We constantly hear about the importance of building muscle strength and muscle size. No wonder! We lose muscle mass starting around age 30, and this loss accelerates in women after menopause. By the age of 80, you will have lost around 30% of your muscle mass unless you take measures to reduce this loss. That, of course, requires strength training.
If you don’t strength train as you age, two things happen. You become weaker and frailer so that your functional abilities are impacted and your risk of injury is higher. Secondly, the loss of muscle and an increase in body fat, particularly visceral fat, negatively impacts metabolic health. Insulin resistance becomes more of a problem after menopause as muscle mass goes down and body fat increases.
The above is clearly demonstrated by research, yet it’s not the full story. In fact, a new study shows that we should not only work on building muscle strength but also muscle power. Research carried out by researchers in Brazil shows that maintaining muscle power is important for future health and longevity too.
What the Study Showed about Power
For the study, researchers asked 3,878 healthy, middle-aged and older men and women to do a test of maximal muscle power. Muscle power is the ability to move a weight or other resistance quickly. To measure power generation, the participants used an upright row exercise since it mimics functional activities people do in their daily lives, such as placing something on a shelf.
The researchers divided the subjects into quartiles of muscle power based on their performance. Then, they followed the participants for 6.5 years to determine their health outcomes. As you might expect, some participants passed away during the follow-up period, but fewer people died in the higher quartiles of muscle power. In fact, they found a direct correlation between performance on the maximal muscle power test and survival. Men and women who had maximal muscle power above average for their age and sex had the best odds of still being alive. In fact, those in the lowest quartile of muscle power were 10 to 13 times more likely to die over the 6.5 year follow-up period.
If you think about it, the results make sense. When you sit in a chair, for example, you have to generate power to push your body out of the chair. Strength alone isn’t enough. You need that extra “push” to overcome gravity’s attempt to keep you glued to the chair. Researchers are now looking into whether power capabilities correlate with the risk of developing chronic health problems such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
How to Develop Peak Power
Building strength provides a foundation upon which to build power. You need to lift heavy, at a high percentage of your one-rep max, for strength-building purposes. When you lift a heavy weight or work your body against high resistance, you do it in a slow controlled manner. For building muscle, a slower tempo makes sense since it increases the time the muscles are under tension. But lifting for power is a different story. Rather than choosing a heavy weight you can only lift 3 to 5 times, as for strength building, you select a load around 50 to 60% of your one-rep max. Then, lift at a very rapid, almost explosive tempo.
Of course, you shouldn’t lift at this tempo every time you train. Plus, you should use traditional strength training to build baseline strength. Power is the ability to generate strength quickly, so strength is still part of the equation and you need strength to become more powerful. Spend at least four to six weeks in the beginning, working on strength before tackling power training.
Lifting weights isn’t the only way to ramp up your power generating abilities. Plyometric drills will help you get there too. These include jumping, skipping, and bounding exercises. Plyometrics work well for developing power because the stretch-shortening cycle builds up force in the tendons that you release in an explosive manner. Squat jumps are a good beginning exercise for building power. Train your body in different planes by including lateral jumps too.
You can gradually work up to a more challenging force of plyometric training such as box jumps. Power skips and their variations is another excellent exercise for boosting power capabilities. Get your upper body in on the action by adding upper body plyo exercises like plyometric or clap push-ups. The power skills you gain from plyometrics will improve your performance in a number of sports too.
Other Ways to Increase Power
Kettlebell swings help build power. Swinging a kettlebell also helps you master the hip hinge movement that’s so important for doing other exercises, especially deadlifts, squats, and barbell rows. Sprinting, too, can help you become more powerful, not to mention fast! But be careful. Don’t launch into sprint training until you’ve built up a baseline level of fitness through strength training and aerobic exercise. Otherwise, you could end up with a hamstring strain. Don’t restrict power training to sprints on the ground. How about a stair sprint session every week?
For the upper body, explosive medicine ball exercises build power while boosting your heart rate. Some exercises you can do with an exercise ball include medicine ball slams, squat push throws, lunges combined with an overhead throw, and more. Doing a variety of power-oriented exercises is best to avoid repetitive stress on any one muscle group or joints.
The Bottom Line
Now, you have another reason to train for power. Strength is important, but so is the ability to generate force quickly. So, add power training exercises to your routine. Doing so might help you live longer! At the very least, it’ll help you get more out of the years you live!
Science Daily. “Ability to lift weights quickly can mean a longer life”
J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact. 2009 Oct-Dec;9(4):186-97.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Preserve Your Muscle Mass”
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