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Performance Training for Masters Athletes

by Pete McCall, MS on Oct 21, 2013

Numbering in the tens of millions, active adults aged 35 and older represent a wealth of opportunities for personal trainers.

Speak with enough personal trainers at the start of their careers and you’ll quickly notice a common aspiration: They want to train professional athletes. Of course it’s fine to dream big, but it’s important to remember that professional athletes are extremely rare individuals. Consequently, pro athletes are neither as numerous nor as varied in age, gender or ability as everyday adult athletes.

Compiled from each American professional sports league’s website, Table 1 helps demonstrate this point. Reality check: Fewer than 5,000 athletes play big-league professional sports in the United States, and most of them are men. Now consult Table 2, which includes U.S. Census Bureau data on the millions of 35-and-older adults participating in specific recreational activities in 2009, the most recent figures available. If you do the math, you’ll find that for every active NBA player, there are nearly 14,000 35-and-up athletes playing basketball for fun and fitness. It’s easy to see where most opportunities lie for trainers.

The Case for Working With Masters Athletes

Historically, masters athletes have been people 35 and older who compete in organized sports (particularly track-and-field events), but for our purposes it’s useful to apply the title to all 35-and-up athletes. To get an idea of how many masters athletes are probably already using commercial fitness facilities, see the Table 2 categories of “aerobic exercise,” “exercise with equipment,” “weightlifting” and “working out at a club.” All those numbers in the tens of millions represent a path to career success for personal trainers.

Getting Started With Masters Athletes

Clients do not need a contract with a pro team to train like athletes. They just have to work on their athleticism. Vern Gambetta, an authority on performance training, defines athleticism as “the ability to execute a series of movements at optimum speed with precision, style and grace” (Gambetta 2001). Some potential masters clients will already be competitive athletes, but many will be recreational exercisers and others will be getting into structured exercise for the first time. With clients who are just starting out, the challenge is to determine which of their activities of daily living (ADLs) fit into Gambetta’s definition of athleticism and then figure out how to help enhance their performance in those activities.

For example, let’s say a personal trainer is working with an over-50 executive who lacks the free time for recreational sports and who exercises primarily to maintain good health. The trainer asks about his ADLs and learns that the executive travels often for his job: This activity becomes the “sport” to guide the client’s exercise program. Our executive frequently dashes through airports dragging a rolling suitcase and hauling a computer bag--a feat of strength, speed, agility and quickness. Helping this client is not quite the same as getting a running back strong enough to hit a hole in an offensive line, but it’s in the ballpark.

Encouraging Competition

Another consideration for working with currently noncompetitive masters athletes is that amateur sporting events provide an excellent motivational tool. With the right exercise program, sedentary adults can train to compete in fundraising walks, runs, obstacle-course races or even triathlons.

Entering a race or participating in a charity event provides a specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound training goal that can motivate clients to start (and stick with) a workout program. Think about how good it will feel to inspire them to set a challenging goal and then help them train to achieve it. (Helping people train and prepare for an annual competition, like a 10K or marathon, can also become an effective marketing technique.)

Exercise and the Aging Process

Adults with a sedentary lifestyle experience quicker degradation of physiological functions and face a greater risk of premature death than adults who exercise regularly (Hurley, Hanson & Sheaff 2011; Bryant & Green 2009; Taylor & Johnson 2008).

Table 3 shows how aging affects the human body. While aging is unavoidable, exercise can mitigate its effects and may actually promote healthier, more youthful physiological functions (Kraemer, Fleck & Deschenes 2012; Candow et al. 2011; Hurley, Hanson & Sheaff 2011; Taylor & Johnson 2008).

We were all taught that a well-rounded exercise program includes three components:

  • cardiorespiratory exercise
  • resistance training, for muscular strength
  • stretching, to increase flexibility

Revisit Table 2 and note that the most popular activities for over-35 adults feature cardiorespiratory exercise: exercise walking, exercising with equipment, aerobic exercise and swimming. Just being physically active is important, but following a program that includes all three components of exercise provides the greatest benefits.

Strength Training

Weightlifting is popular in the 35-44 and 45-54 age groups but drops off significantly beyond age 55. The National Strength and Conditioning Association suggests that strength training can improve strength and power for adults of all ages, given that the benefits of this type of exercise include preserving muscle mass and metabolic function (Baechle & Earle 2008).

Research comparing younger men to older men performing the same resistance training programs has found that the older men do experience strength gains and other benefits similar to those of the younger men (Candow et al. 2011; Hurley, Hanson & Sheaff 2011; McCrory et al. 2009; Baker et al. 2006; Harris et al. 2004). As one author suggests, “Resistance training may be the secret to keeping aging muscles young and aging adults functional and independent” (Kraemer, Fleck & Deschenes 2012).

