How to Properly Taper for a Powerlifting Competition

raywilliams

 

I see this question posted all the time on message boards and lifting forums: ‘I am two weeks out from my meet, what should I do?’  To help answer that question, I have put together this article.

First, let’s be clear on our definitions.  A taper is a reduction in intensity and volume of physical activity, and the purpose of it is to allow the body to recover from the training it has undergone in the previous Mesocycle.  The 5 Factor Theory of Fitness tells us that performance is a combination of various aspects of fitness and fatigue in the body, and our current state of mind.  We are trying to maximize fitness while minimizing fatigue.  Keep in mind your body is always playing catch up with your training.  As you sit here, reading this, your body is still responding to the workout you did yesterday, 2 days ago, and last week.  Most people know they should not train super intensely the day before a competition, but the question becomes how much do I do, when do I do it, and how hard should I go?  It is time to answer those questions.

The tapering period is usually 1-2 weeks for most lifters.  I am also assuming that you are not dealing with a significant injury at this time, if you are you’ll need to modify things accordingly (generally you do a reverse taper for a period of 3-4 weeks but that is a topic for another article).  How long the taper should last for you specifically depends on several factors, outlined below:

 

Are you strong and have you been training for a long time? Yes No
Are you big and reasonably muscular? Yes No
Are you feeling banged up and overtrained? Yes No
Are you worried if you perform another week of intense training you might miss your target weights? Yes No
Is your strength reasonably consistent over a week or two? Yes No
If you start the taper now, do you feel confident you will still hit your goals? Yes No
You are older than 35 Yes No

 

Let’s explore each one of those things in more detail.

Are you strong or not?  Tough question to ask a powerlifter.  Of course to the general population almost all powerlifters are strong but in this instance we are talking about compared to other lifters and your ultimate potential.  To help answer this use the lifter classification system presented here. Generally the stronger lifters – which by default have been training longer – need a longer taper.  This is because they induce more fatigue with their workouts because they use a greater percentage of their muscles via improved neuromuscular coordination and because they are simply lifting more weights (600 lbs induces more fatigue than 400 lbs when all other things are equal).  Strong lifters (generally Master level or above on the chart) often like to take 2 weeks to taper; weaker, less experienced lifters often prefer just one week.

A larger, more muscular individual needs a longer time to recover.  The more tissue you have, the more damage you do it in training, and the longer it takes to recover.  This is why men (in general) seem to prefer a lower frequency of training compared to women and it is why some athletes (for example a lineman in football) will do less total volume than others (for example a defensive back).  Generally men over 200 lbs prefer a longer taper, while females and those under 200 lbs prefer a shorter taper.

If you are feeling fresh and training is going great, you may not need as much time to recover.  That is fine, trust yourself although don’t blow your wad in training and don’t peak too early.  If you are feeling banged up and overtrained then likely additional recovery time would be ideal.

If your previous week of training was super brutal and you barely hit your weights and you don’t think you have much chance of adding more volume or more load, then there is likely little benefit to performing another super brutal week of workouts.  In this case a longer taper is probably better.  If you feel very confident you can add 5-10 lbs to your lifts in the upcoming week and still have some left for the meet, then go for it.

Some lifters feel like they lose their strength very fast.  If you feel like your strength just goes way down when you take a few days off, then you probably don’t want an extended taper.  If you feel like your strength is consistent or even improves after a long rest, then a longer taper may be in order.  Placebo or not, it is important that you believe the plan you are on will work.  If you try something new to you, say a longer taper than normal, and the whole time you are doing it you are telling yourself you are going to be weak and you took too much time off, it will likely be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  On the flip side, if you think you get noticeably weaker just from taking 2-3 days off, that is likely all in your head as there would no physiological changes that would occur in that time frame that would explain such a loss of strength.  Your gains don’t disappear overnight, or even in a week or two.  Maximal strength is actually pretty consistent when measured across time.

