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We Need Strength Training As We Age: Do We Need Power Training Too?

by | exercise, Fitness, Functional Fitness, health and fitness, injury, injury prevention, power training, strength training | 0 comments

I recently came across an article published in The new York Times titled Take the 30-Second Power Test by Amanda Loudin. She opines that as we get older, we need to engage in strength training to slow down the loss of muscle (I am in agreement here), but that we should also focus on power training as well.

Power training is defined as applying the maximum amount of force as fast as possible. The belief is that strength plus speed equals power. Thus, to build power in contrast to just muscular strength, we need to do some form of power lifting. It is power she says that we use, for example, to stop ourselves from falling, being capable enough to toss our luggage in the overhead storage compartment, or carrying a heavy bag of trash to the curb and throwing in the trash can. Furthermore, the author argues that we lose power as well as strength as we age, maybe even at a faster pace than the loss of strength from sarcopenia.

Power training is very popular in the sports world. Athletes that need to be very strong, fast, and able to man handle the opponent make power training the bedrock of their strength and conditioning program. The most common lifts are squats, deadlifts, bench press and Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk. The athlete will perform these exercises in an explosive fashion. Strength training, in contrast, will have the athlete perform all of the repetitions in a slow and controlled manner and refrain from using Olympic lifts. It is believed that power training has a high carryover into any sport that requires explosive movements. Football as the main example.

But does power training improve sports performance? Does power training help make it easier for someone to carry and hoist heavy luggage better than strength training using a slow cadence? This is an important question that I will address later.

Fast Twitch Fibers And Speed Of Movement

There is a lot of confusion about the difference between fast twitch and slow twitch fibers and how they relate to speed, endurance and power. This confusion leads to inefficient training methods that lead to more overall time spent in the gym than necessary to reach high levels of strength and conditioning, and a higher propensity for injury.

Slow twitch fibers produce lower levels of force than the fast twitch fibers, and they can perform quite well for a long period of time. They are the fibers our body will call on and use for endurance activities like jogging, hiking, biking and so on. Fast twitch fibers will produce a large amount of force in a short period. They work with the anaerobic system and they fatigue quickly. It is the fast twitch fibers that athletes want to develop to the highest potential from strength training and power training.

One of the common misconceptions about fast twitch and slow twitch fibers is that to train the slow twitch fibers, a trainee must move slowly. To train the fast twitch fibers, a trainee must move fast to recruit them. This concept alone leads to many training programs that require explosive training. You must “explode” to work the fast twitch fibers that you do not hit as well with a slower cadence. In other words, training slow will teach the muscle to move slow. This is flawed thinking. Remember, fast twitch fibers produce a lot of force in a short amount of time, and they will do it regardless of speed of movement. Let say a trainee can leg press 800lbs. for 10 to 12 reps with good form. It is obvious that he needs to call on his fast twitch fibers to do so, but let’s take it a little further to drive home my point: say this trainee puts 1000lbs. on the leg press and lowers it half way, but then he tries to hold it without movement for as long as he can. Is he using just his slow twitch fibers? Of course not. Even though there is no motion, he is producing a heck of a lot of force…far more force than his slow twitch fibers can do. He has to be using his fast twitch fibers. Let’s also say that he chooses to use this method of training for three weeks. Every time he does the exercise, he may hold it for a little longer than the last workout, or he may increase the weight and try to hold it for as long as he can, eventually getting up to the same amount of time that he can hold it with the lower weight previously. So even though there is no movement, he is getting stronger through progressive overload. This is another example of how strength training can be performed.

In summary, increasing strength and working the fast twitch fibers can happen with fast movements, slow movements or no movement at all.

Yes, but does training slow teach the muscles to move more slowly than explosive training? I will argue that the development of speed for a given sport has nothing to do with the speed of movement lifting weights.

Skill Transfer And Power Training

Another argument that is made in favor of power training is that it would have a strong carryover effect to the chosen sport. Once again, the best example is that of a football lineman who does explosive squats and deadlifts to get off the line faster than his opponent. So does explosive training in the gym lead to better explosiveness on the field? To answer that, we need to look at what we do know about skill transfer. There are three types of transfer that I want to focus on for this article:

  • Positive Transfer
  • Negative Transfer
  • Neutral Transfer

Positive transfer is where a skill that is learned in one sport can be transferred to another sport. Learning how to rollerblade, for example can have a positive transfer to ice skating. The skills are similar enough to make the transfer productive.

Negative transfer, on the other hand, happens when two or more skill sets practiced in one sport will have a negative effect on the acquisition of a certain skill set in another sport. This happens often, even when the skill sets look familiar. A good example of this is an athlete who spent many years playing baseball and developed a high level of skill hitting a small ball coming at high velocity who starts playing softball with his friends in a summer league. He would find it much harder to hit the softball with the same precision that he acquired from all those years of playing baseball. Even though the goal is the same in each sport, hitting the softball will be harder for many reasons: a bigger and softer ball, a smaller bat, the underhand throw by the pitcher, the arc of the ball from the pitcher’s hand to the plate and so on. The athlete developed precise neural reflexes to excel at baseball…fine motor control that took years to hone from practice and play. Good athletes understand this. They will practice in the exact same environment as they would in a game, with the exact same size and weight of the ball. They do everything they can to optimize that particular skill. Jerry Rice exemplifies this to a T. He would only practice receiving from a left handed quarterback who could put the same type of velocity on the ball as the quarterback that he played for…Steve Young. He would not practice with a right handed quarterback. His success had much to do about that.

