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Francis Martineau |

Taper for powerlifters

For several years, powerlifting has been gaining more and more popularity. Having practiced the sport for several years, I have experimented with various training protocols; 5/3/1, Westside, Sheiko, etc. Having worked with several athletes over time, I have noticed that there are a multitude of ways to train, but the ultimate goal remains the same: to have the best performance at a specific time, meet day. Before a meet or a test day, we will normally do a tapering phase in order to recover and be at the best of our abilities. There are several ways to approach this phase, but what are the rules to follow and is there a protocol applicable to all?

First of all, before we even start talking about tapering, we need to understand a few key concepts in training. We will look at two variables, fatigue and performance. Let's start with fatigue. During a training session, we will accumulate fatigue, which will have a negative impact on our performance. There are three factors causing the reduction in strength after training: peripheral fatigue, caused by an accumulation of metabolites; central fatigue; and muscle damage. Generally, muscle damage is the factor with the greatest influence on our ability to produce force and normally lasts a few days except in some extreme cases.

Next let's look at the performance. Let's take a basic level when we are not tired. When we accumulate fatigue, our performance will be diminished from the initial level. When the fatigue begins to dissipate our performance approaches the initial state and, at a certain point, it even becomes greater before the fatigue is completely dissipated. This phenomenon is called overcompensation (Zatsiorsky, 1995). After some time, the performance will return to the initial state (Figure 1). It is also important to note that when the stimulus is too small, the overcompensation effect will be minimal, and when the stimulus is too large, it will be too difficult to recover and the effect on performance will be negative (Figure 2). So, how to approach the last weeks before a competition considering this information?

Generally, before a competition the athletes will do a phase called a “taper”. Tapering can be defined as follows: progressive non-linear reduction of training load over a variable period, with the aim of reducing the physiological and psychological stress of daily training and optimizing sports performance (Mujika & Padilla , 2003). These weeks are crucial, as they can have a positive or negative impact on performance.

Knowing that muscle damage is one of the most important factors in relation to the level of performance, we want to limit it as much as possible. The mechanisms of muscle damage are complex, but normally, exercises with a high demand for eccentric contractions and exercises to which our body is not accustomed cause the most damage (Clarkson & Hubal, 2002).

Another important factor to consider to reduce fatigue is training volume. For example, if during a training block the average tonnage of a day is 10,000 pounds, and you suddenly decide to perform a session with 30,000 pounds of tonnage, that day is likely to cause a lot of muscle damage. It is therefore important to consider the level of the athlete and the volume to which he is accustomed. On the contrary, if the training volume is reduced too quickly, the improvement in performance will not be noticeable at the end of the taper, due to a detraining effect. We must therefore avoid new exercises, exercises with too much demand for eccentric contractions and need to reduce the volume gradually.

Another aspect to consider during typing is specificity. Normally we want to be as specific as possible during the tapering phase. In our case, it is the “Big 3”, namely the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift. During the last weeks, we want to practice what we are going to do during our meet. Most of our volume should therefore consist of competitive movements. For example, if I perform my Deadlift in Sumo, I will not perform conventional Deadlifts during the last phase of my training. We also want to keep the intensity as high as possible, since it contributes less to fatigue than volume. The intensity obviously needs to be cut too, but that will happen later than the volume reduction. In addition, the time at which we will decrease the intensity on each lift is different. The Deadlift is usually first, followed by the Squat and finally the Bench Press.

But how to put all these concepts into practice? A 2020 meta-analysis on powerlifting tapering states the following points:

  1. Training volume should be reduced by 30% to 70% for a period of 1 to 4 weeks before competition.
  2. Intensity must be maintained at more than 85% of 1RM during these weeks followed by a short cessation of training in the 2-7 days before the competition (Travis, Mujika, Gentles, Stone, & Bazyler, 2020).

We notice here that it is a rather wide interval, so it must be adapted for each athlete. In general, the stronger and more experienced an athlete, the greater the reduction in volume and the earlier the reduction in intensity. For example, if I have a 300lb competitor who can perform an 800+ pound squat, the taper will be longer than if I have a 160lb novice lifter who is able to perform a 315 pound squat.  On the other hand, it should be noted that some people respond differently to tapering and that it is sometimes necessary to leave the established framework, so it is important to test individually and find the best recipe for each.

Key points to remember:

  • We want to dissipate the accumulated fatigue while maintaining our strength.
  • The taper usually lasts 1 to 4 weeks
  • We want to reduce the volume by 30% to 70%
  • The intensity must be high (+85% 1RM)
  • A short training break of 2 to 7 days
  • Find the winning recipe for each athlete.

  • Clarkson, P. M., & Hubal, M. J. (2002). Exercise-induced muscle damage in humans.
  • Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2003). Scientific bases for precompetition tapering strategies.
  • Travis, S. K., Mujika, I., Gentles, J. A., Stone, M. H., & Bazyler, C. D. (2020). Tapering and Peaking Maximal Strength for Powerlifting Performance: A Review.
  • Zatsiorsky, V. (1995). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaigne, Ill. In: Kinetic Books.

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