If you think you could hit your goals for the meet now, then training super intensely for another week may not make much sense.  You might peak too early or worse you might injure yourself right before the meet.  You can’t be timid and be a successful powerlifter, but at the same time you don’t have to be reckless.  If you are feeling confident and strong and you feel you have the capability of hitting your goals, easing off the gas the last two weeks might just give you the best meet of your life.

Finally, how old are you?  Older lifters need a longer time to recover, partly due to simply being older, partly due to the fact they have likely been training longer.  Younger lifters (junior lifters and below) will tend to recover fast and they often feel like their gains are more transient, thus they tend to prefer a shorter taper.

If you answered yes to most of the questions above, then you likely want to do a two-week taper.  If you answered no, then a one-week taper is probably best for you.  I will outline both of them in detail below.

Important Note: A taper is not the time to try something totally new or significantly change your training.  I will outline the weekly workouts as I tend to set them up, but if they don’t match what your program looks like, take the guidelines and principles presented herein and then modify them to match your program.  You should never get sore as a result of a taper workout.

 

2-Week Taper

For the bigger, stronger, heavier athletes out there, a 2-week taper is likely ideal.  Let’s say the lifter had 9 weeks to prep for a meet.  In this example let’s say we have a 275 lb male lifter and his goal third attempts are a 600 lb squat, 450 bench, and 640 deadlift.  Their training routine might look something like this.

 

Sample Training Week (Training 4 x week hitting everything once a week)

Day 1: Legs and Core (Monday)

Day 2: Bench and Biceps (Tuesday)

Day 3: Back and Deads (Thursday)

Day 4: Shoulders and Tris (Friday)

 

Weeks 1-7 – heavy training, week 7 would likely be the most challenging week

On this week the lifter will likely hit 580-590 squat, 430-445 bench, and 600-630 deadlift in training.

Week 8: Taper Week 1

Week 9: Taper Week 2 (Mon-Fri for example)

Competition: Saturday or Sunday at the end of Taper Week 2

 

Taper Week 1

 

Day 1: Squat – warm-up as normal and then work up to your opener or your last warm-up set.  Optional back down work for 1-3 sets of 3-6 reps.  Then perform your normal assistance exercises, using either warm-up weight or first work set for all sets.  Keep the volume pretty low.  After performing the competitive lift, incorporating 2-3 assistance exercises for 2-4 sets for 5-12 reps is reasonably standard.

 

This lifter’s opener would be 525 so the workout might look like this:

SQ: 45×12, 135×8, 135×8, 225×5, 315×3, 405×3, 475×1 (last w/u set), 525×1 (opener), 455×3*, 405×5*

Front Squat: 135×6, 225×5, 315x5x3 (all easy)

1 Legged Leg Press: 90×8, 180×8, 230×8 (all easy)

Leg Curl: 80×8, 100×8, 120×8 (all easy)

* = optional sets, might perform a longer pause on them if desired

 

Day 2: Bench – warm-up as normal and then work up to your opener or your last warm-up set.  Optional back down work for 1-3 sets of 3-6 reps. Then perform your normal assistance exercises, using either warm-up weight or first work set for all sets.  Keep the volume pretty low.  Generally 2-3 assistance exercises for 2-4 sets for 5-12 reps is reasonably standard.

 

This lifter’s opener would be 395 so the workout might look like this:

BP: 45×12, 135×8, 135×8, 225×5, 275×3, 325×3, 365×1 (last w/u set), 395×1 (opener), 345×3*, 315×5*

DB Incline: 40×8, 70×8, 90x8x2 (all easy)

2 Board Press: 135×6, 225×5, 315x5x2 (all easy)

EZ Curl: 2-3 w/u sets; 2-3 work sets pretty easy (think of sets/reps done on week 1 of program)

DB Hammer Curl: as above

* = optional sets, might perform a longer pause on them if desired

 

Day 3: Deads – Deads are optional to perform, you can either skip them completely, do them very light to stay in the groove, or do them with the same set up as the squat and bench.  Their motor pattern degrades the slowest so I generally suggest skipping them.

