Finish Strong: How To Taper For Strength Performance
by Joshua Gibson, Zac Robinson, and Josh Pelland |
Aug 20, 2020
The final week(s) of a training cycle can make or break strength performance. This article explores the research related to tapering for maximal strength, discusses limitations of a purely evidence-led approach, and provides some practical guidelines to apply in your own training.
- A taper is a period at the end of a training cycle, the intent of which is to maximize performance by maintaining fitness while dissipating fatigue.
- While various tapering strategies can help to maximize performance, they seem to share the recommendation of decreasing training volume, while maintaining or increasing absolute intensity (% of 1RM).
- Different tapering styles should be trialed to identify the optimal one for any given athlete. Note, however that the effectiveness of any tapering strategy will in part be dictated by dynamic influences such as previous programming, differences in training age, skill execution, and non-training stressors.
[~2900 words | 12-16 minute read]
The fact of the matter is, the final training block in preparation for a competition can make or break your strength performance. But, let's back up a bit. Competition preparation can be broken down into two primary phases. The first is training intended to set up optimal performance on a specific date in the near future. The second, and the one we'll focus on here, is training intended to realize that performance.
We can define the first portion of the training block as peaking. Generally, training intended to peak performance will feature greater specificity, exposures to higher intensities, potentially an overreaching period, and accommodation of an athlete's personal go-tos for facilitating his or her best performance.
Conversely, training aimed at realizing those improvements directly manipulates training variables so as to prepare the athlete for the demands of competition itself. We can define this realization of improvements as tapering. Successful tapering works to reduce the athlete's physiological and psychological training stress in order to enable him or her to feel recovered and capable of maximal performance on game day, whilst maintaining previously-gained performance improvements.
In strength sport, tapering strategies come in countless shapes and sizes, and are often largely derived from anecdotes of experienced lifters. While personal experience is important to consider, it does have its limitations for applications to a broader population. To construct the optimal taper for strength athletes, let's look to related research as our foundation, which we can then personalize for best results. In this article, we'll explore the theoretical rationale for tapering, examine the body of both experimental and anecdotal evidence for it, and discuss the practical applications of these principles for optimizing strength performance.
Before we compare taper structuring approaches, we need to understand why tapering is necessary in the first place. The theoretical rationale for tapering can be explained by the fitness-fatigue model. This model conceptualizes the fact that, with every dose of challenging training, there is an increase in fitness, but also in fatigue. Fitness can be viewed as the positive adaptations gained from training. In the context of maximal strength, this includes both muscular adaptations (e.g. changes in muscle size and architecture) and neural adaptations (e.g. improvements in motor unit synchronization and decreased antagonist coactivation). On the other hand, fatigue can be viewed as the negative “tax” that's imposed on any meaningful dose of training. The interplay between fitness and fatigue results in the expression of an individual’s performance (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The Fitness-Fatigue Model: Interaction of fitness, fatigue and performance following a training session.
Fatigue can be broken down further into “training fatigue” and “non-training fatigue.” Training fatigue is related to changes in the musculoskeletal system that are directly associated with the training stress (e.g. muscle damage and delayed onset muscle soreness). Importantly, these adaptations are usually observable. For instance, muscle damage can decrease performance for an extended period of time, depending on training age, novelty of the movement, and the number of contractions. Non-training fatigue is related to psychosocial stressors (e.g. final exams, stressful relationships, and chronic sleep deprivation which manifest physiologically, and decrease recovery while potentially increasing injury risk.
It's important to keep in mind that both fitness and fatigue accumulate over time. Typically, gains in fitness are small in magnitude but resistant to decay. Inversely, gains in fatigue are large in magnitude but decay relatively quickly. Given that performance can be defined as the delta between fitness and fatigue, an athlete's performance may get "masked" by quickly accumulating fatigue, a high level of fitness notwithstanding. This is where tapering comes in. Reducing training stress in the short term dissipates accumulated fatigue, which allows fitness levels to be fully displayed (Figure 2).
Figure 2: How the tapering of training stress can maximize short-term performance.
The fine line to walk, however, is that of sufficiently decreasing training stress to reduce fatigue, but not so much as to reduce performance. This delicate balance may be why tapering is often considered an “art”—that of managing multiple, extraneous influences surrounding both the accumulation and dissipation of juxtaposed fatigue and fitness effects. Training history, training style, absolute strength, biological sex, body mass, and the specific adaptation of focus are just some examples of these influences. And, even if an identical combination of these factors is at play for any two individuals, each individual's particular response to each of these factors will also vary. As such, the peaking and tapering process is relatively complex.
With the popularization of athlete assessment protocols (e.g. single at 8 RPE, AMRAPs, Max Out Friday), many coaches have observed that athletes can hit an unplanned personal record at many different time points within a competition calendar. Some lifters have even managed to hit personal records during volume blocks, which are often characterized by the greatest total training volumes, paired with lowest average intensities. Though fatigue would be high at this stage in the training cycle, the athlete's fitness appears to be higher, resulting in the ability to display lifetime bests. This apparent contradiction is difficult to make sense of, and illustrates some of the complexities of the peaking and tapering processes.
