How much will I get out of a taper? Variability in competition performance


I’m often asked how much strength an athlete can expect to gain out of a taper, a question to which I’m not sure there’s a precise answer. More perniciously, many people operate on the assumption that tapers/deloads into competition will yield incredible strength gains. This attitude can be harmful for a number of reasons – it can cause athletes to dig themselves into a greater fatigue debt, especially closer to competition, than they ought, which suppresses performance. This is then compounded by the expectation that they’ll bounce back further than is reasonable, with the net effect of shitty preparation followed by a lot of missed lifts on the platform.

Whilst good tapering certainly helps performance in powerlifting, the point of competition is to be adequately prepared and to make lifts on the day. Tempering your expectations of the return from your taper has very few downsides – it can keep your training sensible, it makes your attempt selections more reasonable, and prevents you extrapolating prior great meet performances into unreasonable future expectations. What I hope to do in this article is describe a few of the sources of variability in competition day performance and give some practical recommendations for setting competition expectations.

So, what sources of variability ARE there in how we respond to tapers and perform at competition?

I lifted this in training and it was easier

Physiological

1 – How much volume you were doing, and how much it was reduced.
As a general rule, and presuming that you taper well, athletes who carry more volume into their tapering period can probably expect to get more out of their taper. Doing high amounts of volume (particularly as intensities climb into a peak) tends to accrue a decent amount of residual fatigue, and as this washes away performance tends to improve. If you train with relatively conservative volumes and don’t carry as much fatigue into your peak, the chances are that tapering also won’t yield as big of an increase in your performance.

Whether or not you SHOULD do higher volumes into your taper is another question. There’s plenty of practical reasons not to. One of the purposes of a peak is to maximise technical proficiency under higher loads, and because high levels of fatigue can interfere with said technique whilst simultaneously interfering with the ability to reach said higher loads, carrying too much volume in is perhaps counterproductive.

This is especially true when you consider the often larger leaps in absolute training loads that you take from week to week in the later stages of preparation. Moving rapidly from handling loads in the mid 80% ranges to loads up to second attempts, as is common, in the course of a few weeks takes large-ish jumps week to week, which are only feasible with sufficient undulation in difficulty between hard and easy loading sessions, and with sufficient reductions in fatigue.

Doing hard, high volume peaks can yield a supercompensatory effect. However, I tend to think the benefit is overstated, and the contrast in performance between training and competition largely describes a return to baseline (ie, a return to what you’d have lifted in a “normal” peak) plus a similar improvement to what the normal peak would yield.

If you reduce training load too late, you still may not reduce the excess fatigue, meaning any benefit from the extra training that you did won’t be realised, and along with the greater gap between the loads that you handle in training and the loads that you expect in comp (and all the ambiguity that comes with that), you’ve also reduced your ability to practice solid technique under the loads most specific to competition conditions.

2 – How effectively you actually peak
This nearly goes without saying, but if you ask “how much can I get from a taper?”, it has to be presumed that your taper is successful. Tapering far too early can lead to you detraining and losing touch with heavy weights, and tapering far too late might mean insufficient fatigue-reduction (per the above).

Much of the information on the internet, at least when I began powerlifting, was derived from multiply lifting in which people often deloaded for 2 whole weeks prior to competition. For the majority of raw +/- natural trainees, that’s simply excessive. Instead, having tapers that are individualised to your level of strength, recovery profile, prior training, and even the relative strengths of your lifts is much preferable.

Have a look at this article for some details on effective tapers.

3 – Individual factors
Per the above, individuals differ in their responses to training. There is evidence for genetic variability in susceptibility to muscle damage, for instance, that makes a given training volume more/less disruptive, and likely influences recovery time.
Even your build likely has an influence on how much your taper will help you on a lift-by-lift basis. Consider that an individual who squats very bent over will be more taxed by a given volume of squatting than somebody with an amazing squatters build who sits bolt upright. Anecdotally, round-backed deadlifters and conventional lifters often need longer, more aggressive tapers than those who pull with a flatter back and sumo lifters, respectively.

