The difference between strength and power – Free weights or machines

A major-league fastball takes a little less than half a second to cross home plate. According to a classic 1967 study, the batter has 0.26 to 0.35 seconds to make up his mind, and then 0.19 to 0.28 seconds to swing. To be a great hitter, it doesn’t matter if you can bench-press triple your body weight if you can’t unleash that strength quickly. Power is defined as “force times velocity,” and it represents the ability to deliver a large amount of strength in a short period of time. The strength to hoist a heavy weight in a leg-press machine requires only force; the explosive power to leap high in the air requires both force and velocity. That’s why power is more important than strength in most sports.

Training for power is subtly different from training for strength. The simplest approach is to lift weights with lighter loads than you normally would, but focus on lifting them with a rapid, explosive motion. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests doing one to three sets of three to six repetitions, using a weight up to 60 percent of the heaviest you can lift for that exercise. But don’t just do the same exercises you’d use for strength training; focus instead on functional movements that require multiple joints, like box jumps, jump squats, and medicine-ball tosses. The goal, after all, is to develop an explosive jump, not an explosive hamstring curl.

The specific exercises you choose should be tailored to your goals. For athletes, that means choosing exercises that mimic the motions you’ll be using in your sport and doing them at realistic speeds. For example, baseball players are advised to swing the bat at least 100 times a day (three times a week) to increase bat speed, but using a “donut” to make the bat heavier is discouraged because it makes you practice swinging more slowly, according to a 2009 review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. “Explosive” rotational exercises with a medicine ball have also been found to boost power and bat speed.

Even golf, seemingly a much more sedate sport, depends on power. A 2009 study by University of Toronto researcher Greg Wells found that vertical jump—a measure of leg power—was correlated with longer driving distances in elite golfers. It’s a lesson that many golfers still haven’t learned: “Traditionally, these guys focus on getting stronger and building bulk,” Wells says, “but then they slow down and can’t hit the ball as hard.”

Power isn’t just for athletes. When health experts stress the importance of maintaining “functional strength” for day-to-day activities as you get older, they’re often talking about power rather than strength. For example, it doesn’t require much sustained strength to hoist yourself up from a chair; you need to summon a rapid burst of force to push yourself up. Several recent studies have found that exercise plans incorporating power-building exercises, in which speedy motions with light weights are emphasized, are associated with better outcomes such as improved balance and stronger bones in older adults.

In spite of all that, there can be no power without strength, so don’t abandon regular strength training in search of power. But consider incorporating a little explosiveness in your routine, and you may notice the effects on the court and beyond.

Free weights or machines: what’s the difference, and which should I use?

The choice between free weights and machines depends on how much stability you want—and that’s determined by your goals and your level of experience. For beginners, the biggest advantage of weight machines is that they keep you from making mistakes. Each exercise station is designed to move in only one direction, guiding you through the motion with proper form. But that’s also their biggest weakness—because when you call on your muscles in the real world, you won’t have that support.

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“Weight machines are very stable,” says David Behm, an exercise scientist at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “But if you’re on a muddy football field or running across a tennis court hitting a forehand on one leg, that’s very different.” The same is true for everyday challenges, such as getting out of a car for an older person. For that reason, free weights—dumbbells and barbells that aren’t connected to pulleys or contraptions—are thought to provide a more functional training stimulus. Because they’re less stable, you’re forced to balance your entire body while performing the exercise.

Consider a simple exercise such as the biceps curl. If you use a weight machine to perform the curl, you’ll strengthen your biceps—which, presumably, is your goal. If, on the other hand, you stand up and do your curls one arm at a time with dumbbells, you’ll also be using a host of other muscles such as your back extensors, abdominals, and quadriceps to keep your body upright. With free weights, “people ‘cheat’ by using other muscle groups,” says George Salem, director of the exercise and aging biomechanics research program at the University of Southern California. That “cheating” is a problem if you’re using poor form or too much weight and you wrench your back as a result. But it can also be beneficial if you learn to use your whole body to provide stability and added strength, Salem says.

In a quest for even higher levels of instability, some people perform their weights routine while balancing on an inflatable exercise ball. This requires greater effort from the core stability muscles of the trunk and back. But there is a downside, Behm cautions: “To get maximum strength gains, you have to lift as much weight as possible. But you can’t lift as much when you’re balancing on a ball.” As a result, a 2010 position stand that Behm wrote for the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology suggests that lifting weights while balanced on an exercise ball is appropriate only for those focused on health and fitness, while athletes seeking performance gains should stick to free weights on a stable surface.