On the other hand, it's by no means uncommon for an athlete to fail to exceed best performance following a seemingly flawless peak and taper. In these cases, some of the best lifts are made a month or two before the final training block, but fail to be surpassed after fatigue is lowered. This under-performance is sometimes accompanied by athletes' self reports of feeling great, but just not "having it" during that final stretch. This phenomenon once again highlights the intricacies of optimal competition preparation, and the need for an individualized, athlete-centered approach.
With the theoretical rationale behind tapering and its limitations in mind, let’s turn to the scientific literature to help make sense of what we observe in practice.
Summary of Tapering Research:
The vast majority of the literature on tapering comes from research performed on endurance athletes (see: Inigo Mujika’s research). Due to the increased popularity of strength sports, however, works investigating tapering for maximal strength have gained more traction. Specifically, a recent review paper by Pritchard and colleagues aimed to collect all of the research on tapering for maximal strength prior to 2015, showcasing two primary methods of tapering: the manipulation of training variables, and training cessation.
As mentioned, the manipulation of training variables for a taper can be accomplished a few different ways. The authors of the aforementioned review looked at three methods: progressive linear tapers, one step tapers, and complete training cessation. A progressive linear taper reduces training fatigue by gradually decreasing training volume, and requiring either a maintenance of or an increase in absolute intensity (% of 1RM) in the moderate term (10+ days). A one step taper is a short term (<10 days), rapid decrease in training volume, that also either maintains or increases absolute intensity. Of the studies that used a progressive, linear taper, there was an average of 3.65% increase in performance over the pre-tapering values, versus an average of 4.39% increase in performance with a one step taper. The first thing to notice is that these tapering strategies have a small, but meaningful impact, with an average of about a 4% increase, but, that small change can be the difference between 4th place or a podium finish. But, before we leap to the conclusion that a one step taper is the winning strategy, let's realize that the number of studies on one step tapers far exceeds the number on progressive linear tapers, and these two methods are rarely compared to one another in the same study.
The last method of tapering, training cessation, is fairly straightforward. Just like it sounds, this strategy requires the athlete to stop training altogether for a given period preceding competition. According to the authors’ analyses, about a week of training cessation is adequate to maintain performance while 4-5 days seems to be optimal for enhancing it. Admittedly, there is very limited literature about these protocols, with most training cessation studies looking at periods of over 10 days that result in significant decreases in strength. In another review paper directed at tapering for muscular power, training cessation often caused athletes to feel “sluggish, lazy, and unmotivated”... a worthwhile consideration for recommending training hiatuses.
Taking the full scope of this review paper into account, tapering seems to offer a small, short-term performance improvement for maximal strength. A few limitations of this research methodology to keep in mind as we evaluate its findings:
- Training protocols varied greatly in design and length
- Subject training status is extremely variable
- The strength measurements used were not the same throughout all of the studies—some studies measured isometric strength, while others examined single joint movements, which are not extremely relevant for strength sports
- The application to strength sports with a greater velocity component (i.e. weightlifting) is questionable
If we examine pertinent research from the last five years, we find these most recent efforts similarly inconclusive, though it continues to support the trend towards improvements in performance after some sort of "backing off" of training before the testing period. So, we can observe that, generally, successful tapers decrease training volume and maintain or increase absolute intensity (% of 1RM). This can take the form of training cessation, a step taper, or a progressive linear taper. But the improvements in performance from all of the above have repeatedly been shown to be somewhat modest (in the neighborhood of 2-4%).
One thing's for sure: short of testing one's strength when extremely tired and beat up, the benefit of tapering seems to be extremely individualized. Some athletes have reported up to a 7.5% improvement in performance on competition day, thanks in part to a properly designed peak and taper. This means that the heaviest weight touched in the gym pales in comparison to what is executed on the platform. Meanwhile, others can only match their best training lifts on the competition platform, and others still fall short of their training bests come "meet day". In fairness, performance discrepancies on meet day can be chalked up to much more than just absolute performance, such as pre-competition weight loss, lifting on a clock, exchanging attempts with competitors, having a crowd present, etc. As such, effective taper design should feature preparation for the changes in training environment and protocol, to help stabilize any potential performance gain.
Practical Application - Being Evidence-Informed
As with most research in the sport science world, the data will seldom offer us an exact answer to an exact question. Instead, it provides us with a framework, concepts, and principles that can be exercised in unique ways, to produce a somewhat reliable and robust response. Paired with anecdotes and years of coaching and personal competition experience, the resulting trifecta begins to operate as “best practice.”
