Once, when I was around 14 years old, my brother and I were trying our hand at splitting wood—without much success. Our grandfather saw us struggling and decided to give us a lesson. He planted the ax into the log, lifted both ax and log over his head, and whacked them down, splitting the log clean in half. We were in awe! Our “old” grandfather had turned into Superman!
My grandfather’s show of might defies the generally accepted belief that, as we grow older, we lose muscle mass and strength. We also associate aging with moving slowly. Reductions in peak leg power and gait speed are associated with late-life disability (Kuo et al. 2006). This loss of physical function is linked to loss of independent living. As disability sets in, activities of daily living become harder.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, there is a reduction in performance as we age. But that can be slowed down, and it doesn’t have to lead to a loss of function in daily activities. The less we do, the less we can do. Muscle fibers that don’t get called into action will atrophy. With a tailored regimen that includes muscular power training, adults can keep their bodies fit and functional well into their later years.
Older Population, New Fitness Needs
Our population is getting older and living longer. It’s probably safe to assume that we would all prefer to spend our golden years physically capable instead of disabled. Our role as fitness trainers necessitates that we understand the exercise demands of preserving the physical vitality of our older clients and know how to elicit maximum benefits through programming that helps them be more mobile and agile.
Ever since the U.S. Surgeon General’s exercise recommendations expanded in the 1990s to include resistance training, researchers have been studying the influence of strength-building workouts on health. As this review discusses, it has been reported that strength improvements and muscular power are strongly linked to positive health outcomes, particularly for older adults.
When we talk about muscle strength, we think about the maximum force that a muscle can muster against an external load. Velocity, or speed of movement, is not a factor. When we add an element of time to strength training, we get muscular power. Power measures the ability of a muscle to exert force in as little time as possible. Even in advanced age, muscle power enhances active living.
A review article in Sports Medicine looked at the research linking muscle power and physical function in older adults. Physical function was defined as speed of chair rise, stair climbing and walking. The review found a positive relationship between leg power and physical function. The researchers also found that muscular power improved physical function a little better than muscular strength did (Byrne et al. 2016). Another study found that muscle power had a positive effect on bone strength in older men (Cousins et al. 2010). A stronger, more powerful muscle will put more demand on tendons, ligaments and bone, making the connective tissues sturdier.
Another potential effect of aging is an increase in lower-limb power asymmetry (Byrne et al. 2016). This disparity in power increases fall risk and, consequently, the risk of fractures and disability. Such asymmetry was found to be more prevalent in individuals with lower functional status and in people who tend to fall repeatedly (Skelton, Kennedy & Rutherford 2002). So if your clients display lower-limb asymmetry, correcting it should be a priority to reduce the risks of fall and injury.
See also: Complex Training: Pairing for Power
Velocity Is the Boost
In 2018, a study published in Experimental Gerontology on force/velocity profiling of older adults found that impaired muscle power was due to a decrease in force and/or velocity. Both deficits reduced physical function and quality of life (Alcazar et al. 2018). A 2019 assessment reported that in healthy older people, muscle power declines faster than muscle mass or strength (Beaudart et al. 2019). So, as an individual gets older, the capacity for quick movement drops faster than strength does. Increasing strength or force production is good, but improving velocity, too, will produce additional benefits.
In the Sports Medicine review that showed slightly greater improvements from muscular power than just from muscular strength, power training is suggested as an alternative to traditional resistance training as a way to improve muscle function. Studies included in this review used a wide variety of programs. Volume ranges were 1–6 sets, 4–20 repetitions and 1–11 exercises. Intensity was 20%–80% of one-repetition maximum. Training sessions lasted 10–90 minutes. Most programs were 8–16 weeks, and participants trained 2–3 times a week. The review suggests that the place to start depends on a client’s training experience and current level of fitness (Byrne et al. 2016).
Testing can inform you of your client’s current state, guide your programming and help you track progress. Beau-dart et al. found that grip strength test is a good starting point and can give you an idea of a client’s vitality. A simple 4-meter gait speed test will let you know how fast the client can move. A leg press test can show lower-body strength. And, if appropriate, a vertical jump test is a great measure of lower-body power. If you have access to the equipment and if your client has a high level of fitness, you can do a Wingate test. This is a 30-second maximal effort that measures peak power and end power. You can find normative data for most of those tests.
If you’re still unsure, start at a very easy level—better to make a mistake by not pushing hard enough. Taking this approach will prevent injuries, and it’s easy to adjust up as you go. A good place to begin is with body-weight exercises like squats and pushups. Then you can ask your client to move a little faster. Stepping onto a box quickly or jumping off a box will help the client tap extra motor neurons. For some clients, a leg press may be an easier start, plus it allows for single-leg exercise, which is useful if there is lower-limb asymmetry. Resistance bands are another great option because you don’t have to worry about a weight moving around. Check out the five-exercise training progression in “Power Training Progression,” below.
To Train Power, Challenge Speed
You don’t have to change too much about program design for older clients—simply be mindful of how movement speed can translate to more functional capacity. Building strength is a good recipe, but add a dash of speed here and there when appropriate. Moving faster during training movements is a simple add-on when you are aiming to improve power and functional performance. One tweak to your training program can increase a client’s leg power. And in doing this, you will potentially create stronger bones, less risk of falls, fewer physical limitations and a longer lifespan.
