Power to (All) the People

I once sat in a class on power development being taught by a “master trainer,” who posed a seemingly innocent question: “Who needs power?” The obvious answers surfaced, such as athletes and physical laborers. 

When I chimed in with “seniors,” the instructor stared at me with a combination of disbelief and snide condescension. He then asked me,

“So, you would do a kettlebell swing with grandma?” 

“Absolutely,” I responded, “because seniors lose a disproportionate amount of fast-twitch fibers and the ability to quickly react to a missed step to avoid falling.” 

He refused to agree with me, which is fine, but I wanted to make the point to the dozens of uninitiated trainers in the room eagerly soaking in this guy’s “wisdom.”

I also want you to understand that, regardless of your chronological age or training experience, you need power training in your program.

First, it's important to understand how your body changes throughout adulthood, beginning at the tender age of 30 (1, 2):

  • Muscle mass and strength decrease by 25%-30%. In addition, fast-twitch type II fibers are lost in a disproportionate amount. Consequently, power decreases.
  • Nervous system function declines; there is a decrease in the number of total brain cells, motor unit size, and conduction velocity while synaptic delay and reaction time increase.
  • Bone density decreases between 10%-30% (women lose the most).
  • Cardiovascular capacity decreases, including the following: VO2 max, stroke volume, anaerobic power.

Your habits and lifestyle choices will certainly impact the severity of the decrements listed above. And the good news is that training can help offset these changes

Now 79, Ernestine Shepherd holds the title of Guiness World Records' oldest female bodybuilder.

Now 79, Ernestine Shepherd holds the title of Guiness World Records' oldest female bodybuilder.

However, decreases in sensory system functioning are not really trainable and they do have a significant impact on movement production. A few examples (3):

  • Sensory receptors decrease, especially on the bottom of the feet, making seniors less able to take in critical information when walking or even in quiet stance. (Big, orthopedic shoes designed for comfort and stability will mask even more sensory information.)
  • Loss of 40% of vestibular hair and nerve cells in the ears, which help to sense changes in inner ear fluid (reducing kinesthetic awareness and accurate orientation in the environment).
  • Vision changes, especially in depth perception, prevent accurate assessment of the environment, increasing the likelihood of missteps and falls.

Considering the vast physiological and sensory changes listed above, it becomes easier to understand how you might trip, fall, or experience performance declines if you are in your second act of life (50+).

Conventional thinking is that, if you are a senior exerciser, you should take a conservative, even gentle approach to physical activities (read: a slow tempo) so as to reduce injury potential. While I agree that slow, deliberate practice of movement mechanics is critical for building a solid physiological foundation, you also need to develop the ability to produce force rapidly for real-world situations.

To me, the most salient example of why power training is so important relates to walking pace. Research has been done on the timing of traffic lights to allow pedestrians to safely walk from one curb to the other in an intersection. New Haven, CT, East Boston, MA, and Los Angeles, CA are among some of the cities that have lights timed to allow a person to cover an intersection while walking at a pace of 1.22m/s (4 ft/s) (4). However, over 96% of subjects involved in multiple studies walked slower than 1.22m/s, putting them at risk every time they crossed the street (5).

A daily task that can become life-threatening.

A daily task that can become life-threatening.

In my hometown of New York City, I cringe when I see impatient cars bearing down on slow walkers, hoping for a safe outcome for the pedestrian. I use that image to fuel my work with my over-60 clients. They don’t need to move quickly all the time but that ability needs to be at their disposal when necessary.

How You Can Power Up Your Training

As long as you are progressed properly there is no reason why you can’t become more powerful. Even if you have physical limitations you can simply speed up the tempo of whatever exercises you are currently able to do, resulting in increased force production and the ability to summate forces more quickly.

Here are more power training tips to implement into your workouts:

  • Increase weights
    • The more weight you move the more force you produce. And force is a prerequisite for increasing power output. So, hit the heavier weights at least once a week to stimulate the precious fast-twitch fibers that are so critical to moving faster.
  • Increase tempo
    • Every movement has two phases (concentric=muscle lengths getting shorter, eccentric=muscle lengths getting longer). Performing movements at a slow tempo won't stimulate power as much as speeding up one, and then both, phases of a movement. Make sure that you can execute both phases quickly and accurately.
  • Incorporate sensory cues prior to producing a rapid movement
    • Just as crossing a street requires a visual stimulus (green light) to initiate the appropriate response (begin walking), try to incorporate visual or auditory cues before squatting, lunging, pulling, or pressing. This is easier if you have a gym buddy or willing partner. Have that person make a hand gesture or sound and then try to respond with your squat as quickly as possible. The less of a delay between cue and movement the better.

As long as you keep in mind the demands of real-world situations, from crossing the street to heaving a heavy suitcase onto a luggage rack, you can better prepare yourself to be successful at those tasks. 

Power up your program today.

Keep on Movin’




  1. Gabbard, C.P. (2008). Lifelong Motor Development (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.
  2. Brooks, G.A., Fahey, T.D., & Baldwin, K.M. (2005). Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
  3. Shumway-Cook, A., & Woollacott, M.H. (2007). Motor Control: Translating Research into Clinical Practice (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  4. Hoxie, R.E, & Rubenstein L.Z. (1994). Are Older Pedestrians Allowed Enough Time to Cross Intersections Safely? Journal of the American Geriatric Society. 42, 241-244.
  5. Langlois, J.A., Keyl, P.M., Guralniik, J.M., Foley, D.J., Marottoli, R.A., & Wallace, R.B. (1997). Characteristics of Older Pedestrians Who Have Difficulty Crossing the Street. American Journal of Public Health, 87(3), 393-397.