In the case of women, the menstrual cycle can throw another variable into the mix. Recovery capacity (and the adaptive response) is typically better in the follicular phase of the cycle, and if your meet happens to fall in the luteal phase the benefits that you assume you’ll get from a taper might disappear entirely. Likewise, the bounce back from peaking in the less advantageous part of your cycle to performing in the more advantageous part can exaggerate the benefits of the peak.  
Listen to Lyle McDonald on Weakly Weights for more on this.

Psychological/technical factors

1 – Improved preparedness
I’ve already mentioned the relationship between fatigue and technical performance. Certain individuals also seem to improve in confidence handling heavier loads to a greater degree during a peak than others. This is surely both physiological and psychological – everyone finds running easy when they’re fit than when they’ve had months off, and likewise being peaked for heavy weights makes them feel better than when you’ve been doing 10s, almost always. That said, some people just seem to have that “on” switch all of the time, while some don’t. Some people are also more habituated to regular heavy lifting – as per the contrast in volume between peaking and tapering, if you train mostly light, peaking will probably give you more than if you train mostly heavy.

2 – Psychological approach to lifting and competition
Per the above, some people have a permanent “on” switch. Others rely on the competition atmosphere giving them the psychological kick to lift very heavy. Personally, I’m nearly never motivated to do a true grinder in training. I can perform reasonably well in a state of ennui 95% of the time, but at competition I find extra motivation even if I still don’t scream and shout much backstage.

I have coached and handled lifters for whom training occurs in a very calm state for 90% of sessions, but who do their best lifting in a very aroused state at competition. There are other lifters who are famously calm whilst competing. I believe Joy Nnamani of Great Britain (2018 IPF world champion in the u52kg class) reads books between attempts. The contrast between your training state and your competitive state can also be a source of variability in how much kick you get out of competition, even if you wouldn’t ascribe the change to the taper per-se.

On the other hand, certain lifters get competition nerves and underperform in spite of successful training and tapering. This can’t be ascribed to training, but it does have practical implications for planning. If you happen to get very nervous at competition instead of responding well to pressure, aiming to lift loads closer to training loads can be a very effective way of reducing stress. Opening with loads that you’ve handled for multiple sets of triples, and finishing with an attempt equal to or just above a training PB is certainly more palatable to many people than being asked to do more than they have before under conditions of extra stress.

3 – Allostatic load
The baseline level of stress that you experience, and how much of it is training-derived as opposed to extraneous, also changes how you will adapt to training. There’s evidence that higher psycho-emotional stress can negatively influence training adaptations and heightened anxiety can interfere with the performance of sport-related skills (which might also mean that reducing competition anxiety prior to competing is a viable way to help you peak better).

Because tapering involves the reduction of stress in order to facilitate recovery and performance, a smaller proportion of your overall stress package is reduced when you have high baseline non-training stress. Put simplistically – if 90% of your “stress” is fatigue from the gym, and 10% is psycho-emotional, you could achieve a higher overall stress reduction than were 25% of your stress gym-related and 75% from other sources.

Similarly, having emotional perturbations during the tapering period could in theory reduce the effectiveness of the peak itself, although again that’s highly individual. The way in which we respond to stressors isn’t uniform, and what knocks one person about may not affect another to the same degree.

If you like this content and want to learn more from me, check out Fitness Fundamentals – a website providing the most up to date, applicable fitness information, run by my colleague Luke Tulloch and with content written by me.

Other factors

1 – How you wake up on the day
You should probably now be considering that your fatigue-state isn’t entirely predictable, or entirely dependant upon your training load. Some days you sleep poorly, or are woken at the wrong part of your sleep cycle, for instance. Whilst routine and preparation can certainly mitigate this, our existence isn’t robotic and so neither will your response to routine be. Similarly, if you happen to come down with an illness, or spend longer than normal on your feet, or for any indescribable reason wake up feeling below average on competition day, it may influence your performance in a way that you can’t attribute entirely to your taper.

