When you’re just getting back into fitness after 50, or if you are ramping up the intensity after a slow period, you might run the risk of overdoing it and ending up sore or injured. So what’s the best way to increase your work effort and maximize your gains while minimizing your risk of pain and suffering?

We recommend thinking about your workout in four different phases. Each phase represents a goal of your workout, and reflects your experience in the gym as well as your mindset during the workout. You might cycle through each phase multiple times each week, or spend several weeks or months in one phase before moving on to the next.

Four Phases of Fitness After 50

Phase 1: Skills

During the Skills Phase your only priority is on form and technique. You take your time during each workout to focus on body mechanics and range of motion. Take frequent breaks and keep the resistance just heavy enough to feel the movement, but well short of your strength limits. The goal is not heavy weights or fast times, just perfect form.

When you are focusing on Skills, you’ll be working with lighter weights and taking more time with your workouts, so your work output will be less; however, you will be building strength in your small muscles, ligaments and tendons that support your major joints, preventing injuries both inside and outside the gym. You’ll also work on increasing your range of motion, a key factor in maintaining and improving mobility and flexibility.

The Skills Phase is where you should begin your workouts if you are new to the gym, and is a good place to restart a workout if you’ve been on vacation or out of the gym for more than a week or two. You might also consider taking a “technique” mindset if you are feeling slow or tired on any particular day, if you are stressed or lacking sleep. Take your time and focus on form to prevent injuries and maximize your gains.

Phase 2: Stamina

When you are just starting back in the gym, the next phase you’ll want to tackle after mastering form and technique is Stamina. In the Stamina Phase you will continue to emphasize excellent form in your movements, but start to take fewer breaks and push yourself a little longer before resting. Push yourself to get in an extra few reps before stopping to catch your breath or grab a drink of water. You’ll start to feel sore again, but not so much that you can’t tolerate it. During this phase you are building cardiovascular stamina and endurance without sacrificing form. You should also see your weight loss accelerate if this is one of your goals.

As with the Skills Phase, expect to stay in the Stamina Phase for several weeks or more when you are just getting started. Over time you’ll see your cardio start to ramp up and the workouts will seem to get easier. You may see your heart rate during the workouts come down a bit as your cardiovascular system adapts to your work efforts. This is when you want to consider moving on to the next phase, Strength.

Keep in mind that Skills and Stamina Phases require you to be working with relatively comfortable resistance levels. You should never be struggling with your weights when working through these two phases of fitness after 50.

Phase 3: Strength

Once your stamina has built up and you can make it through longer intervals without feeling like you’re out of gas, you should advance to the Strength Phase. At this point you will start to slowly increase your resistance with each workout. Grab a slightly heavier dumbbell or medicine ball. Go from Level 1 to Level 2 modifications. Now you will see your heart rate climbing again during workouts as you increase your work output. You’ll begin building lean muscle and strength in addition to cardiovascular stamina. You should start to see toning and definition in your arms and legs.

The Strength Phase is challenging in that increasing weights can pose the risk of injury if you advance faster than your body can handle. Check in with your form and technique as you increase resistance, making sure that you never sacrifice good form in your quest for added strength. If you think you can add 10 pounds to a particular exercise, start with a few reps at 5 extra pounds, then ramp up to 10. If your form starts to suffer, back off again and regroup. You may find that it takes a little back and forth to get comfortable at the new resistance levels.

Phase 4: Power

The last Phase, and one of the most important, is Power. Power is the result of adding speed to resistance. Higher power outputs correlate with better functional outcomes across all domains, meaning that increasing your power is your best way to increase your overall functioning and quality of life.

In the Power Phase, continue with a moderate to heavy resistance level and start to push yourself harder without losing form. Instead of going longer as in the Stamina Phase, now you are going harder for short bursts of max power. You’ll find yourself taking more breaks again, but you’re experiencing a higher work output and hitting peak heart rates faster. This is by far the most challenging way to approach a workout, but offers the most rapid gains in strength, speed, and power. Plus, working on Power is the fastest way to reshape your body in the direction you want.

The Power Phase offers the most reward but at the highest risk. You only want to tackle max effort at high resistance once your Technique and Stamina are locked in. If your technique suffers during max effort you risk the type of injury that can derail your gym efforts and sideline your workout for days to weeks. Only tackle this Phase when you are good and ready.

When you think about your workouts in these Phases, you’ll be better able to adopt a mindset for success in the gym. Each Phase can last a week, a month, or three months depending on your goals and mental state. As you become more comfortable with your workouts and have cycled through these Phases at least once, you may start to think about each day as a different Phase, choosing to focus on Skills, Stamina, Strength, or Power during each particular day based on your mood or energy level.

You’ll also notice that your choice of resistance level and your scores for each workout will vary based on which Phase you are in. When you go to your Power and Stamina cycles, your times will decrease or your rounds will increase, demonstrating an increase in overall work output. Your focus is on taking fewer breaks (Stamina) or moving faster through the workout (Power). This should be reflected by an increase in your scores.

During a Skills or Strength phase, your times or rounds should decrease relative to what you achieved during the Power or Stamina phase. Your focus is on setting the foundations for faster times and higher scores later on when you return to the Power and Stamina cycles.

Keeping these Four Phases in mind will help you get the most from your workouts. Good luck!