A tapering period as it relates to powerlifting is a period of time, usually 7-14 days, possibly more, where training variables (volume, intensity, frequency etc) are manipulated in order to dissipate fatigue and ‘peak’ performance for a particular day.
More often than not when I have an athlete who is new to tapering I will get questions or comments along the lines of ‘will I add 25kg to my squat after we taper?’ or ‘I should be able to add another 25kgs to my squat after I taper’ and whilst we do expect a performance increase during a tapering period it’s important to have expectations that are reachable and realistic. Unless you are quite new to lifting or if you have gone through an extensive overreaching block you can’t expect drastically different numbers on the day of the meet compared to what you were hitting in training the weeks leading up to the meet. Anecdotally I have seen about a 2-6% increase in performance on a given lift with myself and my clients after a 7 day taper. Practically this might look like the difference between a 200kg squat in the gym vs a 205-207.5kg squat on the platform. Now this is not a set in stone figure by any means, and there will certainly be exceptions to the rule, but it’s a good target to aim for.
How to taper
One of the biggest mistakes I see when people approach a taper period is that they try to change everything looking for a magic approach that will make them super strong. It is important to define what we want to achieve during a taper.
- We want to increase preparedness. We can increase preparedness by feeling comfortable under loads that you will handle on the platform. Taking your opener for a single during a taper is a great way to feel comfortable with it on the day of the meet. Attire and judging is another thing you want to be familiar with. Putting your soft suit on and practicing the calls on the comp lifts during the final week is a great way to get accustomed to the day of the meet.
- We want to reduce fatigue. The best way to reduce fatigue is to have a significant reduction in training volume (but not a significant reduction in training intensity – % 1RM). Some people take a full week off completely before competition. While this may “work” for some, it doesn’t make sense to do so in regards to overall specificity, and the effect we can gather from overreaching. An extended time off reduces the extent to which we can super compensate from the previous block (reduce fatigue, peak performance). We recommend no more than 2 full days off before comp. In most cases we have our athletes train up until 2 days out with 1 full day off. In some cases i.e. high level athletes on high intense plans, training may be warranted the day before comp albeit very light and low volume.
- We want to ensure specificity is still achieved. This is probably one of the biggest errors I see many people make. It’s not uncommon to see many powerlifters reduce their training intensity from something like 85+% in the weeks prior to the taper down to 55-65% during the week of the taper. This has the potential of leading to a detraining effect which ultimately takes you further away from the intensity you will be using on the day of the meet. Sometimes we have adapted so well and our recovery has been very efficient that we still have some further adaptation to be made. This is when we are able to slightly increase intensity and still peak for competition. This works particularly well on an RPE style plan. As we drop volume, we may be able to coincidently focus on lifting more weight, however within reason i.e. an extra 2.5-5kgs on each movement.
Another thing I see is lifters who will change their exercise selection in the final week. This one I don’t quite understand, but nevertheless I still see it happening. Going back to point 1, we want to increase are preparedness for competition. That means comp lifts at a relatively high intensity.
The taper frequency of specific lifts will depend upon what we did in the training block. You wouldn’t go from squatting 4x per week to 2x per week or vice versa. As mentioned before we want to maintain confidence, continue to practice and limit any possible reversibility effects of training. One thing to keep in mind as it relates to maintaining frequency is that the competition itself counts as a day of performing each competition lift. Let’s say for example you have a 3x per week frequency on the squat which may fall on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Maintaining frequency in a taper week might mean you actually perform only 2 squat workouts in the week and then again on the day of competition (3x per week), whereas performing 3 squat workouts in addition to the competition which will ultimately accumulate to a relative frequency of 4x per week.
When not to taper
We must experience some level of fatigue during a phase of training in order to create new adaptations. This is completely normal as our performance drops slightly along with how we “feel” in general, due to the new stimulus. DO NOT automatically jump into a deload or taper because you feel fatigued. If you do, you will be off setting the natural occurrence of recovery and adaptation, which will be very inefficient to long term progression. Once you stick with it, we have some adaptation, due to the repeated bout effect we will be on our way to peaking nicely for the planned taper.
Here is a brief outline of the direction to take your training variables.
Maintain >95% intensity (%1RM and weight on the bar)
Remember, loading is specific!
Modest to aggressive reduction in volume (50-90% reduction)
Degree of reduction in volume will be dependent upon the fatigue accumulated in the prior training block.
Slight (<20%) or no reduction in training frequency.
Frequent skill practice is crucial.
Length of taper
Highly variable and must consider the accumulated fatigue from the prior training block. Can be anywhere from 4 to 28 days, but most often is 4-10 days.