Muscle power, not muscle strength, is the key to a longer life

By J. D.

One of the reasons why we work out is to increase the size of our muscle mass, of course, but a recent study found that if we’re exercising so we can live longer, muscle size isn’t the key.

In fact, according to researchers in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, lifting heavier weights only prolongs life if we focus more on improving the power of our muscles rather than overall strength.

That seems counterintuitive, I know, but the study’s lead researcher explains.

“Rising from a chair in old age and kicking a ball depend more on muscle power than muscle strength, yet most weight bearing exercise focuses on the latter,” study author Claudio Gil Araújo, professor and director of research and education at the Exercise Medicine Clinic – CLINIMEX in Rio, in a statement. “Our study shows for the first time that people with more muscle power tend to live longer.”

He and a team of international researchers discovered that muscle power depends primarily on one’s ability to generate force and velocity when it comes to body movement.

Speaking in mathematical terms, power equals the amount of work that is performed in a given time unit (force times distance).

When the same amount of exertion is done over a shorter time period, or when we are able to do more work during the same amount of time, then our power is increasing.

For instance, we need power to climb stairs; the fast we climb, the more power we need.

Strength, meanwhile, does not take time into account at all.

“Power training is carried out by finding the best combination of speed and weight being lifted or moved. For strength training at the gym most people just think about the amount of weight being lifted and the number of repetitions without paying attention to the speed of execution,” Araújo said. “But for optimal power training results, you should go beyond typical strength training and add speed to your weight lifts.”

A published report regarding this study noted described the manner in which the research team came to its conclusions:

Araújo and his team recruited 3,878 non-athletes (68% were men) between 41 and 85 years of age to take part in a maximal power test between 2001 and 2016. The age group was chosen because muscle power gradually decreases after age 40. Using an upright row exercise, participants had their highest value recorded after three attempts with increasing loads. These values were then divided into quartiles for survival analysis, and analyzed separately by sex: 2.5 watts/kg was found to be the median power value for men, compared to 1.4 watts/kg for women.

After a follow-up with participants approximately seven years later, the authors found that 10% of men and 6% of women had died. Those with muscle power above their respective median were found to have the best odds for survival, whereas participants below the median had a significantly higher risk of dying. People who fell in the 26th to 49th percentile were up to 5 times more likely to suffer an early death, while those in the lowest quartile were between 10 and 13 times more likely to die.

Araújo says an upright row exercise was used instead of a handgrip device, which is often used to assess strength and power, because the motion is commonly used for things such as lifting groceries or even grandchildren. Now he’s calling on health care providers to emphasize the importance of muscle power when meeting with patients.

“We now show that power is strongly related to all-cause mortality. But the good news is that you only need to be above the median for your sex to have the best survival, with no further benefit in becoming even more powerful,” he says. “Doctors should consider measuring muscle power in their patients and advise more power training.”

Survival Legion readers may recall that our co-founder, Rich, discussed this ‘power-vs.-strength’ concept in a recent post:

Most of the time when people think of power in the terms of the human musculoskeletal system, they think of huge muscular men. But, power from our muscles and bodies is generated from more than big muscles, it is generated by the ability to move an object through space quickly. 

So, now we know that building muscle power, not just muscle size, is key to living longer, according to this study.

You’ll note that many of our workouts involve exercises that help us improve muscle power, which, by the way, tends to lead to muscle growth. Tire tosses, kettlebell carries, tire flips, sled drags/sled pulls, and farmer’s carriers are just some of these exercises.

Check out our Workouts page to download our latest power-building workouts.

Also, you can see these exercises in action on our Videos page.

And if you’re unsure about how to do a particular exercise, check out our visual instruction here.

J. D., a former paramedic, firefighter, and 15-year military veteran of OEF, is co-founder of Survival Legion, a vet-owned company that stresses functional fitness and draws it’s uniqueness from the Roman Legions.

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