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Why should older people do power training?

February 26 2013

One area which you don’t see a lot of articles and discussions among trainers and fitness professionals is the training of older folks. And it seems like this area has become even more important with the all the health insurance crisis we are going through lately.

strength training for older people

 
We know that as you get older strength training becomes critical, but it seems like power training maybe even more important.

But what is power?

 
Strength is the ability  of muscles to produce force, whereas power is the ability of the muscles to produce force more quickly or rapidly. For example, if person A does one rep of bench press at 3 sec, while person B does the same weight in 1 sec, B has  greater power.

Why older folks need power than strength?

  
Muscle loss: Once you hit your 40’s and 50’s, there is a steady decline in muscle mass. This decline in muscle mass (called sarcopenia) could be partly due to reduced activity and decreases in anabolic hormones with ageing.

Also, with ageing you seem to lose one specific type of muscle more than the other. There are two types of muscle fibers: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 2 fibers are the fast fibers or the power fibers. They are the fastest and the strongest and can produce power 2-4 times more than type 1. Unfortunately, with ageing, there is a preferential loss of the number and size of the these type 2 fibers. Guess what happens when you lose the fast or power muscle fibers?

Functioning: In older folks, what is important is physical functioning. It doesn’t matter if you can bench a lot or has a six pack, but can’t do your daily functions. Function is the most important factor affecting quality of life. Below is a nice picture of how loss of strength and power can gradually lead to functional limitation and finally disability. This is when your quality of life goes down, you become dependent on others, gets admitted to nursing care facility and things turn a bit sad from there onwards . So one of the critical questions in ageing research is how can we improve physical function in older people and prevent this slippery slope towards disability.

weight training older adults

Strength or power? : Number of studies have shown that power to be associated with the ability of older adults to perform activities of daily life such as walking, climbing stairs, rising from a chair and so forth and is considered to be a stronger predictor of function than strength.  Power is also a stronger predictor of falls than strength.  Also muscle power declines at faster rate than strength (3-4% vs 1-2%)

So the bottom line is power maybe more important than strength in older folks.  

So is power training better than regular resistance training?

Not all, but a few studies have shown an increase in power with power training than regular weight training. Strength has shown to increase to similar extent in both groups.

A recent meta-analysis looked at the same question and concluded “power raining is feasible for older folks and has a small advantage over strength training for functional outcomes”

However, there are still more questions about the optimal loading for power, volume for power, which functional outcome measures to use, the long term effects, the feasibility in frail individuals and so forth.

Ok so how the heck do I do power training?

Fast reps: When I say power training , it doesn’t mean using olympic lifts and plyometrics. Here power training means just a simple modification - lifting the load as fast possible - and keeping everything else the same.

Majority of the studies used machines, 2-3 sets for major muscle groups for 2-3 days per week and used an intensity around 70%1RM for 8-10 reps.

What about the safety?

Most studies looked at non-frail individuals so we don’t know how frail individuals can perform power training safely.
Until now, we haven’t seen any more increase in adverse outcomes in studies using power training compared to regular resistance training.
For frail individuals, a lower intensity (40% of RM) might be a better option

Conclusion

  • Power training seems to be slightly better than regular strength training in older folks to improve physical functioning
  • The only simple modification required to do power training is to lift the weight as fast as possible.
  • This is a very important area of research and has lot of unanswered questions, and more research is clearly needed
  • Next time when you train an older client or if you are old and working out, keep this in mind.

Reference 1
Reference 2
Reference 3

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MetroEast Beast | Tue February 26, 2013  

Good article.  Was wondering if Power is the correct term.  Most of the time power training is associated with power lifting.

Anoop | Tue February 26, 2013  

Hi Rob,

Good point!

The problem is ‘power training’ is the wrong term. They should have named it weight lifting and have olympic lifting or weight lifting call power lifting instead. The power lifting we call it for bench, deadlift have no power component in it you know. I don’t know how that name got stuck.

sully | Tue March 05, 2013  

Great Article Anoop,
Would the speed of power training have any negative affect on connective tissues?
Also strick form must be utilized.
Thanks again

Anoop | Wed March 06, 2013  

Thanks Sully!

I don’t think so.

And you are still doing around the same weight, the only thing different is you are “trying” to move the weight fast. So the weight is not going move really fast as you think unless it is a really light weight.

In fact, we are planning to do a study on this.

What I don’t understand is there are so many articles on muscle growth, strength by trainers, but very few on training older people to improve the function. This is the group who has money to pay trainers and probably need the training the most.

hope you are training for the bench contest!

S.Truth | Mon March 11, 2013  

Hi Anoop,

When you say ‘move the weight fast”, are you saying this for concentric & eccentric movements or only for concentric and controlled for eccentric.
Not much info around for us older guys.

Anoop | Mon March 11, 2013  

Hi S Truth,

Thanks for the comment.

Good question. The concentrics is only fast, the eccentrics is slow as usual for safety reasons.

That is very true. This was probably the first article ever on this topic! And there is not even one drug approved for improving function in older adults

Jeremy | Wed March 20, 2013  

Hi Anoop,

as a trainer who has done some research on the topic of power training of older adults for a national level organization (The Canadian Center for Activity and Aging), I agree with most everything cited here. The task given to myself and my fellow trainers was to compile a list of exercises that could be used in a group setting for older higher functioning adults. Some issues we encountered were having large groups openly adopt the idea of moving quickly in exercise, since the mantra for so long has been “slow and controlled”. This idea of slow and controlled doesnt seem applicable when trying to prevent falls, since they are very dynamic events which need fast appropriate action to minimize injury.

