Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
When many people begin to mess around with weights for the first time, it seems like the entire goal of the endeavor is to max out; to see ‘how much you can lift.” This approach to lifting continues longer for some than others, and has even evolved into a set of training methodologies (Westside, with its emphasis on training maxes, comes to mind). Of course most people begin to understand at some point that the best way to actually get stronger over the longer term is to train and not just max out. Most will understand that the process of getting stronger is distinct from the process of showing off that new-found strength.
But even for more mature lifters that strive for long-term improvements and are not obsessed with continually testing their strength, the time comes when showing off is exactly the point. In fact, that’s the whole purpose of powerlifting competition; to be in your best possible shape to show off all of your strength gains. So the question of the article is; “how do we best prepare for the actual powerlifting competition?” How do we transition from training to get strong into training to show off our strength?
Isn’t showing off strength easy? Don’t you just take a regular training day to hit your maxes? Well, it turns out that things are a bit more complicated if maximal performance on meet day is your goal. As a matter of fact, there are two distinct reasons that training must change several weeks before your meet to maximize performance:
1.) Fatigue masks fitness.
– As you train, your muscles become bigger, their alignment changes, and your nervous system becomes more capable of activating your muscles to produce higher forces. All the while, the hard training required to stimulate these adaptations also produces some fatigue. The muscles run low on glycogen, their fiber types may temporarily alter to the weaker kind (type IIb to type IIa), they accumulate microtears and fray a bit. The nervous system experiences ion imbalances from continual high level activation and can become quite inefficient while its underlying capabilities expand.
Thus, while your machinery might be getting much stronger, your actual ability to express this new-found strength can be hidden by the fatigue that this very training generates. In order to peak for a 1rm, fatigue must be addressed. We must find a way to lower fatigue while keeping our strength.
2.) Training and competition are different enough to matter.
– Basic understanding of strength training tells us that the best way to get strong is to handle heavy weights at concomitantly high volumes. Because VERY heavy weights (regularly in excess of 90% 1RM) cause a disproportionately high amount of fatigue and are thus not sustainable to train with, multiple sets of 3-5 repetitions seem best for most people looking to gain strength. The weights used can still be quite heavy, but not so heavy as to cause a prohibitive level of fatigue accumulation. Thus with multiple sets of 3-5 reps, high workloads with heavy weights can be performed and strength-based adaptations can be well stimulated. While this style of training enhances strength, it’s not completely specific to the actual display of this strength. Strength is displayed at 1 rep, not 5 reps, and there is a meaningful difference in technique, musculoskeletal forces, and nervous system activity between the two rep ranges. Thus, while training for strength is best done with multiple sets of 3-5 reps, training to peak your strength in a 1rm requires a more specific approach. Training in sets of 1-3 reps during the final prep for a meet may be part of the answer.
So now the question becomes, how do we change training to address these concerns and present the best possible performance on meet day?
The Fitness-Fatigue Paradigm (Visualized)
The Process of Peaking
Time for some sport science terminology to enter the picture. Attempting to manipulate training variables in order to express a high level of performance at a particular time is termed “peaking” in sport science. The underlying component of the ability to peak is one’s “preparedness,” which is the ability of the body to actually exert itself maximally. Preparedness can be further broken down into the sum of “fitness” (how well-developed your ability to move your body actually is, in this case your strength) and “fatigue” (the depletion of energy substrates and damage to the muscles, hormonal axes, and nervous system that impede fitness expression). Meanwhile, “specificity” is the degree to which you are prepared to exert yourself in a particular task, such as 1rm lifting. A quick definition guide so that you can come back and reference this later with some other important terms, in plain English and in powerlifting context:
Peaking: The process of maximizing preparedness at THE DESIRED TIME.
Preparedness: The sum of fitness and fatigue; how well you’re actually capable of performing.
Fitness: How well developed your body and mind are to lift the most weight possible.
Fatigue: How beat up you are, and how much this prevents you from being strong at a particular time.
