The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts
Q: In addition to walking most days, I do resistance training with weights twice per week. I recently heard the term power training. How does it differ from strength training?
A: Strength training using free weights, machines or resistance bands helps maintain and even build muscle mass. In general, this equates to keeping your strength.
As the name suggests, power training is aimed at increasing power, which is the product of both strength and speed. It reflects how quickly you can exert force to produce the desired movement.
Football players, high jumpers and other athletes have long used power training, especially with weighted vests, to improve performance. Not only does performance improve, power training also can reduce the risk of injury.
While most studies have been done on athletes, newer research suggests power training has potential benefits for all of us.
Let’s take hiking, for example. Faced with a mountain hike, you likely have enough strength to reach the summit. But can you keep up with the younger members of your hiking group? Power, not just strength and cardio fitness, can get you up the steep inclines quickly and safely. By helping you react swiftly if you trip over a root or lose your balance on loose rocks, power can actually prevent falls.
To develop power, you need to add speed as you work against resistance. You can do this by performing traditional strength exercises such as push-ups or biceps curls at a faster pace, while maintaining good form. Or do medicine ball throws to increase upper-body power.
Plyometrics, such as jumping exercises, also build muscle power. The rapid acceleration as you leap into the air and then the rapid deceleration as you land increase your ability to produce explosive power. You will be more prepared to dart across the street when a car ignores the crosswalk sign or chase after a toddler headed for trouble.
Power training may be even more important than strength training. Muscle power declines at more than twice the rate that strength does as you age — as much as 3.5 percent a year for power compared with 1.5 percent for strength.
You don’t need to make big changes in your exercise routine. You could just add some swift moves of power training with your slower, more deliberate strength training exercises.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)