Most adults have probably heard about these benefits, but many don’t know how to start or participate in a program. Personal trainers who can effectively communicate the benefits of resistance training and incorporate it into fun, engaging exercise programs for adults over 35 can provide tangible fitness solutions for their clients.

Cardiorespiratory Training

It is nice to see from Table 2 that many over-35 adults participate in aerobic exercise, which can improve cardiorespiratory function (by increasing stroke volume and cardiac output, a combination of stroke volume and heart rate), increase mitochondrial density and enhance the ability to extract oxygen from blood in the working muscles--all functions that degrade with age when people are not physically active (Bryant & Green 2009; Taylor & Johnson 2008).

Encouraging clients to challenge all three energy pathways--aerobic, glycolytic and ATP-PC--can yield benefits much more quickly. A gradual progression of exercise intensity toward high-intensity interval training (HIIT) featuring work intervals using the ATP-PC energy pathway and recovery intervals using the aerobic pathway is safe when done correctly and can provide many benefits, such as improving VO2max and aerobic efficiency in a shorter workout period.

Research has found that performing only a few minutes of high-intensity work intervals can yield improvements similar to those gained from longer periods of lower-intensity cardiorespiratory exercise (Bayati et al. 2011; Burgomaster et al. 2008; Helgerud et al. 2007; Laursen 2010). Owing to its strenuous workload, HIIT is not a recommended starting point, but it can be a goal to work toward for many masters athletes.

Flexibility Training

Flexibility is important to ensure that aging muscle, fascia and connective tissue remain pliable and elastic so that joints can articulate through their full ranges of motion. Lack of dynamic, multidirectional movement or overuse of repetitive movements can lead to the development of collagen cross-links, which limit muscle extensibility and ultimately inhibit range of motion in mobile joints. If muscle and fascia lose extensibility, they also lose the ability to lengthen rapidly and to store potential energy; as a result, the likelihood of a muscle straåin increases.

With masters athletes, exercises that involve dynamic flexibility (the ability to control joint motion through multiplanar movements) can generate the greatest results. Dynamic flexibility occurs throughout the range of motion of any exercise involving concentric and eccentric muscle actions (Schleip et al. 2012; Herman & Smith 2008). As agonist muscles contract concentrically, antagonists must eccentrically lengthen to allow motion to occur; this is the optimal type of flexibility exercise for all stages of the aging process.

It is also important to use a variety of movement speeds to ensure that muscle and fascia maintain or improve the ability to rapidly lengthen and store mechanical energy. Following a progression of plyometric exercises that maximize mechanical energy from a muscle can improve the function of fascia and connective tissues. If applied regularly, exercise loading that includes high-velocity movements can induce a more youthful collagen architecture, which also produces a significant increase in elastic storage capacity (Schleip et al. 2012; Myers 2011; Sayers & Gibson 2010).

Performance Training for Masters Athletes

The NSCA says the “fundamental principles of designing a resistance training program for an older person and a younger person are basically the same” (Baechle & Earle 2008). Designing an exercise program for masters athletes requires

  • a health screening to identify existing medical issues and risk factors;
  • a movement assessment to identify muscle imbalances or inefficient movement patterns;
  • a list of medications that could affect the body during exercise (Bryant & Green 2009);
  • an exercise history to indicate the types of exercise the client enjoys; and
  • an injury history that identifies specific exercises for properly training a previously injured body part and exercises to avoid in order to prevent aggravating an injured area.

To design conditioning programs for athletes, the NSCA recommends a two-step process: evaluating the needs of the sport (or recreational activity) and conducting an assessment of the athlete (Baechle & Earle 2008).

Evaluating the Needs of the Sport

If a masters athlete is training for a specific sport or recreational activity, as a trainer you should know what it takes to succeed in that activity. You should also begin with an assessment process that includes the following steps:

  • Understand the sport, and conduct a movement analysis to identify patterns the client needs to perform. Do those patterns involve repetitive and cyclic movements, as in running, or reactive and acyclic actions, as in tennis?
  • Identify whether the client needs to react to the movements of an opponent or a ball.
  • Determine the type of muscle-force production needed for success in the sport: strength-endurance, maximal strength or explosive power.
  • Identify the dominant energy pathway for the activity: long-term (aerobic respiration), intermediate-term (glycolysis) or immediate (ATP-PC).
  • Assess the level of competition: recreational, local, regional or national.

