'/hour. I have found a better balance. Each athlete must find an acceptable compromise power/weight ratio that does not cost him dearly in during any particular task.
The power-to-weight ratio is important to the sports requiring locomotion; the cyclist that generates 400 watts of power with a 145-pound frame is more efficient than the cyclist that creates the same force with a 180-pound body. The 200-meter runner who can deadlift 3x bodyweight runs faster than the sprinter who can only deadlift 2x bodyweight. The runner's size/weight does not determine the one-rep max instead it is the neurological pathways and ability to recruit a greater percentage of existing muscle that are decisive factors. Because of this an athlete may develop the ability to generate incredible power without significant size or weight increase - by simply making the appropriate neurological pathways more efficient.
Relative strength can also determine how individuals integrate into a team. In the military context, every soldier wants to be strong and in an effort to become strong many get big as well. So how does the 230-pound guy integrate into the team? He's strong enough to hump heavy loads all day or carry a casualty. But what if he gets shot or sprains an ankle and his teammates have to carry him, and his gear? This same issue affects mountain climbers and backcountry skiers who often operate in remote areas and must be 100% self-sufficient, fire fighters, SWAT cops, etc. To be sure, fitness is an individual concept but each individual's fitness, size and speed can make the team more capable and flexible or less so.
So size matters, but bigger is not necessarily better, nor is bigger always stronger.