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Variable stiffness actuators are a particular class of actuators that is characterized by the property that the apparent output stiffness can be changed independent of the output position. To achieve this, variable stiffness actuators consist of a number of elastic elements and a number of actuated degrees of freedom, which determine how the elastic elements are perceived at the actuator output. Changing the apparent output stiffness is useful for a broad range of applications, which explains the increasing research interest in this class of actuators. In this paper, a generic, port-based model for variable stiffness actuators is presented, with which a wide variety of designs can be modeled and analyzed. From the analysis of the model, it is possible to derive kinematic properties that variable stiffness actuator designs should satisfy in order to be energy efficient. More specifically, the kinematics should be such that the apparent output stiffness can be varied without changing the potential energy that is stored in the internal elastic elements. A concept design of an energy-efficient variable stiffness actuator is presented and implemented. Simulations of the model and experiments on the realized prototype validate the design principle.