Making Life MORE Work

Last week, I bought a new garbage can for the bathroom. This may not sound exciting but I had been searching for a small, lidded one to replace my tall, open-mouth one for months and lucked up at The Container Store. Had my son not been with me I probably would have made many more fun purchases because that place is my version of Toys “R” Us. Yes, color-coated bins and kitchen organization tools make me giddy.

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Now, you might not think that the swap of one garbage can for another would impact my health, but it has. Before, I would stand at the sink and let my floss drop into the can’s open mouth, requiring virtually no exertion. Now, I have to squat and hold it for a couple of seconds while I open the lid with one hand and deposit my floss with another. The same activity has now become a total-body movement. And I do this new pattern several times a day, whenever a refuse opportunity crops up. And, life with a toddler provides many such opportunities.

I made this swap with the understanding that I’d have to work a little harder to achieve a task that used to be easy. In fact, I’ve started making a concerted effort to work harder at a bunch of small chores that definitely add up by the end of the day.

Examples of how I increase my daily movement quotient:

• Holding the water pitcher for several seconds as I fill it rather than letting it rest in the sink
• Squatting to my son’s level in order to take his shirt off rather than sitting on the couch to do it
• Eating some meals while standing or sitting on the floor instead of at the dining table (depending on how much time I spent sitting during the day)
• Buying only the food I need to make dinner for a single day so that I will walk to the store more frequently
• Wearing my son in a carrier while carrying groceries home rather than pushing him in a stroller and putting the groceries underneath it


Rather than eschewing exertion I’m embracing it


Part of the reason I’ve done this is to actually use the strength, endurance, and mobility that I build in the gym for something other than gym activities. After all, what’s the point of training if you don’t ever test its results in real-world scenarios (to know if your gym time is being used wisely)?

And, when my time is tight and I can’t make it to the gym or I’m not able to swing some ketllebells at home because I’m on mom duty, I can count on chores to provide me with a chance for movement.

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Another reason I’ve changed my approach to everyday tasks has to do with being influenced by a very smart lady at the heart of a relatively new movement, aptly called Nutritious Movement. Katy Bowman is a biomechanist and admitted science nerd whose work I first came upon when doing research for my forthcoming book on pre-natal fitness. Since discovering her I’ve read three of her books and frequently listen to her podcast. She’s as prolific as she is influential.

One of Bowman’s main arguments is that we are designed to move and that living a more movement-based lifestyle will solve a lot of our physical ailments (and diseases). For example, she has gotten rid of almost all of the furniture in her home because sitting on the floor is more beneficial to our bodies than sitting in a chair. That’s because our muscles and joints are asked to do more to get down and up from the ground than when sitting on a couch.

If that’s hard to imagine then picture your knee. In a couch or chair your knee will be bent at about 90◦. If you sit on the floor the joint will likely be bent at a much greater angle, forcing it to use a bigger range of its available motion. Not only will using more range of motion mean that it will be there for you when you need (hence, the principle of use it or lose it) but maneuvering to and from the ground is a vital life skill that will be preserved with more floor-sitting.

A final reason that I’ve bought into the idea of making my life less convenient has to do with the recent abundance of research that highlights the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. The longer you spend sitting throughout the day the greater the rise in mortality rate. And, even more scary to me, is that these findings apply to those who regularly go to the gym but who still may sit for hours (1,2). As one study concluded, “Prolonged sitting is a risk factor for all-cause mortality, independent of physical activity (1).”

So, it seems that overall lifestyle patterns trump a concentrated effort of intense activity sandwiched by long stretches of inactivity.

What you can do

A simple adjustment can have an additive effect and I urge you to start looking in your environment (home, work, mall, leisure locations, etc.) to create more opportunities for movement. See if you can squat to accomplish tasks that occur low to the ground instead of rounding your back or sitting. Try carrying packages or bags instead of using a cart or other object with wheels. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is an oldie but goodie. And vary the positions in which you work at your computer: standing (elevate the keyboard on a crate), kneeling or sitting on the floor (use the crate as a desk on the floor). You are only limited by your creativity.

Your homework: make a list of common tasks that you perform in each environment you occupy during the day. There may be times and places in which you cannot change your habitual patterns. However, I bet there are a host of ways that you can make changes that will benefit your health. And then let me know what changes you make. The more you share your clever hacks the more you can inspire others to get healthier too.

Keep on Movin’




  1. van der Ploeg HP, Chey T, Korda RJ, Banks E, Bauman A. (2012). Sitting Time and All-Cause Mortality Risk in 222,497 Australian Adults. Archives of Internal Medicine. 172 (6): 494-500.
  2. Patel, A.V., Bernstein, L. Deka, A., Feigelson, H.S., Campbell, P.T., Gapstur, S.M., Colditz, G.A. & Thun, M.J. (2010). Leisure Time Spent Sitting in Relation to Total Mortality in a Prospective Cohort of US Adults. American Journal of Epidemiology.172 (4): 419-429.

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