Is CrossFit too Risky for Masters Over 50? | WODprep | Simple Coaching = Better Coaching

Is CrossFit too Risky for Masters Over 50?

The film star Maurice Chevalier is credited with first remarking that:

‘Growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative’.

Whilst most people would agree with that witticism, how we should go about adapting our activity levels as we get older is surprisingly contentious. There is an overwhelming mix of science, ‘common knowledge’ and social media marketing that all vie with cultural inertia to tell us how we should act and feel as we move beyond the half-century mark. Add in CrossFit, which polarises opinions at the best of times, and you can guarantee to have doctors, physiotherapists and Youtube stars arguing over their vol-au-vents at any decent health convention.

The CrossFit framework is also a little ambiguous about older athletes. Although there is a well-supported masters category, you get that label just for making it past 35 years of age, roughly half-way between when you gain the right to vote and when you gain your first reading specs. Putting it another way, given that the average age expectancy in most developed countries is around 80, that means that you will wear the same label of ‘master’ for 45 of your 62 adult years. That’s one homogenising label for about 75% of your post-puberty existence. There’s simply no established labels and little thinking beyond that point. 

Just what is Rx for Masters?

For example, if you look at “the Girls” benchmark WODs, there are no recognised Rx weights for older Master athletes. Yes, we can scale but without a recognised Rx weight for our age group, you completely lose the ability to ‘benchmark’ your fitness level against your peers. 

Similarly, btwb, “The Official CrossFit Workout Tracker”, allows you to compare your performance against either ‘all’ or ‘masters 35+’. That begins to feel pretty irrelevant to us as we pass into our 50’s. Never mind beyond the whiteboard, what about beyond the white hair?

And this culture seems to persist across boxes and social media. How many WODs do you see that come programmed with different Rx weights for older athletes?

(To be fair, the Open workouts have featured a further weight breakpoint at the age of 55 and the Open leaderboard does allow you to compare your performance in narrower age bands. It’s a start.)

Perhaps this focus shouldn’t be surprising. After all, if you analyse the data from the 2020 Open Leaderboard and take that as indicative of the CrossFit demographic, around 48% of men and 52% of women are under 35. Only around 4.5% of men and women were aged 55+ and less than 2% aged 60+. 

So is there some commercially driven ageism that is marginalizing and discouraging us ‘Mega Masters’ (yes, I’ve just made that term up) out of the sport? Well, before we start pointing our walking sticks indignantly at the CrossFit bosses, we should compare the above statistics with general activity levels. A recent survey in England concluded that there is a ‘marked increase in levels of inactivity for those aged 55 and over’ [1], with over half of all the inactive people in England being 55 or over. Canada shows a similar picture [2]. 

Why do we exercise less as we age?

So although the CrossFit demographic is without doubt skewed towards the under 35’s, there also seems to be something about our 50’s that starts to convince us to hang-up our trainers and accept a slide into decrepitude despite all the health advice on the benefits of continued activity. The reasons for this are not clear.

Some of it may be cultural inertia. After all, average age expectancies have steadily risen from only around 50 in 1900 to around 80 now. In 1900, 40 must have seemed pretty old and yet today every birthday card we receive from the age of 40 still seems to keep telling us how old we are. 

And of course, we are surrounded by less active people that would prefer to rationalise their own behaviour than change it. In this context, age becomes a useful excuse with the phrase ‘at my age’ called into action repeatedly. Worse, the phrase ‘at your age’ becomes suffixed disapprovingly onto more and more sentences as our inactive peer group subliminally tries to persuade us to conform.

But age is not just a number, no matter how many well-meaning memes might say so. There are real biological changes that come with age and, although remaining active is critical to long-term health, there is a wide spectrum of ways to achieve that goal with CrossFit sitting firmly at the extreme end. Are those age related changes contraindications for CrossFit and should we be looking at less demanding alternatives to best keep body and soul together?

