I would have used the term "masters competitor," but I hate that term. It just sounds old. It IS old, but I don't like to remind myself that I'm old. Most guys over 50 don't want to, either. In my mind, it might as well be called "geriatric training." Not many of us feel old, per se, because we still train very hard, and the vast majority of us are in great condition. Still, please don't kid yourself; there are those days when we all feel closer to 80 than 30.

For those of you who swear I'm only 41, I'm 53. I know it's hard to believe because I look like I can pull 30-year-old ass, but I really am 53. And the only ass I'm pulling is my wife's ass, and even then, I think she would rather be pulling 30-year-old ass, too, but I digress.

RECENT: Do LESS of These 10 Things to Increase Your Progress

My point about my age is not about how hot I am (though it's hard to deny) but rather that I am living the masters-bodybuilder thing and can relate, first-hand, to all the crap that comes with it. I have learned more about training in the last eight years than in the 40 years I have trained. Why? I had to. Injuries will do that to you. I want to help save some of you from the mistakes I (and others) have made along this masters journey.

First, let me be very clear and say that I am not going to tell you not to train hard. If you aren't going to train hard, you should stay home and sit on the couch watching Netflix while eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew. We might be in our 50s, but most of us have been training for years—some of us have been training consistently since the 80s. We have no desire to not train hard, and nothing anyone could say would change our perspective.

Train Your Ass Off

What I am going to do is give you some pointers as to how to train your ass off but train with less risk of injury.

Let's get this out of the way right now: Intensity does not create injuries. Read that again if you didn't get it the first time. I will define intensity this way: Intensity is the amount of effort sustained during a set to put the most stress on the muscle you are training. This is MY definition, so don't jump into the comments and tell me how stupid I am. Most people argue that intensity is defined as a specific percentage of your 1-rep max times x amount of reps. I do not believe this. If you have a different opinion, find someone who respects your opinion and get them to let you write for them. These are my opinions based on my experience. Take them or leave them.

It is important that I define intensity because I feel strongly that the main reason injuries happen is simply from using too much weight. The over-50 crowd will create vulnerabilities if their primary approach is to beat the logbook. That type of training works well if you aren't approaching or over 50. In fact, it worked incredibly well for me for years—until it didn't. And I will back up my opinion by noting that I do not have any visibly torn muscles/tendons after training for almost 40 years (I did have a medium-grade tear of my glute medius at 50, but that is not visible, and it was not training-related).

Heavy weights on aging (and arguably "brittle") tendons are a recipe for disaster. The over-50 bodybuilder has to factor in other issues like deteriorating cartilage, lower back problems, etc. The list is long and distinguished—like my . . . oh, forget it. The point is that the muscle likely can handle heavier weights; everything that connects the muscle to the bone and that connects or supports connections of bones to other bones cannot take the beating.

Focus on Intensity

Focusing on intensity while using the heaviest weights you can handle in good form for higher repetitions is the best option. If that sounds like I'm contradicting myself when I say "heaviest weights you can use," let me expound. No one is going to progress well with light weights. I am not saying that you can't train heavy. Training as heavy as you can and constantly focusing on using more and more weight is not the best option. It is also not the only way to cause hypertrophy. I know that may sound blasphemous to some of you, but I have proven this time and time again with myself and also with a ton of masters clients. With the exception of genetic freaks like Stan Efferding, most masters competitors will tell you they are still progressing without relying on beating the logbook. If you are one of the non-believers, ask yourself how many injuries you have had from training in the last ten years. I'll wait.

There are common-sense tactics that come into play even when not focusing on the heaviest weights you can use. If you are training intensely, you absolutely must be warming up properly and thoroughly. In our 30s, that might look like a couple of 15-rep sets for bench press and then moving into heavier sets to beat the logbook. If that is still your approach at 50, good luck with that one. There are days when I go in to warm up for legs, and I do more warm-ups than I end up doing working sets. And it changes based on how I feel that day. Some days it might be four to five warm-up sets, while other days it could be as high as ten-12 warm-up sets. Yes, you read that correctly. I absolutely refuse to start a leg session without 100% confidence that my knees and lower back are ready to move up to the heavier weights that I need for my working sets.

