Numbers Don’t Lie: 2021 Masters Games Athletes Continue to Gain Fitness Well After 50
If you’ve been doing CrossFit for ten years, or even five, you have probably learned to appreciate those one-pound and two-second PRs, as significant improvements become harder and harder to achieve, especially as athletes age out of their prime fitness years.
- Now imagine being in your 50’s and 60’s and trying to improve, or even maintain your fitness level after ten years of CrossFit. Some might even say it’s impossible and that our bodies aren’t designed to maintain, let alone gain strength at that age.
- Until you look at the Masters division competing at the CrossFit Games. They’re actively maintaining their fitness and in many cases, are continuing to see gains in some or all areas of the sport.
By the numbers: We spoke with 20 masters athletes competing at this year’s Games, all of whom have a minimum of five years of CrossFit experience.
- 11 of them reported having regular strength PRs, both when it comes to lifting and gymnastics. This varies from a one-rep max to a heavy triple.
- Five athletes said they have mostly maintained their absolute strength numbers and continue to see improvements in gymnastics movements, as well as skills such as double-unders or dumbbell proficiency.
- Three athletes reported their lifting strength numbers are down a bit in recent years, but they’re still making improvements in other areas of the sport.
- And one athlete—Ron Ortiz—said after 11 years of CrossFit, it has been difficult recently to maintain his strength and fitness, and injuries have prevented him from being able to test any of his lifts. “I have stayed consistent but fight hard to sustain the strength,” said Ortiz, who will be competing in his eighth CrossFit Games.
The gains crew: In his 11th year of CrossFit, 51-year-old Darius Boockholdt said he still sees improvements “wherever I decide to focus,” he explained. Five years ago, his best back squat was 375 pounds, and today he can squat 400 pounds. He also added 10 pounds to his deadlift and 20 pounds to his clean.
- Similarly, in his 6th year of CrossFit, Kevin Koester has added 105 pounds to his back squat and 90 pounds to his deadlift in recent years, and at the age of 54 is “still seeing improvements,” he said.
- At age 56 with 11 years of CrossFit under his belt and competing in his third CrossFit Games, Patrick Sprague insists he is “stronger and more flexible than ever.” Ten years ago, Sprague’s best squat was 275 pounds, and now can squat more than 400 pounds. Similarly, he added 90 pounds to his clean and 120 pounds to his deadlift in the last decade, boasting a 525 pound deadlift today. Most impressively, however, is how much he has improved his mobility, evidenced by his 185-pound overhead squat. A decade ago, his mobility prevented him from lifting much more than the empty barbell. “Science says a person does not get stronger (in their 50’s). I disagree,” said Sprague.
- 57-year-old Laurie Meschishnick, an 11 year CrossFit veteran competing in her 7th CrossFit Games, also said she still sees regular strength PRs, both when it comes to lifting and gymnastics. “I have had (recent) PRs in my clean and jerk and squat. I think my deadlift might be higher too, but I haven’t tested it in a while….I am seeing improvements definitely in my gymnastics, particularly muscle-ups, both ring and bar, but in pull-ups, too,” Meschishnick said.
- And even at 60, Craig Fegan, who started CrossFit in 2014, said he’s continued to see regular strength gains. Five years ago, his best back squat was 185 pounds, and today he can squat 295 pounds, while his deadlift has jumped from 280 pounds to 375 pounds. Further, Fegan has added 30 pounds to his shoulder press and more than 50 pounds to his clean. “Improvements may not come as quickly or as frequently as they used to, but if you stay the course you can lift more, get faster, and be more flexible,” Fegan said.
The maintenance crew: Like many masters athletes, 52-year-old CJ Russo isn’t concerned in working on max lifts anymore and usually stays in the 80 to 90 percent range, he explained.
- Russo admitted that his pure strength numbers are down a bit from five years ago, but he has improved many of his gymnastics movements, including his handstand push-ups and muscle-ups. “My capacity as an athlete makes the 2014 Russo athlete look like he belongs in an on-ramp class,” he joked.
- The same is true for 60-year-old Donna Murren, a ten year CrossFit veteran, who weighed more than 200 pounds when she started CrossFit, compared to 134 pounds today. “My focus at this age is to maintain strength and avoid injury. I have seen improvement in some skills like double-under and dumbbell movements. In this past year, I have made improvements in some gymnastics. My pull-ups and toes-to-bar are the best they have ever been,” Murren said.
- Similarly, 64-year-old Tom Muhlbeier, who started CrossFit in 2012, said he is seeing some strength improvements in certain areas, but not in others. “I am very conscious of injury and recovery so I don’t go for 1RM weights (on back squats and deadlifts) very often anymore,” he said. However, he has recently hit PRs on his thruster, overhead squat, snatch and shoulder press. “I am also seeing improvements in the skill movements like ring muscle-ups, bar muscle-ups, handstand walks and pistols,” he added.
- For Cal Cherrington who is also 64, his lifting numbers are down from five years ago. But he said his overall strength and fitness is improving “even as I get into my sixties.” Recently, Cherrington repeated the Bar Fight event from the 2017 CrossFit Games and beat his time by an entire minute.
The bottom line: While we can’t fight the ageing process, many athletes in their 50’s and 60’s competing in Madison next week are evidence that we can continue to improve our fitness, even sometimes our pure strength numbers, well beyond what we have let science tell us is possible. It gets harder, but it’s possible.
- As Cherrington put it: “I do think strength gains are very possible as you get older, but it takes some hard work and a great diet. But CrossFit, if done right, is a fountain of youth,” he said.