These steps can help you design a program to maximize a client’s performance and enjoyment of his or her favorite activities. Note that these are the same steps required with an elite-level athlete: If they work for athletes earning a seven-figure salary, they will work for clients competing in a local running race or tennis club tournament.

Delving Deeper into ADLs

For a masters athlete who is not training for a specific sport or activity, you have to ask about daily habits, or ADLs, to identify common movement patterns and energy system needs. And you need to identify specific training goals to determine the type of movements the client may need to execute with peak efficiency.

For example, an older woman may say she simply wants to “get in shape and lose weight.” During the assessment, you may find that her desire to play with her grandchildren is the real reason for starting an exercise program. The next step is to ask what types of activities the kids participate in and how the client wants to engage in those activities. She may want to go for a bicycle ride with her grandkids, accompany them on a weekend hike or join them on the ski slope; each activity requires a specific approach to program design.

Identifying Strength Needs

An important consideration when designing programs for masters athletes is determining how much strength or power the athlete needs to succeed at the activity. With aging, we lose muscle mass and experience atrophy of the type II muscle fibers responsible for strength and power if muscles are not used regularly (Candow et al. 2011; Hurley, Hanson & Sheaff, 2011; Sayers & Gibson, 2010; Bryant & Green, 2009; Taylor & Johnson 2008).

Consequently, an exercise program should feature an appropriate progression of strength training to ensure that even sedentary clients can recruit and use the type II muscle fibers responsible for producing explosive or maximal force.

Assessing the Needs of the Athlete

Masters athletes often have movement dysfunctions and postural distortions from years of repetitive movement, or, as in the case of many office workers, a lack of multidirectional, multivelocity movement patterns. When muscle and connective tissue are held in the same positions or perform the same actions over and over, they can develop collagen adhesions between the multiple layers, and these adhesions can reduce tissue elasticity and possibly lead to injury (Schleip et al. 2012; Myers 2011). It is important to do a movement screening to identify muscle imbalances or mobility issues, which your exercise program will then address.

You also need to understand the dominant energy pathway involved in an activity and to structure an exercise program that imposes sufficient demands and stimulates the desired adaptations in a sport’s dominant energy pathway. Even if an activity relies on the immediate ATP-PC energy pathway, it is important to train for aerobic efficiency, which can help an athlete recover quickly between bouts of high-intensity activity. For sports relying on the aerobic energy pathway, you need to evaluate your clients’ aerobic efficiency to help keep them aerobic at higher intensity levels, which can help conserve muscle glycogen and improve performance.

Designing and Implementing the Exercise Program

A exercise program for a masters athlete should follow the established principles of exercise program design, especially specificity and progression. Movement patterns should be specific to the activities identified in the initial client interview and assessment. In addition, adults over 35, especially those with a history of being sedentary, will need a gradual progression of intensity for strength training and cardiorespiratory exercise.

A strength training program should first teach a client how to efficiently execute the basic patterns of movement--squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling and rotating--before progressing toward loading those movements with external resistance. To create total-body, integrated strength and reduce the risk of an overuse injury, it is important to challenge a client to move in all directions with a variety of different loads, a concept known as loaded-movement training. Research has found that exercising with multiplanar movements can boost strength in specific patterns while also improving tissue resiliency, which can ultimately reduce the chance of a muscle pull or strain (Schleip et al. 2012; Myers 2011; Richards & Dawson 2009).

Loading multiplanar movements first requires a client to develop sufficient mobility and movement efficiency to control movement through a complete range of motion. Exercise selection for loaded-movement training must consider the following:

  • total weight of load
  • direction of movement (anterior, right lateral, posterior, etc.)
  • vertical height of load during movement (waist height, knee height, overhead, etc.)
  • horizontal distance or range of motion (initial range, midrange or end range of motion)

Loaded movement gives trainers the freedom to challenge their clients to control the acceleration and deceleration of forces while moving in multiple directions. Loaded movement training is an effective way to help a client achieve Gambetta’s definition of athleticism.


Challenging clients over the age of 35 to train like athletes can provide numerous results that reduce the many physiological effects of the aging process. As William Kraemer writes, “Like training [programs for] athletes, exercise programs for older adults should be closely tailored and based on the initial needs analysis considering fitness level and experience, injuries, health concerns, goals, access to facilities and equipment, motivation and barriers to adherence” (Kraemer, Fleck & Deschenes, 2012).

Personal trainers who apply this thought process to the average person can create long and rewarding careers for themselves while providing extraordinary results for their clients.


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IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 10, Issue 11

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About the Author

Pete McCall, MS

Pete McCall, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Exercise is all about having the energy and vitality to do what you want to do when you want to do it. Whether you want to compete in a Tough Mudder-type obstacle course race or play with your ki...