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Why Muscular Power is Essential for Fitness & Function

a group of women engaged in resistance training

When you hear the term muscular power you probably think of an image of an athlete explosively playing their sport. If you did, you wouldn’t be wrong. But you should also think of an image of getting out of a chair, getting up from a toilet seat, preventing a fall, and many of the functional tasks we perform on a daily basis. 

The need for muscular power is essential for function and doing the physical activities we enjoy. The problem is it declines starting at around the age of 30. The good news is that with properly performed resistance training you can greatly slow the loss of muscular power ensuring you’re able to maintain your functional capacity and do all the activities you like to do. We’ll dive a little more deeply into muscular power in this article, as well as how to effectively and safely improve it.

What is the Definition of Muscular Power?

Often, the words power and strength are used interchangeably when talking about muscular fitness, but they are not the same. I hate to take you back to your high school physics class, but we’ll have to really quickly to understand the difference. Muscular strength is the ability to produce, independent of speed. Basically, move an object from point A to point B. No matter how fast you move it there, you’ve completed an act of strength. It’s all about the force produced. A real-world example of strength is picking up a heavy box of books from the ground and putting it on a table. It doesn’t matter how fast you move the box; you just need to get it on the table.


Muscular power, on the other hand, is the byproduct of both strength (or force) and speed (or velocity). This is where your old physics teacher would remind you that power = force X velocity. The velocity component is the critical factor, for an activity to involve muscular power you’re producing force at higher speeds. A real-world example here is climbing stairs. You might not think about it, but climbing stairs requires power. It requires enough strength in your legs to overcome the weight of your body and enough speed of contraction to propel you up the stairs. Getting up from a chair is another example, people don’t get out of a chair slowly. In fact, if you think about the many recreational activities you want to perform, they probably involve an element of power. 


Don’t get me wrong, strength is certainly important, and I would argue that a foundational base of strength is critical for health, but most people recognize this. As a result, they’ll perform resistance training to improve strength, but not power. This is a big mistake if you want to be functional and active as you get into your 30’s, 40’s and beyond.


Loss of Power with Age

Writing the words “with age” might suggest something that happens in the last third of life, but that’s not true with all aspects of muscular fitness, and it’s certainly not true of muscular power. Most of you reading might be familiar with the term sarcopenia, which means age-related muscle loss. Most people also seem pretty aware they lose muscle mass with age (especially if they’re not resistance training). While sarcopenia isn’t good, it’s not actually the first element of muscular fitness that declines. If you thought it was strength, guess again: strength does decline before muscle mass does, but power is the first thing to go. As I said in my opening, it can start to decline around the age of 30, and depending on your activity level, it can decline rapidly. Later in life, loss of muscular power can be so great that fall risk increases (and falls lead to a whole host of other severe problems like fractures and concussions). 


I won’t get into all the science behind this decline in power, but I’ll give you a high-level view by explaining what happens to our muscle fibers. 


First, you should know that we have two types of muscle fibers: fast and slow twitch. The fast twitch muscle fibers are bigger, stronger, and produce power very well. The slow twitch muscle fibers are smaller and not as good at producing strength and power, but they are great at resisting fatigue. Every muscle is made up of both fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers. This is largely based on genetics and likely explains why some people are good at running distances (because they have a lot of slow twitch fibers) and some people are good at sprinting (because they have a lot of fast-twitch fibers).


Now, here’s the important thing to know about these muscle fibers: they can alter their characteristics through exercise. Train to be stronger and more powerful and the slow twitch fibers will start to perform like fast twitch fibers. Train for endurance and the fast twitch fibers will start to become more like slow twitch fibers. 


Alright, I’m almost done with our anatomy lesson here. The last thing to know is that as we age, if we don’t do anything about it, the fast twitch fibers naturally turn into slow twitch fibers. It’s a bit more complicated than I’m letting on here, but the important thing to know is without the right kind of resistance training your muscles will get smaller, weaker, and slower as you age.  Fear not, though; all is not lost. 


