4 Tips for Training Masters Weightlifters

Along with the continuous participation growth of Olympic Weightlifting at the Youth, Junior, and Senior levels, we are also seeing an increased interest in Masters level competition. For those of you who may not know, the weight classes for these age groups are identical to those of the senior level competitors for both men and women, however, the Masters age group in Olympic Weightlifting starts at 35 years old and is then broken up into five years blocks as follows:

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M35 age 35-39
M40 age 40-44
M45 age 45-49
M50 age 50-54
M55 age 55-60
M60 age 60-64
M65 age 65-69
M70 age 70-74
M75 age 75-79
M80 age 80 and above

The IWF recognizes the women’s age groups slightly different:

W35 age 35-39
W40 age 40-44
W45 age 45-49
W50 age 50-54
W55 age 55-59
W60 age 60-64
W65 age 65-69
W70 age 70 and above

The increasing number of participants also brings about a larger desire to understand how masters’ athletes respond to training stimulus, load, intensity, etc.

While I’m unable to prescribe an exact measurement for these athletes without seeing exactly how they respond individually, I can give a couple tips to help them transition more smoothly into the sport of Olympic Weightlifting. In all honesty, most of these tips would apply to athletes regardless of age.

1. Address Flexibility and Imbalances First

Before diving into maximum weight attempts, first focus on addresses flexibility hindrances and imbalances in the athlete. Some masters athletes I have worked with came from previous sports backgrounds and have imbalances from those sports, while others may have worked a desk job for the past 10-15+ years of their life and have flexibility issues. As with any athlete in this sport, these problems should be addressed first, especially if these issues lead to improper positions or hinder the athlete’s’ ability to lift with proper technique. They should also be continuously worked on throughout the length of their career to avoid excess stress on joints. In addition to better positions and an increased ability to lift more weight, the additional flexibility will promote faster recovery by reducing the wear on the joints.

Coaches should also address any imbalances in these athletes that could possibly hinder performance in the future. Maybe they have a weak posterior chain or have a shoulder or knee injury from early years. These would be important to take into consideration and address early in the stages of these athletes development. You could prescribe more unilateral exercises to address in imbalances that will over time cause one side to take more force than the other. Ignoring these issues could lead to overuse injuries such as tendonitis or eventually cause further injury to the athlete.  

In addition to flexibility, allot more time for warm up with master athletes. They can play with different ideas (foam rolling, lacrosse balls, banded stretches, dynamic warm-ups, etc. to find what works for them individually) but generally it takes them more time than younger athletes to get the muscles warm and pliable for the Olympic Lifts. Play around with the warm up exercises that encourage both and increase in flexibility and positional reinforcement for these athletes such as presses in the snatch position (sots press) or press from split.

2. General Strength Before Speed

I have heard this idea discussed both ways, and I generally accept the responses on both sides, but first I will start with my opinion and recommendation based on the athletes I have worked with in this age group. If I have an athlete come to me with the intention of competing in Olympic Weightlifting (or even CrossFit for that matter), my focus is always first on general strength or what I personally refer to as base strength.

The Olympic movements are highly explosive and the force produced can cause a wearing on the joints if the body is not prepped to receive these forces. I believe a lot of times, the athlete can move more weight than they have prepared their joints to handle, and it leads to small reoccurring injuries in the knees, wrist, elbow and/or shoulders that become frustrating over time. To prevent or at least limit the occurrences of these injuries, spend a great length of time building your base strength. Use various forms of squats, presses, pulls and assistant exercises to build up a base strong enough to withstand those forces.

I am not telling you that you can’t use the Olympic lifts in this phase, but I would limit the repetitions dedicated towards the Olympic lifts and make strength improvement my primary focus. Also keep in mind that depending on the age of the athlete, recovery will play a factor in here. Some athletes do not recover quickly from strength based movements and will need more time to recover between training days. I also wouldn’t recommend taking these athletes to a maximum effort frequently as generally they don’t need to max in order to see strength improvements. You could also vary the exercise using box squats to take some pressure off of the knees. Keep in mind though that we want to do full variations of the lifts to promote flexibility also, so keep variety and adjust based upon the needs of your particular athlete.

3. Over Emphasize Technique

The other side of the strength vs speed argument is that often time’s master age athletes will come in with relatively good strength levels from previous sports or general life activities, so you don’t need to spend an extended amount of time gaining strength. My husband, Jason, refers to this as “old man strength” and in these cases, the athlete can spend more time on the Olympic movements as long as their flexibility is relativity sufficient. With these athletes, I’ve found that it’s often more productive to spend extra time on the technique of the lift. Some of these athletes are able to use their strength to muscle themselves through lifts and make them, but that method will cause a stall in improvement eventually. Some coaches also believe that the strength stays around while the athletes’ ability to move with speed will decrease first. I have yet to have an athlete with this particular problem so I can’t yet speak for it.

In an untrained athlete, the initial “strength” improvements are really just nervous system adaptations and improved intra-muscular coordination. The Strength Performance Network explains that ”strength improvements in the first weeks are increased due to the fact that the athlete has learned how to use his/her muscles in a more efficient, effective and economical way. This neural adaptation to strength training is evidenced by the improved ability to activate and coordinate between the chain of muscles involved.” This is true for all untrained beginner athletes, not just master age athletes.

Use this time to your advantage and train the motor patterns as correctly as possible so these athletes don’t have to relearn the correct way later. It is easier to learn it correctly the first time rather than relearn it, so if flexibility, strength, or imbalances are creating an inefficient motor pattern those should be addressed first.

4. Monitor Recovery

My final tip for working with master age athletes is to closely monitor their individual responses to training load, volume, and intensity. As with any athlete, everyone will respond differently, so you have to find what works for your athlete. In my experience, I’ve found that some master athletes can still train 4-5 times, but only lift super heavy once every 7-10 days. The heavy lifting day may also need to be scheduled around the athletes other life activities to avoid outside stressors (kids, work, etc.) or on a Friday evening when they can take two full days off to recover. I have also seen master athletes that prefer to lift heavier but only train 3 days a week. They may supplement another form of exercise on the days they don’t lift.

The real science behind being successful, regardless of age, is finding the time to see what works for each individual. No two programs will ever be completely identical, because no two people respond exactly the same. Create a guideline and then make small adjustments as you go to adapt for your specific needs and then give the program time to do its job.

Featured image: @shana_a on Instagram / @liftinglife

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