I remember Billy Connelly commenting that he first realized he was getting old when he could no longer stand up without making a noise. I laughed when I heard that in my 30’s and then understood it when I was in my 40’s. For many of us as we pass through our fifth decade and beyond, we begin to experience various pains: typically in the knees, lower back, neck or shoulders. 

In England, we often refer to these kinds of persistent aches and pains as ‘niggles’, a term I’ll continue to use herein. Niggles often sit on a pain scale of between one and five out of ten (with ten being the worst pain you can imagine). Nor do niggles get worse as you exercise and in fact they typically reduce with a proper warm-up. 

How should we respond to those nagging niggles?

While niggles don’t stop us from doing anything they can discourage us. It takes more commitment to go for a run when you know the first mile is going to hurt. And if dropping under the bar on a squat snatch is already a mind game, it’s even more so when you know you’ll be catching in a pain position. 

The risk is that niggles are constantly whispering in our ears to do less, over shorter ranges of motion. And beyond 50 is when we begin to enter the ‘use it or lose it’ zone.

Dr CJ DePalma, Head of WODprep Private Coaching Division, likens this effect to Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man: we start off with a full range of motion within a bubble that stretches to the limits of our reach. But as we limit our range of motion to avoid niggling pains, our bubble contracts and contracts until we lose fundamental capabilities: the ability to climb stairs; to get off the floor; or even go to the toilet easily.

Regrettably, the medical profession has sometimes exacerbated this problem. It’s one thing to have achy knees but another to receive a diagnosis including the words ‘degenerative’, ‘ageing’, ‘arthritis’, ‘bone on bone’ etc. The very act of applying these labels together with explanations that suggest our joints are wearing out can encourage us to stop healthy activities in a misguided attempt to conserve what we have left.

What can MRI scans tell us?

Not only is exercise typically the best medicine for arthritic joints but there is increasing evidence that the very diagnoses themselves can be misleading. 

For example, one review of people who were experiencing no back pain nevertheless found that ‘disk bulge prevalence increased from 30% of those 20 years of age to 84% of those 80 years of age’ and ‘disk protrusion prevalence increased from 29% of those 20 years of age to 43% of those 80 years of age’ [4]. In other words, the direct link between disk protrusions, bulging and pain is suspect.

Similarly, a review of MRI scans from adults experiencing no pain in their knees concluded that somewhere between 19% and 43% of them over 40 years old showed features of osteoarthritis in their knees [5].

And it’s not just spines and knees. Another study comparing MRI results amongst those suffering from shoulder pain and those without pain concluded, “The cost burden of ordering MRI scans is significant and the relevance of the findings are questionable when investigating shoulder pain” [6].  

Put another way, if you gave an orthopaedist a random selection of MRI scans showing normal age-related joint degeneration, they would be unable to reliably say which ones were from people experiencing pain.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, although an MRI machine is an impressive piece of engineering (producing magnetic fields up to 60,000 times more powerful than the Earth’s and allowing us to detect protons tipping over), it’s still equivalent to the very early days of box cameras. You have to stay still for minutes at a time so they can get a blurry shot normally in a position that doesn’t cause the pain you’re being examined for. MRI’s simply don’t show how the structures around your joints move when you’re experiencing pain. 

And then you need to add into the mix that we don’t even have nerves in our cartilage or bones. So even where degeneration exists, the source of pain has to be somewhere else.

The key takeaway messages from this are probably:

  1. Our joints will degenerate with age but that’s not due to overuse or wearing out
  2. At some point, many of us will begin to experience pain
  3. All the evidence is that exercise helps slow this process

Joints are made to move

So, with respect to our joints, CrossFit actually seems like something to encourage as we get older, consisting as it does with a good mix of aerobic and resistance training, generally over full ranges of motion. Just what our joints need!