Given what we have discussed within this article, we now know that we should consider the athlete's physiological and psychological particularities, his or her previous training, and a slew of other modifiable factors to create the best peaking and tapering strategy for a future testing date. Options include step tapering, progressive linear tapering, training cessation, or sidestepping pre-competition training modification, instead timing performance peak at competition. There are risks and benefits to each strategy, for each lift, for each athlete. Some athletes may report the deadlift as being harder to recover from and subsequently want a more extended, more dramatic taper. Bench is often reported to lie on the other end of the stimulus-fatigue spectrum, where frequency and intensities stay higher closer to a meet, because it doesn’t “beat the athlete up” as much. These guidelines arise from the experience of most lifters, but shouldn't be used as hard and fast rules. Instead, the key to creating a peak in desired performance likely lies in the interplay between frequency, absolute intensity, volume, and exercise selection. Volume and absolute intensity are the top two players, heavily dictating the accumulation/dissipation of peripheral and central fatigue. Exercise selection and frequency are also relatively impactful, due to their influences on volume and absolute intensity.
But, regardless of how you manipulate the variables, there should likely be a reduction in training stress, even if minimal, before a competition. The amount of training stress you decide to remove, and how you decide to remove it, should fit your programming model. Our recommendations stand that most will benefit from higher absolute intensity (% of 1RM) exposures closer to a testing date, lower volumes, and a lower relative intensity/RPE. Most of this will follow a step taper format, with the big volume reduction (40-70%) the week of the testing session. If this is a lower priority session, a mock meet, or train-through meet, the reduction should err on the lower end (20-40%), and, if the athlete responds well to this approach, bigger meets may warrant the larger volume reduction. The trade-off of spending too much time with minimal training volumes is the risk of de-training, which brings with it a host of unwanted changes. Effectively, you are revoking the work that allowed you to achieve your current level of strength. Training with lower volumes for longer periods will compromise anabolic signaling, and cut into skill practice, which could lead to an earlier peak and quicker degradation of one's ability to demonstrate strength. These potential miscalculations can be minimized by implementing a single strategy with each lift, preferably further out from the most important testing date, and gauging its success, to inform future tapering refinements.
Experimenting with changes in volume, absolute intensity, frequency, and exercise selection will allow you to find what works for you at this point in time. You can test different tapering protocols a few times throughout the training calendar to find a protocol that somewhat reliably produces favorable results. As you get stronger, more technically skilled, older, heavier/lighter, more or less stressed outside of the gym, your tapering protocol will likely change. Fitting your taper to your needs will always provide a better outcome than fitting yourself to any given taper. Just because Chad Wesley Smith needs a more dramatic progressive linear taper doesn’t mean you will. Just because hyper-specific training works for some, doesn’t mean it will work for all.
In addition to your tapering strategy of choice, there’s been research surfacing that a “priming” session shortly before a testing date can improve measures of neuromuscular performance. This session should be movement-specific (i.e. half-squat vs jump squat for squatting performance), can be heavy (>85%) or light (30-65% 1RM), and will vary in training volume depending on the intensities and exercises used. The window of time this improved performance seems to persist is roughly 6-33 hours after the session. Training will typically get progressively lighter during the week of the competition. The implementation of a priming session a day or two before the meet could potentiate and improve performance. If you ask us, we wouldn't recommend working with 85%+, instead, opting for the lighter approach.
The time frame in which performance is improved could indicate the utility of a primer session, both as a stand alone tapering strategy and in combination with one of the aforementioned approaches. More research is needed to say, so, we are presently unable to provide strict guidelines for exercise selection, volume, and absolute intensity. What we will say is that experimenting with the concept could be beneficial, in both the short-term (for performance potentiation) and long-term (for providing a type of training microdosing).
The tapering concept may seem straightforward, but the context within which a taper is implemented makes it much harder to perfect. The competition environment is one of maximum pressure from peak performance expectations, coupled with minimal control. As such, exposing the athlete to environments in which the taper can be practiced, refined, and modified is a necessity. The one-off studies that we read and cite give us a glimpse into what works physiologically— i.e. a volume drop may heighten the contractile abilities of a muscle—but far less so ecologically.
The sport science world could use more research on tapering, which examines it in the context of both local and higher level competitions, uses larger sample sizes, and studies higher-level competitors. Some researchers are doing a good job asking the athletes and coaches questions, who have read and understand the available evidence, and have spent years applying it. "A rising tide raises all ships" applies to the scientific study of tapering. The more coaches and researchers collaborate to develop models for examining common peaking and tapering questions, the better the odds of getting some widely applicable, yet individually nuanced, answers.
About The Authors
Joshua Gibson is a coach at Clintonville Barbell, a USA Weightlifting club located in Columbus, Ohio, where he coaches competitive weightlifters and powerlifters, both onsite and remotely. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Sport Science and Coach Education from East Tennessee State University.
Zac Robinson and Josh Pelland run a company called Data Driven Strength. They aim to provide educational material for strength and hypertrophy training, as well as high quality coaching services. Zac and Josh are both master's students of Exercise Physiology at Florida Atlantic University.