During the most recent March Madness and Olympic games, you may have heard one of the commentators say: “his strength in the paint is impressive” or “she’s a very powerful athlete.” Strength and power are two terms you’ll often hear as part of a fitness program to help improve performance in sport. But, what do strength and power mean? What is the difference in training for strength versus training for power? Read this article to learn about the difference between strength training versus power training and methods for developing strength and power in your own fitness program.
What is Strength?
Before we get into the difference between strength versus power, it’s important to discuss the definition for each of these terms to provide a better understanding. Coaches, medical professionals, and athletes often disagree on the use of terminology for strength and power which makes it confusing for the average person hoping to improve their performance. Even worse, these terms are often used interchangeably which only adds to the confusion.
Let’s break this down and make it simple. Strength is defined as the maximal force that a muscle or muscle group can generate at a specified velocity (Winter et al, 2016). It is often characterized by 1 rep max tests (1RM) or multiple rep max tests like 3RM or 6RM. When I think about strength, I immediately think of the sport of powerlifting where the athlete’s main goal is to lift as much weight as possible in the squat, bench, and deadlift, and they are scored based on their 1RM in each lift. For many, this is confusing since the word power is in the title of powerlifting, but testing for 1 rep maxes is indicative of testing for strength.
What is Power?
For most sports, power is the most important characteristic to develop. Much like the terminology and definition for strength, power is often misused which leads to confusion. There are multiple aspects to consider when discussing power, but let’s keep it simple to provide you with the best understanding. Power is the ability to produce force quickly. In sporting events that require power, resistance must be overcome and a high speed of movement is optimal. When I think about power, I associate it with the athlete who can produce movement the fastest in specific movements of their sport like a point guard who steals a ball and gets out first on a fast break beating his opponent to the basket.
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What is the difference between strength training versus power training?
Strength training is used as a means to increase an athlete’s 1 rep max or how many times they can lift a given amount of weight. One of the main methods for increasing strength is using progressive overload. “Progressive overload is defined as progressively placing greater-than-normal demands on the exercising musculature” (NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association 2021). For improving strength, this means you will use heavier weights in your exercises over time.
If someone is a beginner and new to strength training, they can increase power by strength training alone. As we discussed, power is the ability to produce force quickly. Producing force is half of the equation for power; you can’t have power if you are not producing force. This is why strength training is the perfect complement to power training, as it helps to increase the force side of the equation.
Learn How To Safely Assess Your One Rep Max!
The main difference between strength training versus power training is that power training requires forces to be produced quickly. For power, think about movements like jumping, medicine ball throws, and Olympic weightlifting movements like the clean and snatch. In each of these movements, a force component is present but the speed component is key for success. Progressive overload is still present in power training, but it’s important that the athlete begins with a minimal training dose since these exercises put more on the nervous system compared to traditional strength training exercises. For this reason, power based exercises are typically performed first or near the beginning of the training session or entirely on its own day (NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association 2021).
The force-velocity curve dictates the relationship between the external load being lifted (Force) and the speed at which that load can be moved (Velocity). We can use the force-velocity curve as guidelines for improving both strength and power. It’s important to remember the inverse relationship between strength and velocity. If you want to lift something heavy that requires a lot of force, it’s not going to move fast. If you want to work on improving velocity, you can’t accomplish that with a heavy object!
How to train for improving strength?
By using the force-velocity curve as a reference point, we want to choose movements that fall towards the left side of the curve and work with challenging weights within the 1 to 5 rep range and around 85% or above. Select exercises that train a large amount of muscle mass at once and provide the biggest bang for your buck. For the lower body, choose squat based exercises like barbell squats, single leg squat exercises like lunges, and hinging exercises like the deadlift.
For the upper body, choose pressing-based exercises like the dumbbell bench press and pulling-based exercises like the dumbbell row. It’s important to use heavy loads that challenge you, but remember to slow cook the training process. This means that you shouldn’t try to set a new PR every time you train, but aim to slowly add weight over time as you continue to focus on technique. Aim to train with heavier weights as part of your fitness routine at least once a week as a minimum to see results (Ralston et el, 2018).