Resistance Training to Improve Muscular Power

The most important words in that paragraph above are “if we don’t do anything about it.” As with most things in our body, our muscles operate off the use it or lose it principle. No doubt aging is real, but we all know 60-year-olds who are as fit and functional as 30-year-olds and vice versa. The difference here is (mostly) they’re still using it, so they haven’t lost it. Sure genetics plays some role, but research suggests that exercise plays an even bigger role than genetics.  Now, I’m not saying exercise can turn back the clock back to high school glory days, but it can do a heck of a lot to ensure you maintain much of your muscular capacity as you age – provided you’re training properly. 


When I talk about training properly, I’m talking about doing resistance training in a structured and progressive manner that incorporates a training style that builds a base of muscular strength first and then improves power. My observations from a three-decade career as an exercise professional tell me very few people conduct resistance training properly as they age. Worse yet, the people I’m observing are the people AT THE GYM, so at least they’re doing something. Everyone else is doing nothing and literally wasting away in the process (I know that sounds dramatic, but go with me on it, as it’s not that far off). 


Most people who do resistance training don’t do it with adequate load or adequate speed to improve muscular strength or power. In fact, as people age (into their 60’s and beyond) they progressively lift lighter and lighter weights, only improving their muscular endurance. While endurance is important, it’s not the key to function; strength and power are, and they need to be trained for. Better yet they can be trained for. Research demonstrates that even people in their 80s and 90s can improve muscular strength and power. As long as you’re not over the age of 99, you can benefit from adding resistance training for strength and power into your exercise routine. 


How to Improve Muscular Power

I hope I’ve convinced you by now that resistance training for power is important. The last question becomes how do you do it? I’ll explain that briefly here with a couple of caveats. 

First, always consult your physician before beginning an exercise program if you have any reason to believe there could be issues. Secondly, the best way to get a safe and effective resistance training program is to work with an exercise professional (ideally one who has a degree in the field and is credentialed through the American College of Sports Medicine). 


Those two items aside, here are the steps I recommend you take to build muscular power through resistance training:


  1. Build a good base of technique and tendon strength. This is done by spending 1-3 months in a beginner phase of resistance training. Movements should be kept technically simple, loads can be low, reps can be high. This type of training builds a base that will allow you to do more rigorous forms of training in the future. The workout below is a good example.

    An example of a beginner resistance training workout
  2. Drop the reps a bit and increase the weight you’re lifting. Here, we’re progressing to slightly more intense training, but not focusing on strength and power just yet. This phase (example below) begins the transition to eventually training for power.

    Example of resistance training with increased weight to build muscular power
  3. Lower the reps, increase the loads, and train for strength. This type of training will focus on the force production piece, as it’s a foundational piece of the power equation (remember physics from above power = force X velocity). The workout below is a great example of this kind of training.

    an example of resistance training for force production and muscle power
  4. Keep the reps low, reduce the loads, but move them faster to train for power. In this phase of training, we focus on movement speed more so than load. You’ll notice in the example workout below there are a lot of body weight and band movements. This is a great way to train for power safely.

    example resistance training program incorporating speed
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 over and over again. You can essentially do this forever, spending one month with each of those styles of training. This will always give your muscles a new stimulus to adapt to and, most importantly, ensure you’re continually improving muscular power to ensure you’re able to keep doing all the physical activities you enjoy.


Take Home Message: Muscular Power – Use it so you don’t lose it

What I’ve laid out in this article is what the scientific evidence tells us about staying fit, healthy, and functional as we age. Remember when we’re talking aging from a muscular standpoint: this starts at around 30 (I know, that hurts). The good news is that you can take control of your health by doing what I’ve laid out in this article. How do I know? I’ve been doing it with people just like you (in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and even 80s and 90s). I see it every day at Applied Fitness Solutions, people resistance training the right way to live the lives they want to lead. You can do it too, if you use it, I promise you won’t lose it!


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