Weightlifting for the Master athlete

Credit to Lifters life
Credit to Lifters life

As weightlifting is getting more popular and gets more people interested about competitions and competing, we are seeing a lot of new athletes – and some not so new- in the master division. We are seeing incredible performance by master lifters at the international level and they should get the recognition they deserve for their accomplishment. In the last few weeks, I received a few emails about this topic which I answered but I figured, that judging by the interest, a post about it would be interesting to others as well. Here are a few thoughts about things to consider when starting this sport at an older age.

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While there is, arguably, lots of information about how to coach and develop younger lifters (Youth and Juniors) and senior lifters, Masters lifters are often left to themselves. Some find their own way, but most don’t. Indeed, the information available about coaching  younger lifters may- or may not- be useful for their personal growth in the sport. Additionally, we have to consider other factors associated with age that have an influence on sport performance and skill refinement.

It is well known that a sedentary lifestyle has a negative impact on mobility, strength (Reduction), muscle mass (reduction), coordination and motor learning (the nervous system being less plastic), recovery, speed, and more. While it seems like it can not be done or should not be done, I would argue that, as long as it is done in a smart way, the benefits outweighs the cons. It is much easier to be a great master lifter if you have been a senior/junior lifter before, but great performance at the master level is achievable without prior experience as long as you have a thought out plan (Seeing as many masters competitions are ”recent” in history, records are bound to fall fast).

All things considered, this probably applies to anybody starting this sport, especially the 20-something years old.

Krystel Ngarlem, one of the best junior female lifter in Quebec. Pictured by Lifters life
Kristel Ngarlem, one of the best junior female lifter in Quebec. Pictured by Lifters life

What are elements to consider when coaching a master lifter that starts?

Mobility : Some people may start and have great mobility right from the start, due to previous athletic accomplishments. Most, however, will come with some kind of mobility problems. For some, it is the ability to squat down and for others it has to do with thoracic extension. This is not much different than coaching your average 20-something year old lifter…except that the master lifter tend to have less time and, in some cases, the mobility gains don’t come as quick.

Anyhow, drills that increase mobility should be encouraged as warm ups and as cool down. Stuff like snatch presses, overhead squats, sot presses with a snatch grip should be encouraged. I think unilateral work for the legs is very good as it gets the job done (works the legs) but also increase flexibility of the hip flexors and work the gluteal muscles.

Overlooking the development of the right mobility to do the lifts will translate in poor performance and risk of injury. This is true for all level and age of lifters, but as adults, we tend to get carried away. You need to get a foundation that will allow for the right motor patterns to be developed and refined.

Speed : Many of the oldest master lifters I know have an incredible strength reserve. One athlete I have in mind can back squat 150-160% of his clean for example. In the aging process, it seems like strength tend to be preserved better than speed does. However, brute strength won’t be of any help to a master lifter if he is not fast enough. We are seeing a lot of strong master lifters right now, with many of them not lifting necessarily fast and not being necessarily mobile. Imagine the bars they would be doing if they were faster and more mobile!

I personally think the focus should be put on speed. For one, the athlete will learn and keep the ability of recruiting the right motor neurons and generate force quickly and for two, it allows for a higher workload (more sets and reps) while also enhancing recovery (most people have a harder time recovery from heavy bars as they age). More repetitions is needed to perfect a movement when you age. That is because the nervous system is less plastic and you have many other motor habits to unlearn and/or inhibits. For this reason, it’s not rare to see some of the top masters lifter spend time on the power variations, but full lifts should also be included fairly often to keep the mobility and the timing.

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Credit to lifters life

Recovery : As an example, if you are 50-60 years old, don’t expect to train two times a day 7 days a week like the younger hopefuls and/or Olympians are doing. Less is often more with master lifters. Some masters I know win their category at the pan ams masters by training three times a week (M-W-F) for 2hours at a time. Others have used the same strategy to incredible results (80/103 @ 72 years old, started at 48 years old).

Special care should be taken to enhance recovery. More rest days, more rest in between sets and reduction of stress (kids, work, etc.) needs to be done. Long walks are encouraged to get the blood circulating as well. Also, if as a master lifter you need more rest between sets/reps, make sure to note exactly how much rest you need. At a competition, when they call your name, you have one minute to lift. If you are a lifter than need 3 minutes in between heavy bars, then your last warm up bar should be completed 2.5 minutes before they call your name. That way, as you walk to your bar and set up, you will be fully recovered.

Training plans : If for recovery reasons you have to train less often, and you need most of your exercises to work on speed and mobility with the additional strength movements, then everything you do has to produce the results you are looking for given the limited time available. The following is not a prescription and may not be the right program for you… it is a very general idea of what could be done to accommodate for the reality of a master lifter. In this scenario, you would be going heavy every friday and hitting medium weights for multiple sets and reps on Monday and Wednesday.

Monday : Power snatch, Clean and Jerk, snatch pulls, back squats

Wednesday : Snatch, Power clean + front squats + Jerk, clean pulls, Good mornings

Friday : Snatch, Clean and jerk, Back squats, Snatch presses

Warm ups : The older you get, the better your warm up has to be. Mess around with foam rolling, dynamic stretches, drills, foot work, etc. There is not much else to say than that.

Strength : Strength training has to be done but for most starting master lifters out there, some kind of higher rep work is best. While younger lifters can pack on a bit of muscle mass through lower rep work, more work tend to be needed for older lifters. While some people may say that, ultimately, muscle mass does not matter so much in weightlifting given the weight classes, I like to argue that muscle mass decreases as you get older and that hypertrophy work allows you to keep some of it. Moreover, more muscle mass means higher energy expenditure which may means lower fat mass over time (given that other lifestyle conditions are in order as well).

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6 comments

  • Thank you for this article! I may have intuited some of this, but just going on feel as a new masters weightlifter I don’t (didn’t) have the training years (or logs) to justify deviating from what I read and hear for younger lifters.

  • Thanks for the great article. My experience matches this pretty well. Strength is there to do more (I also squat 150% of my best clean) but getting the speed is really really hard. I’ve been training as a mid-40’s newbie for 2 years and I am only just now starting to feel like things are starting to get a bit quicker (and even then only sometimes). I suspect for the master lifters the variables in training and recovery have much bigger ranges due to our age range, life stresses, etc than the younger lifters. It’s much harder to make a suggestion for the master that applies to the whole range of ages (35 to 80+) than for the the 18-35 crowd. I train with 2 others and we’re all in the 44-48 age range and just amongst the 3 of us the variability in the training, mobility, strength and recovery is pretty huge.

  • Great article, I am a 36 yr old masters lifter started about 1.5 yrs ago but come from a general strength/fitness background. I think for me actually I’ve noticed strength & technique (on clean) being my limiting factors, I definitely don’t find the strength increases come as fast now as they did 10 years ago…I wish there was more stuff on training as an older lifter out there and I hope with the growing popularity that eventually optimal training advice for the 35+ lifter will begin to be more accessible. Hopefully this article is the begining of that!

  • All great info, thanks for posting. And agree with above there should be more info for age 35+ training. it doesn’t get easier.

  • I’m 60 was a lifter between 17-20 and done some throwing powerlifting last 14 years. This year am committed to making Worlds qualifier and going to Worlds in Auckland 2017. I have been looking for something, anything sensible on masters lifting, as I know it much more than you need more rest. This is the best piece I have seen, Thank you.

  • In the 80s I was a squat lifter, in the 90s I switched to the split. Then my wife and I raised 3 kids and know I am lifting again using the split. Good article.

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