We just need to develop a different attitude toward our pains. I like giving them all the label of ‘niggles’ and I prefer to think of them as my ‘buy-ins’ to any workout. It can be an unpleasant 5-10 minute period during warm-ups before I can get going. In my case, my knees and back can take a while to warm up and I often dread the first ten or so air squats, lunges or similar. I also have to grin and bear a tearing pain in the palm of my hand for the first 2-3 press-ups caused by ‘trigger finger’, which is just another one of my niggles. But as CJ DePalma says, as long as the pain doesn’t get worse with exercise and stays below 5 out of 10, you’re good.

And if Billy Connelly ever ends up reading this, yes, I’m pretty much guaranteed to make a noise getting up from my first few burpees.

So, putting our niggles aside, is there something else about ageing that makes CrossFit risky for Masters over 50?

Physiological changes with ageing

Our maximum heart rate goes down and there’s nothing we can do about that. At the same time, our blood vessels and arteries become stiffer, which means our hearts have to work harder to pump blood around the body.

Similarly, our lungs and airways become stiffer. So, although the size of our lungs doesn’t actually change, the amount of air we can actually breathe out (‘forced vital capacity’) gradually reduces, as does our maximum exhalation rate (measured by ‘forced exhalation volume in one second’ or FEV1). So we basically can’t breathe as fast or as deep.

All right, so no mystery why us ‘Mega Masters’ aren’t competing in the Olympics but nothing that screams ‘don’t do CrossFit’ either. What about our immune system?

As we age, our immune system becomes slower to respond: our white blood cells don’t work as quickly; there are fewer white blood cells to respond to new antigens; and fewer antibodies are produced when antigens are detected. So we are basically at a higher risk of becoming ill and taking longer to fight off illness.

So is a reduced immune system going to be a problem, especially when it’s common knowledge that intense bouts of exercise (eg WODs) further temporarily suppress our immune system? 

Well, this is where ‘common knowledge’ is highly suspect. Not only is there significant evidence that regular physical exercise reduces incidences of chronic illnesses in older people, but the idea that a single bout of hard exercise can compromise the immune system simply isn’t supported by the evidence [3].

What about muscle loss?

Medically, sarcopenia (muscle loss) related to ageing is typically said to begin around 50 and can be a particular risk for women as they pass through menopause, with various research suggesting adults can lose an average of 1-3% of muscle mass every year. But this isn’t entirely inevitable. Unsurprisingly, the best way to stave off sarcopenia is resistance training and studies have shown that people are able to build muscle into their 60’s and 70’s, albeit not as easily, and through such training can achieve the same strength as the ‘average 40 year old’ [8]. 

Of course, we need to take that research into context since there is nothing average about the strength of someone who has been doing CrossFit for a few years. The oldest lifters to make the Olympic Games have been around 40 years old (Belgium’s Tom Goegebuer, aged 41, competed at the Rio Games coming 14th in the men’s 56kg) and this age seems to mark out the far outlier for maintaining maximum genetic potential. We can’t expect to always keep getting stronger from that point. Our potential will diminish as we age and will at some point meet our actual strength at which point we can expect our strength to decline despite further training.

According to strengthlevel.com, which professes to have compiled the data from over 7 million lifts, a 40 year old beginner male might be expected to deadlift around their own weight and a female beginner around 60% of their bodyweight. This is about the same as advanced lifters (which strengthlevel.com defines as someone who has regularly trained for more than 5 years) aged 80-89. This tallies well with the research noted above if you read ‘average 40 year old’ to be synonymous with a beginner to strength training.

However, if those same 40 year olds had regularly trained in CrossFit until they were 49, they might be expected to deadlift on average 250% and 150% of their male/female bodyweight respectively but they would then have struggled to keep those PR’s as they went into their 50’s. In general, the data on strengthlevel.com suggests that our strength potential drops below our maximum (pre 40’s) potential by 5% in our 40’s, 17% in our 50’s, 31% in our 60’s, 45% in our 70’s and 56% in our 80’s. 

