How to Build Power in Your Workouts

Over the past several years, experts have increasingly recognized the importance of building power — using muscles in explosive bursts — for healthy aging. Power helps you heave a bag of mulch into the trunk and allows your arms or legs to stop or catch yourself when you slip. While strength helps you sit down in a chair, power brings you out of it.

For people over 65, one of the easiest tools to measure how much power you have, especially in your legs, is the sit-to-stand test. (Take the sit-to-stand test in 30 seconds.)

If your score suggests a lack of power, you should begin with these three simple moves, suggested Ali Hartman, a doctor of physical therapy based in North Carolina. As with strength, building power means consistently and progressively training your whole body, especially your legs and core. Aim for two to three sets of eight to 10 reps, several times a week.

  • Squat — Using a chair, you’re going to replicate the sit-to-stand test, but with a twist. Your focus this time is on standing up as quickly as you can (power), then lowering yourself back down slowly to the seated position (strength).

  • Hinge — In order to use the power in your legs, you need to tie it to your core. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Quickly lift your hips up into a glute bridge position (power), then lower them slowly back down to the ground (strength).

  • Push — While most of your power comes from the larger leg muscles, your entire body plays a role in producing it, including your upper body. From a standing position, place your hands on the wall and move your feet back about a foot away, keeping your legs shoulder-distance apart. Rapidly push off from the wall (power) and then lower slowly back down (strength).

If your sit-to-stand score is strong and these starter moves feel easy, the next step requires weights, said Dustin Jones, a Kentucky-based doctor of physical therapy.

“If you have no weight, it’s easy to just muscle through,” he said. But weights force you to engage your whole body, especially your legs and hips.

Start with light weights that you can lift over your head — even a can of beans works. If you’re consistent with the exercises, be sure to continually increase weight to keep your body challenged and improving.

Dr. Jones recommended the following four movements two to three times each week. All of them build explosive power throughout the body, especially in the larger leg muscles. It works best if you have a set of dumbbells and a weighted, rubber “slam ball.” For each, start with 30 seconds of exercise and 30 seconds of rest. Cycle through all four exercises three or four times. Extend rest times as needed. Make it your goal to increase the number of reps you can do in each segment.

  • Dumbbell snatch — Standing with your feet about shoulder width apart, hinge at your hips, with a slight bend in your knees. Holding a dumbbell in one hand centered in front of your knees, explode up, extending your hips, knees and ankles in one quick, smooth motion. At the same time, rapidly pull the dumbbell up close to and in front of your body, finishing over your head until your arm is straight with your knees slightly bent. Use one arm on the first cycle and the other during the next.

  • Dumbbell power clean — Start with your feet hip-width apart, with both dumbbells on the ground outside your feet. Starting in a squat position gripping both dumbbells, explosively extend your hips while pulling up the dumbbells alongside your body, landing them gently onto your shoulders with your legs slightly bent. Keep your heels on the ground until your hips and legs are fully extended, at which point they will lift up momentarily, returning them to the ground as you land the weights.

  • Slams — Holding a slam ball at floor level in a shoulder-width stance, lift the ball overhead using the full extension of your knees, hips and ankles. Slam the ball to the floor between your feet, grab it and immediately repeat the motion.

  • Squat jumps — Standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart, lower down into a full squat position and then rapidly explode up into a jump, swinging your arms up to help. Land lightly back in the squat position and repeat.

Once you’ve mastered all four moves and practiced them consistently, add in the power skip, which requires some existing power and balance.

  • Power skip — You probably already know how to skip, and this is just a more explosive version of that move. As you lift one leg up into the skipping motion, propel your supporting foot up and off the floor, repeating with the other leg in a continuous motion.

If you’re already practicing a regular strength training routine, you can add these movements onto the end of it, or alternate days focused on power and strength. A certified trainer can help with form.

Above all else, said Dr. Ronald E. Michalak, an orthopedic surgeon from New Hampshire, “it doesn’t have to be perfect. But you want to stimulate the power-producing fibers in your muscles, because that’s what we lose as we age.”

Amanda Loudin is a freelance writer covering health and science.

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