Muscle morphology and performance in master athletes: A systematic review and meta-analyses

Ageing Res Rev. 2018 Aug;45:62-82. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2018.04.007. Epub 2018 Apr 30.


Introduction: The extent to which chronic exercise training preserves age-related decrements in physical function, muscle strength, mass and morphology is unclear. Our aim was to conduct a systematic review of the literature to determine to what extent chronically trained master athletes (strength/power and endurance) preserve levels of physical function, muscle strength, muscle mass and morphology in older age, compared with older and younger controls and young trained individuals.

Methods: The systematic data search included Medline, EMBASE, SPORTDiscus, CINAHL and Web of Science databases.

Inclusion criteria: i) master athletes mean exercise training duration ≥20 years ii) master athletes mean age of cohort >59 years) iii) at least one measurement of muscle mass/volume/fibre-type morphology and/or strength/physical function.

Results: Fifty-five eligible studies were identified. Meta-analyses were carried out on maximal aerobic capacity, maximal voluntary contraction and body composition. Master endurance athletes (42.0 ± 6.6 ml kg-1 min-1) exhibited VO2max values comparable with young healthy controls (43.1 ± 6.8 ml kg-1 min-1, P = .84), greater than older controls (27.1 ± 4.3 ml kg-1 min-1, P < 0.01) and master strength/power athletes (26.5 ± 2.3 mlkg-1 min-1, P < 0.01), and lower than young endurance trained individuals (60.0 ± 5.4 ml kg-1 min-1, P < 0.01). Master strength/power athletes (0.60 (0.28-0.93) P < 0.01) and young controls (0.71 (0.06-1.36) P < 0.05) were significantly stronger compared with the other groups. Body fat% was greater in master endurance athletes than young endurance trained (-4.44% (-8.44 to -0.43) P < 0.05) but lower compared with older controls (7.11% (5.70-8.52) P < 0.01).

Conclusion: Despite advancing age, this review suggests that chronic exercise training preserves physical function, muscular strength and body fat levels similar to that of young, healthy individuals in an exercise mode-specific manner.

Keywords: Endurance capacity; Lifelong exercise; Muscle mass; Muscle strength; Sarcopenia.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Athletes*
  • Exercise / physiology
  • Exercise Test / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Muscle Fibers, Skeletal / metabolism
  • Muscle Strength / physiology*
  • Physical Endurance / physiology*
  • Physical Functional Performance*