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What’s the Best Age to Dominate Strength Sports?

Mass Research (Volume 3 - Issue 12)

Study ReviewedPeak Age and Performance Progression in World-Class Weightlifting and Powerliting Athletes. Solberg et al. (2019)

by Greg Nuckols

If you want to maximize your competitiveness in powerlifting or weightlifting, at what age should you anticipate being at the peak of your prowess? It seems that weightlifting is a young person’s game, but many powerlifters are still improving well into their 30s (or even 40s).

Key Points

  • When analyzing competition results from 4000+ athletes at world championships and the Olympics, it appears that powerlifters peak at an age of 35 ± 7, while weightlifters attain their best performances at 26 ± 3 years old.
  • Notice the standard deviations: if you want to be a world-class weightlifter, you realistically need to start training young enough that you can peak sometime in your 20s. However, while some powerlifters also reach their peak performance at a young age, there are some world-class lifters who are still improving into their 40s.
  • These differences are probably driven by the differing demands of the sports (weightlifting is more based on power, and powerlifting is more based on sheer force production), along with differences in overall competitiveness and talent pools.

After genetics, training age may be the most important factor explaining strength differences between individuals. However, biological age clearly plays a role as well. For every sport, there’s an age at which the best of the best are the most competitive. You don’t see many basketball players or footballers dominating in their 40s, after all. So, what is the prime age for strength sports?

A recent study examined competition results in world championships and the Olympics and found that world-class weightlifters tend to peak at around 26 years old, while powerlifters peak around 35. The standard deviation was also wider for powerlifters (7 years) than weightlifters (3 years), giving powerlifters a wider competitive window. These differences may be driven by several factors, including the age at which people begin training for each sport, the different physical requirements of the sports, and possibly changes in equipment over time.

Purpose and Hypotheses

Purpose

The purpose of this study was to identify the age of peak performance in elite weightlifters and powerlifters, as well as the magnitude of the performance improvement in the preceding years.

Hypotheses

No hypotheses were stated.

Subjects and Methods

Subjects

This was retrospective research, meaning the authors analyzed data that already existed, instead of actually recruiting subjects and running a study. As such, the “subjects” were everyone who had competed in the IPF powerlifting single ply world championships between 2003-2017, and the IWF weightlifting world championships or Olympics between 1998-2017, totaling 4385 competitors.

Data Analysis

The authors made an interesting decision when determining each athlete’s age of peak performance. Personally, I would have just recorded their age when they hit their highest total. Instead, the authors fit a quadratic curve to each of the athletes’ performance trends over time, with the assumption that peak performance occurred at the top of the curve. An example is provided below as Figure 1. As such, only the athletes with at least three world championship appearances could be analyzed. This was a somewhat odd choice, in my opinion, but as we’ll see, it probably didn’t matter a whole lot.

Rather than just looking at totals, the authors also split things out by lift, by sex, and by performance level (medalists vs. non-medalists). Furthermore, they analyzed the rates at which lifters improved their performance prior to their peak, and whether moving up or down weight classes improved athletes’ placing at competitions. Since weight classes changed a few times in both sports during this time span, the authors treated similar weight classes as if they were the same weight class for athletes who competed before and after each weight class realignment (i.e. if you competed in the 75kg class before the IPF’s new weight classes, and the 74kg class after the new weight classes, you were considered to be in the same class).

Findings

Peak age was 35 ± 7 for powerlifters and 26 ± 3 for weightlifters. That 9-year gap was a statistically significant difference. Within each sport, peak age for all three powerlifts was similar, as was the peak age for both the snatch and clean and jerk for weightlifters. The study provides a couple of tables of peak age for all lifts, all weight classes, and both sexes, which you can see below in Tables 1 and 2. Personally, I think it’s more granular than is useful, but it’s here if you’re interested.

In weightlifting, peak age was slightly younger for medalists than non-medalists, though the difference wasn’t significant for powerlifting. Peak age was slightly older for males in weightlifting and for females in powerlifting. All of those differences were pretty small (<1.5 years) and likely not meaningful; when you have almost 4500 subjects, just about everything will be statistically significant.

