Weightlifting Programming for Masters Athletes

Jason Li, Exercise Science BS, USAW LVL2, Catalyst Athletics LVL1, NSCA-CPT 

The biggest challenges that coaches have when programming for masters athletes (over 35 years old) are their flexibility/mobility and their rate of physiological decline.

Older athletes, particularly those over 60 years old tend to be stiffer as there is an increased rate of muscle loss with age that is replaced with fat or connective tissue. What makes it worse is that as one ages, there seems to be a preference by the body to breakdown faster and bigger motor units over slower ones. Declining testosterone in men and estrogen in females could explain partly why it can be difficult for older athletes to maintain muscle mass.

It is extremely important that the coach understands these challenges when they are considering certain programming guidelines for their masters athletes. Even with regular resistance training, it hasn’t been shown to have significant mitigation of muscle loss in older lifters if the training is not sufficiently heavy or done with enough speed. Both have been shown to stimulate bigger motor units to help prevent breakdown. While it is easier to program for a younger lifter, the number of overloading sessions are going to be much more dispersed for an older athlete since they have a harder time recovering from heavy training. Heavy training or speed training sessions will have a much larger impact on joints that will take longer to recover from.

Coaches should also think about how much lifting experience a masters athlete has prior to writing a program for them. Unless the athlete has been doing Olympic lifts for a period of time and has sufficient experience, the first few training sessions will be dedicated to trying to find optimal positions that afford the most stability, consistency, and safety for the lifter. Due to lower tissue compliance it may take longer for the lifter to get accustomed to the new position and demands on the joints. The tissue quality can take a longer time to change in masters athletes.

They may also have persistent joint soreness from the lifts that last longer than normal. It is important that the coach not attempt to push more volume and weight during this period as these can easily develop into overuse injuries or create negative adaptations in the tissue i.e. spasming, less tissue compliance, instability, or microtrauma to the tissue that doesn’t heal properly. The coach may have to make adjustments more frequently for the athlete, such as lifts off blocks or partial movements, if they can’t set up properly off the floor due to limited mobility. For the coaches that are facing mobility challenges, the utmost patience is needed and also a realistic outlook for what the goals are. A 70 year old beginner that has never done any barbell lifting may never gain enough mobility to do a full snatch from the floor. It might also be good to consider switching to split variations as this requires much less flexibility than their squat counterparts.

Masters athletes will mainly focus on strength work as there is no sensitive period for strength. Steady strength gains can be made regardless of age whereas trying to improve speed will generally yield very little results. If the athlete had not already developed a high level of speed at a younger age, the likelihood that they will develop it now is low. A disproportionate amount of time would have to be spent training for speed with very little results. Strength has also been shown to have a higher transfer to Olympic Weightlifting compared to speed training.

Traditional speed training seen in other sporting disciplines are largely ineffective for Olympic Lifting training as they require the use of light weights not more than 30-40% of a 1RM or just their body weight. The velocity and timing of a 30-40% lift is so fast, that focusing most of the training in this range in attempts to improve a lifter’s speed actually changes their motor recruitment pattern and inter/intramuscular coordination in such a way that there is little improvement in lifts at 100%. There have been many studies that show programs focusing on speed training yield little or no improvement in absolute strength. While speed training doesn’t transfer over as well to Olympic lifting directly, it can offer some unique benefits to a masters athlete’s nervous system, rate coding, and nerve conduction speeds. Rather than trying to make a masters athlete sprint, the coach could probably program several small phases of box jumps and smaller medium response jump sequences to try and capture some of these benefits, even if it’s just a little. Primary focus should be on things like squats, deadlifts, pressing, and overhead squatting. Jumps should be included only as a means to improve general body control with maximal intent during movements second to strength training.

These are very general recommendations for programming. While most programs should have an element of individualization, there is an even greater need to treat each masters athlete differently since they all have their own limitations. Older athletes will have to take it much slower and will have to make adjustments to their programs more often than younger ones even if they’re both masters category. Care must be taken by the coach to have the lifter lift safely as an injury can be more difficult to recover from. The amount of work that the coach can expect each session should probably be less as these athletes have a more difficult time recovering from fatigue. Barbell lifting is a sport that doesn’t have an age cutoff for participation but special considerations need to be weighed for the overall health of the lifter.