Is power training better than strength training to increase lower limb power in older people?

The Introduction

powerWeight training is strongly recommended for all people over the age of 50 with the need increasing the older a person becomes and the more competitive they want to remain in sport. However, it is unclear whether strength training (ST) or power training (PT) (doing the strength training at ‘speed’) is the more effective intervention at improving muscle strength and power and physical function in older adults. The authors of this research compared the effects of lower body PT with those of ST on muscle strength and power in a group of healthy older people. The results have strong implications for masters athletes who weight train.

The Research

45 older adults (74.8 ± 5.7 yr) with self-reported difficulty in one common daily activities (e.g. climbing stairs) were randomly allocated to 1 of 3 groups: PT, ST, or a control group who did no weight training but maintained their normal activities. The PT and ST groups trained 3 times/wk for 12 wk using knee-extension and leg-press machines at approximately 70% of their maximum strength (1-repetition maximum or 1RM). For the PT group, the concentric (muscle shortening or ‘push’) phase of the knee extension and leg press was completed “as fast as possible” whereas for ST the ‘push’ phase was done more slowly over 2-3 seconds. Both the PT and ST groups paused briefly at the midpoint of the movement and completed the eccentric (return) phase of movement in 2-3 s.

The Results

Both the PT and ST groups showed significant improvements in the strength (1RM) of the knee extension (approximately 20%) and leg press (approximately 23%) exercises. Crucially for older athletes, power (strength done quickly – what sport is all about) increased significantly greater in the power training group compared to the strength training group. After 12 weeks of training, the power training group increased knee extension power by 34.4% (strength training group only 18.5%) and leg press power by 41.4% (strength training group only 21.8%).  The American researchers concluded that, in older adults with compromised function, power training leads to similar increases in strength but much larger increases in power than the slower type of strength training normally done in a gym.

The So What?

While no similar research has been done in older athletes, these results strongly suggest that older athletes should be doing power-focused training in the gym to enhance power – the crucial ingredient for speed in sport. That is, exercises that are done ‘at speed’ are more important than just doing slow exercises in the gym. As strongly recommended in our book The Masters Athlete, it is crucial that masters athletes new to weight training should do a progressive weight training program that develops muscle mass (hypertrophy) and strength BEFORE doing power training. It is also strongly recommended that technical assistance be sought in developing the program.

Marsh AP, Miller ME, Rejeski WJ, Hutton SL, Kritchevsky SB. (2009). Lower extremity muscle function after strength or power training in older adults. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. 17(4): 416-443.