Deads: Skip

45 Degree Row: 135×8, 225×8, 275×8, 315×5 (all easy)

DB Row: 80×8, 100×8, 120×8 (all easy)

RDL’s: Optional: 225×8, 315×8 (all easy)

 

Day 4: Assistance Work – Shoulders and Tris

Mil Press: 45×12, 95×8, 95×8, 135×5, 185x5x3

DB Lateral Raise: 25x8x3

Closegrip Bench: 135×8, 225×5, 275×5

Skull Crushers: 2-3 w/u sets; 2-3 work sets pretty easy (think of sets/reps done on week 1 of program)

Tricep Pushdowns: as above

 

The goal of this week is that it should resemble a regular training week but with fewer sets and easier load.  A volume or intensity of 60-80% of what you usually do works well here.  If you lift above your openers it should not be considered much of a taper and it is very important that you are realistic about your weights and selecting your attempts or else this may feel heavy.  If you feel great, great, however do NOT go any heavier than the plan.  If you feel crappy, too bad, that just means you needed to taper so it will all workout in the end.

 

Taper Week 2

 

Day 1: Squat – Warm-up as you would for your max attempt however stop at your last warm-up set or second to last warm-up set; 1-2 very easy/light back down sets are optional.  Generally stop one set before you stopped on week 1 of the taper.  Then do 1-3 WARM-UP sets on your assistance exercises and that is it.  This day should be significantly shorter and much easier than you are used to.

 

SQ: 45×12, 135×8, 135×8, 225×5, 315×3, 405×3, 475×1; 315x3x2 (optional)

Front Squat: 135×6, 225×5

1 Legged Leg Press: 90x8x2

Leg Curl: 80x8x2

 

Day 2: Bench – Warm-up as you would for your max attempt however stop at your last warm-up set or second to last warm-up set; 1-2 very easy/light back down sets are optional.  Generally stop one set before you stopped on week 1 of the taper.  Then do 1-3 WARM-UP sets on your assistance exercises and that is it.  This day should be significantly shorter and much easier than you are used to.

 

BP: 45×12, 135×8, 135×8, 225×5, 275×3, 325×3, 365×1; 225x3x2 (optional)

DB Incline: 40×8, 70×8

2 Board Press: 135×6, 225×5

EZ Curl: 1-3 warm-up sets

DB Hammer Curl: 1-3 warm-up sets

 

Day 3 & 4: Rest (Thursday and Friday would be off)

 

Sat/Sun: Competition: Go Forth and Dominate

 

The idea behind the second week is truly to rest, do just enough work to feel comfortable with the exercises and stay in the groove.  Generally lifting about 30-40% of the volume and intensity you usually lift with is a good idea.  Definitely rest the 2-3 days right before a competition.

 


 

1-Week Taper

For the younger, newer, lighter, less experienced athletes out there a 1-week taper is likely all that is necessary.  If this is your first or second meet that is all you need.  Here is how to do it.

 

Sample lifter: 181 lb male with goal third attempts of 420 squat, 275 bench, and 475 deadlift.  He has been training 4 x week following an upper/lower split

 

Sample Training Week (Training 4 x week hitting everything twice a week)

Day 1: Lower (Monday)

Day 2: Upper (Tuesday)

Day 3: Lower (Thursday)

Day 4: Upper (Friday)

 

Weeks 1-8 – heavy training, week 8 would likely be the most challenging week

On this week the lifter will likely hit 405-415 squat, 255-270 bench, and 440-465 deadlift in training.

Week 9: Taper Week 1 (Mon-Fri for example)

Competition: Saturday or Sunday at the end of Taper Week 1

 

Day 1: Lower

Squat – warm-up as you would for a max and work up to the opener or last warm-up attempt for the squat.  Optional back down work for 1-3 sets of 3-6 reps.  Then perform your normal assistance exercises, using either warm-up weight or first work set for all sets.  Keep the volume pretty low.  Generally 2-3 assistance exercises for 2-4 sets for 5-12 reps is reasonably standard.

