Is taking a full week off of lifting really the best way to prepare for a meet? In most cases, NO. A taper that is too aggressive can lead to getting on the platform detrained, diminishing performance. Likewise, a taper that is not aggressive enough can lead to competing fatigued, also detracting from the athlete’s meet day performance. Peaking and tapering correctly should allow the athlete to lift the most weight where it matters--the platform!
This blog series discusses the scientific principles that lead to a great performance, but ultimately there is still a lot of guess work and figuring out what works best on an individual basis. This is one reason why it can be beneficial to stay with the same coach through multiple competition preps. As the coach learns “you” they are able to better coach you in the future. One of the main points of a peaking cycle is to determine what does and doesn’t work for the individual in question. There is no such thing as a one size fits all peaking strategy!
Though there are multiple “right” ways to taper into a meet, there are also a lot of “wrong” ways to taper. Some guidelines to follow when planning a peak and taper are contained in this article. We'll start by discussing general concepts, and finish by providing examples of how to put it all together. I find it helpful to think of these concepts as a sliding scale that can be adjusted to fit each lifter on an individual basis.
Experience Level of the Lifter, Gender, & Weight Class
The experience level and training age of a lifter affects the type of peak and taper needed. A more conservative approach is usually perfect for new competitors. Novice lifters should focus more on efficient technique and legality of lifts according to the standards of the presiding federation--These lifters will still be experiencing "newbie gains," and do not need to overreach. In fact, even with a conservative peaking approach, many novice lifters will continue to hit "easy" PRs in training leading up to a meet. A final training block including work in the low rep ranges and practice lifting with commands should be enough to secure a good performance on meet day. Conservative attempt selection should also be standard practice--going 9 for 9 (or at least having an almost perfect day) builds a total and positive first meet memories, but also establishes confidence.
More advanced lifters can push the peaking process a bit further to take advantage of the neurological adaptations targeted in a peak. These neurological adaptations are the main source of additional strength "gained" through a peaking block and taper. Intermediate and advanced lifters can benefit from a block of higher intensity training leading up to a meet, assuming it is designed to induce low rep strength readiness. In this case, intensity refers to the % of 1 Rep Maximum at which a lifter is training. There are several ways to effectively implement increased intensity into a program (maxing out every day is not the answer), but we'll save that topic for a bit later. Due to the increased training demands, more advanced lifters may need a bit more aggressive taper strategy than a novice lifter. As a reminder, these concepts apply to the population as a whole, and each individual will respond to stimulus in their own unique way.
Gender also plays a role in the peaking and tapering process, especially in the realm of recovery capability. Females recover from training stimuli more quickly than men, implicating a slightly different approach to preparing for a meet. Faster recovery means that frequency of training and overall training volume may need to be slightly higher to illicit the desired adaptations. Additionally, ladies can typically continue to work at higher intensities closer to meet day, as well as continue to train almost all the way up until meet day. In fact, it is usually in the female lifter's best interest to do these things in order to maintain the neurological adaptations they worked so hard for during training. Taking the same approach to a taper as a heavyweight male lifter can often lead to poor meet performance due to getting on the platform detrained from too much rest. Additionally, female lifters are generally a lower bodyweight and therefore have less muscle mass, which will be addressed in the next section.
Compared to women, men typically need a bit more recovery leading up to a meet. Depending on weight class, men typcally need to begin to reduce overall training volume a bit further out from meet day in order to maximize recovery. This may also meany mean more rest incorporated into the training schedule by reducing or completely eliminating accessory work during the last few weeks of training. That said, even the heaviest of the male lifters will still benefit from some sport specific movement (even if it is with weight as light as a PVC pipe) during meet week to maintain mobility and keep technique mentally fresh.
I'll keep this one quick and easy. Generally speaking, the lighter the weight class, the shorter the taper needed. The heavier the weight class, the more aggressive the taper. Simplified explanation: the more body mass a person has, the more mass there is to recover.
That brings us to the end of this first section. I'll leave you with a simple sliding scale illustration of a potential female lifter weighing about 57kg with 2 meets under her belt. Think about how these concepts might apply to a lifter who falls in this spectrum--next week I'll be discussing tapering and deloading (without losing strength adaptations) more in depth.