The Diversity of Masters Athletes
By: Jonathon Sullivan, MD, PhD, BLOC
Jonathon Sullivan, or “Sully” as we affectionately call him, is an emergency physician, physiologist, and Starting Strength Coach, as well as the co-author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40, the definitive text on strength training for Masters athletes.
Let’s do a little gedankenexperiment. Let’s find 1000 untrained college-age men and evaluate their physical parameters. Let’s determine their body composition, mobility, vertical jump (their explosiveness or power), their raw strength, their medical and surgical histories, what medications they’re taking, and so on.
We can, of course, do the same thing with 1000 untrained college-age women.
When we do this, we will find that all of the measured parameters demonstrate some degree of “spread” or variation. Some bros and babes are stronger than their fellows, some have more limited mobility than others, and some will have health problems while most won’t. If we were somehow able to magically combine all these parameters into a single value or index (which would not be a good idea for anything beyond the purposes of this thought experiment), we might just get a couple of bell-shaped curves like this:
Okay, sure: this is just what happens in populations, even with imaginary, ill-advised indices of composite values derived from multiple measured parameters.
Now, let’s take a population of untrained men and women over 50 and do the same thing. Measure all of our parameters and then, using some sort of highly dubious mathematical legerdemain, combine all of those values into a single index for the men, and another for the women. Let us say that when we do that, we will once again get a bell curve for each population—that is, a normal distribution.
Again, no surprises. And it should go without saying that I’ve made some heinous assumptions here: That the distribution of these populations will be normal, that babes will tend to have a slightly lower fitness index and spread of values than bros, etc.
This is monstrous presumption. I know that, so I don’t want a lot of lip from the stats nerds. It’s not the point.
To get to the point, let’s compare all of these curves:
A couple of things will jump out at us. First of all, the older population tends to have lower values on our “fitness index” overall. Not a shocker. In general, young people are in better shape than older people. But that’s also not the point I’m trying to make today.
The real takeaway here is the spread of the data. When we look at our fitness index for the older population, we find a much wider spread. This is another way of saying that there is far more variation in the older population than in the younger population.
And really, this shouldn’t be a surprise either.
Ancient buildings are more interesting than new construction. Old growth forest is more elaborate than a young stand of trees. Aged cheese is more delicious than fresh. Time changes things, and the passage of time will weather one mountain differently than another. A thousand Masters have led 1000 very different lives, and their genomes, personalities, gifts, and weaknesses have had time to sculpt them into very different shapes.
A thousand gym bros demonstrate variation, to be sure, but they’re almost all young, healthy, strong, free of chronic pain, testosterone-poisoned, and kinda dumb. Time hasn’t had a chance to ripen them yet. But in the sample of Masters, we’ll find a wide range of strength, a variety of hormonal profiles, vast differences in experience and exercise history, some unique injuries and medical backgrounds, different degrees of mobility and fortitude…you name it. But most of them will be smarter than the gymbros. Career, family, a mortgage, and just Life will do that to you.
This profound phenotypic variation has to be acknowledged in the gym. Most Masters who begin strength training can begin on a generic novice linear progression. But not all of them. And even those who do will require modification and individualization of that program earlier than their younger, less deserving counterparts. And as training progresses, this individualization will become…well, more individualized. Sure, some Masters can just do a standard LP and jump into a vanilla Texas Method. They are the exception that proves the rule. A 72 year-old grandmother is more likely to need a reduced-frequency model with 2 days a week and rotating reps early in the novice phase, and will require a highly tailored Heavy-Light-Medium, 5/3/1, or 4-day split when she graduates to intermediate training.
Modification of standard programs to fit the individual Master is such a big deal, Andy Baker and I wrote a book about it. The Barbell Prescription is 300 pages of Why, What, and How, with lots of different programs to fit lots of different situations.
But it’s not about the programs as written. The underlying theme of our book is that these programs are prescriptions for exercise medicine. And like any other medicine, especially strong medicine, they have to be tailored to the individual “patient.” Formulation, dosage, delivery, frequency, monitoring, therapeutic targets, progression—these are the parameters that have to be varied and modulated to fit the needs of the particular athlete. Masters and their coaches ignore this at their peril.
And besides: it’s fascinating, and a big part of the fun of coaching the Masters athlete. It’s great to watch a bunch of kids get big and strong on generic LP and Texas. You feed them, you coach them, you put them on a template, and they turn into monsters. That’s cool.
But Masters require more thought, more attention to detail, and a very high degree of customization to make long-term progress. It demands a more personal relationship with the client, and a much greater buy-in from both coach and athlete. Making the stress-recovery-adaptation cycle work for this particular Master, with her particular strengths and limitations, is an intellectually stimulating exercise, and enormously gratifying when you watch it come to fruition on the platform with yet another deadlift PR.
Which is why I think I have the best job in the world.