So, if you’re new to CrossFit (or other forms of strength training) you can expect to build strength over 50. But if you’ve already been a CrossFitter throughout your 40’s, you may find your strength beginning to wane. At some point you’re going to find yourself fighting a rearguard action to keep as much muscle as possible. That sucks but that rearguard action is still vital.

Why strength training is vital for a longer life

It’s vital because maintaining muscle mass is one of the key ways to prevent injury, especially due to falls. Strength not only helps us avoid falling but muscle mass acts as an additional cushion when we do. In fact, Howard J Luks argues that falls are often the ultimate cause of our demise [9]: a fall causes an injury which leads to inactivity leading to muscle loss leading to greater frailty in a downward spiral. And as exercise and strength drop away, chronic conditions take hold.

This cycle can be exacerbated by the impact a fall can have on our confidence. It’s not uncommon for an elderly person to become afraid of further injury and begin to withdraw into their homes with damaging implications for their mental health as well as their physical condition.

We actually don’t need to train extensively to avoid this outcome and see considerable health benefits. Research suggests that significant health benefits can be obtained from a ‘minimum dose’ of as little as an hour’s resistance training, twice per week [11]. Of course, we don’t have to do CrossFit to achieve this but, since most of us find this a more enjoyable way to exercise than hitting the gym solo, why not? 

In fact, evidence shows people who exercise in groups tend to be more  consistent and consistency is key. According to Marcus Kingwell, CEO of EMD UK (the National Governing Body for Group Exercise in the UK), “research indicates that exercising in groups is easier to maintain over time. For example, with gym memberships, we see that those attending group exercise classes are 26% less likely to cancel than those who just use the gym equipment”.

Taking responsibility for how we train

What is certainly true is that we are more prone to injury and injuries take longer to heal as we get older and this may suggest we need to take a different approach. 

As every coach will tell you, strength gains are achieved through progressive overload: gradually increasing the stresses on your body to trigger a positive response. But stress your body too far too fast and an injury is inevitable, which then not only prevents further improvement while you heal but also results in some muscle loss while you do. 

As we get older, this window between ‘progressive overload’ and injury gets narrower. And since our time to both recover from injury and rebuild muscle lost during our recovery goes up, injury is something we increasingly want to avoid. This is particularly the case if we continue to aim for one rep maxes (1RM) against the inevitable backdrop of reducing strength noted above.

It was interesting to hear Mark Rippetoe, the man who literally wrote the book on strength training (“Starting Strength”), saying in his 60’s that he never attempts one rep max lifts anymore because of the risk of injury [10]. So as we age, maybe we should think about gradually adapting our strength training away from 1RM and towards 5RM, 10RM or even 20RM.

This is perhaps where CrossFit can be a risk for masters over 50. It is ultimately a fairly new sport dominated by younger athletes and coaches. Consequently, there is very limited experience or evidence base out there relating to how to program CrossFit for older participants. To some extent, us older CrossFitters are a petri dish experiment. So with WOD’s predominantly aimed at younger athletes, we have to take a greater responsibility for our own training and wellbeing. 

Just because a WOD may call for a 1RM, doesn’t mean we have to do it. No coach is going to say ‘no’ if we decide instead to go for a 10RM but it’s going to be down to us to make that judgement. Similarly, although coaches may advise that we’re ok to attempt a kipping pullup once we can do five strict pull-ups, it’s up to us if we want to err on the side of avoiding injury and hold off kipping until we can do ten strict.

Recovery days are up to us too. We probably want to take more of them per week and take those rest days seriously. A recovery day doesn’t mean a 50+ mile bike ride, a marathon row or fartlek-style running!

As CJ DePalma points out, as a physiotherapist, the majority of his clients fall into two camps: the chronically inactive and the optimistically overactive. Let’s leave the five-times-per-week WODs to the young pups.

We need to plan in de-load weeks and take those seriously too. That may mean a complete rest from the box, doing some light walking or swimming, or deliberately doing WODs at 60% effort (gasp, yes, that’s not a crime).

