Tapering is a practice which involves the temporary reduction of training load in an effort to increase the state of preparedness of an athlete. The idea is go into competition with as little fatigue as possible in order give the best possible performance.
How do powerlifters do it?
Pritchard et al. (2015b) investigated the tapering strategies of elite raw powerlifters from New Zealand (average Wilks: 432 ± 44). Indeed, this was a study we featured last year in our fantastically brilliant Research Review service!
They reported the following headlines:
- Average taper length was 2.5 weeks
- Total training volume peaked just over 5 weeks out
- Training intensity (i.e. %1RM load) peaked about 2 weeks out
- Volume was reduced by about 60% during the taper
- Accessory work was removed about 2 weeks out
- The taper intensity either maintained or slightly reduced intensity
- The final training session was performed 3 – 5 days out
So, why perform a taper?
Fitness versus fatigue
I love the equation analogy given by Stuart Yule in the great High Performance Training for Sports book (p 303).
Strength realisation = strength potential – stress impact
At any point in time the amount of strength you can express is not only a function of how much strength you have, but eroded by the fatigue that has accumulated up to that point.
Tapering increases strength realisation
The reduction of volume load has been shown to improve performance in a number of tests of strength. These are summarised by (Pritchard et al., 2015a), but we’ll skim through the two that evaluated squat and bench press performances.
- Coutts et al. (2007)
Coutts et al. evaluated performance in seven semi-professional rugby league players (pre-training values = 3RM squat: ~145kg, 3RM bench: ~115kg). Players were put through a 6-week overreaching phase followed by a 7-day taper.
At the end of the overreaching phase, 3RM squat and bench performance both decreased by about 5%. Following the taper, squat improved by 9% (3.6% increase overall) and bench by 5% (no change overall).
Two important notes from this study. First, the overreaching phase was very running heavy in this study and not wholly focussed on strength. Two, the week-long taper is unlikely to be long enough to dissipate the fatigue accumulated.
- Izquierdo et al. (2007)
This study look at a 4-week taper following a 16-week resistance training programme in Basque ball (not a typo!) players. However, not a particularly strong athlete group to draw on (pre-training values = 1RM bench: ~80kg, 1RM half squat: ~155kg).
The researchers saw a 3% increase in 1RM squat and 2% increase in 1RM bench following the taper.
What are the mechanisms behind tapering?
This is not well researched in regards to strength training. It is hypothesised that the improved recovery associated with the taper may be linked to muscle recovery, greater neural activation and an enhanced hormonal environment (Pritchard et al., 2015a).
Häkkinen et al. (1991) observed improvements in neural activation (measured by EMG) and isometric force following a 7-day taper in Finnish national powerlifters, although not in non-competitive strength athletes. Are the effects of tapering greater in stronger athletes? Perhaps.
The study by Izquierdo et al. (2007) reported elevations in IGF-1 following tapering, although no changes in testosterone, cortisol or growth hormone. No changes in testosterone or cortisol were observed by Coutts et al. (2007).
Drawing from the endurance data
Much more data is available looking at tapering for endurance sports. Mujika et al. (2004) published a review into the physiological changes associated with tapering in this context. Here are some the key points:
- Mood state and sleep quality seem to improve, whilst the perception of effort decreases
- Increases in IGF-1 (potentially indicative of a more ‘anabolic’ environment) are likely to be observed
- Reductions in creatine kinase (a marker of muscle damage) are pretty consistently reported, although this is perhaps more indicative that the training is just less intense during the taper
- Changes in testosterone and cortisol are inconsistent between studies, although these are more likely to be affected following overreaching
- Shortening velocities and overall size of muscle fibre may increase, more so in type II fibres
In short, it’s likely that a combination of psychological, physiological and biomechanical factors underpin the tapering phenomenon.
Does tapering differ between lifts?
In a nutshell, yes. The squat, bench and deadlift are different beasts and the way you’d approach the taper for each will differ. Here’s what the Pritchard et al. (2015b) investigation told us about the Kiwi lifters.
- 91% reported that more recovery was required for the deadlift
- 46% tapered the squat and bench press in the same way
- 36% thought the bench could stay heavier for longer
Here’s how they finished the taper for each lift:
|Session Type||Days out from comp||Top set % (%1RM)|
|Final heavy squat session||8.0 ± 2.9||90.0 ± 5.4|
|Final squat session||4.0 ± 1.8||66.0 ± 15.7|
|Final heavy bench press session||7.3 ± 2.7||92.2 ± 5.7|
|Final bench press session||4.0 ± 1.8||67.3 ± 18.1|
|Final heavy deadlift session||10.9 ± 4.0||88.9 ± 6.1|
|Final deadlift session||7.4 ± 4.1||72.6 ± 18.5|
Tapering for maximal strength
The review by Pritchard et al. (2015a) suggests the following:
- Taper over a 1-4 week period
- Use a step or progressive approach
- Reduce volume by 30-70%
- Maintain or slightly increase training intensity
- Maintain training frequency
So, broadly speaking, this appears to fall in-line with competitive lifters are doing. Maybe us meatheads know a little more than we let on!
Don’t fear the taper…
It’s likely that strength may be retained for a period of 2-3 weeks following complete cessation of strength training (McMaster et al., 2013). Perhaps the most pertinent study was undertaken by Hortobágyi et al. (1993). Following 2 weeks of no training, the authors reported non-significant decreases of 0.9% and 1.7% in the squat and bench respectively. Remember that we’re not advocating training cessation with a taper, but I think it helps to reassure you that strength does not just disappear!
Oh, and one last thing.
You can’t taper from a taper! Make sure you’ve built up the necessary volume to deserve it in the first place.