Programming Differences: Regionals Athlete vs. Masters Qualifier Athlete A Case study

As we get closer to hosting our on-site Master’s camp at TTT HQ, we want to continue to foster an open discussion on best practices for training programs geared towards masters athletes.

We thought that one of the best ways to go about this would be to take the conversation all the way from general principles down to specific differences and the explanations of the ‘why’ behind these differences.

As with all things, there is no one size fits all, and some of the principles and programming differences discussed here might not apply to ALL masters. Our goal with this approach was to actually offer up some specific examples to help illustrate what we consider to be some of the most prevalent underlying principles behind programming for masters athletes.

Before we focus on the differences, I do think that it is important to first stress the similarities. If an athlete comes to me with performance based goals, it is my job to advise and guide them and structure their training in a way that will set them up with the best chance possible to achieve those goals. In the sport of fitness, performance based goals center around the CF Games season.

What we have learned about the programming for the games season is that most of the masters divisions will see the same movements with close to the same loading as the open division. So while the peer group for relative comparison might differ, the challenges are very similar, and thus the training must reflect that.

It would be an incredible disservice to water down a general programming approach for an older athlete by removing heavy loads or challenging movements. The training can and should be stressful and challenging enough to force adaptations in skill, strength, and endurance.

Below is a week of programming for two of my athletes, one a regional bubble level athlete and another a masters qualifier athlete. These two athletes share similar training priorities as you will see, with the biggest focuses being snatch positioning and consistency at high percentages, chest to bar pullup volume/density, squatting strength, and fine-tuning their ability to pace in mixed-modal workouts.

Both athletes are at a similar point in their season, hitting the meat of an accumulation cycle as they prep for an online qualifier this fall. For the sake of argument, I did make some changes to the actual designs here in order to make for a clearer comparison. I wanted to normalize variables like equipment access and skill/strength level as much as possible so that those biases didn’t impact the design and distract from the important takeaways.

You’ll also notice that each athlete has the same number of training sessions in a week in this comparison. This was not the case in their actual design, as the younger athlete had 2 double days in their template for 7 sessions/week vs 5 sessions/week for the master. While this does tend to be a trend in my limited experience (younger athletes having less responsibilities outside of the gym and thus more free time for training), I also have seen enough exceptions to this trend on either side to choose not to highlight it here.

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With the above examples to reference, there are a few general principles that we can now discuss.

Differences in skill work - for a masters athlete, I’ve found that introducing more variation at low intensities into their skill work helps them become more consistent and efficient. For the snatch, this looks like tempo pulls, complexes, block work, etc. Getting different perspectives and increasing the time spent on mindful practice tends to be a lot more valuable than just accumulating reps and trying to self-diagnose on the fly.

Auto-regulation for strength protocols - While it has tremendous value for all athletes, I have found even more benefit with masters athletes. By using an autoregulated approach for their strength work, we can more accurately account for daily changes in energy levels, mechanical pain, and general intensity to ensure that the stimulus is appropriate on that day.

Changing gears in mixed modal workouts - Both athletes need to work on their ability to pace in mixed modal workouts. For younger athletes, this often takes the form of prescribed lower intensity work with movements that have a set cadence so they know what it feels like to work at a sustainable effort rather than coming out of the gates firing. For masters athletes, we often need to take the opposite route and encourage them to step on the gas a bit more and push outside of their comfort zones. To accomplish this, I will often require them to change intensities over the course of a workout to build their awareness of different gears in different situations, ending at a fast and hard pace to help build exposure and confidence at the intensity needed to put a finishing kick on a workout or attack a shorter workout with aggression.

Proactive pre-hab work to protect joints from focused volume - When looking at priorities for a given training cycle, I will usually try to get out ahead of any potential joint pain/irritation that could result from the volume progressions. While this is a useful approach for any athlete, I do find that masters athletes tend to report joint pain on a higher frequency, and it is also more likely to negatively impact their training quality. Being more proactive with this at the start of a cycle by including accessory work to strengthen/protect the overloaded joints helps to maintain the training quality and consistency needed to progress.

Volume progressions vs intensity - The name of the game for a masters athlete is resilience, building it and maintaining it so that they can keep a consistent training schedule and realize incremental gains with time. This starts with volume accumulation with an eye towards movement economy. Intensity and complexity progressions will have their place as competition season approaches, but the most useful adaptations for a masters athlete are more likely to come from cleaning up movement patterns and building mechanical resiliency and efficiency.

Training vs testing - While I couldn’t illustrate this inside of a 1-week snapshot, another difference in program design for masters athletes is an increase in the length/duration of their training cycles, along with the frequency of specific re-tests. Due to a combination of higher biological and training age, adaptations usually happen on a longer time scale than someone who is younger or just being introduced to a sport or training. As a result, frequent testing becomes not only less likely to result in positive progress but also becomes an impediment and distraction from the regular training routine. Training with consistency and intent should be the priority, with a growth oriented mindset being of the utmost importance to ensure that goals remain process-oriented. PRs can and will still come, albeit less often, but only if you stay patient enough to put the necessary training time in to improve at your own pace.

A Side By Side Comparison

Click here to download the image of the side by side comparison used in the video above.


As a masters athlete myself, I know all too well the danger of getting caught up in relative comparisons, attempting to measure up against or keep up with younger athletes or a younger version of ourselves. I would argue that those relative comparisons, as with any other facet of our lives, serve only to distract from the reality of our situation and our ability to improve upon what we have to work with.

My goal with this article, and our larger goal with the Masters Camp, is to encourage folks to look past those distracting and potentially damaging comparisons and take the time to learn how to train yourself or others based off of their individual needs, with biological age being a variable very worthy of attention.

Created By
Adam Rogers

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