Neutral transfer is exactly what the term implies, in that a skill developed in one discipline will have neither a positive or negative impact on the skill set the athlete is trying to learn.

Now let’s take a look at how skill transfer may play out if an athlete chooses to use power training (i.e explosive lifting) for an offensive lineman. A lineman will come out of a crouched position exploding forward to block the defensive lineman, and yes, he will try to push as hard as possible as quickly as he can to push the defensive lineman back and out of the way. Now contrast that with his lifts. Squats, deadlifts and the clean and jerk are all lifts that are performed vertically against gravity. None of them use a forward motion like what a lineman has to do in the game. This alone demonstrates that there certainly is no positive transfer from using explosive power type training in the gym for that particular skill. I would also have to say that there really is no negative transfer from explosive lifts done in the gym because the movements are too general to affect the fine motor control honed form years of practice. From a cursory look at the potential skill transfer from power lifting for a lineman, I would have to say that explosive training has a neutral carryover to the skill sets of a lineman. Power training will accomplish the same thing as a general strength training program would. It would help the lineman get stronger, thus increasing his force production capability that he then can harness for his craft.

Is Power Training Meaningless?

Arthur Jones, the inventor of the Nautilus exercise equipment and the brainchild of the style of strength training famously known as High Intensity Training, does a great job of cutting through the confusion of what power training really is all about in this video. I will try to explain what he says in a summary here, but understand that it may not be as on point as he says. Do check out the video for clarity on the subject. The gist of what he says is this: you really cannot train for power. The concept of power has nothing to do with the human body. The speed (power) of movement created by a muscle is a direct effect of the strength of a muscle, nothing more. The example he uses is that of an individual that does a bench press. Say the trainee can barely do 100 lbs. for one rep on the bench press. Since the resistance is high for him at 100lbs, he would move the weight very slowly. No power. If he did a bench press with 50lbs., he can move the weight very fast (power). If he trains for a period of time and he gets strong enough to do a 200lb. bench press for one rep, once again he will move the weight slowly because the resistance is high, but now he could do a bench press of 100lbs. and move it very fast. Basically, he increased his power production simply by increasing his strength. He did not increase his power from power training. He just got stronger. Muscles produce force. That is all they do. The stronger one gets, the more force he can produce in any given moment which can be translated to speed and agility though specific training.

So is Arthur Jones correct in saying that power training is meaningless? I would say this: Power training has no extra benefit over strength training for achieving high levels of strength and athletic performance, nor making it easier for an elderly person to be able to get out of the chair for that matter.

Why Does It Matter?

There are two main reasons to as to why it matters whether you choose to do power training instead of strength training. The first reason is that explosive training is less efficient than strength training for making the targeted muscle work as hard as possible. When a trainee explodes the weight up on a repetition, there comes a point in the repetition where the momentum that was created from “exploding” the weight at the beginning will actually move the weight faster than the muscles are contracting against it. This allows the muscle to rest little bit, and by doing so the muscle will not get as fatigued as it would under continuous tension from a slower cadence. In essence, the trainee would have to add more overall volume to make the same gains in strength this way.

The second and very substantial reason why it matters is that the potential for injury increases with power training. Power training with heavy weights puts unnecessary stress on the joints and connective tissues of the body. The lower back, shoulders and hips are especially vulnerable to injury from both power training and Olympic lifts.

Conclusion

I am a firm believer that strength training is the best form of exercise that we can do keep our bodies functioning well into our old age. The biggest challenge we all face is that we do lose muscle as we age. It gains speed as we get older, and there does come a point to where if we do not use it, we do lose it. Muscle can atrophy to the point of no return. It the the primary reason the elderly struggle to go up and down stairs, carry their own luggage, or even get up off the floor. In other words, a loss of independence happens in direct correlation to the loss of muscle. Strength training with proper intensity is our best tool in the toolbox to slow that down.

It is clear that I favor strength training with a slower cadence over power training, but that does not mean that power training should be completely avoided. Doing some power movements with kettle bells or using a functional trainer machine to add different movements and exercises goes a long way to keep the exercise routine fresh and exciting. For example, I do functional exercises in my routine often to prevent boredom from setting in.

If you choose to add some power lifting to your training routine, I would suggest that you do most of your exercises as a pure strength training protocol by using a slower tempo and taking those sets deep into fatigue. Then you can do some power moves for variety, but use lighter weights with a faster cadence, but do not “explode” in any part of the lift.

Train hard.

Train safely.

Stay strong as you grow older.

Regards,

Gregg Hoffman