Tapering and peaking are often-overlooked techniques that can be used to minimize fatigue and maximize performance in preparation for a important competition such as a powerlifting meet.
By strategically reducing your training volume at just the right time, you can quite literally work less hard and get better results.
I also cover the best methods for tapering and peaking so that you can know how to set up your own.
Tapers and peaks don’t come easily, because they tend to go against our training mentality of pushing ourselves to our limits - and so, many people resist taking it easy like they should.
Not all athletes will train in sports where they require or even benefit much from a peak - so, how you taper and peak needs to be dependent on your goals.
Peaking is an underrated and often overlooked method for hitting PR’s in your major lifts, and it’s one that (honestly) I’d say all of my strength clients struggle with. Programming taper and peak weeks is guaranteed to get me some emails about how clients feel they could do more, and struggle to hold themselves back.
But at the same time, a properly timed and designed taper/peak combo can easily add 2-5% to your performance with minimal effort, and it means you get to take extra time off, to boot. This may not seem like much at first, but remember that we can be talking about multiples of hundreds of pounds here. If you had a 300lb bench press, you might expect to put an additional 6-15lbs on the bar just by taking it easy for a bit.
The greatest mistakes that people make are usually either a) not timing it right, or b) not attempting it at all.
So what are tapers and peaks, and how can you do them properly?
A taper refers to a deliberately easy period of training, sort of like a deload. However, unlike a deload, which is intended to help you rest up completely in between training cycles to ensure that you’re fresh and prepared for the start of the next cycle, a taper is done with the strategic intention of temporarily increasing your performance in the short run.
In order to explain how this works, I’ll go into a quick aside about the fitness-fatigue model.
In the fitness-fatigue model, a single workout does two things - it increases your long term fitness by stimulating your body to adapt, but it also generates fatigue which temporarily lowers your performance. Only when you recover from your fatigue (usually, about 2-4 days later), do your total performance go up. After this point, you have a period of time during which you can train again (to spur further adaptation) or, if you do nothing, you’ll eventually start to lose the strength and muscle you’ve gained.
The diagram above shows the results of a single training session. By combining many training sessions over time, we can chain the effects, training again each time our performance improves, and steadily improving our total fitness and performance.
Another important concept is the concept of accumulated fatigue, which has to do with deloading as mentioned above. In a general sense, over a long period of hard training, you will not be able to fully recover your fatigue between training sessions. This means that, over time, small amounts of fatigue will accumulate, adding up, until you eventually need to take some time off in order to continue to see optimal training results. Again, the usual solution to this is a bit of time off, a deload.
But what happens when you don’t want to deload, but instead need to prepare for a maximal performance such as a max test or a powerlifting meet, to finish out your training cycle?
You can probably see the problem here: a deload wouldn’t be a good idea, because a total week off would lead to the loss of practice, and the loss of some amount of skill in the process. One study found, for example, that four weeks of reduced training (a taper) showed far superior results in terms of strength and muscle maintenance than a complete deload. Thus, the solution is not to deload, but to taper: reducing training in order to maintain fitness and skill while minimizing fatigue.
One interesting side effect of specificity is that intensity preserves fitness better than volume. This is a fancy way of saying that lifting heavy weights for single reps is better for tapering and peaking than doing a lot of reps with lighter weights (which will generate a lot of fatigue, and be less specific to your intended results). Lifters training for strength will already be training with heavier weights and fewer reps than physique lifters, but they need to go even harder in that direction in order to properly taper and peak.
Taper - A phase of training in which training volume (total number of reps/sets) is reduced, while intensity is maintained or even increased a little. This minimizes fatigue and maximizes fitness in order to prepare for a peak.
Peak - A peak is the point at the end of a long cycle of training, slowly building up in intensity, ending with a taper, at which you are at maximal fitness and minimal fatigue - in short, maximum performance. You can expect to perform better at a peak than at any time during regular training. You cannot expect to peak for very long - because by nature, this fitness/fatigue dance can’t be maximized like this for long before you start to lose fitness, or regain fatigue by training harder in order to properly build that fitness back up.
Some people prefer to peak by reducing the number of training sessions, some by reducing the number of reps per set, and some by reducing the total number of training sets. In general, reducing the number of reps per set to about 1-3 is the best approach, because this is hard to mess up. This also has the added benefit of increasing specificity - sets of heavy singles have better carryover to performing a 1RM than do heavy sets of 3, 5, or 10.
