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SHAREABLE RESOURCE: Muscular Strength Versus Endurance Versus Power—What Is the Difference?

DeSimone, Grace T. B.A.

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000230
Departments: Fitness Focus

As the national group fitness director for Optum, Grace T. DeSimone, B.A., and her group fitness teams manage group exercise classes in worksite wellness programs across the country. She serves on the Executive Council of ACSM’s Committee on Certification and Registry Boards. She also is the editor for ACSM’s Resource Manual for Group Exercise Instructors (2011) and a regular guest on the RadioMD Train Your Body program. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Dance from Hunter College, CUNY, in New York, NY, and is certified by ACSM as a group exercise instructor and personal trainer.

Dumbbells really are not so dumb. In fact, resistance training is a smart idea, but it is easy to get confused when determining how much weight to use and how many reps to perform. Should you do a heavy weight with few repetitions or a light weight with many repetitions? If you are using weights, does it mean you are strength training? The answers to both of those questions depend on your goal and your current level of fitness experience.

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Generally speaking, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that everyone perform resistance training exercises for all major muscle groups — upper body, lower body, core, chest, shoulders, and arms — two or three times per week.

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In very simple terms, muscular endurance is the ability to do something many times without fatiguing. Doing 50 push-ups is an example of muscular endurance. This is different from cardiovascular endurance, which improves the functionality of your heart and lungs. Of course, they work together, but they are two different systems, and each requires different attention.

Muscular strength is the ability to exert maximal force. Picking up and putting down a heavy box a few times is an example of strength. Muscular power is the ability to exert maximal force quickly. Taking that first big step, lifting your body successfully, while boarding a bus is an example of power.

Which is better: strength, endurance, or power? Ideally, a little bit of all three is the best strategy because life asks us to use them all.

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An ACSM certified fitness professional will be able to determine the proper amount of weight or appropriate resistance for you. You can estimate this on your own by how you feel — this is referred to as muscular exhaustion. Muscular exhaustion feels just the way it sounds — your muscles are exhausted. When you are struggling through the last few repetitions in good form and can barely complete the movement, you have achieved muscular exhaustion.

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It is not necessary to focus on the amount of weight, the number of repetitions, or the number of sets when you are starting out. In the beginning, learning good form is most important and must be mastered for each exercise. Progressing slowly is essential because muscles, tendons, and ligaments are adjusting to the new resistance. It is easy to injure yourself in the beginning weeks if you do too much too soon. Gradual progression to allow your musculature to adapt and get stronger will create a great foundation. What’s more, you will likely achieve your greatest result in the first few months, which is very exciting. That initial burst of progress will slow down and eventually plateau. That is why having a sensible variety of exercises will keep you progressing forward.

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If you want to:

  • - get stronger in general, focus on muscular strength.
  • - walk longer, run farther, bike longer, work on muscular endurance.
  • - improve single functional movement such as getting up and down from a chair, aim for muscular power.
  • - increase the size of your muscles, work on muscle hypertrophy.

The chart simplifies ACSM’s recommendations to a very basic level. This will never replace the benefit of working with an ACSM certified professional though.

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Strength provides improved mobility and the ability to move through life with a strong and independent body. It can help improve bone density, preventing the progression of osteoporosis, and it improves overall metabolism. If that is not enough, you will look and feel better when you are stronger.

© 2016 American College of Sports Medicine.