How to program for over 40s athletes

Training would be easier if we were all honest about our motives. While a few athletes would say they train for sports performance because their livelihood depends upon it, many others would finally be forced to admit the truth. And the truth is, the majority of people train for vanity.

Whether we want to admit it or not, the idea of being more attractive to potential mates is hard to get past. That’s no slight on training for vanity as without it our species wouldn’t have survived – there’s a definite plus to being seen as attractive to a potential partner. But there’s another reason that comes in a close second place, and that’s delaying the aging process. A lot can be done in the gym to prevent the losses that come with increasing years.

The decline in physical ability begins in the mid-30s and continues until we die. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s just how it goes. While there are some impressive older athletes around, they’ll be the first to tell you that what they can do now is nowhere near what they could do when they were younger.

The physical slide affects everything, from fitness, to speed, to power. The heart loses roughly a beat per year from its maximum capacity, which is reached in the mid to late 20s. The heart’s ability to pump blood diminishes by 5-10 percent per decade, too. This is matched by a loss of aerobic fitness of roughly 10 percent per decade.

Strength has been shown to drop by 25 percent at age 65 after peaking in the mid-30s. That’s about 8 percent per decade. Interestingly, power also drops by about 8 percent per decade from ages 20 to 70. We also lose 8-10cm of lower back and hip flexibility as we age due to the changes in both lifestyle as well as loss of collagen.

But the news isn’t all bad. Newer research shows much of these age-related declines, like loss of muscle or bone density, could be offset if you continue training. I would assume if you’re reading this, you’re keen on staying as fit and strong as possible for life. Like most of our clients at RPT the game becomes one of avoiding unnecessary losses to our fitness base. So the real question isn’t whether you should continue moving, but what the best choices are to keep as much of your movement as you can for as long as possible.

Looking at the relatively similar losses across the major areas of fitness, it makes sense to address them all equally. To recap, they are:

  • Flexibility
  • Power
  • Strength
  • Aerobic fitness

These elements are not listed in order of importance, because I believe they are all equally important. I have simply listed them in the order they should be performed within a training session. Don’t get tied to a specific program or a group of favorite exercises. Yes, I know you’ll make faster progress if you follow a set plan. But let’s be realistic – unless you’re a rank beginner, you aren’t getting better at 50+.

Flexibility and range of motion are the bedrock of all performance, regardless of age. I recently made a post on Instagram that said, “I wish I’d spent less time on mobility, flexibility, and soft tissue work when I was younger. Said no one over the age of forty ever.” That pretty much explains how you’ll feel once you turn forty, if you aren’t already feeling that way. If you don’t pay attention to maintaining adequate ranges of motion you’re going to find even simple tasks like getting up and down from the ground to become problematic.

“Your primary goal is to maintain as many physical qualities as possible. For that reason, you should use as many different movements as possible every time you train.”

I have been paying more attention to yoga in my own training. Yoga has been around for 5,000 to 10,000 years. I’m inclined to believe that if something has been around that long it probably works, or else it would have vanished like Nautilus. Along with spending an hour focusing on your movement and breathing, the added bonus of yoga is that it rebalances the nervous system. Many of us operate from a place of stress in daily life, whether we want to admit it or not. Spending time on yoga and breathing practices helps release a lot of the built up tension from the body.

Flexibility by itself often an unreachable goal. Muscles work in opposing pairs – when one contracts the opposing muscle has to relax to allow it to do so. If you flip that on its head, for a muscle to elongate fully the opposing muscle needs to learn how to adequately contract. And it is this element that most flexibility programs do not address – the dual pronged attack necessary to increase flexibility through increasing strength, often in odd or extreme ranges. A well designed yoga and mobility plan will do just that for you, along with the positive effects of focused breathing work.

Power is next on the list. Power and its cousin elasticity are important physical attributes. Power can be represented by a single standing broad jump, with a single foot take off and two-foot landing. As a general rule of thumb, the jump should be equal to your height. Elasticity can be represented by a triple jump or triple hop sequence. The sum of the second and third hops should be double the first if you have good elastic qualities.

Gaining power and elasticity is relatively easy and can be accomplished with low-level plyometric drills and medicine ball work. These low-level plyometric drills are what Mike Boyle refers to as Phase One work because they are done only off the floor, with no depth-jumping component.

For mature age clients I would get rid of the vertical component for trainees who are new to jumping and completely remove any rebound depth jumping. Begin with two-leg variations before progressing to single-leg movements, and remember it takes a long time for connective tissue to adapt to new stresses. It may take months to safely progress from double-leg drills to single-leg exercises.

The medicine ball is another fantastic tool to gain both power and elasticity. And I suggest Gray Cook’s book Athletic Body in Balance for some ideas on elasticity training using a medicine ball.

Strength is quite easy to program, and there are many good systems to use. From Pavel’s 3-5 x 3-5 system from Beyond Bodybuilding to Wendler’s 5/3/1, the basic rules remain the same. Pick 3-5 exercises for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps, and perform this 3-5 days per week. If you are an active masters athlete I would even drop this to two main exercises per workout. My personal favourite combinations are squats and upper body pulls such as rows or pull ups and a second workout of deadlifts and either shoulder press or bench press. Finish each session with some hard core work such as renegade rows, work from half kneeling, and various offset walks.

Choose big exercises such as the squat, deadlift, bent over row, and pull up, over exercises like bicep curls and lateral raises. The only caveat is to pick fewer exercises rather than more. Recovery ability is limited as we age, so you might find you progress faster by doing less. Counterintuitive I know, but when recovery is hampered you need less work to recover and improve.

The final piece of the puzzle is fitness work. An easy formula to remember is three sessions per week for 30-90 minutes at a heart rate of 120-150bpm to enhance cardiac output. This can be done any number of ways – running, rowing, riding, or hiking up a hill. My advice, as with most of the choices, is to not limit yourself to any one method but instead use as many as you can to maintain as much athletic ability as possible.

A Weekly Template for Older Athletes

Remember, your primary goal is to maintain as many physical qualities as possible. For that reason, you should use as many different movements as possible every time you train. If you don’t use a movement pattern for a while, you’ll find getting it back as you age is far tougher than it was in your twenties and thirties. The basic format for a week of training looks like this:

Flexibility, Power, Strength

Three days per week, total time 60-80 minutes

Flexibility: 30 minutes of yoga

Power: 2-3 different jumping, bounding, or medicine exercises work to maintain power and elasticity

Strength: 3 strength exercises for 3-5 sets or 3-5 reps

Strength training examples:

Session one: Single leg squats, renegade row, single arm bench press

Session two: Deadlift, bench press, single arm rows

Session three: Step ups, overhead press, pull ups

Aerobic Fitness

Three days per week, alternating with flexibility/power/strength

Perform 30-90 minutes of steady state work at a heart rate of 120-150bpm

Take the seventh day off to relax and enjoy life.

To learn our full system for training and programming please come to one of our Foundations of Strength workshops.