Training Masters Fitness Athletes: Lessons on Goals, Volume, and Intensity

As functional fitness training continues to grow into 2017, the number of participants aged 50+ also continues to rise. Whether they be former athletes, or your average weekend warrior, it is important to take the appropriate precautions when designing the best program for this population. Several factors must be taken into account in order to give these athletes the best chance of success.  

Goals of the Athlete

Every initial client intake should begin with a discussion of their goals. Many athletes we have coached in the past come in with very general statements such as, “I want to lose weight and get in shape.” While there are some specifics in the “lose weight” portion of that statement, what exactly does “get in shape” mean?

Coaches and athletes should work together to define specific goals and a timeline for reaching them. Without specifics, “it’s very hard to measure the true efficacy of a program.”

With the 50+ segment of the population, it’s even more important to make sure that the goals set are not only attainable, but realistic relative to the time they are capable of training.


To build out the most efficient program for a masters athlete, “it is important to spend time assessing the current state of your athlete.” We are huge fans of Julien Pineau and his StrongFit methodology. When selecting movements for the assessment, the movements must be able to show the problem, fix the problem, and give the athlete feedback.

Most of the master’s athletes we’ve worked with in the past have presented the same issues, so we like to use the Bicep Opener, Tricep Opener, Landmine Rows, and Single Arm Barbell Deadlifts to assess proper mobility and function of the lats, pecs and obliques. We also teach how to properly hinge while keeping proper rotation to test the glutes and hamstrings in the lower body. Lastly, to test proper external rotation, we like the Jefferson Squat.

Most of our assessments last over an hour in order to ensure that we haven’t missed anything. It’s important to cover all your bases with this population to get things right from the start.  

We never look at the body as independent muscles, but as a whole system; “imbalances will affect movement.” We commonly find that many “athletes have extremely tight hamstrings,” which can lead to lack of motor control in the lumbar spine. Tight pecs, overactive traps, and the inability to properly engage the lats are other common trends we see in just about everyone that walks into the gym. It’s important to keep these things in mind while moving onto exercise selection.  

Exercise Selection

Based on the findings of the assessment, the program design might change, but as a general rule of thumb, we will pull exercises from 3 main areas: “monostructural, gymnastics, and weight training.”

The monostructural or “cardio” portion of the program will include the use of interval training, both long and short duration, utilizing running, Concept 2 rowing, or skiing, as well as air bikes. The gymnastics, or bodyweight training, portion of the program will include things like pull-ups, push-ups, dips, sit-ups, lunges, squats, planks, etc. We get into the specifics of which exercises options we select for the master’s athlete below.  

I’m a huge fan of building strength through basic gymnastics training, so I will strongly rely on the “strict” variation of almost all of these exercises during the strength development phase. The “kipping” method will really only be utilized for masters athletes looking to progress in the sport of fitness, or those that have mastered the basic skill set and are looking to add extra volume and intensity into their program.  

For the weight training portion we rely heavily on multi joint compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, and pressing variations to name a few. In my opinion, Olympic Weightlifting, while a staple in the competitive athlete’s program, is NOT paramount in the development of your everyday masters athlete. The high level of coordination, mobility, and flexibility to perform these movements safely and correctly sways us in the direction of the more basic fundamental movements.  To say we would never incorporate them in a program is a lie, but we would more than likely use the power and or hang variations as we develop technique and mastery of these lifts.  

Lastly, we love the use of dumbbells, kettlebells, single arm and single leg exercises to help develop symmetry as well as sure up muscle imbalances. This is especially important with the common movement patterns and imbalances that have been presented by our masters athletes in the past. We incorporate dumbbells and kettlebells just as much as we would a barbell. For a complete program we draw from all three areas to make sure our athletes are as well rounded and physically prepared for any task as they can be.


Most functional fitness classes are all levels, so modifying volume and weights for your masters athletes is a crucial element to keep them progressing while avoiding overtraining. There is no exact formula for scaling weights or reps back during classes, which is why the relationship between athlete and coach is so important. Understanding the “goals” of your athletes from the initial intake process, and then providing a well structured program to achieve those goals, is extremely important.  

I find the most effective formula to obtaining results in aging athletes is the old adage of technique, volume, intensity.

Once they have mastered proper movement patterns, we can then begin to add volume and intensity to their workouts. An example of this would be moving from tempo training for Back Squats (mastering the movement through full range of motion at lighter weights) to prescribing weight percentages off of 1 rep max lifts, to actually adding heavy weight percentages at a high heart rate. Each of these scenarios, while providing a completely different stimulus, are an important and crucial component to the athlete’s progress and longevity.

[Fitness always starts somewhere, even if it’s just walking more. Check out the best treadmills for walking.]

Managing Expectations

The most important part to training any athlete, especially masters athletes looking to progress rapidly, is managing their expectations. Once we know what their goals are, and the amount of time they are willing to invest in their training, the picture of what is obtainable and the time frame in which they can do so will become more clear.

This time frame will be heavily affected by their work and home life, as well as things like stress management, diet, sleep etc. As a coach, you must be brutally honest with your athletes from the get go if you really wish to help them. Filling them with a false sense of hope, or making them believe they can achieve something, which you know is not possible based on training time and the factors listed above, is not only unfair, but unprofessional.  

Masters athletes are some of the most rewarding to train and help develop as they were once athletes in their past lives, and helping them find that passion and “old self” again is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a coach.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.