With regard to power development in concentric/eccentric movement, we tried to compile exercises that had both components, and focused on recapturing the CoM once it had been shifted over the base of support. I havent had much contact with the center lately but i hope the program is still being implemented to good effect.

Anoop | Wed March 20, 2013  

Thanks Jeremy for the comment!

I think so far exercise/resistance training is the only way to improve function/prevent disability in older adults. I know there is some support for vitamin D and high protein and such. But there is no drug like for diabetes, CVD for improving function. So I think this is an important topic that the exercise community needs to emphasize.

We focus on this in our lab and we will be doing a study soon.  There are a lot of questions that I didn’t want to go in this article.  Like the screening test for people who are more prone to functional limitations, what is the cut off, how do you diagnose it, the economic factors involved in the test used, and so forth.

Darrel Clouse | Sun June 16, 2013  

Very good observation / definition of strength and power. Olympic lifting is more “power” oriented than Powerlifting. Olympic lifting is also a much more sophisticated movement. I am no chiropractor or M.D., however I have done both styles of lifting quite extensively in my earlier years. At 6’2”,198 lb bodyweight I was deadlifting 635 lbs and my clean & jerk was a puny 205 (PR). I do not know which of these lifts caused more damage to my back, shoulders, and elbow. I was foolish to be pulling that much weight on a cruiserweight frame. Other people are built better to do that sort of thing. I am 52 years old now and train almost exclusively with my bodyweight using VersusFit suspension training straps. I am currently in the best INJURY FREE condition of my life. Core, strength, power, stability, motor control, and more core. - Darrel Clouse - www.versusfit.com

Zoran Sovilj | Thu November 14, 2013  

There are plenty of information about this topic in the net but some are definitely better than others. As a personal trainer i must say that i am reading your blog with pleasure. Keep up the good work.

Michael Mac Millan MD | Wed January 01, 2014  

The only way to increase muscle power output is to increase the physiologic cross sectional area of the involved muscles. Muscle contraction velocity is based on the biophysics of the nerve and muscle electrical propagation speed and CANNOT be increased by training at fast speeds.
You are continuing a myth that has caused countless injuries in recreational athletes and by no means should be used in older individuals.

Robin | Sat February 01, 2014  

I love this site. I am reading everything I can. I might be an interesting case for study:  I am a 62-year old woman, in excellent health, but I have been sedentary my entire life, including my childhood. I have always had the worst muscle tone and endurance of everyone I know. I am motivated to get in shape for health and for personal appearance. I have studied weight training throughout the years so I know what exercises to do and the proper technique. I have never stayed on a program. The only aerobic exercise I can do at this time is the stationary bike, because of arthritis issues in my knees and feet. I do a lot of yoga, stretching and physical therapy exercises.

I will never give up on my goal of getting and staying fit, even though my extremely slack muscle situation would make most people simply giving up.

Do you (or any of the others here) have any particular advice or suggestions?

Thanks for this great site. Robin

Robin | Sat February 01, 2014  

I forgot to add that I am 40 lbs overweight, but I know what I need to do to shed the weight. I eat very little protein, mostly yoghurt and a little fish.  Do I need to increase my protein in order to build muscle?  I really appreciate your insights. Robin

Anoop | Sat February 01, 2014  

Thanks robin. The only advice I have is weight training or exercise only works if you do it!:) So start joining a gym soon. If you have more specific questions, you can sign up in the forum Robin.

Yep you need to increase protein. It helps to blunt your hunger too. There are studies coming out showing older folks need more protein.

Robin | Sat February 01, 2014  

Excellent observation and advice. Easy to remember. Thank you so much. I am one who never gives up. Reading your articles on this site has already answered key questions, but I am sure I will have more as I progress. Thanks again.

anit | Thu February 06, 2014  

Hi Anoop,

Must say superb article. But I would like to know that if I incorporate this kind of power training from early stages of my life without being wait to turn into my 40’s. Dont you think that will help me most.

For the time being I cycle my tempo.

Anoop | Sat February 08, 2014  

Hi Anit,

Thanks for the comment. And good question.

I don’t know how much it will help, but it won’t harm for sure. Pick a few major exercises for pushing, pulling & legs, lower the weight a bit, and make sure you move it fast.

So you don’t have to change all your workouts this fashion. A lot of powerlifters incorporate speed days in their routine.

Dale | Wed April 09, 2014  

Good article.  I am a life long weightlifter.  I am redesigning my workout to better fit my age, and the undeniable changes that have occured over the last 10 years.  I am now 56.

I very much appreciate the information on using ‘power’ training to train the fast twitch fibers as one ages.  I still get hung up on plain old strength.  It is truly a hangup, which doesn’t serve me at this age.  I am trying to convince my Ego of that fact. surprised

Thanks, Dale

Anoop | Wed April 09, 2014  

Thanks Dale.

You don’t have to leave the strength training. You can do power training on a different day or after the strength training sets. Also we got no clue about the long term benefits of power training.And strength is the foundation of power.

Michael MacMillan MD | Thu April 10, 2014  

You are propagating the biggest misconception in strength training: that demonstrating power is the means of developing power. Moving a weight quickly only shows that you are using a weight that is well below the maximal force production of the muscle. If you really want to move quickly, you should lift no weight at all.
Power is force times velocity. The physiologic correlate of velocity is speed of contraction of the muscle. This is genetically and neurologically fixed ( look it up). Force is proportional to the physiological cross section of the muscle. This can be increased by progressive resistance exercise.
Therefore if you want to increase power the ONLY thing you can do is increase cross section through standard conventional weight training.
Speed Lifting is dangerous and ineffective

What do you think?

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