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How to train for improving power
“Because stronger athletes are better able to express higher power outputs under loaded conditions, it is evident that focusing on strength development is a key component of any strength training interventions that are preparing athletes in sports such as Rugby League, Rugby Union, and American Football” (Haff and Nimphius, 2012). Much of the research we have available regarding power training shows strength training to be beneficial in improving power. However, since power incorporates higher speed movements, it’s important to train these in qualities in order to improve. The SAID principle requires you to train aspects like a position in the range of motion, a specific exercise, or speed of a movement in order to improve and accomplish your training goal. If you are only using slow, strength-based movements, you may be missing out on your ability to fully improve power.
Referencing the force-velocity curve, you’ll want to choose movements that land towards the middle of the curve. The Olympic weightlifting movements like the clean and snatch are popular for improving power, as long as one can master the technique needed for these movements. As an alternative to the Olympic lifts, I recommend ballistic resistance training exercises like loaded squat jumps or hex bar jumps. These allow the trainee to produce high amounts of power with an easier learning curve compared to the Olympic lifts. If you have access to velocity measuring devices, these exercises are great choices for monitoring power outputs.
Single Arm Rotating Snatch – Dumbbell
In addition to Olympic movements and ballistic resistance training exercises, medicine ball throws and plyometrics are effective training modalities for improving power. Medicine ball throws to allow the trainee to develop power in multiplanar movements that are beneficial in sports like tennis, golf, and baseball. The term plyometrics in this context is used to include all forms of jumping like vertical jumps, standing long jumps, depth jumps, hurdle jumps, and bounding. All plyometric exercises are not created equally so it’s important to start with a minimal training dose and progress in reps and difficulty over time as needed.
The main difference between strength training versus power training is that power training requires forces to be produced quickly. Power is one of the most important characteristics for sport and it’s important to train for it correctly. While strength training itself will improve power production, remember to incorporate exercises where you have to learn to produce force quickly like Olympic movements, ballistic resistance exercises, medicine ball throws, and plyometrics. If you are only using slow, strength-based movements, you may be missing out on your ability to fully improve power.
Learn How To Train For Longevity
Fitness is not about using such a high intensity that you are unable to get off the floor afterward. We are all about hard work, however, we want to make sure you are able to work out across the lifespan both safely and effectively. The number one reason why people no longer participate in an exercise program is due to injury, let’s prove that statistic incorrect by using a fitness program with the intended goals of getting you in shape while avoiding injury! To do so, the first 4 weeks is meant to load your tissues to create a movement base this ready to take on the next 8 weeks. Let’s also make sure that we are not just addressing the physical you but are helping you become healthier by giving you methods to decrease your internal load via positive self-talk and gratitude practices.
Winter, E. M., Abt, G., Brookes, F. B. C., Challis, J. H., Fowler, N. E., Knudson, D. V., Knuttgen, H. G., Kraemer, W. J., Lane, A. M., Mechelen, W. van, Morton, R. H., Newton, R. U., Williams, C., & Yeadon, M. R. (2016). Misuse of “power” and other mechanical terms in sport and exercise science research. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(1), 292–300. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001101
NSCA -National Strength & Conditioning Association. (2021). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (Fourth ed.). Human Kinetics.
Ralston, G. W., Kilgore, L., Wyatt, F. B., Buchan, D., & Baker, J. S. (2018). Weekly training frequency effects on strength gain: A meta-analysis. Sports Medicine – Open, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-018-0149-9
Haff, G. G., & Nimphius, S. (2012). Training principles for power. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(6), 2–12. https://doi.org/10.1519/ssc.0b013e31826db467
About The Author
Ryan Nosak, MS, CSCS, SCCC
[P]rehab Writer & Content Creator
Ryan was born and raised in Throop, Pennsylvania and he has worked in the world of fitness since he was 15 years old. Ryan realized he had a deep affinity for strength training and how it can alter the human mind, body, and spirit. He began his coaching career in high school by coaching his friends through strength training sessions, which inspired him to pursue a career in strength and conditioning.
Ryan spent 10 years as a Division 1 strength and conditioning coach with stops along the way at Penn State, Tennessee State, Vanderbilt, Robert Morris, Charlotte, and DePaul. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and operates his own training practice, RyNo Strength, out of Studio DelCorpo in Chicago, IL. He specializes in fat loss, body composition, strength, and sports performance training programs.
Ryan received his Bachelor’s Degree in Kinesiology from Penn State and a Master’s in Sport Management from Western Carolina University. In his free time, Ryan enjoys training for bodybuilding, eating at the amazing restaurants in Chicago, and spending time with his wife and dog.
Disclaimer – The content here is designed for information & education purposes only and is not intended for medical advice.