There’s also some concern about how long a taper should be. Often, it’s believed that heavier, stronger, less-endurance adapted, and higher-testosterone lifters should have longer tapers because they generate more fatigue and recover less quickly from it. Very heavy lifters may respond well to a taper of even up to 3 weeks, though if you taper for longer than necessary you may end up losing some fitness (due to your low training volume). So, most lifters react best to a 1-2 week taper. Some coaches also recommend making your last week before the taper purposefully hard (higher volume than usual), since this is your last chance to build fitness for a while.
In a taper, you should reduce both the volume of your accessory exercises and the volume of your primary exercises. I prefer to take something like a very short Bulgarian cycle, with high frequency, high intensity, and very low volume. This is an example of a two week tapering phase I might use with an intermediate lifter who isn’t particularly fast- or slow-recovering, and trains 4x/week:
|Week 1||Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4|
|Squat||1-3x1-3 @80%||1-3x1-2 @85%||1-3x1-2@90%||1-3x1 @90-95%|
|Bench Press||1-3x1-3 @80%||1-3x1-2 @85%||1-3x1-2@90%||1-3x1 @90-95%|
|Deadlift||1-3x1-3 @80%||1-3x1-2 @85%||1-3x1-2@90%||1-3x1 @90-95%|
|Week 2||Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4|
|Squat||1-3x1-2 @85%||1-3x1-2 @90%||Rest||Max Test|
|Bench Press||1-3x1-2 @85%||1-3x1-2 @90%||Rest||Max Test|
|Deadlift||1-3x1-2 @85%||1-3x1-2 @90%||Rest||Max Test|
Throughout the taper, reps should feel fast, smooth, and minimally fatiguing. If form starts to break down or reps get very grindy, this is a sign that you should call it early for that exercise for the day. Use your head and don’t train to failure. You can maybe add a little bit more volume in the form of additional sets, but only if you’re completing 3 sets and feeling fresh throughout. You can use your Week 1/Day 4 training session to get a good feel for your limits, and use this to decide what your max attempts should be in the following week.
Tapering is challenging, mentally, because it’s designed to be intentionally “easy”. The weights may be challenging, but since you’re not training to anywhere near failure and your RPE is supposed to be intentionally low(er) than normal training, you don’t feel like you’re getting much of a workout in. Not feeling like you’re getting a workout can be a huge shock and give you a bit of whiplash if you’re used to going hard all the time.
One important thing to remember is that training and competing are very different things. While in training, you’ll want to do a great many sets and a great deal of volume in order to accumulate progressive overload and continue to improve over time, in competition (or max testing) all you have to do is show up and lift a few, single rep, heavy-as-possible weights. A taper may not “feel” like training, but that’s fine - it’s supposed to “feel” a bit more like competition anyway, and transition you to be properly prepared for a peak.
It probably should be mentioned that peaking isn’t useful for everyone the way that it’s useful for strength-focused powerlifters and weightlifters.
CrossFitters, for example, don’t compete in a traditional “one competition day every so often with lots of advance warning”, and instead have to compete in a great many tasks in successive weeks and months, often with no warning about what the next challenge will be. In this case, peaking is not something that can be easily or properly done, although you can certainly apply a very basic peaking methodology by reducing volume a bit focusing on recovery in preparation for individual competition dates.
Likewise, bodybuilders don’t need to peak for strength - but that doesn’t matter, because they’re already “peaking their physique” via manipulations of diet which have little to do with training.
An American football athlete (and many traditional field athletes) may be able to train heavily during the offseason, but then has to shift to a focus on maintenance (sort of like a beefed up taper) during the (very long) onseason. In this instance, it’s not so much a matter of “peaking” so much as it’s a matter of “doing damage control” on loss of what you built during your offseason training.
Planning a peak fits into a longer term training cycle, and may not be for everyone. Beginners, for example, don’t need to worry about it because they’re not at the point where a 2-5% bump will mean enough to be worth it in most cases. At the same time, of course, that bump will be huge to seasoned lifters handling hundreds of pounds - and they’ll need to carefully plan a taper and peak into their cycles so that they can properly test their strength only when they’re at their actual limits.
Planning for a proper taper and peak requires a bit of concentration and foresight that are often hard to attain for beginners. However, if done properly, it’ll give you easy results, quite literally. For many, it’s the only way to set proper PR’s.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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