Tapering: The process of reducing training volumes and intensities to bring down fatigue and express maximal strength.
Specificity: How good you are at doing 1rm attempts, rather than just being strong in general. Matters the most as you get closer to the meet. Specific training matches competition most closely.
Peaking for Powerlifting
From the above description of the basic science behind peaking, we can infer that our training in the final weeks leading up to a meet must do 3 distinct things if we’re to peak most effectively:
1.) Drop fatigue as much as possible.
2.) Elevate or at least maintain fitness as high as possible.
3.) Enhance specificity so that we’re actually ready to max out in the big 3.
Let’s look at how training changes from regular strength training into peaking and take each of the above variables one at a time.
A considerable amount of research has indicated that in most cases, volume (NOT intensity) is the primary contributor to fatigue. So, the first move in our attempt to drop fatigue to peak for the meet is to drop volume. Depending on several factors (lifter size and strength, mostly), between 1 and 4 weeks before the meet, training volume must be brought down. Volume reduction is probably the most fundamental component of peaking as not much fatigue will drop without it. Larger, stronger and more experienced (those that are closer to pushing the limits of their physiology) lifters disrupt homeostasis (the body’s stable maintenance of structures and functions) much more than smaller, less-strong and less-experienced lifters, so they need more time to bring down fatigue. This rule of size, strength, and experience applies to body structures as well as individuals, so that smaller lifts which use less of the body (bench vs. squat vs. deadlift, in that order) need less time at lower volumes to drop the same amount of fatigue. Thus, volume reduction for the deadlift of an elite 308lb competitor may begin as far as 4 weeks out from a meet, the squat volume of a master’s class 198lber may need to start dropping 2 weeks out from a meet, but the bench volume of a beginner 97lb lifter may be cut as late as only 1 week before the meet. What’s the best way to cut volume? Reduce the number of working sets… we’ll have examples later.
Intensity is not the dominant contributor to fatigue that volume is, but it does play an important role, especially for the larger, stronger and more experienced lifters and lifts/bodyparts. For fitness conservation reasons to be explained next, we want intensity to be as high as possible for as long as possible. Realistically, this means that intensity cutting usually trails volume cutting by a week or so for most individuals. The elite 308lb deadlifter may begin to take weight off the bar 3 weeks out from a meet, the 198lb squatter may reduce weights one week out, and the 97lb bench presser may take a light day mid-week on the week of her meet. There are many ways to cut intensity, but the most basic is to cut it (like volume, as we shall see in the examples) in an exponential fashion… a little at first, but more and more as the meet approaches, until the last training session before the meet is just a technical warmup with super light weights.
Elevating and Maintaining Fitness:
Bringing down fatigue is important, but the problem is that almost the same things that bring down fatigue also tend to bring down fitness. If JUST brining down fatigue was our concern, we’d just be able to take it easy and not train for 3 weeks before the meet! The good news is that we know that fitness can be kept high or even elevated through two ways:
1.) Intensity conserves fitness better than volume. High intensity AND high volumes are needed to get stronger, but a lot of strength can be maintained with even very low volumes if intensity is kept high. Thus we cut volume first in our taper, and only cut intensity later. This conserves the maximal amount of strength while still allowing our fatigue to be reduced.
2.) Intentional overreaching can be used to actually elevate fitness (strength in our case) during the course of a taper. By training harder than what is normally sustainable right before the taper in volumes and intensities begins, we can set into motion a “supercompensation” effect of training that allows adaptations to be expressed weeks after the hard training bout itself. Thus by training with crazy volumes and intensities in the week before the volume drop begins, fitness (strength) can actually reach its peak close to the meet itself. Combined with the drop in fatigue from the taper, intentional overreaching is a powerful tool for preparedness enhancement. Normally, this would be done by doubling the volume of work in the week before the volume reduction. For example, if a normal deadlift workout is 3 sets of heavy deads at 85% max, then the overreaching workout can be up to 6 sets of deads, at a similar intensity or even higher.
