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Strength evolution across ages in powerlifting

by P. Debraux | 12 December 2023

strength, powerlifting, muscle, aging, senior, training, science, sport

Muscle strength has a positive impact on health and physical function at all ages. It is inversely related to various comorbidities and to the risk of all-cause mortality, even in young adults. However, strength tends to decline with age (by around 1% per year), most markedly in the lower limbs and after the age of 60. Fortunately, strength training can effectively improve muscle strength or slow its decline, particularly in older people. That's why strength training is a recommended activity in global health and physical activity guidelines. However, it is relatively difficult to study the long-term effects of strength training due to time, financial and participant retention constraints, which explains the rarity of interventions lasting longer than one year.

In the field of strength training, data obtained from general non-athletic populations often concern minimal-dose resistance training, generally involving modest training regimens, such as one session per week. These studies have revealed significant strength gains over several years, but a considerable proportion of these gains tend to occur in the first year. While instructive, these results do not fully represent the strength adaptation potential achievable through more rigorous and targeted training regimens. This gap underscores the need to study other populations such as strength-sport athletes. Among them, powerlifters, who generally exclude other forms of physical activity, such as endurance training, focusing exclusively on the development of maximal strength. This high level of specificity in training provides an excellent context for understanding the upper limits and dynamics of force adaptation. The study of powerlifters also offers insight into the chronic effects of high-intensity strength training, a significant departure from patterns observed in non-athletic populations.

Although strength tends to decline with age, the rate and magnitude of this decline in the context of high-intensity strength training, such as that undertaken by powerlifting athletes, is still not fully understood. How does the strength of powerlifters change over time? Does age-related decline in strength occur at the same rate in powerlifters as in sedentary or active people? How does chronic participation in strength training affect lifelong adaptive potential, and what information can be obtained to support the generalization and promotion of strength training?

The Study

In an attempt to provide answers to these questions, researchers carried out a retrospective longitudinal analysis using Open Powerlifting data. To do this, the authors limited their study to the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) dataset, and filtered this dataset to include only open and unequipped (raw) events in the squat, bench press and deadlift. The analysis was limited to athletes who had participated in a minimum of three competitions, to enable growth patterns to be analyzed. After this filtering, the dataset comprised 46066 observations on 9259 unique powerlifters for up to approximately 17 years of competition.

Results & Analyzes

The main results of this study show that the rate of strength adaptation slows down over time. The most significant strength gains in powerlifting are observed in the first year, with an increase of around 7.5 to 12.5% compare to baseline strength. After 10 years, strength gains are in the order of 20% compare to baseline. Despite diminishing benefits over time, sustained improvement or at least maintenance of strength throughout life is considered crucial to the overall health of the population. Regular strength training counteracts muscle weakness and physical fragility, improves physical performance, quality of life and psychological well-being, and reduces the risk of falls and fractures in the elderly. It also promotes mental health and social well-being, and can reduce stress in some people.

Regarding the effect of age on strength development, younger male and female athletes show greater improvements in strength than older athletes. This is attributed to continued physical growth and development, and probably to a lower training age in junior athletes. Strength gains in children and adolescents are largely due to neural adaptations. Strength has been shown to improve by 30-50% after just 8-12 weeks of training.

Athletes aged between 40 and 59 still improve their strength after ~14.4 years of training. Women, particularly in the older Masters categories (> 59 years), continue to show strength improvements of the order of 2.5-5%. This continued improvement in strength in older women could be due to their lower starting strength, giving them greater potential for adaptation. Whereas in male powerlifters over 59, a decline in strength of around 0.35% per year is observed.

Thus, aging, but especially physical inactivity, has a negative impact on muscle fiber function and strength. Lifelong muscle strengthening appears to protect against this decline in strength, which is crucial if we consider that low muscle strength is a major predictor of mortality in the elderly.

Regarding the effect of gender on strength evolution, although in terms of absolute strength, men are stronger than women, women increase their maximal strength more rapidly than men, when their baseline level is taken into consideration. This tendency for women to gain relative strength more quickly is reflected in the evolution of the 3 powerlifting movements (squat, bench press and deadlift).

Finally, regarding the effect of weight category on strength evolution, slower progress was observed in the heavier weight categories. When relative strength levels are taken into account, lighter competitors of both sexes are generally stronger. This suggests that lighter individuals may have greater potential for increased strength, or that the greater percentage increase in strength is due to the fact that their absolute loads are generally lighter... However, these conclusions remain speculative, as there is a lack of direct evidence in the literature to explain this.

Practical Applications

Based on a population of athletes specializing in maximal strength development, this study provides valuable insights into how strength increases, taking into account biological and morphological influences such as age, gender and body weight. While the results relate specifically to strength athletes, they also serve as a model for the general public, demonstrating that regular strength training can combat the deleterious effects of aging and physical inactivity, in both men and women.


  1. Latella C, van den Hoek D, Wolf M, Androulakis‑Korakakis P, Fisher JP and Steele J. Athletes to Determine Strength Adaptations Across Ages in Males and Females: A Longitudinal Growth Modelling Approach. Sports Med, Online ahead of print, 2023.

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