Muscle strength is an important factor for aging well, but it might not be quite as important as you think. Muscle power—the ability to generate force quickly (force x speed)—may actually claim the top spot. Research studies that have compared the contribution of muscle strength and power to the performance of numerous functional activities consistently conclude that power is the more important of the two.
Of course, strength and power are obviously related and you really can’t have one without the other. We are, however, talking about a potentially powerful (no pun intended) paradigm shift in training older clients. If muscle power really is the key to remaining functional as we age, traditional strength-training approaches that focus on “slow, controlled” resisted movements need to be adjusted so that there is less of a focus on load (force) and more of a focus on movement speed.
It is true that even traditional strength training can improve muscle power because, of course, the very definition of power includes force-production capabilities. However, because speed is held in check, the effects on power are limited at best. Again, numerous research studies have demonstrated that high-speed, loaded movements can maximize muscle power and may have a greater impact on functional abilities compared to slow-speed strength training.
Some studies suggest that the speed component may be even more important than the force-production component for maximizing function. Performing high-speed movements at loads as low as 20-40% of one-repetition maximum (1RM) may have more advantages (for functional outcomes) compared to training at typical loads of 70-90% of 1RM. This is pretty exciting, because lower loads are tolerated better by older individuals who often have osteoarthritis or other joint conditions. Furthermore, there is a perception by the users that the exercises are easier (based on ratings of perceived exertion, or RPE).
Power training for older adults, however, does not mean powerlifting (cleans, jerks, etc.). It simply means performing a loaded movement quickly. While some older adults may be able to perform powerlifting, the risk outweighs the reward for most clients. Lifts, throws and jumps are a classic way to categorize power movements and I would add one more: Starts/Stops. These are all viable options for improving power in older clients.
If you are interested in implementing more power training into the programs of your older clients, here are a few guiding principles to consider:
Perform the concentric part of the