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The masters age group encompasses a wide variety of athletes ranging from 35 to 80 years of age and older. The range presents potential challenges for coaches, as there will be a lot of variation in physical abilities between athletes. Someone who is 40 years old may still have much of the strength and physical capabilities as those in their 20s and 30s. Another masters lifter, either the same age or older, might have fewer capabilities.
Different people age at different rates because of both genetics and lifestyle.
Because of these varying capabilities in strength, flexibility, athleticism, and recovery ability, group programming is nearly impossible; masters athletes need to be approached as individuals. Some athletes start weightlifting in their 50's, while others may be coming back to it after participating in their teens or 20's. A masters athlete needs an individualized program based on specific capabilities and a partnership with a knowledgeable coach or training partner.
Masters lifters can have plenty of advantages over their younger peers. Having the funds to participate in the sport is a big advantage. Being adults who've had careers, many masters athletes are able to plan in advance the meets they want to participate in and are able to afford the expenses of a trip.
Mental and psychological maturity is another masters advantage. Progress in weightlifting happens slowly and requires patience many youth, junior, and even senior lifters lack. Having maturity, patience, and the ability to stick to a long-term plan is a huge advantage.
Some masters lifters in their 40s can even produce better athletic performances than they achieved in their 20s when at the peak of their athletic careers. Dirian Lancaster, as a chiropractor and masters athlete in his 40s, clean & jerked more than he could clean when he was starting safety at Texas Tech at the peak of his athletic abilities. A masters lifter like Dirian might not have the absolute athletic ability, recovery ability, or time to train as he did in his 20s, but maturity, patience, and the ability to stick to a long-term plan often make up for the missing elements.
Some masters may be retired and able to devote more time and energy to a sport and recovery than they could at any other stage in life. A lifter who's retired will have more flexibility in the training and competition schedule.
Programming for Masters Athletes
The three-day-a-week program as outlined in Chapter 6 (get the book) is a good place to start for any weightlifter, including masters. Masters athletes have a wide diversity, wider in their physical abilities than any other group. A 60 year old masters athlete learning the snatch and clean & jerk for the first time might require the majority of training to be focused on learning the lifts and developing the flexibility needed for the sport. A 40 year old masters athlete who learned the lifts as a school age or junior lifter with a long career as a senior lifter might have capabilities on par with most senior athletes.
The three-day-a-week program offers flexibility to cater to the individual needs of almost any lifter. The training schedule can be adjusted to two days if needed, and an emphasis can be placed on strength development or technical ability. Anyone coaching a masters athlete has to gear the programming toward getting the most out of that individual athlete.
Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle
As people age, their deficiencies magnify, causing weak legs to be weaker or flexibility issues to become more troublesome. When we're older, everything from athletic development to injury recovery takes longer. An ache or pain that used to go away in a week now takes a month. That's why an athlete needs to have patience when starting or continuing the sport at an advanced age.
Older athletes need to listen to their bodies. If something hurts or is injured, older lifters should take the time to heal before rushing back into training. Going back to training too soon will likely make the problem worse, or create a new one, and then training will be sidelined longer.
To stay injury free, a masters weightlifter should place a greater emphasis on general health. Eating a healthy, low-inflammatory, Paleo-ish style of diet as outlined in Chapter 13 (get the book) will greatly aid this athlete. Staying active outside of weightlifting is also a good idea, especially if training only one or two times per week. Walking and swimming are excellent low impact activities. Both are easy on the joints, and just 10 minutes spent with them will have a great benefit on conditioning and recovery from training.
I also recommend training with dumbbells and kettlebells, at a commercial gym if appropriate. A scheme of 3 sets of 10 reps on exercises such as rows, presses, and situps will go a long way to ensure muscular symmetry and joint health.
Most masters lifters will have a challenge controlling bodyweight. If this is you, it's great if you want to make a specific weight class to place better in competition, but I advise against drastically cutting weight. The weight-cutting practices outlined in Chapter 12 (buy the what?) can be stressful and hard to recover from for a masters athlete. It's not worth cutting weight if performance or health are negatively affected longer term.