My grandfather was strong. He was a fisherman and always worked physically. And he also
had the ability to move a submaximal load at high speed. That’s what allowed him to split the log in half. He maintained those abilities throughout his life because he kept working at it. What gets challenged gets trained. What gets used regularly is maintained.
Daily Demands: Staying on Pace
Improving speed and strength seems to have a more positive impact on physical function than boosting strength on its own. Very few movements in daily life are performed in a slow, controlled manner. As we get older, we become slow because we tend to stop moving at higher velocities. By helping your clients maintain speed, you will do them the service of training them for the sport of life.
To improve movement velocity, the nervous system must be trained to recruit as many motor neurons as possible. We can’t expect to move fast if we train our bodies to move slowly. Remember the SAID principle: specific adaptation to imposed demand. Usain Bolt did not become the fastest man on earth by doing only slow, controlled leg presses. He sprinted—a lot!
By increasing speed, you will increase the demand and the intensity of workouts. For some people, intensity can be intimidating, but recent research reveals there are many benefits to gain from shorter, more intense bouts of exercise. These intense bursts can not only increase resting energy expenditure but also slow loss of muscle mass (Hunter et al. 2018).
It can be challenging enough to convince people to exercise on a regular basis, and it’s even more of a test if they don’t enjoy the exercise program. Researchers compared the effects of volume-matched high-velocity/low-load and low-velocity/high-load programs (Richardson et al. 2017). The low-load program demanded 40% of 1-RM; the high-load one required 80% of 1-RM. Though there were just 10 participants in the study and the results were not significant, the interesting takeaway was that participants gave more positive feedback to the high-velocity/low-load program, indicating that moving faster did not add a barrier to resistance training.
Power Training Progression
Try this simple progression to bring your older clients into the power training zone and gradually build their strength and velocity.
1. Box Jump Down
This beginner power move will train leg and hip muscles to recruit muscle fibers that absorb the shock with eccentric contraction.
- Stand on top of 4- to 12-inch box or platform (depending on ability).
- Jump off box and land with both feet at once, absorbing landing forces with quarter-squat (avoid locked knees).
- Begin with 2 sets of 10–12 repetitions. Gradually increase volume, and progress intensity by raising box height.
2. Box Jump Up
Next, coach an explosive concentric contraction by reversing first exercise to go from floor to box.
- Using same 4- to 12-inch box or platform, assume ready position, feet on floor and facing box from few inches away.
- Crouch into quarter-squat and, using upward swing of arms for added velocity, jump and land with both feet simultaneously on box.
- Step down and repeat. Use same progression matrix as in previous exercise.
3. Jump Squat
This move combines elements of the box jumps, but a prerequisite for this move is an ability to perform a body-weight parallel squat with good form.
- Once client can do parallel squats, progress to squatting down and raising back up as fast as possible, calf-raising onto toes.
- Progress from tiptoes at top of move to little hop off floor, while arms propel movement upward. Landing should be followed immediately by returning to original squat position. Move should be smooth and fluid throughout, without jerks or stops, and with soft, silent landing that absorbs downward forces.
- Over time, progress to higher jump until client achieves maximum jump. Start with 3 sets of 5 repetitions and progress to 3 sets of 15 maximum jumps with 2–3 minutes of rest in between.
Bring weights (dumbbells or a barbell) into the mix for this targeted full-body power move. (Dumbbells will reduce the risk of hitting the chin or nose.)
- In standing position, hold weights at shoulder height. Using quarter-squat ready position from jump squat, push weights overhead with speed, popping them upward, then absorbing downward force using arms, legs and core.
- Start with 2 sets of 8–10 and progress load over time.
5. Kettlebell Swing
This total body move can be a bit technical for beginners, so take care to ensure great form. Practice with minimal load until the client masters the move.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and hold weight with both hands centered in front of legs.
- Assume quarter-squat position and quickly stand up straight while squeezing glutes and thrusting hips forward.
- Allow weight to come up in front, around chest level. Let gravity take weight back, then return to quarter-squat with eyes and chest forward at all times.
- Emphasize fluid motion that transfers power from hips to kettlebell, rather than “muscling it up” with arms. Start with 2–3 sets of 5–10 and progress.
Alcazar, J., et al. 2018. Force-velocity profiling in older adults: An adequate tool for the management of functional trajectories with aging. Experimental Gerontology, 108, 1–6.
Beaudart, C., et al. 2019. Assessment of muscle function and physical performance in daily clinical practice. Calcified Tissue International, 105 (1), 1–14.
Byrne, C., et al. 2016. Ageing, muscle power and physical function: A systematic review and implications for pragmatic training interventions. Sports Medicine, 46 (9), 1311–32.
Cousins, J.M., et al. 2010. Muscle power and physical activity are associated with bone strength in older men: The osteoporotic fractures in men study. Bone, 47 (2), 205–11.
Hunter, G.R., et al. 2018. Why intensity is not a bad word: Optimizing health status at any age. Clinical Nutrition, 37 (1), 56–60.
Kuo, H-K., et al. 2006. Exploring how peak leg power and usual gait speed are linked to late-life disability. American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 85 (8), 650–58.
Richardson, D.L., et al. 2017. The perceptual responses to high-velocity, low-load and low-velocity, high-load resistance exercise in older adults. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36 (14), 1594–1601.
Skelton, D.A., Kennedy, J., & Rutherford O.M. 2002. Explosive power and asymmetry in leg muscle function in frequent fallers and non-fallers aged over 65. Age and Ageing, 31 (2), 119–25.