Ageing gracefully

At the end of the day, we need to remember that age has its benefits too. 

We should have less ego and more wisdom. Whereas the thirty somethings may feel the need to kill themselves rather than finish after us, even in the warm-ups, we should be sage enough to focus on the long game. Our goal is not to beat someone half our age (although I’ll admit it’s nice to give them a run for their money), it’s to be able to kick the Grim Reaper where it hurts when he comes knocking and tell him to come back in another decade.

We also typically have more time. Our kids are likely to have left home or are at least able to take care of themselves without our constant supervision. This gives more time to research and plan our fitness program – we don’t need to rely upon the impersonal WOD. We can plan to modify or alternate between WODs and our own training.

And if all else fails, we often have a bit more spare cash for physios!

In summary

It would seem that the exercise regime espoused by CrossFit, far from being a risk, seems to embody much of the health advice for older people. The combination of aerobic and functional resistance training ticks all the boxes for delaying the effects of ageing on our joints, immune system, connective tissue, muscle loss etc to name just a few. As a group exercise, its enjoyability makes it something that many older people will find easier to continue and it’s community aspect can help with the causes of mental health.

Indeed, when reviewing the exercise advice for older people, about the only thing missing from CrossFit is balancing exercises to further reduce the risk of falling. In the future, maybe we’ll begin to see exercises such as one-legged deadlifts enter the mix for us Mega Masters. Until then, we can look to add a little yoga to our recovery days. 

The biggest risk for us is that we don’t adapt our training to our ageing reality. As the sport continues to develop, we might expect to see more and more support for Mega Masters. For now, we just need to act our age.

Are you a Masters athlete? We have our very own private coaching group where you can follow along with our daily programming, post videos for feedback from our coaches and join in our weekly virtual ‘Coffee With Coaches’ call. We also hold events, giveaways and – along with the other members – provide support and guidance on your CrossFit journey. We’d love to have you join us!

References:

[1] – “Spotlight on Older Adults and Their Relationship with Sport and Physical Activity”, Sport England

[2] – “Physical Activity, self reported, adult, by age group”, Statistics Canada

[3] – “Debunking the Myth of Exercise-Induced Immune Suppression: Redefining the Impact of Exercise on Immunological Health Across the Lifespan”, John P. Campbell and James E. Turner, 2018

[4] – “Systematic Literature Review of Imaging Features of Spinal Degeneration in Asymptomatic Populations”, W. Brinjikji, P.H. Luetmer, B. Comstock et al., 2014

[5] – “Exercise and Knee Arthritis Pain: The science of why it works”, Howard J. Luks, 2019

[6] – “Prevalence of knee osteoarthritis features on magnetic resonance imaging in asymptomatic uninjured adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis”, Adam G Culvenor, Britt Elin Øiestad et al., 2019

[7] – “Prevalence of abnormalities on shoulder MRI in symptomatic and asymptomatic older adults”, Gill TK, Shanahan EM, Allison D, Alcorn D, Hill CL, 2014

[8] – “Never Too Late: Building Muscle and Strength After 60”, Patty Shillington, 2017

[9] – “Resistance and Balance Exercise to Live Longer and Healthier”, Howard J. Luks, 2019

[10] – “Considerations For The Aging Lifter- Starting Starting Radio Clips”, M Rippetoe, 2019

[11] – “A minimal dose approach to resistance training for the older adult; the prophylactic for aging“, James P. Fishera, James Steele et al., 2017

About the Author Mark Brighton

A member of CrossFit Southampton in England, Mark is also a director of EMD UK, the UK's national governing body for group exercise committed to creating healthier and stronger communities through group exercise. Mark is badly outnumbered and frequently outvoted in his house near Winchester by his wife, three children, a dog, two cats and a guinea pig.