The goal in general should be to have a healthy lifestyle. If losing weight enhances overall health take the logical steps to accomplish the goal. In addition to good dietary practices, adding one or two weekly conditioning workouts could also be beneficial. Performing functional movements such as pullups, pushups, squats, and breaking a sweat on a Concept 2 rower or similar aerobic machine will do wonders for muscular development, weight loss, and maintaining general health. If you lead a healthy lifestyle and eat a balanced diet in addition to the weightlifting training, bodyweight might never be an issue.
Mary McGregor is the most successful masters weightlifter I've ever coached. Mary never pursued sports at a younger age, and didn't consider herself an athlete. She was unique in that not many people at the time started a weightlifting career at the age of 58. Mary initially wanted to get her granddaughter, Neiman, involved in weightlifting, and that turned into her picking up the sport as well.
Mary and I hit if off immediately, and she's a close friend to this day. If there's one word I'd use to describe Mary, it would be "perseverance." Initially, she didn't stand out as someone who had talent for the sport and didn't make particularly fast progress. She did possess a decent amount of strength for someone her age, and didn't have any physical limitations that would make snatching or clean & jerking impossible.
Mary started with a blank slate, and weathered all the frustrations that come with learning the lifts for the first time at an advanced age. The thing that made Mary remarkable is this: She stuck it out. No matter how long it took to get a lift right, she just kept working.
My goal with her was the same as it is for any lifter: to develop exceptional technique. A masters lifter should strive to have such good technique that younger lifters will envy their lifting. And to that end, Caleb Ward once commented, "I wish I had technique as good as Mary."
Sure, along the way Mary experienced the normal aches and pains that come with training when you're almost 60 years old. None of that really affected her work ethic though. In fact, possibly the biggest challenge was the psychological aspect of going out on stage wearing a weightlifting singlet. This often brings out a certain amount of stress for most women, but is probably more stressful for a 60-year old woman than a 20-year old. In the end, like always, Mary persevered.
Mary McGregor's Training
Mary and I worked as a team to ensure her success. We placed emphasis on her general health and weightlifting technique. In her late 50s, it took Mary more time to recover from her training sessions, and a three-day-a-week schedule worked well for her. She followed the same three-day-a-week program found in Chapter 6 (get the book yet?). Based on her feedback, I made adjustments to accommodate her schedule and how she was feeling. When she could train three days a week, she did, and when she couldn't, there were no qualms about switching to two days a week.
The keys to her success were listening to her body, backing off weightlifting when needed, and working hard outside the gym.
Mary often walked at night to maintain general and cardiovascular health. She'd also frequent a commercial gym to work on exercises that had nothing to do with weightlifting. That work provided her with safe joint movement, muscle development, and activity that wasn't as stressful as her weightlifting training.
I've had several junior lifters who placed fifth or sixth at Nationals eventually win Junior Nationals. When I asked one kid how he improved from fifth to first, he said, "All the guys who used to beat me quit." The same thing happened to Mary. When she first started lifting, she'd look at the totals for the Pan American or World Championships, and see she had a ways to go. But, as the years went by, her total edged up, and many of the people who were beating her quit competing, or their totals started going down as Mary's kept climbing.
Mary had exceptional dedication to the craft of training and competing in weightlifting. She dotted her I's and crossed her T's (capitalized her F's and Y's?) which led to becoming a true technician in the snatch and the clean & jerk. During her career, Mary won the 2004 Pan American Masters Championships, and won gold at the 2008 Masters World Championships in Athens, Greece, where she also set world records in the 75-plus kilo category and she also won best lifter for her age group.
Mary's progress can be measured in years, not in months. BEING PATIENT, MAINTIAINING HER HEALTH, AND HAVING THE MATURITY TO STICK TO A LONG TERM PLAN paid off with a gold medal and best lifter award at the Masters World Championships.
Enjoy Your Lifting!