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The Secret Exercise Trick for Building Strength and Power After 40

How performing "contrast sets" can help you stay fit and active well into middle age.

It's simply a fact that as we age into our mid-30s and 40s, our bodies begin to slow down. Hormones such as testosterone and IGF-1—both of which are crucial for muscle growth and body composition—will decline, while maintaining our lean muscle mass becomes harder and harder. With less muscle means less mitochondria, the little tiny energy burners in your cells, which means your metabolism slows. On top of that, we lose strength and power.

Now, if you're not an NFL linebacker, I can see why attaining "strength and power" may not be on the top of your to-do list. But there are plenty of reasons why it should be. Having stronger, more powerful muscles as you age won't just help you lift your groceries and keep you active for longer, but it is also shown to help offset cognitive decline. "Good muscle strength is crucial to staying healthy and active, and preventing falls as we enter later life," Anna Dixon, chief executive of the UK's Centre for Aging Better, recently explained to The Telegraph.

Stronger muscles means stronger bones, stronger and more flexible joints, better balance, and—yes—a leaner figure. "As you gain muscle, your body begins to burn calories more easily, making it easier to control your weight," explain the folks at the American Cancer Society.

If you're ready to offset your physical decline and build back your own strength and power, I'd advise you to do technique I love called "contrast sets." To do a contrast set, you do a heavy compound movement and then immediately follow it by an explosive exercise using the same movement pattern or muscle group. (Like, as I'll explain below, a squat followed by a vertical jump.) The heavy lifting stimulates your nervous system to push heavier weights, which then "tricks" your body into being able to exert more power during the explosive movements. This allows you to lift more weight, give your body a better workout, and ultimately promotes strength and power.

What follow are two examples of contrast training put to use. With the compound movement, you should pick a load that is challenging at the prescribed rep range, but you should leave 1-2 reps in the tank and be able to perform each rep with proper form.

With the explosive movement, you can do anywhere from 5-10 reps. Stick to the lower end if you want to focus on power, go to the higher end if you want to lose weight. And for more life-changing exercise advice, see here for the Secret Exercise Tricks for Keeping Your Weight Down for Good.

Example 1, Part 1: Barbell Back Squat (5-6 reps)

1 barbell back squat
Tim Liu, C.S.C.S.

Start by setting yourself up on the bar by getting under it and placing it on your upper back. Grip the bar outside of your shoulders and unrack it, taking two steps back. Keeping your chest tall and core tight, push your hips back and sit back onto your heels. Go down until your legs are parallel to the ground, then drive yourself up, flexing your quads and glutes hard to finish. And for more clever ways to work your muscles more every day, don't miss The Secret Trick for Getting Fit Using Your Toothbrush.

Example 1, Part 2: Vertical Jump (5-10 reps)

2 vertical jump

Get into your usual squat stance width. In one quick motion, throw your hands and your hips back, then quickly jump up high as you can. Land softly, readjust your foot position before jumping up again.

Example 2, Par 1: Barbell Bench Press (6 reps)

3 barbell bench press

Start by setting yourself up on the bench where your eyes are in line with the bar, feet are firmly planted and with a slight arch in your lower back. Grip the bar just outside shoulder-width and unrack it using your lats.

Pull your shoulder blades back, take a breath and then lower the bar under control until it touches your chest. Once it touches, press the bar back up, flexing your chest and triceps to finish. And for more great exercise advice, see here for The 15-Second Exercise Trick That Can Change Your Life.

Example 2, Part 2: Medicine Ball Chest Pass (6 reps)

4 medicine ball chest pass

Grab a medicine ball and face a wall about 3-5 feet away. Dip into a quarter squat, keep your core tight and chest pass the ball against the wall as hard as you can. Catch the ball, reset, and pass it again.

Building strength and power after 40 may be more challenging than in your 20s and 30s, but if you incorporate contrast training into your routine you'll be able to develop it. Add these movements into your program for the next 6-8 weeks and watch your strength and power increase. And for more great exercise advice, don't miss the One Surprising Exercise Trick for Losing Belly Fat After 50, Says New Study.

Tim Liu, C.S.C.S.
Tim Liu, CSCS, is an online fitness and nutrition coach based in Los Angeles Read more about Tim