Deadlift – Generally skip deads on a one-week taper –  if you are still tweaking your form then you can do some warm-up sets or speed sets but keep them light with low volume

 

This lifter would open up with 370 on squats so the workout might look like this:

SQ: 45×12, 135×8, 135×8, 205×5, 275×3, 315×3, 345×1 (last warm-up), 370×1 (opener); 325×3, 295×5 optional back down sets

DL: Skip.  Max amount of work would be 135×8, 225×5, 315×5

Front Squat: 135x8x2

Leg Curl: 60x8x2

 

Day 2: Upper

Bench – warm-up as normal and then work up to your opener or your last warm-up set.  Optional back down work for 1-3 sets of 3-6 reps. Then perform your normal assistance exercises, using either warm-up weight or first work set for all sets.  Keep the volume pretty low.  Generally 2-3 assistance exercises for 2-4 sets for 5-12 reps is reasonably standard.

 

This lifter would open up with 240 on bench so the workout might look like this:

BP: 45×12, 135×8, 135×8, 165×5, 185×3, 205×1, 225×1 (last warm-up), 240×1 (opener); 215×3, 195×5 optional back down sets, long pauses

DB Incline: 40×8, 60×8

DB Row: 60×8, 80×8

Lat Pulldown: 120x8x2

Mil Press: 95x5x2

EZ Curl: 65×8, 85×8

Dips, 8 x 2

 

Day 3: Optional Day.  Lifter could do additional squats, additional bench, just one, or nothing on this day.  This last day should be very easy and not taxing.  This could be Wednesday or Thursday if a lifter was competing on Saturday.  This workout is helpful if lifters have a lot of nervous energy or are new to the sport.  Do NOT train heavy at all. 

SQ: 45×12, 135×8, 135×8, 205x5x2

BP: 45×12, 135×8, 135×8, 165×2

DL: Skip

1-3 assistance exercises: 1-3 warm-up sets of 6-12 reps just to get the blood moving

 

Day 4: Rest

Saturday: Competition Day: Go Forth and Dominate

 

Key Guidelines to Remember when Tapering:

  • You lose almost no fitness in one week if you have been training hard and very minimal fitness in 2 weeks.
  • You can’t make yourself much stronger in the last 2 weeks before a meet but you can make yourself much weaker – the hay is in the barn so to speak, don’t screw up all of your hard work.
  • During a taper is not the time to try new exercises or techniques.
  • Lifters often feel either extra good or extra bad the week of the competition, in general ignore those feelings and stick with your plan. If you still feel the need to modify your plan once you have hit your openers then so be it.
  • Do NOT test your strength in the gym in the week or two prior to a meet to see where you are at. Nobody cares what you can lift in the gym, it is what you do on the platform that counts.
  • The taper week(s) are a great time to practice the commands on the lifts even for veteran lifters.
  • Most lifters prefer to squat 1-3 times with progressively lighter weight during their taper period.
  • Most lifters prefer to bench 1-3 times with progressively lighter weight during their taper period.
  • Most lifters prefer to deadlift 0-2 times with very light weight during their taper period.
  • Avoid strenuous physical activity outside of your workouts during the taper period. Light to moderate activity like walking or easy cardio is fine particularly if you need to make weight.
  • Avoid radically changing your diet right before the meet. Lifters tend to stress off 1-3 lbs anyway so don’t go on a crash diet and lose 5 lbs to make sure you make weight and then come in super light.  If you are lifting 2x bodyweight and you lose 5 lbs, you just lost 10 lbs off of that lift, which means you probably just sacrificed your third attempt.
  • Almost all lifters simply rest the 2 days before a competition and they perform no activity.

Finally, the goal of these guidelines is help maximize your performance on the platform.  If they work, great; if they don’t, find out what was off about them and then modify as you see fit.  You can’t argue with results.  Take detailed notes about your training, the taper, and the meet.  Understand the connections.  Did you feel rusty when you were lifting?  Did you feel beat up?  Did you hit big weights in the gym but not in the meet?  What happened?  If something worked very well don’t be afraid to repeat it, it will likely work again.  If it didn’t then either alter it or come up with a new plan.  As you get older and stronger you will likely need to increase your taper.  Find what works for you.

 

 

 

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