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Power Training for Seniors

Below, you will find an article that I wrote four years ago when I first began training clients. Shortly after writing this article, I had the opportunity to train my 67 year old father who was recovering from an extensive abdominal surgery. I put a lot of these principles into practice with designing his rehab training plan and we were quite successful at not only improving his core strength and posture, but also in restoring some neck and shoulder mobility that he had lost during his recovery and increasing his overall conditioning. We mostly worked with medicine balls and kettlebells and used standing postures whenever possible.

I have recently been working with my mother who has had bi-lateral hip replacements. In the past two years, she has been able to go from barely being able to walk up stairs and get in and out of a chair without assistance, to easily climbing stairs, getting not only out of chairs and off the floor, and this summer, hiked 2 miles up a mountain with our family. I use traditional strength training methods with my mother, but have also added in some medicine and kettlebell work as well as modified agility work and plyometrics.

Mom and Dad, climbing the moutain.
When modifying exercises for older clients, you can get rather creative to keep your exercises effective, but also safe. For example, my mother cannot jump onto a box, but she can step onto a low box and "jump" up such that she comes up onto the ball of her foot. Not only does this enhance leg strength, but balance and proprioreception, both of which begin to deteriorate in older individuals. Body awareness is just as important as strength and endurance in older inviduals.

Power Training for Seniors

It has become more widely accepted that individuals can and should stay active well into their later years and by that, we mean their seventh and even eight decades. The question that remains in a lot of people’s minds then becomes, what sort of activity is most beneficial for older individuals to engage in that will give them the most physical benefit and also improve their quality of life? Ideally, it should be fun, improve daily function and mobility, increase bone density, and decrease disability.

What exercise method could possibly encompass all of these benefits? Why resistance training, of course. And now, older folks are not just limited to regular old constant velocity resistance training; researchers are now concluding that power training may be superior for enhancing physical well-being and quality of life in older adults.

A study recently published by the Department of health and Exercise Science at Wake Forest University concluded that high velocity power training had many benefits that went above and beyond those of traditional strength training programs for older individuals. These benefits included not only increases in strength and mobility, but self-reported increases in self-efficacy, satisfaction with daily living, and quality of life.

The benefits of power training over traditional strength training have been investigated regarding the effect on bone loss in post menopausal women as well. The conclusions have shown that power training is at least, if not more, effective at preventing bone mineral density loss. Power training was not found to be additionally stressful or painful as compared to the traditional resistance training.

So, what exactly is power training?

Power training, as described in most of the studies cited for this article, differs from traditional weight training simply in the speed with which the weight is lifted. With traditional weight training, the weight is lifted and lowered at a constant speed. With power training, the weight is lifted at a much faster rate than it is lowered. This faster rate of lifting creates more force and for the muscle, has the effect of lifting a heavier weight. Creating more force recruits more muscle fibers and puts more positive stress on the bones and tendons. Stress on the bones and tendons is a good thing in that it causes the bones and tendons to remodel themselves to become stronger in order to handle a heavier load. Heavier loads are not necessary, simply an increase in lifting tempo.

For all fitness participants, specialized training such as power training must be adapted for with foundational training to develop a baseline of strength and conditioning. For older adults, this period of adaptation is especially important to avoid injury, maintain independence, and gain strength. Working with a qualified trainer is a safe way to develop this foundational strength and create a power training program for use in the home or gym.

Katula JA, Rejeski WJ, Marsh AP. Enhancing quality of life in older adults: A comparison of muscular strength and power training Health Qual Life Outcomes. 2008 Jun 13;6:45.

Miszko TA, Cress ME, Slade JM, Covey CJ, Agrawal SK, Doerr CE Effect of strength and power training on physical function in community-dwelling older adults.
J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2003 Feb;58(2):171-5.
von Stengel S, Kemmler W, Kalender WA, Engelke K, Lauber D Differential effects of strength versus power training on bone mineral density in postmenopausal women: a 2-year longitudinal study Br J Sports Med. 2007 Oct;41(10):649-55;

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