Getting Masters Weightlifters to Competition Gold

Chronological age is not the most important criterion by which to determine a senior’s training program.

This week I am at the USA Masters Weightlifting Championships in Savannah, Georgia. Masters Weightlifting is for 35 year olds and over. My athlete, Laurie Nelson, is going for gold in the W70 Class A competition at the age of 72. She is already the US national record holder for the 63 kg weight category.

As my generation of Baby Boomers goes not so gently into that good night, there is an increasing interest in the participation of “seniors” in sports activities. The interest in my sport of weightlifting has shown considerable growth in recent years and, as I’ve been dealing with this group more consistently I had thought I would, it might be helpful to share some thoughts about coaching them.

The first thing to realize about coaching masters is that the chronological age is not the most important criterion by which to determine the training program. A 45-year-old who has been an athlete for 30 years is a much different beast from a 45-year-old who has never been an athlete and is just in the process of entering sport.

Let’s begin by saying that an athlete who is a lifelong lifestyle athlete already knows how to live like an athlete. He or she knows how to budget time and to prioritize sports in the daily regimen. He or she has also not developed the instincts to know when the training load is becoming excessive and when the body is beginning to break down. These types of things take a great deal of time to learn and a neophyte master just doesn’t have the time to learn them while simultaneously learning how to train and how to compete.

Some factors that can affect the training of the mature athlete

Great Body Awareness

This is the ability to know where multiple body parts are in relationship to each other and the physical environment simultaneously. Athletes who learned this early in their careers, will carry it into their senior years. Those that haven’t might not have enough time to develop this awareness. There is probably a window of learning that will determine the age at which a person can improve optimally in this area.

Well Established Movement Patterns

By a person’s 5th decade, they have undoubtedly practiced movement patterns such as jumping, sprinting, throwing many times if they mastered them during their youth. These movement patterns are essential to performing athletic acts, and at a certain age there is not enough time left to master them without running the risk of injury.

The Ability to Perform on Demand

Great athletes are performers and they are masterful at using the performance environment to heighten their abilities on demand. Experienced athletes actually thrive on the pressures imposed by the competitive experience. This skill can only be developed by performing multiple times, and for the senior athlete there simply may not be enough time to get in enough performances and/or to get in enough performances and recover in time for the next one.

Familiarity with the Athletic Lifestyle

Good athletes have spent a great deal of time prioritizing athletics in their lives. They know how to pull away from non-productive activities and they know how to rest on demand as well. People that have lived too long as “civilians” will need to severely alter their mindsets if they are to embark on a lifestyle that is wholly or even mostly dedicated to performance enhancement.

Great Motor Learning Abilities

Sports that place a premium on consistently learning new and challenging movement patterns and skills produce athletes who are particularly adept at mastering new skills in a relatively short period of time. Getting to this point in an athlete’s learning capabilities takes a great deal of practice and plenty of time. Again, time here is the enemy.


Athletes who have spent a lifetime in grappling or physical contact sports are especially physically adept at avoiding perilous situations. One of my 50-year-old athletes has mastered the bottom positions of the snatch and clean because he has had an extensive background in jiu-jitsu and football. He knows how to get out of the way while falling. Because of this he has had no fears about going under a barbell because he is confident in his escapability. Master athletes who’ve never developed escape skills are the ones who are most trepidatious about descending into the bottom position and this may prove extremely difficult to remediate.

A Network of Like-Minded Cohorts

As in any other activity, peers like to get together and “talk shop.” This sharing of information is a good way to learn more about the activity as well as best practices. Newcomers in the Senior age category may have a difficult time establishing these types of relationships, and deriving the benefits thereof. This is all about learning to live in a particular culture. This network is also key to learning about reliable, auxiliary support personnel who can help in the recovery process.

Each and every one of these attributes are of immense value and each one can take a considerable amount of time to develop and nurture. Time is understandably a particular concern when working with aging populations.

For the Coach…

For coaches who have never worked with Master athletes, a consideration of the aforementioned factors might be helpful. While all the new athletes you encounter might not be lacking in all of these areas, many of them will probably require remediation in several of them. Working on improving these domains could be just as important as teaching the skills of weightlifting. Many of them can be developed concurrently with weightlifting skills. One should keep in mind, however, that some of these concepts may be entirely foreign to non-athletes, and the necessity for developing them may even be less obvious.

The list, however, is a valid collection of issues that the coach may wish to embrace if the end goal is to provide the best athletic experience for your participants.

One important consideration is the development of muscular tissue. After a certain age it will not be possible to get stronger by developing more or stronger muscular tissue. The task then becomes developing more effective neural stimulation of the tissue that already exists. Any coach working with master athlete needs to become familiar with the process of increasing motor unit recruitment as the inhibition of muscular development progresses.

Embrace the Task

Working with master athletes is even more of a case-by-case venture than coaching younger athletes. Each athlete is unique not only because of genetic factors, but because of the wide range of experiential factors that enter into the mix. Some factors will require significant degrees of remediation while others much less. Diagnostics will become a significant part of the task. Figuring out the spheres in need of extra supplementary work and which ones to minimize is the task to embrace.

For more on how to train seniors:

How to Train the Boomers Safely and Effectively