Last week we established the importance of lifting as we age, citing its positive impact on lean muscle mass, bone density, mobility, and overall health and longevity. For this week’s article, I’ll explore how I go about programming for my masters athletes.


I use the term “masters” to refer to those who are 40 and above, and though they’re not all the same, I do stick to 6 core principles when designing their programs. 


  1. Assessment

In order to precisely determine how you, in fact, differ from everyone else, the assessment provides valuable insight into movement quality, strength and general level of fitness. This helps determine not only strengths and weaknesses, but how experienced you are. Experience tells us how advanced you are and your level of skill within the totality of your life’s training. Be it months, years, or decades, this concept of training age is vitally important when it comes to designing an appropriate program, especially as it relates to masters. The key word here is appropriate. For instance, being 41 years old doesn’t mean I’ve automatically qualified to do Olympic lifting. Rather, I’ve earned the right with over 2 decades of training (and I still ain’t that good). Put simply, I use assessment as a means of communicating all of the above with my masters athletes, and without it, we’re merely throwing the proverbial shit at the wall to see if it sticks. 


  1. Exercise Selection and Supersets

In my experience with 40+ clients over the years, one thing is pretty common: nagging pain. Whether it’s knee, shoulder or low back, choosing mobility drills and exercises that support a return to being pain free is important. To use a simple scenario, programming more hinging (i.e., deadlift) than squatting exercises is better suited to longevity for the 45 year old runner with ongoing knee issues. One way I like to do this is by combining 2 or more complementary exercises. These so-called supersets allow masters athletes to move through multiple exercises without overreaching on 1 specific movement type, which speaks to the next principle. 

  1. Submaximal Effort

Given the above, and that masters tend to have a bit more tread on the tires, I keep their weight lifting under max effort, or submaximal. Indeed, we look more for great reps that are technically flawless than all-out rep maxes. Really, it’s a simple risk/reward scenario where the former usually outweighs the latter. For example, the 50 year old former powerlifter with 10 years of CrossFit experience, will likely benefit more from controlled and perfect deadlifts than repeated near max deadlifts every week. On the opposite end, the 43 year old mother of 2 who’s never deadlifted before, simply needs to learn the skill safely. 


  1. Variation

Sometimes variation in exercise exists just to exist. Not here. With masters, variance should be intended for a specific purpose, and can range broadly depending on skill and experience.For the right person, this could be a high/low approach whereby an intense day is followed by a moderate session. For another, we might choose to alternate between upper and lower body throughout a training week. With more advanced masters, I’ve noticed consistent results, improved movement, and, far be it from me, enjoyment by alternating weeks with similar movements. Here, Monday’s “big lift” on week 1 could be a Back Squat, while Monday of week 2 could be a KB Lunge. In this scenario, both are knee dominant exercises that compliment each other, but the KB offers a bit of variation and necessary break from the barbell. 


  1. Aerobic Conditioning 

Aerobic, conditioning, cardio–it’s all the same, sorta. When I say aerobic, I mean repeatable and sustained efforts that don’t make you feel like you got hit by a Mack Truck. Going back to our submax topic, this is the same approach applied to cardio, and equally as important for masters. But why mention cardio in an article about strength? Good question. If conditioning efforts are done in a submaximal way, they actually work to enhance, not detract, from strength. Further, they serve as a tool for learning how to pace and sustain effort, and for those of us 40 and over, sustain is the name of the damn game! Be on the lookout for next week’s article. I have plenty to say about this one…