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3 Lifting Tips for Building More Powerful Muscles

Science says that muscle power, not strength, is the key to a longer life.

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Whether you’re performing one of the big three lifts or knocking out some accessory work, you’re usually told to perform slow-and-steady reps for more time under tension. But what’s the point of all that strength if you’re not around to enjoy it? 

According to new research from the European Association of Preventive Cardiology, it’s muscle power—not strength—that’s associated with living a longer life. In a study of nearly 4,000 participants over a 15-year period, those who displayed the best muscle power had the best survival rates as they aged.

You might recall from high school physics that power = force x velocity. In other words, it’s the measure of how much work you can do in a set amount of time. For a real-world example, the faster you can stand up from a chair or climb a flight of stairs, the more power you’re using. And the quicker you can push an object—whether a stalled car or a barbell—the more powerful you are.

“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,” says professor Claudio Gil Araújo, M.D., Ph.D., director of research and education at the Clinimex Exercise Medicine Clinic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “But for optimal power training results, you should go beyond typical strength training and add speed to your weight lifts.”

All of this matters because your power typically decreases after age 40. Since the study suggests that power is strongly related to all-cause mortality, it's safe to say it pays to be powerful.

How to Increase Muscle Power

The below tips from Clinimex researchers can work for any exercise, but they're especially applicable with functional movements like the squat and upright row, which will help you climb stairs and pickup objects, respectively, as you age.

1. Choose the right weight for achieving maximum power—something that’s not easy to lift, but not so heavy that you can barely lift it.

2. Perform one to three sets of six reps, moving the weight as fast as possible during the concentric, or lifting, portion of the exercise (while still maintaining good form). During the eccentric, or lowering, phase of the lift, move at a slow or natural speed to return to the starting position.

3. Rest for at least 20 seconds between each set to sufficiently replenish the energy stores in your muscles before starting the next set.

To keep increasing power over time, increase reps and weight. First, move from six to eight reps. Then, once that becomes easy, increase the weight and go back down to six reps. Be honest with yourself and avoid cheating—if something is too difficult or you can't maintain proper form, drop some weight or reps until you can perform the movement perfectly. You’ll notice better gains in the gym, but most importantly, you’ll be on the right side of longevity.

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