Specificity enhancement allows us to further elevate our preparedness. Not generally, but exactly for the powerlifting meet itself. Nobody at the meet cares how well your overhead press is going (much to my chagrin, as it’s by far my best lift), and nobody cares how much you squatted for 5s (again, to my continual disappointment). What matters is the specific ability to perform THE powerlifts, and for a 1rm. Thus, training during the taper should reflect both demands, in three distinct ways:
1.) First, the bulk of your training during the taper should be composed of the lifts themselves. All setups need to be competition-based techniques in the final weeks. If you squat sumo in competition, this is no time for close-stance squat work. “Train how you compete” applies here big time. Paused benches, squats to regulation depth, and fully-reset deadlifts are key. This also means wearing your PL belt, wrist wraps, knee wraps, and using chalk, just the same as in your meet. When volume begins to get cut during the taper, most of the early cuts are from the assistance moves, precisely to enhance training specificity. Toward the end of your taper, the last training sessions are pretty much JUST the big 3 competition lifts and nothing, or almost nothing else.
2.) General strength is the basis for your 1rm, but when the meet gets close, it’s time to start practicing for the game, so to speak. There are important physiological, psychological, and technical differences between 3-5rm weights and truly limit 1rm weights. In order to be the best on meet day, you must practice with super heavy weights for the very lowest reps. This means that during your overreach and during your volume taper, the weights on the bar must be heavy enough to be a stimulus in the 1-3 rep range. This is the time to for triples, doubles, and singles in your training. Because volume gets cut incrementally through the taper and intensity is conserved as highly as possible (intensity being weight on the bar), sets of 1-3 reps are the norm through most of the taper itself. The only things that change are the number of sets and the weight on the bar.
3.) A more minor concern of specificity, but important nonetheless, is the maintenance of “maximal intent to move” through the entire taper. Move that bar with as much force as you can for all working weights (heavy or not), and you’ll enhance specificity as well as keep fitness elevated. Forceful movements not only allow you to practice the specific technique of PL competition, but also conserve more strength by allowing your nervous system and faster-twitch muscle fibers more stimulation.
Real-World Peaking Examples
Ok so we’ve learned some cool stuff, now let’s look at applying it to the real world. Let’s take three examples of the meet prep of power lifters that train 4x a week (for simplicity) with two lower body days and two upper body days. We’ll use our 308lb Elite lifter first, then our 198lb master-class lifter, and finally our 97lb beginner:
Elite 308lb Lifter:
From the above peaking routine for a 308lb elite lifter, you may notice several things:
– All training except for some of the early assistance work occurs in the 3 rep range. This is not a golden rule, as doubles and even some singles (in the highest intensity week particularly) are quite ok to use as well. I’ll stick to 3’s here because they work well and just to keep things constant.
– The overreaching phase occurs VERY far out from the meet, a whole 4 weeks.
– The overreaching phase has a TON of sets (8 total work sets of squats on Monday, for example) and all of the sets are very heavy. This will be the toughest training you’ll do all meet prep long.
– Volume is cut DRASTICALLY 3 weeks out, as it contributes heavily to fatigue. Intensity is still high. This week will be very tough, as you are being asked to lift the heaviest weights of the meet prep while under the highest levels of cumulative fatigue. Make sure your technique is excellent and you give it as much effort as you must to complete the reps.
– The last heavy deadlift occurs 2.5 weeks out, the last moderate-heavy squat occurs 2 weeks out, and the last heavy bench occurs about 1.5 weeks out… a good start for many lifters of this size and caliber. Some lifters will need more or less time for each lift to drop fatigue but retain fitness. A one-week window in each direction will cover most lifers.
– Two weeks out begins the volume AND intensity cut. This week will still present some weights that feel a bit heavy (especially in the overreached state), but the set numbers are so low that homeostasis is hardly disturbed. You’ll drop a lot of fatigue this week. Notice that the assistance moves have been cut almost completely. The muscle built and maintained by them hangs in for weeks after you stop training them (just with training the competition lifts), so you won’t lose any strength, but your fatigue drops profoundly.