2 – Environmental factors at competition Everybody has stories about how uncontrollable factors at competition have influenced them. From having a song played that reminds you of your ex (Mr Brightside), to having to set your eyes in unusual places, to responding to unfamiliar calls from referees, or even the closeness of your direct competition, your psycho-emotional state is subject to what goes on around you. Part of the skill of being an athlete is being able to control and direct your responses to environmental stimuli, but your ability to do so differs from the next person, and so your expectation of competition performance relative to training cannot be uniform across the whole population

3 – Lift by lift fatigue

Your deadlift performance is subject to how heavy and taxing your squat performance was. If squatting beats your shoulders, elbows and back up, your bench performance may be influenced by your squat also. Depending on the demands of your competition, you might push squats hard or take it easy, and have a knock-on effect to the rest of your day’s performance, and being willing to adjust the plan in light of that is necessary. Likewise, the psychological burden of missing lifts, or the pressure of having to make a lift greater than your prior expectations can and does change how you perform across the day.

How much does this matter? It depends on your training. If you train your deadlift first on a given training day, separated from hard leg and back training, you might expect to net a smaller improvement from your taper than somebody who is used to deadlifting after squatting and bench pressing, and so on. Again, whether it is more advisable to structure your training in one way or the other is another question, but at the least recognising that your expectations of your taper are somewhat contingent on both your training structure and your competition performance is important.

Recommendations

Hopefully by now you’re sufficiently confused. You can never really know what you can lift until you do it or fail, and the returns from your taper aren’t accurately estimable until the moment of competition.

However, with there are some prudent ways of planning that can reduce your chances of error and maximise your chances of success.

Firstly – as a baseline, presume that on a good day you will be prepared for 2-3% more in competition than you could lift in your heaviest day of training. That doesn’t mean 2-3% more than what you actually lift in training, but rather more than your expectation of what you could. If you deadlift 200kg @RPE9 and feel like you could have lifted about 210, you might expect to lift 215ish kg at competition on a good day.
With that in mind, a 205kg second attempt gives you leeway to go for 210-215kg safely, and you could open at 190kg-ish.
These numbers can then be subject to change depending on your performance/feeling on the day without you being likely to way overshoot.

Secondly –  adjust the above for past history and your training style. If you typically get a huge amount from a taper (Chad Wesley Smith famously gets around 10%), you can revise your expectations upwards. If you haven’t revise them downwards. If you expected to drop a lot of fatigue in your taper, and feel you’ve done so, you can tentatively revise up (although I’d caution against this) and vice versa.

Thirdly – make plans on the basis of your prior competition experiences. Similarly to the above, if you handled 190kg at similar difficulty, during a similar peak, to the 200kg that you handled this peak, you might presume your competition performance will improve to a similar degree. However, if you plan to lift a small increment (2-5kg) above your prior best competition, or, where you’ve made substantial gains in a lift, revise your expectations down by 2-5kg to be safe, you can over time make very substantial improvements in your total without missing many lifts in competition. If you compete a few times a year and add 2-5kg to each lift each time, that might mean adding 30+kg to your total in a year, which is no mean feat at all. What’s more, where the situation DOES demand that you go for a big PB, if your competition expectations have moved up a little bit slower than your baseline capacity, you are more likely to pleasantly surprise yourself.

Fourthly – resist mistaking one amazing performance for a tendency to peak really well. Here and there the numbers will align for you – you’ll peak perfectly, you’ll reduced fatigue well, feel great on competition day, and eke every kilogram out on the platform that you could. That’s great, but if you then base your expectations of future performances off of that one, you’re sure to be disappointed. Remember regression to the mean – every bad meet performance is likely to be followed by one that is comparatively better, and every great meet performance is likely to be followed by one that is comparatively worse. Understanding the sources of variability in your performance goes a long way to keeping your eyes open and mitigating the risks associated with the somewhat random elements of human performance.  

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