Masters Athletes: Controlling Training Volume by Focusing on Weaknesses

Hello, Masters athletes.

You might be feeling neglected in the athletic performance world. While the young bucks are throwing down in a stadium, you are throwing down in the parking lot before the “competition actually begins”. You are fit, you are strong, and you are healthy…..for your age. You wanted to get your face onto a bag of Progenex, but the pictures on Instagram are suggesting Metamucil is a better fit.

But don’t let the ageism get you down. And chances are, it doesn’t. You are either surrounded by a community of people where ageism isn’t a thing or your desire for self-improvement overrides the rampant need for attention. You may not like competing in the parking lot, but in the end, competing is what’s important. You are fit, strong and healthy….period.

It’s been my experience that you are in the gym for the right reasons and with the right motivations. Your goals might be competitive or they might be personal, but anyone that endures the challenges of cranky knees/elbows/backs, a busy and established home/work life, and still manages to show up to the gym consistently and work hard already has the tools to get whatever they want.

With that being said, I don’t have to tell you that your ability to recover from a workout is not what it was when you were 20. A workout that would have left you sore for the following morning leaves you sore until the following Friday. “Tweaking your back” means ice packs, Advil, and riding an elliptical. While those kids will walk into the gym and go from the bar to 225 without breaking a sweat, doing something like that would break a hip (or both).  

You can’t get away with things like you did back then. Ever walk into a high school weight room? It makes me slip a disc just thinking about how some 16 year old kids are able to contort their spines into a horseshoe under load and still be able to walk out of the gym. Maybe that was you back then (it was definitely me), but trying something like that now would put me in a wheelchair.

Or you might be a member of gym where people come in for three hours every day and throw down. The gym reeks of their firebreathing youthfulness. You might be able to hang with them over the course of a workout or a week – but week after week?

And this seems to be the area where being 30+ or 40+ seems to present the most challenge – training volume. Training volume simply means how much work you do at the gym. The optimal amount of volume, of course, depends on you as an individual, and your coach is in the best position to evaluate that. But all things being equal, the 40 year old version of you should do less work than the 20 year old version of you. As a Masters athlete, you need to do less.


not that kind of volume

But before you look at this as a bad thing, look at this as an opportunity to sharpen your training. One of the best ways to maintain an effective volume of training is by focusing on strengthening weaknesses. 

Cut Out the Crap by Focusing on Weaknesses

Let me bestow my glorious programming expertise upon you:

If you suck at pull-ups, you should work on your pull-ups.

If you suck at the olympic lifts, you should work on your olympic lifts.

If your something sucks, you should focus on that.

Thanks, this personal training session has been great. You can forward your payment to

This is not a new idea. A hundred thousand million coaches more qualified and better than me have said “improve your weaknesses”. If you’re in the gym for performance, this approach makes sense – you don’t want to be the guy staring at a pair of rings at big competition not being able to do muscle-ups. If you’re in the gym for health, this approach makes sense, too – if any workout over 20 minutes obliterates you for the rest of the day, it’s time to focus on building your aerobic capacity by getting the old ticker and vascular system into shape. 

So if this “strengthen your weaknesses” is such common knowledge, what’s the problem? The problem is that we want to spend our energy feeling good about ourselves (doing the things we like and are good at) and as little energy as possible on things that make us feel badly about ourselves (our weaknesses). 

This isn’t a character flaw, it’s human nature. But it is a part of our nature that slows and stalls progress, and will turn a small problem into a very big problem if left unchecked. 

This gets even more complicated as a Masters athlete. You have less “energy” to use to improve and so that energy needs to be spent more wisely. Energy is in quotations because I don’t mean how powerful you are or how spunky or how aggressive in training, I mean that you have less money to pull from in the Bank of Training Volume.

I’m probably overusing the money metaphor, but where during a workout a younger athlete could get away with spending $100 of energy on the “fun stuff” and $25 on improving weakness, you might only have $75 to spend. 

This might be disappointing, but $75 well spent can go further than $125 wasted. 

Spend Your Volume Wisely

If you want the most bang for your buck, you’ll need to 1) know what your weaknesses are and 2) program to allow enough time, energy, and recovery to improve them.

Being aware of weaknesses requires some kind of formal assessment.

How many pull-ups can you do unbroken?
At what weight does your power clean break down?
What percent of you back squat is your snatch?

If you can’t put numbers to these questions, you’re just guessing. You might think you suck at pull-ups, but they might be pretty good…it’s your overhead pressing strength that is terrible. If you train to improve your pull-ups because you think they’re bad and continue to neglect your overhead pressing strength, not only are you wasting energy and bits of your maximum recoverable volume, you are also setting yourself up for injury because of a muscle imbalance. It’s like writing out a budget – you need to know your weaknesses to spend your training money wisely.

Once you know your weaknesses, you need to program enough time and energy into addressing them. This is the practical side of improvement. Walking into a gym and doing 100 power snatches for time might look like fun, but you won’t have any grip left to get in decent pull-up weakness work post-WOD. 

A weakness will continue being a weakness until it’s fixed. 

In this instance, either you show up to the gym early and get your pull-up work in, or you scale down the workout to do it after. There will certainly be instances where you’ll be able to hit both hard, but use your brain to know when this isn’t possible in order to be able to make your weakness a priority.

But what if I have, like, a thousand weaknesses?

Pick one (ok, maybe two) and focus on those until you see improvement. Trying to buy everything at once will make you bankrupt. Remember, you don’t have the luxury of carelessness, and be careful that “I’ll focus on my pull-ups…” doesn’t turn into “….and my clean and jerk, and my double-unders and my muscle-ups  and my pistols and my…..”


You can’t afford to be careless, so be smart. Be smart with your training assessing your strengths and weaknesses in order to dedicate time and energy to improving things that need it the most. Keep it simple by working on one (or two) weaknesses at a time.

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