– By the start of the last week, you’re gonna feel pretty good. The last week still has SOME training in it, because light training (vs. total rest) drops MORE fatigue, keeps your connective tissues more limber and preserves better technique. By the end of this week, you’ll be completely healed and ready to break things and hurt people… exactly where you’re supposed to be before a powerlifting meet!
Master-Class 198lb Lifter:
Some differences to consider for this lifter vs. the 308er in the first example:
– The whole taper only takes 3 weeks vs. 4. Because of the lighter weights and lower volumes employed, smaller and less strong lifters usually don’t need as long of a taper. This means they can train to get stronger for one extra week before the taper begins, so it’s not a bad thing. Your favorite lifters may all do 4 week tapers, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for you at your current level of development.
– You’ll notice that the second week out and even the final week have some relatively heavier weights (especially early in the final week) than the 308lber was lifting. This is because the 198lber will drop fatigue faster, and can afford to keep a bit more fitness-stimulus in later with the heavier weights.
Novice 97lb Lifter:
Some differences to consider for this lifter vs. the 198er in the second example:
– Just a two week taper here. Smaller, less experienced and less strong lifters need less time to drop fatigue and peak, and REALLY small and relatively less strong lifters barely need a taper at all! Tapering must be personalized to the individual. Just because Andrey Malanichev stops heavy deadlifts 4 weeks out doesn’t meet a 95lb girl doing her first meet has to!
– You’ll notice that everything here is condensed. The overreach is only the first part of the second to last week, as volume begins to drop in the second half of the week. The last week is actually still quite heavy, as the recovery of smaller and less strong lifters is so powerful relative to their ability to disrupt homeostasis (cause cumulative fatigue), that mostly volume reductions are all it takes to peak. If you taper these lifters for too long, they just end up undertraining and get weaker! For smaller, less strong and experience lifters, the taper for a meet may end up actually looking much like a standard deload week for most lifters.
– The final workouts are not as light (relatively) as they would be for the stronger lifters, but this is still quite easy to recover from. You’ll also notice that the final training is done closer to the competition date… for the same reason as the above… not training novice lifters for too long can lead to more rapid fitness declines than for stronger, heavier, more experienced lifters.
A quick summary of the main recommendations in this article:
1.) Choose the right taper length based on the strength, size, and experience of the athlete.
2.) Train mostly for sets of 1-3 in the entire peaking phase, choose the competition lifts as your program core.
3.) Overreach by doubling training volume for one week before the taper begins.
4.) Taper by first reducing volume (number of sets), then reducing both volume and intensity (sets and weight on the bar).
5.) Cut volume by reducing the assistance moves first, then then main moves.
6.) Train very light during the beginning of the last week. This is even better than total rest.
This article only speaks in depth about the training-mediated ways to taper. Nutrition, supplementation, and lifestyle are also big concerns. Tapering changes when more or less food is eaten, when sports supplements are taken or avoided, and when lifestyle factors promote recovery or alternatively cause more stress. These factors are always going to play a role, so please consider them.
The above examples give a sort of maximum-medium-minimum view of the tapering process. Almost every reader of this article will be somewhere between the 97lb female beginner and the 308lb elite powerlifter. Individualization is very important to a proper program and certainly to a proper taper. The good news is that you have a cheat sheet to make your taper even better than any recommendation I give: YOURSELF!
By noting how you respond to volumes, intensities and tapers of various lengths and magnitudes, you can fine-tune your own tapering process over the course of several meets. But remember: bigger, stronger, and more experienced lifters need more profound tapers. So as you get more of all three of those things, make sure you make the adjustments needed BEFORE your next meet, because after is too late. Use the principles in this article to your advantage, and may the force (literally, the one you put into the barbell to move it) be with you!
1.) Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance by Inigo Mujika
2.) Periodization by Tudor Bompa and Greg Haff
3.) Principles and Practice of Resistance Training by Michael Stone, Meg Stone and William Sands
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”
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