Rep Ranges

Rep ranges, you ask? It is my recommendation that if you are below ten reps, you are in a high-risk area. The only exception is if you end up slightly below ten reps by your second or third working set or the exercises that come later for that body part. An example would be if you are doing four exercises for chest, and you start to drop below ten reps on the third exercise. You might be less vulnerable at that point due to being so warm and because fatigue has set in. This example is, of course, with the understanding that your form is meticulous.

Biomechanics need to be incredibly strict and controlled. Repetitions should not be approached with the mindset that we are moving a weight from point A to point B as many times as possible and as quickly as possible. The reps should be deliberate and controlled, with minimal momentum and a controlled negative on every rep. If you are unsure if your negatives are controlled, ask yourself if you could stop the weight at any point during the negative if you had to. If you can't say you could stop the weight, the negative is too fast.

Training Volume

The last thing I want to cover is "old-man-itis." Tendonitis or even tendonosis (chronic tendonitis) is something the older demographic deals with much more than younger lifters. The younger lifters won't like my reason, but it's true: older trainers have a better work ethic. We are known for wanting to do more work in the gym and have built a tolerance to volume, workload, and intensity over the years. The younger generation, by and large, has not. That is not to say that the younger generation doesn't train hard. I've watched people train for almost 40 years, and I'm telling you that the younger generation typically does as little work as is necessary, and the older generation does more work than is necessary.

The above being stated, the over-50 crowd is more tolerant of aches and pains, and we try to train through inflammation without viewing it as the red flag that it is. Inflammation is very simply caused by overuse. Over time, inflammation leads to vulnerability and can become a horrible injury. We want to limit vulnerabilities, not create them. Therefore, our training volume should be limited to what we NEED, not what we can DO. Just because you can do more work in the gym does not mean the extra volume is necessary for growth/hypertrophy.

Exercise Selection

The last point I feel is important for the over-50 crowd is exercise selection. Our brains have been trained for a long time that specific exercises are necessary to get huge. Drop that concept as quickly as you can. Squats might work for a lot of people, and yet a lot of people have grown huge legs without them. The same applies to deads and bench presses. Even if these rules were, in fact, true, we still have to consider the cost-to-benefit of these exercises from a risk-analysis standpoint. I know damn well that pendulum squats will destroy my quads without destroying my back. For that reason, I will choose the pendulum squat or the hack squat over back squats any day.

If you have an existing injury like a painful shoulder, most people can find different exercises that will allow for a different grip or different angle that can still hit the delt complex without causing pain. If you can't find an exercise that works, there is likely too much damage to the shoulder, and that would mean you need to rest it and allow it to recover. Training through injuries is not the best option at 50 years old.

A Few Extra Points to Consider

  1. When in doubt, take an extra day off for recovery.
  2. Listen to your body better at 50 than you did at 30.
  3. If it hurts or causes pain, don't do it.
  4. Deloading or cruising for a week is always a good idea after blasting your training for 6-10 weeks—even if you feel great. No one loses muscle after going lighter for a week to allow joints to feel better.
  5. Use your head. Train smarter before you train harder.

Remember that one injury that puts you out for 6-12 months at 50 is a lot different than when you're 30. I don't know about you, but I'm running out of healthy years to be productive in the gym, and I don't want to waste that time sitting on my couch eating Cheetos and drinking Mountain Dew while I wait for an injury to heal. Just Sayin'.

write for elitefts

Ken “Skip” Hill has been involved in the sport of bodybuilding for almost forty years and competing for twenty-plus years. Born and raised in Michigan, he spent 21 years calling Colorado home with his wife and their four children. He and his wife traded the mountains for the beach four years ago, relocating to South Florida. His primary focus is nutrition and supplementation, but he is called upon for his years of training experience, as well. He started doing online contest prep in 2001 and is considered one of the original contest prep guys (when the bodybuilding message boards were still in their infancy). Skip’s track record with competitive bodybuilders is well-respected, and he also does sport-specific conditioning, including professional athletes.

SWIS 2023