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  • Karl Zeyher says:

    “Act your age” hits the nail on the head …. being an athlete all thru high school and college….remember/ knowing clearly all what I was capable of once doing ….BUT … now 60 years old with 4 years of CrossFit behind me That I love for all the positive functional benefits ….I have had my share of series injuries …. with full recovery… but all occurred by pushing too fast and too heavy “for my age”.
    The scaled version of WOD is useful, but after reading this article hi lites the need to tweak and support 50, 60 ,70 year old plus “Mega Masters” WOD . And I have faith that CrossFit will continue to support this, but there’s no substitute for alittle common sense, understanding where your body is now in life … we OG’s ( old guys or gals) know it takes a little longer alittle slower, and it ok to take a recovery day… your body will need it and appreciate it but Damit ! Keep moving ….
    ( don’t discount the vital importance of proper diet and sleep … all supports that improved quality of life …alittle longer )
    Kz

    • Mark Brighton says:

      Hi Karl, many thanks for reading and your comments. Totally agree with you on all points… although it’s amazing how rare ‘common sense’ can be!

  • Chris Duff says:

    This article is dead-on. I have been working out / training since I was 12. Started CrossFit at 45 and did it religiously for 5 years – 3 on/1 off. Then starting having issues with what would be termed “overtraining”. Really it was the reality of longer recovery times and all the other things mentioned above. By trial and error I have gone down a more productive path that involves mixing in my own training, scaling and modifying WODs, decreased frequency of workouts, increased recovery time, etc. It took me a while to accept and understand what was going on. Happier and healthier now. And no more pain and chronic physical / joint issues. This is a great topic and somewhat uncharted territory.

    • Mark Brighton says:

      Hi Chris, thanks for your feedback. Sounds like we’ve been down a similar path. I used to run marathons until I was advised to give up because of ‘lack of cartilage in my knees’. Stupidly, I did. But I took up CrossFit a year later. And guess what? After a couple of years, I’m back running! What I really needed was just more strength and to adjust my volume.

  • Mike says:

    I seldom ever respond to articles, but this one really hit home for me. I too am a “mega master” and came to try Crossfit at age 65. I had never been a competitive athlete, but recognized the benefits of regular exercise and essentially taught group fitness classes from age 30-60. Unfortunately, I ignored some of those “niggles” until they caught up with me, literally overnight. I could not exercise or teach for 6 months while I recovered. Ultimately I had to have a knee replacement. I struggled with motivation for a year or two and could just not get back into the swing of exercise. Working out on my own was just too boring.

    I came upon a Crossfit box in my neighborhood and decided to give it a try. I was very apprehensive as to whether or not I could fit in. I opted to be the “old guy” in the regular workouts.To the great credit of the owners and coaches, I was accepted, encouraged, and cheered on by everyone. Granted I was almost always the last to finish a WOD, but I did ! I scaled almost everything because I had to and I was also painfully aware that an injury would take forever to heal.

    Crossfit was a great opportunity for me at my age. I got stronger and fitter. Working out in a group does make things more fun and inspirational. However, as “Dirty Harry” once said, a man has to know his limitations. Great article. Really gave me some good perspectives.

    • Mark Brighton says:

      Hi Mike, really appreciate you reading my article and taking time to comment. Personally, I think masters like you are true inspirations. After all, while you may be thinking how much fitter those young ones are, they’ll be looking at you and thinking how impressive you are to still be rocking those WODs in your sixties. Power to you!

  • Amy says:

    Thank you for this article—a fellow Masters athlete (we’re both in our early 60s) at my Box forwarded it to me after I posted my surgeon’s advice at my 3-month post surgery check earlier today: if I were you with your shoulders, I would never do another full push up or burpee again.
    He is fine with mods that do not hurt when I do them. 6 years ago, I had a full rotator cuff tear on my left shoulder repaired & in January, a full rotator cuff tear on my right shoulder + a detachment, repair, and reattachment of my right bicep. His advice made me a bit sad, but I am glad that I am still able to work out, plus the coaches at my box have been awesome at designing safe mods. Your article helped put me in a better frame of mind and not fee like I was being wimpish—thank you!

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