Weight machines do have other advantages, even for experts. They allow you to address specific weaknesses by isolating certain muscle groups, and they’re designed to provide a constant resistance through the entire range of motion of each lift. In gyms that stock these machines, the biggest draw may be that they’re more time-efficient than fiddling around with free weights. Add it all up and machines are the best choice for many beginners, for both safety and ease of use. Once you’ve gained some experience, though, it pays to move on, Salem says: “Free weights are more realistic.”

Can body-weight exercises like push-ups and sit-ups be as effective as lifting weights?

Joining a health club always seems like a great idea, especially around the beginning of January. That’s why 41.5 million Americans pay a total of $18.7 billion a year for health club memberships. But by February many of those new members have discovered that going to the gym can be inconvenient, time-consuming, and sometimes a bit intimidating. On the other hand, buying exercise equipment for the home is an expensive proposition. One solution is to do your workout at home (or in a hotel room or a park or wherever you happen to be), using your own body weight instead of barbells or weight machines for resistance.

There’s little doubt that convenience can be a big factor in how well people stick to their exercise programs. A review of studies by the Cochrane Collaboration in 2005 found that patients with conditions like heart disease who were prescribed exercise were more likely to stick with home-based programs than with programs that required them to visit a nearby gym or hospital to use specialized equipment. In the highest-quality study, 68 percent of the home-based exercisers were still doing the program two years later, compared to just 36 percent of the center-based exercisers.

The effectiveness of body-weight exercises depends on your initial fitness and goals. A Japanese study in 2009 tested a body-weight exercise program on a group of volunteers with an average age of 66. The exercise program consisted of leg exercises such as squats, lunges, calf raises, and knee extensions. After 10 months of training twice a week, the volunteers had increased maximum leg force by 15 percent and maximum power by 13 percent. But a closer look at the data revealed that the largest gains were obtained by the subjects who started out weakest, since they had to work hardest to lift their own body weight.

This finding highlights the key weakness of body-weight training: as you get stronger, the weight you’re lifting stays the same (or perhaps even decreases, if you’re lucky!), which makes it hard to continue progressing. Of course, there are ways to adjust the difficulty of classic exercises like the push-up. You can put your feet up on a chair or use only one arm at a time to increase the difficulty.

Adjusting the distance between your hands also changes which muscles are emphasized: if they’re closer together than your shoulders, you increase the load on your triceps and deltoids; spreading them farther apart shifts the emphasis to your chest.

If you’re a bodybuilder trying to sculpt a Schwarzenegger-esque body, these sorts of adjustments won’t be enough to replace the highly specific exercises that you can do at the gym. Similarly, if you’re really trying to maximize your strength and power, the weights and machines at the gym allow you to do a wide variety of exercises targeting different muscles while controlling the exact weight, which you simply can’t duplicate at home.

But for general strengthening, either for fitness or as part of your conditioning for a sport like tennis or basketball, you can get all the challenge you need from a mix of push-ups, pull-ups, crunches, chair dips, squats, and other body-weight exercises. And the price is right!

 Even golf, seemingly a much more sedate sport, depends on power. A 2009 study by University of Toronto researcher Greg Wells found that vertical jump—a measure of leg power—was correlated with longer driving distances in elite golfers. It’s a lesson that many golfers still haven’t learned: “Traditionally, these guys focus on getting stronger and building bulk,” Wells says, “but then they slow down and can’t hit the ball as hard.”

Power isn’t just for athletes. When health experts stress the importance of maintaining “functional strength” for day-to-day activities as you get older, they’re often talking about power rather than strength. For example, it doesn’t require much sustained strength to hoist yourself up from a chair; you need to summon a rapid burst of force to push yourself up.

Several recent studies have found that exercise plans incorporating power-building exercises, in which speedy motions with light weights are emphasized, are associated with better outcomes such as improved balance and stronger bones in older adults.

In spite of all that, there can be no power without strength, so don’t abandon regular strength training in search of power. But consider incorporating a little explosiveness in your routine, and you may notice the effects on the court and beyond.

Jean-Paul Marat

Many tips are based on recent research, while others were known in ancient times. But they have all been proven to be effective. So keep this website close at hand and make the advice it offers a part of your daily life.

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