Editor’s note: This article is the second part of a series of articles assisting trainers in discovering niche markets to help jump-start their careers.

Read part one: Working with the obese >>

On January 1, 2006, the first baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1963, began turning 60. From this generation, the modern health club industry was born. Baby boomers account for the largest (78 million), most health- and appearance-conscious generation in history. Furthermore, 41% of American adults are 50+. This is this largest percentage in history. These 50+ adults account for 45% of US consumer spending — $2.1 trillion annually — and they spend more of their discretionary income on health than any other item. Also, those 55+ own 77% of all financial assets in the United States. The bottom line for gym owners is that the 60-and-older health club membership is expected to swell over the next 10 years!

Baby Boomer Stats

Power to the Boomers!
Once adults pass their physical prime in their teens and 20s, they lose an average of 10 ounces of lean body mass per year. On average, a person will lose approximately 40% to 50% of muscle mass and 50% of muscle strength from age 30 to 70. Strength training is recommended to counteract this loss of muscle, but experts recently have identified power training as a potentially more effective method of improving function than traditional high-intensity strength training. Because of the preferential atrophy of type 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibers that occurs with advancing age, the remaining muscle mass is not only smaller and weaker but slower as well. This has a dramatic effect on potential power generation. In fact, the power output of type 2 fibers is approximately four times that of type 1 fibers.

How is power training defined when we are using the term in association with strength training and older adults? We might also call it explosive resistance training, or high-velocity training, where the concentric phase is performed “as fast as possible.â€❠Muscle power is the product of the force generated by the muscle and the velocity at which the contraction is performed. Since power is the product of force and velocity, increasing either or both of these will increase power output. Therefore, just performing the same strength training movements more quickly or increasing strength (force) through traditional low-velocity training will result in an increase in power.

Avoid Momentum
However, take careful note that experts have stressed the importance of performing resistance exercises in a slow, controlled manner as to avoid momentum. This is a problem that is inherent to gravity-based equipment, such as dumbbells, barbells and weight stacks. Force production at the beginning of the movement is significantly greater at higher velocities than at lower velocities. Since the weight is moving at a higher velocity, it takes more effort to stop the weight. This presents a risky situation for the joints in older adults.

When considering momentum, pneumatic equipment, elastic bands, body weight and medicine balls are good choices to use in a power training program for older adults. With pneumatic equipment, momentum is never an issue because gravity is not involved in the resistance. It does not matter how fast or slow a person performs the movement; momentum remains close to zero.

Elastic bands are good for power training because as elastic is stretched, the resistance increases slightly, but the resistance curve stays the same at all movement speeds, so momentum is not an issue in this case, either. Due to the versatility, low cost and portability of elastic bands, these would be an excellent choice for group training.

Body weight allows for real-life, functional movements, such as stair climbing and rising from a chair, to be practiced — although having someone climb a flight of stairs as quickly as they can might not be a good idea for a number of reasons! Step-ups would be a better choice. For extra resistance, external weights can be added quite easily. Weight vests, weight belts or just holding dumbbells can safely and effectively increase resistance for many older adults. In addition, these movements require more dynamic balance, so there may be additional benefits associated with this form of training.

And medicine balls are a good option because the weighted ball is released at the end of the fast movement (throw) so that the momentum created does not stress the joints. Dr. Wayne Westcott, strength training expert and Research Director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts, has incorporated 10 minutes of power training into his older adult fitness programs and has been amazed at how much fun his older participants have with medicine balls.

Measuring the Results
The dose-response benefits of traditional strength training have been well-documented and quantified. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough published power training studies featuring older adult subjects to be able to make any authoritative recommendations regarding sets, reps, frequency or intensity of exercises. Most studies use a three-set, eight to 10 repetition, three-days-per-week design, with intensity between 20% and 80% of 1RM.

At 20%, there were negligible gains in strength, but some gains that seemed to be related to balance. There is likely a ceiling effect when a person is already strong and independent, so don’t expect to see measurable changes in function. Realize instead that helping the active client maintain power is just as important as regaining that power.

It should also be noted that when a high (80%) intensity was used, the greatest increases were recorded for both strength and power. But there were also the greatest numbers of injuries reported at 80% 1RM.

A sensible place to start is to incorporate power training into an existing strength training program (using equipment appropriate for power training) at an intensity somewhere between 40% and 70% of 1RM and instruct the client to perform the concentric phase “as fast as possibleâ€❠while maintaining proper form. Consider your client’s current level of fitness and any joint problems as you design his/her program. You might want to add a separate power training portion, as Dr. Westcott does. But be careful not to overdo it!

Are You Qualified?The aging of the baby boomer generation has yielded a surge of older adults who are prime personal training candidates; however, many personal trainers may not be adequately prepared to handle this growing segment of the population. Consider what it takes to be qualified to work with the baby boomer and beyond (45-62+) population. Assuming you already have a solid knowledge base in personal training, build on it to safely and effectively work with seniors. More specifically, you should be able to:
  • Appreciate how aging impacts the organ systems as well as understand the risk factors associated with chronic diseases
  • Identify dietary changes that may be needed as a result of aging and also recognize how diet relates to age-associated chronic diseases
  • Utilize safe and effective training techniques for the older adult, including knowledge of guidelines specific to flexibility, endurance and strength training
  • Conduct comprehensive senior health assessment and fitness tests
  • Understand chronic diseases and be able to design and modify programs for clients with specific ones
  • Identify what motivates the older adult and be able to create an age-friendly environment
  • Find and appeal to senior clients and identify ways to build your credibility and establish yourself as an expert in the field of senior fitness

Tammy Petersen, MSE, is the founder and managing partner for the American Academy of Health and Fitness (www.AAHF.info), which offers advanced training for certified personal trainers and certified athletic trainers who wish to provide safe and effective programming for baby boomers and beyond. Tammy can be reached at 800.957.7348 or at tammy@AAHF.info.