Why Older Adults Need to Build Power

Slowing down. Losing one’s spring in their step. These are common refrains that we associate with getting older. And there is a kernel of truth here. While aging is associated with a decrease in muscular strength of 1-2% yearly, the decline in muscular power is about 3.5% per year [1]. This loss in muscle power is largely due to the decrease in size and number of Type-II muscle fibers (commonly referred to as “fast twitch”). This decrease in Type-II muscle fibers (and subsequent decline of muscular power) is associated with a host of negative outcomes such as decreased quality of life and loss of independence in daily activities [2]. Fortunately, research shows that training specifically for power can help older athletes improve muscle power [2].

Research shows that training specifically for power can help older athletes improve muscle power

What exactly is muscular power?

Muscular strength and power are related physical qualities that we can improve through training. Strength refers to the ability to maximally produce force, regardless of the velocity of the contraction. For example, performing a deadlift from the floor with maximum load but at a slow speed is an expression of maximum strength. Power, on the other hand, is the ability to express force but at high velocities (for the nerds like myself, Power=Force x Velocity). For example, jumping as high as possible is an expression of maximum power since the force produced is lower, but it is performed at a higher speed.

Strength and power are related since developing strength helps to produce the high levels of force needed to express power. However, for maximum power we also need to be able to express that force at high velocities.

So how do we maximize muscle power?

First, we want to develop a base of muscular strength, since improving the ability to produce force is the foundation for developing power. Once a baseline of strength has been developed, we can add in power training. This involves the use of light to moderate loads, where we move the load as fast as possible during the concentric phase*. For example, in a squat this would mean performing the rising up portion of the movement as quickly as possible.

While many protocols exist for power training, the recommended protocol for older adults is to perform 1-3 sets of 6-8 repetitions performed at 40-60 %1-Repetition Maximum (%1RM) [2,3].  With power training we want to maintain high velocities, so we perform a lower number of reps and stay well away from muscular failure. Another way to select loads, is to use the Rating of Perceived Exertion scale (RPE). This scale ranges from 1-10, with 1-2 meaning “Little to no effort” and 10 meaning “Maximum effort”. For the purpose of power exercises, we want to select the heaviest load possible, while staying at a 3-4 RPE (“Light effort”) [4]. Now, this does not mean that power training should be easy. There should still be a high degree of focus on moving the weight explosively. Picking weights that correspond to a “Light effort” ensures that we can maintain high velocities during training.

With power training we want to maintain high velocities, so we perform a lower number of reps and stay well away from muscular failure

For the tempo of power exercises, I prescribe these for each phase of the movement (eccentric, pause at end range, concentric)*. For power movements, we will use a tempo of 3-1-X. These means a 3 second lower, followed by a 1 second pause, and a concentric phase performed as fast as possible (“X”). So for a squat, we would lower down for 3 seconds, pause for 1 second, and then rise up as quickly as possible.

In general, power exercises are best performed with multijoint movements, since we typically express power with full body movements, rather than isolated, single joint motions.

Wrapping Up

Muscular power is a vital quality that needs to be trained specifically in the aging athlete. Power training is effective in improving muscular power and should be performed after a baseline of strength has been developed. Below is a table summarizing the protocol for power training for the older adult:

Frequency1-2 days/week
Load/Intensity40-60 %1RM or heaviest possible load @ 3-4 RPE (“Light effort”)
Sets1-3
Reps6-8
Tempo3-1-X (3 sec lower, 1 sec pause, lift quickly)
Example ExercisesSquats, lunges, pushups, rows


Note: There are MANY other exercises that can be performed for power training, these are just a few example options. Also, sport specific power training varies so the parameters for that will look different depending on the goal of the client.

*The concentric portion of the movement is when when we move the weight/our body. The eccentric portion is where we are lowering/slowing down the weight/our body. For example, in a squat, controlling the lower down portion is the eccentric phase, whereas, rising up to standing is the concentric phase. Similarly, in a row, the controlled lowering of the weight is the eccentric phase, while the pulling of the weight up to the chest is the concentric phase.


References

  1. Signorile, Joseph. “Power Training for Older Adults.” IDEA Health & Fitness Association, IDEA Health & Fitness Association, 30 Nov. -1, https://www.ideafit.com/personal-training/power-training-older-adults/.
  2. Fragala, M. S., Cadore, E. L., Dorgo, S., Izquierdo, M., Kraemer, W. J., Peterson, M. D., & Ryan, E. D. (2019). Resistance Training for Older Adults: Position Statement From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 33(8), 2019–2052. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003230
  3. Miszko, T. A., Cress, M. E., Slade, J. M., Covey, C. J., Agrawal, S. K., & Doerr, C. E. (2003). Effect of strength and power training on physical function in community-dwelling older adults. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 58(2), 171–175. https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/58.2.m171
  4. Helms, E. R., Cronin, J., Storey, A., & Zourdos, M. C. (2016). Application of the Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale for Resistance Training. Strength and conditioning journal, 38(4), 42–49. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0000000000000218

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