In the five years preceding peak performance, competitors in both sports improved by ~10%, though there was a huge range. The upper and lower bounds aren’t given, but the standard deviations were ~7-10%, meaning that anything between an incredibly small increase and a 20% increase in performance in the five years before peak performance wouldn’t be outside of the norm. Interestingly, in both sports, female lifters improved more than male lifters in the five years preceding peak performance (2.7 ± 3.8% more in powerlifting, and 3.3 ± 1.6% more in weightlifting). Powerlifters made a bit more progress than weightlifters in the 5 years prior to peak performance (12 ± 10% vs. 9 ± 7%), and within powerlifting, rates of improvement were greater for the squat and bench press than the deadlift.

Within both sexes, changing weight classes was generally beneficial. Males who moved down a weight class improved their placing by three spots, on average, while males who moved up a weight class and females who moved either up or down improved their placing by one spot, on average. However, changing a weight class was relatively uncommon. Only 733 of the 4385 athletes went up or down a weight class (16.7%). Of the people who changed weight classes, moving up a class was more common than moving down a class (534 vs. 199; almost 73% of the lifters who changed weight classes went up a weight class, while only ~27% moved down a weight class).

Interpretation

This was a neat article that confirms what strength sport fans have known for a long time, or at least strongly suspected: Weightlifting is a young person’s game, while powerlifters can improve much deeper into their careers than athletes in most other sports.

On the surface, powerlifting and weightlifting look like pretty similar sports, but the make-or-break factors in elite competition separate them. Namely, in powerlifting, you’re not penalized (much) by being slow. In weightlifting, on the other hand, speed is the name of the game. If you can still produce just as much force, but you can’t generate as high of velocities at the end of your second pull, or you can’t drop under the bar as fast to receive a clean or snatch, or you can’t generate as much power in the blink of an eye on your jerk drive, your performance suffers. In powerlifting, on the other hand, generating higher velocities right out of the hole on a squat could theoretically give you a little more leeway when grinding out a max, but the overall impact is MUCH smaller; there have always been successful powerlifters who don’t move the bar particularly fast. That distinction helps explain why weightlifters peak at a younger age than powerlifters: The ability to generate velocity and power drop off faster due to age than the ability to generate force (2, 3). There are a couple of reasons for this: the elastin content of tendons decreases (which decreases the efficiency of the stretch shortening cycle), and neural impulses travel at a slightly slower speed (which decreases active rate of force development; 4). So, while trained lifters can still add muscle mass and increase their force output into their 30s or even 40s, power output and velocity are much more subject to the aging process, and continued training can only slow down their decline.

However, I don’t know that the differences between the sports can be chalked up solely to physiology. Weightlifting is also a much more competitive sport worldwide. Most powerlifters don’t start training for powerlifting until high school at the earliest, whereas internationally competitive weightlifting programs begin developing weightlifters from a very young age. Thus, the training age of a 26-year-old internationally competitive weightlifter is, on average, much higher than a 26-year-old internationally competitive powerlifter. The present study (1) had no way of accounting for training age, but I strongly suspect that it’s an important factor. If powerlifters started training for powerlifting at the same age that weightlifters start training for weightlifting, it’s possible that we’d discover that the physiological peak age for powerlifting is, say, 30 years old rather than 35. Maybe the average 30-year-old powerlifter simply isn’t at an advanced enough training age to be at peak performance, and so they wind up peaking in the sport a few years after they “should” have peaked physiologically.

One final factor to consider is that this study examined world-class single ply powerlifters. Since the resurgence of raw lifting is a relatively recent phenomenon, the authors had to focus in on single ply competition in order to have enough years of data to analyze. During the time period the authors analyzed, it’s my understanding that single ply, IPF-approved powerlifting gear has improved considerably. Thus, it’s possible that a fair amount of the lifters in the sample put up their best totals a few years after their actual strength peaked, as improved equipment allowed them to keep improving their competition numbers.

When considering the effects of lifting gear and training age, I think we can firmly conclude that weightlifters do likely reach their peak in the sport younger than powerlifters do, but I think the average of 35 years old for powerlifters is a little higher than it “should” be. In other words, that may have been the average age at which the lifters in their sample actually attained their best performance, but I’m not fully convinced that it’s actually the “optimal” age for powerlifters.

