Think you’re big and strong? Chen Wei-Ling, who weighs just a bit over 45kg, recently showed the world that “strength” is all relative when she squatted more than four and a half times her bodyweight.
During the 2016 International Powerlifting Federation World Open powerlifting competition, the 34 year old from Taiwan shouldered the equivalent of two refrigerators onto her 46-kilogram frame, walked the 210kg-barbell out, and stood with it, legs and body visibly quivering from the sheer effort of just standing upright. Then she squatted.
To colour just how jaw-droppingly impressive this is, we talked to Dr Pat Davidson, an exercise physiologist based in New York City.
“This is the first time a woman has squatted 4.5 times body weight,” says Davidson.
Wei-Ling is a former bronze medal winner at the Olympics in weightlifting - a completely different sport than powerlifting. So the fact that she’s been at or near the top of all humans on earth in two different strength sports is insane, Davidson says.
Indeed, it is. At the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, Wei-Ling snatched and clean and jerked a total of 195 kilograms in the 47kg weight class.
To understand just how impressive Wei-Ling is, you need to know the difference between relative strength and absolute strength.
Relative strength is the amount of strength you have in proportion to your body size; in Davidson’s words it’s “pound for pound strength.”
Absolute strength refers to how much you can lift, period -regardless of your size.
For example, a 45 kilogram person who can lift 90 kilograms - two times his bodyweight - is relatively stronger than a 90-kilogram person who can lift 135 kilograms - one and a half times his bodyweight - but the heavier guy has more absolute strength.
Wei-Ling’s squat might not be that impressive in absolute terms. Indeed, the heaviest female squat ever is 300 kilograms, performed by Samantha Coleman.
But Coleman lifts in the 90-plus kilogram weight class. In relative terms, her squat is just about three times her bodyweight. She’d have to squat around 410 kilograms to match Wei-Ling’s relative strength.
It’s not surprising that Wei-Lei is queen of relative strength - smaller frames are often better for it, says Davidson, while larger frames are better for absolute strength.
Despite the science, “People do amazing things,” says Davidson. “Just when you think you have things figured out, you probably don’t. I guess this is why almost nobody can set or break world records ... it looks impossible, and it basically is until somebody does the impossible.”