The LHP Guide to Meet Tapering (Part 2)
Welcome back to part 2 of this blog series, where we will look at tapering and deloading into a meet without losing adaptations. Let's jump right in.
(If you need to refer back to Part 1, click here.)
Tapering & Deloading Without Losing Adaptations
To get the most out of a peaking phase, it should follow volume and preparatory phases. Without the rest of the cycle, peaking doesn’t have the same effect. That said, the other training phases are a topic for another post. This series assumes you have already correctly implemented these phases. A good coach will construct a meet peak and taper using the guidelines discussed in this series as a sort of "base model." Then, as you prepare for more meets, they will adjust accordingly based on your performance. The longer you stay with a coach, the better they are able to get to know you, your body and your brain, and what does or doesn’t work for you. Using Goldilocks and the 3 bears as an analogy, you may have to try a few strategies before finding the one that is "just right" for you. You may also find that what works for one meet prep may not work (or not work as well) for another--but this is another topic for another time.
Detraining and Overtraining Into Meet Day
The two most common mistakes powerlifters make in the last few weeks before a meet are de-training into a meet and overtraining into a meet. Both result in a less than stellar performance on meet day (note: this doesn't mean you'll have a horrible meet, it just won't be as great as it could have been). Detraining into a meet basically means that a lifter has taken too much rest, whether it be because they took too much time off of lifting completely(this is when that whole week off can come back to bite you), or just tapered too aggressively--usually by not using enough intensity or volume in the last few weeks, or dropping intensity too soon. This results in a loss of those nueromuscular "strength" adaptations, and usually everything will end up feeling very heavy on meet day. (There are other factors that can have the same effect--dehydration, for example, but we'll get to that in the next post.) Let's think back to that sliding scale from Part 1. Lighter female lifters who are new to competing are the most likely to come into a meet detrained, often because their meet prep advice came from a larger male friend or significant other. In part 1, we learned that lighter lifters, female lifters, and newer lifters will need to push their training closer to meet day to hold onto strength adaptations until they hit the platform. Heavier lifters, male lifters, and those with a higher training age will need the most dramatic deload/taper. This is where lifters and/or their coaches will need to make like Goldilocks and figure out which bowl of porridge is "just right."
On the flip side, many powerlifters also OVER train into a meet. This is usually caused by training too much volume or intensity (or both) too close to meet day, but can also be affected by nutrition (especially caloric intake), hydration, stress levels, phase of menstrual cycle (females only, obviously), and sleep. We'll save those other things for the next post, but the takeaway here is that the lifter goes into meet day still fatigued, and will not perform as well. There are many ways to combat this issue--my go to is autoregulation. While there are many ways to autoregulate training, in this context I am referring to controlling training intensity on a daily basis rather than forcing a linear progression, which can often lead to overreaching too early (or overreaching at all, if overreaching wasn't part of the plan).
Using autoregulation to keep intensity at the desired level, whether it's RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion), RIR (Reps In Reserve), or another method, allows the lifter and coach to take more variables into account in a given training session. This can go both ways--it allows the lifter to take advantage of good days as well as make the most of bad days while keeping intensity relative. For example, let's say a lifter is programmed a squat single at 90%, they're having an off day and they end up grinding out a lift that they should have been able to hit for a triple--or worse, failing it altogether. The intensity of that session is now much higher than intended, and failing a lift in training can often have negative psychological implications for the lifter. Let me take the opportunity to state here that YOU SHOULD NOT be failing lifts in training for a powerlifting meet. On the other hand, the lifter may hit 90% like it's nothing, and not have reached the desired intensity of the session. This is probably the lesser of the two evils, but is also not the MOST optimal approach as the lifter may miss out on valuable strength adaptations that come with training at a higher intensity.
To avoid this situation, a lifter may go into the gym with the intention of hitting a single at 90% OR 7.5 RPE. If the lifter is warming up and feeling really good, they might be able to hit 92% at a 7. On an off day, the lifter may find an RPE 8 at 87%, and that's where they would stop for their top set that day. (I personally consider it fair if it's within .5 of the target RPE.) Now, we can debate the pros and cons of the RPE system all day, but for the purpose of this post, let's assume it works perfectly. As a coach, I like to give the lifter a target bar load AND a target RPE. This gives them an idea of what weight they should be hitting and what it should feel like. To efficiently use this method, the lifter must be able to determine an accurate rating for their training sets. If the lifter can't do this, whether from lack of RPE experience or because they can't be honest with themselves, this is obviously not the best way to go about autoregulating. Getting an initial (first set) and final (last set) set RPE can also provide feedback for a lifter's coach to evaluate fatigue and make decisions about training volume in the last few weeks of prep.
Treating Each Lift As a Separate Component
In the last few weeks before a meet, each of the big 3 should be treated and programmed as a separate component. Going back to our sliding scale, squat, bench, and deadlift typically need to taper on a different timeline. As you can logically infer, deadlifts require the most recovery time. Thinking of all of the variables we've discussed, a super-heavyweight male lifter with many years of training experience will typically need to complete their last heavy deadlift session 2 to 3 weeks out from a meet. The smaller ladies can typically hit their heavy pulls up to about 1 to 1.5 weeks out from a meet and still recover fully. Lighter deadlift work (working up to last planned warm up for a single, for example) may still be beneficial a bit closer to meet day, as this will not require quite as much recovery time. Bench requires the least amount of recovery time, which also means that those neurological strength adaptations will dissipate more quickly from this lift. Bench benefits from keeping intensity relatively high almost up until meet day. Many women will have their best bench press performances pushing bench at a higher intensity (though possibly slightly lower volume) all the way up to 2 or 3 days out from a meet. Squats typically fall somewhere in between deadlifts and bench. Performing some low volume, moderate intensity squat training early in meet week will be beneficial for many lifters.
One small note to add here: there is some newer research suggesting that some explosive training within 24-48 hours of competition can boost performance. While we still need more details to best understand exactly how to implement this, it can be gleaned that some very light training (50% of 1RM or lower) may boost meet performance without accumulating excess fatigue. At the very least, it may be a good way to mentally reinforce technique last minute.
That's it for part 2! Next time we'll be looking at other non-training variables that can affect recovery and should be considered when planning the peak and taper. We'll get into weight cuts, traveling, etc in Part 3!