Most everybody knows what strength is. Ask any Joe in the gym to describe strength, and they’ll tell you it’s the ability to lift heavy things, which is close enough. Strength is the ability to exert force on something, whether you’re lifting, pushing, pulling, whatever. The more force you can exert, the stronger you are. But ask somebody to define ‘power’, and suddenly you’ll get blank stares. Everybody agrees that ‘power’ is a good thing, but most people confuse it for strength. Is it the same? Which is better to train? Is one better than the other, and what’s the best way to develop each one?
First, let’s stop being coy and define what ‘power’ is. Power has a very specific definition, and it’s the amount of work performed per unit of time. Ask a physicist, and they’ll tell you it’s measured in joules or watts. For us non-scientists, all you need to know is that power is the ability to apply force rapidly. Let’s define a few more things: velocity is the speed of an object, and acceleration is the change in speed of an object due to applied force. So force applied to an object accelerates it through space, changing its velocity. Simple, right? So a strong man can generate enough force to move a heavy weight, while a powerful man can move the same weight quicker. A powerful man can apply his strength quicker, generating more acceleration. Clear?
Now, the practical ramifications of this is that the ability to produce force against a weight is dependent upon the speed with which you practice doing just that. Think of it this way: if you lift heavy weights slowly, you will become very proficient at lifting those heavy weights slowly. Try and lift those same weights quicker, and you’ll find yourself struggling. However, develop your power, and train lifting weights quickly to begin with, and you’ll find yourself able to lift the same speed quickly or slower. Strength developed at a slow rate of speed can only be used slowly; strength developed at a fast rate of speed can be used quickly or slower.
So should we all focus on power, not just raw strength? Not necessarily. Most people can exert maximum power at only 50-75% of their maximum strength. So if somebody maxes out at lifting 200lbs, they could only generate maximum power at about 60lbs or so. Working out at this range, while it helps develop power, will not substantially increase their strength; thus it’s imperative that both be worked on at the same. Power AND strength must be trained, so that both may increase and compliment each other.
Toward this end, consider the dead lift and the power clean. The first is an excellent way to develop strength, the second the best way to generate power. If they are trained together (staggered so as to not overlap), you should develop an incredible amount of strength and power both. Not only will you increase the amount of force you can exert, but you will improve the speed at which you can exert it. Your max in both exercises will increase as they complement each other, and you will find yourself reaping incredible rewards.