I want to make one thing clear, however: Just because internationally competitive weightlifters peak at 26 and internationally competitive powerlifters peak at 35, on average, you shouldn’t assume that’s when you’ll peak. I carried out an analysis of powerlifting meet results last year (on all raw competitors, not just internationally competitive lifters) and found that people of all ages are still making gains, on average. Now, there’s clearly some self-selection bias – lifters who started competing in their 20s don’t keep getting stronger into their 70s, after all. It’s more likely that people simply stop competing (or competing as often) once their strength starts waning. However, of the people who do compete in powerlifting, we can see that the median rate of progress is positive well into the Masters divisions (40 years old and above). One common fear I hear from middle-aged folks who start lifting is that the progress they’ll be able to make may be very modest on account of their age. The data don’t really bear that out. While it’s true that people in their teens and early 20s make progress at a faster rate than Masters and Submasters athletes, median rates of progress only drop by about 50% between 30 and 60 years old (Figure 3). So, if you’re just getting into lifting in your 40s or 50s, your rate of progress may not be quite as fast as someone in their late 20s or early 30s, but on the flip side, new lifters in their late 20s or early 30s can generally make a LOT of progress pretty quickly. You’ll probably also be able to make very substantial progress, just at a somewhat slower rate.

An interesting finding of the present study (1) is that athletes tended to improve their placing by changing weight classes. However, I’d caution you about getting too trigger happy on jumping to a new weight class, assuming it will improve your competitiveness. Since this was a study on internationally competitive lifters, most of the lifters shifting weight classes probably did so because they knew they could move into a less competitive weight class. In other words, we don’t know that they actually became more competitive in a vacuum (i.e. their Wilks or Sinclair scores improved). Rather, it’s likely they moved into a new weight class because they knew that the weight class above or below their own was likely to be less competitive in the upcoming year due to injuries, retirements, etc. I do think it’s worth noting that the majority of athletes that changed weight classes tended to move up a weight class, though. In general, you should be the most competitive in the heaviest weight class you can fill out while maintaining pretty good body composition. The fact that way more of the internationally competitive lifters in this sample moved up a weight class rather than down a weight class bears that out.

There’s one more observation I’d like to bring your attention to: The female lifters in this sample made more progress (on a percentage basis) than the male lifters in the five years prior to peak performance. That matches trends I’ve noted in both the published literature (mostly in studies on untrained lifters) and in powerlifters more generally (not just world-class lifters): On a relative basis, female lifters seem to progress faster than male lifters. I’ll be honest: I’m not sure why that’s the case. In untrained lifters, differences in starting points could certainly play a role (i.e. “untrained” female lifters may be more untrained, relatively speaking, than “untrained” male lifters, perhaps due to differences in sport participation or jobs involving manual labor). However, I’d assume that any of those baseline differences would be washed out by the time people felt sufficiently trained to step on a powerlifting platform, and certainly before they became world-class lifters. I’m really not sure why relative rates of strength progress would be higher in females than males, but it’s an observation that’s shown up several times now, in lifters ranging from untrained to internationally competitive. I hope we see some future research on physiological factors underpinning this observation.

Next Steps

In general, I’d just like to see a repeat of this study in 10 years with raw lifters used as the powerlifting sample. The sport is growing so much, and more youth lifters are getting into powerlifting, so I’ll be interested to see if peak age stays in the mid-30s, or if it trends a bit younger over time.

Application and Takeaways

For both powerlifting and weightlifting, getting into the sport at an early age can help ensure that your competitive peak can coincide with your physiological peak. However, if you don’t have a time machine, you can still improve powerlifting performance (and, more generally, the ability to build muscle and increase your capacity to generate force) well into your 30s and beyond. Time catches up with everyone eventually, but the impact of aging on force generation starts later and proceeds more gradually than the impact of aging on velocity and power generation.

References

  1. Solberg PA, Hopkins WG, Paulsen G, Haugen TA. Peak Age and Performance Progression in World-Class Weightlifting and Powerlifting Athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2019 Oct 7:1-7.
  2. Reid KF, Fielding RA. Skeletal muscle power: a critical determinant of physical functioning in older adults. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2012 Jan;40(1):4-12.
  3. It’s almost necessarily true that power will decrease faster than force output. Since power is force multiplied by velocity, if force output goes down 10%, then power must also decrease by at least 10%. If any other changes occur that impact velocity, power necessarily decreases at a faster rate than force does.
  4. In sedentary folks, type II fibers also atrophy due to aging at a faster rate than type I fibers, but that shouldn’t be a major factor in elite strength athletes

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