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Strength training is a popular term for exercises that build muscle by harnessing resistance against an opposing force. Strength training is sometimes called resistance training, progressive resistance training, or weight training. The resistance can come from your body, or from free weights, elasticized bands, or specialized machines. No matter what kind of resistance you use, putting more than the usual amount of load on your muscles makes them stronger. Because the muscles being exercised are attached to underlying bone, these exercises strengthen bones as well.
Strength training isn’t just for those in search of buff bodies or bulked-up muscles. It also boosts the strength needed for daily tasks. Just about any activity becomes easier with stronger muscles. So does any sport you enjoy.
Another type of training, known as power training, is proving to be just as important as strength training in maintaining or restoring function. As the name suggests, power training is aimed at increasing power, which is the product of both strength and speed. Optimal power reflects how quickly you can exert force to produce the desired movement. Here’s an example: Faced with a four-lane intersection, you may have enough strength to walk across the street. But it’s power, not just strength, that can get you across all four lanes of traffic before the light changes. Likewise, power can prevent falls by helping you react swiftly if you start to trip or lose your balance.
Some power moves are strength training exercises done at a faster speed. Others rely on the use of a weighted vest, which is worn while performing certain exercises that are typically aimed at improving functions such as bending, reaching, lifting, and rising from a seated position.
As we age, muscle power ebbs even more swiftly than strength does. So exercises that can produce gains in power become especially important later in life. That’s why some investigators in the field of physical medicine are now combining the swift or high-velocity moves of power training with more deliberate and slow strength-training exercises to reap the benefits of both activities.
Putting it into practice:
Here are three of the three dozen exercises presented in Strength and Power Training, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, for which I was the faculty editor. They can be done at home or on the road, and require no special equipment.
Position a chair so that its back is resting against a wall. Place a small pillow upright at the back of the chair. Sit at the front of the chair, knees bent, feet flat on the floor and slightly apart. Lean back on the pillow in a half-reclining position with your arms crossed and your hands on your shoulders. Keeping your back and shoulders straight, raise your upper body forward until you are sitting upright. Stand up slowly, using your hands as little as possible. Slowly sit back down. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Rest for a minute or so and repeat the set.
Power move: Change the move slightly for the last set by rising from the chair quickly. Sit down again at a normal pace.
Exercises the muscles of the back, back thighs, and buttocks
Lie on your back on a towel or mat with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Put your hands next to your hips with palms flat on the floor. Keep your back straight as you lift your buttocks as high as you can off the mat, using your hands for balance only. Pause. Lower your buttocks without touching the mat, then lift again. Do eight to 12 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.
Exercises the muscles of the back upper arms, chest, and shoulders
Put a chair with armrests up against a wall. Sit in the chair and put your feet together flat on the floor. Lean forward a bit while keeping your shoulders and back straight. Bend your elbows and place your hands on the armrests of the chair, so they are in line with your torso. Pressing downward on your hands, try to lift yourself up a few inches by straightening out your arms. Raise your upper body and thighs, but keep your feet in contact with the floor. Pause. Slowly release until you’re sitting back down again. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set. Variation: If you don’t have a chair with armrests, sit on the stairs. Put your palms down on the stair above the one you are seated on. Press downward on the heels of your hands, lifting your body a few inches as you straighten your arms. Pause. Slowly release your body until you are sitting back down again. Aim for eight to 12 repetitions. Rest and repeat the set.
Power move: During the last set, lift your body quickly. Slowly release until you are seated again.