How many times have you heard someone say something like: “Well, I squatted 500 in the gym a few weeks ago, but 450 felt heavy at the meet, and I missed 475.”
That’s because they peaked wrong. I’m even convinced that if you ONLY hit your gym PRs in meets, you peaked poorly. If you’re good at programming, meets should be PR city. And, if you’re unfamiliar with this website, let me assure you I’m not just a pencil-necked nerd who reads research but hasn’t ever applied these principles in practice. Here is a breakdown of my last two meets:
Gym PRs (under the same circumstances)* – 625 squat, 415 bench, 625 deadlift
Meet – 650 squat, 419 bench, 645 deadlift
Gym PRs (under the same circumstances) – 725 squat, 420 bench, 675 deadlift
Meet – 750 squat, 425 bench, 710 deadlift
*I had hit a couple of bigger benches in the gym before my meets. Also, before my 2013 meet, I had pulled more with straps. However, I’m a low bar squatter and squatting low bar before benching makes a little biceps tendonitis flare up, so I listed my gym PRs after low bar squatting to mimic meet conditions, and I listed my strapless DL PRs.
I don’t intend for my own example to be perceived as bragging. This is essentially what meet numbers SHOULD look like compared to gym numbers. When you walk into a meet, you should be set for PRs across the board or at minimum match your gym PRs. Any other outcome, barring something beyond your control (getting sick on meet day, sustaining some random injury at work, no AC at the meet venue, etc.), either indicates that your training lifts didn’t mimic meet lifts (high squats, bounced benches, hitched DLs, etc), or your programming was bad. You may want to chalk it up to some trite excuse like, “It was just a bad day.” Well, why was it a bad day? Because you failed to peak properly. Simple as that.
So, now let’s examine the factors that influence how well your peak goes:
1. Training volume leading up to the meet
This is an important factor. I’ve written about this subject before here. Peaking 101 – you’re training hard, you taper volume, your body supercompensates, and you’re stronger on meet day. Well, if you’re not training hard in the first place, there’s really no peaking that can occur. There’s no overreaching from which you can supercompensate. And when I say “training hard,” I’m not talking about hitting a vein-popping 1rm or 3rm. I’m talking about putting in volume. High-intensity stimuli (heavy freaking weight) tend to cause primarily neural adaptations, which tend to occur fairly quickly. Increasing volume, on the other hand, will have cumulative effects that may take a few weeks to fully recover from once overreaching occurs.
If you train a lift only once per week, and in that session, you only hit 10 heavy working reps, and then you pack it up without hammering accessory work hard, you simply haven’t been doing enough work to warrant a taper. If you try, there’s no overreaching to warrant a supercompensatory response from your body. Higher frequency helps fix this problem (because you can get in a lot more volume over two or three sessions without having to kill yourself in any given one of them). If you prefer lower frequency, make sure you focus on constantly increasing your training volume leading up to a meet, so when you DO pull back, you actually benefit from the taper.
2. How long you take to taper
This is another common mistake. People either tend to overdo or underdo tapering.
Overdoing: Some people read old Westside articles about the “delayed transformation” method and try to taper volume over 3 or 4 weeks, only to peak a week or two before the meet. (Keep in mind, you only peak for a short period of time, and then optimal performance quickly becomes detraining). When you’re aiming to squat 1,100 and you’re cranking out 12 training sessions a week, you may need that long to taper. When you’re the other 99% of lifters (especially raw lifters), one week of lowered volume followed be one week of deload is usually plenty.
That approach works well for me. I may take one more week to not push quite as close to failure (same general training plan, but shave a rep or two off of everything), but I only purposefully taper for one week before my deload. In my experience, very few people are strong enough to warrant a taper longer than two weeks before meet week. During this period, maximize your schedule for sleep. Shoot for 10 hours a night, or at least an extra hour compared to your norm.
Undergoing: On the other hand, some people think “peaking” means just taking a session or two off before a meet. They may hit their openers Monday, skip training the rest of the week, and compete Saturday. That’s simply not enough time off. (Warning, it’s about to get bro-sciency, but this is a reflection of my experience and conversations with a LOT of lifters.) It’s enough time for your body to get shifted into recovery mode and for you to lose your “edge,” but not long enough for you to start really getting the itch to tear into some weights. Your physical strength and your psychological aggression simply don’t have enough time to manifest themselves. It’s like preparing for battle the next day, but then being caught off-guard by your enemy during the night. Be willing to take some time off. If you trained for several months to get ready for a meet, one easy week and one off week aren’t going to make you weak. You think strength that took that long to build is going to leave you so quickly? Trust the work you put in, and give your body a chance to reward you for your efforts.
3. Nutritional factors
For people cutting water weight: Get the weight off as fast as possible, and put it back on as fast as possible. Don’t spend hours jogging in a trash bag the day before a meet. Get in a hot tub or run a hot bath. Water has a much higher thermal conductivity constant than air, which means more heat is imparted into your body, so you sweat WAY more. Get that weight off fast, then have a couple of gallons of 1/2 gatorade 1/2 water waiting for you. Then hit a buffet. You should be heavier than you were prior to the water cut within an hour or two of stepping off the scales. Don’t let a botched weight cut ruin your meet.
If you attempt to water cut for a meet with a 2 hour weigh-in, don’t try to lose more than 1-3% of your total body weight via water. Any more than than will affect the resting membrane potential of the your muscles and motor neuron excitability. Even if you rehydrate effectively and replace the sodium and potassium you lose during the cut, it takes longer than two hours for the electrochemical gradients in your cells to re-normalize. For a 24 hour weigh-in, losing 5-7% is pretty doable, with some people pulling off weight cuts as large as 10%. Even with a 24 hour weigh-in, going above 3% can be dangerous, I’m not recommending it, I’m not a doctor, insert standard disclaimer here, etc. However, if you ARE going to do it, those are the numbers that people regularly pull off. 5% really isn’t too hard. 10% is absolutely brutal. Try to get as much weight off as possible simply by losing fat. Huge water cuts should be your last resort. Remember, though, the more weight you have to cut in water before the meet, the more stressful the cut will be (both physically and psychologically) which can affect you on the platform.
If you have a 24 hour weigh in, after you make weight, eat as much salt and as many starchy foods as possible, and drink as much water as possible the day before and the entire day of the meet. You want a huge bloat. Mass moves mass.
I recommend cutting out caffeine a few weeks before the meet. You’ll be re-sensitized by meet day, and you can use that to your advantage. High doses of caffeine have been shown to reliably increase power output, but only in people who are caffeine-sensitive. I’ll usually have a coffee and a Monster in my system before my first squat attempt, and drink 4-5 more highly caffeinated beverages throughout the course of a day. It makes weights feel much lighter and move much faster.
So, there you go. I’m sure I glossed over some details, but contained in this post are the basics of consistently PRing in meets. Get your volume in during your pre-meet training cycle; take a week or two to taper volume and a week of deloading, make your water cut as fast as possible (if you cut); consume massive amounts of carbs, salt, and water; and use caffeine to your advantage. If you don’t feel comfortable setting up your training plan, hire a competent coach or take the time to study training logs of lifters who consistently do well in meets.
On meet day, you shouldn’t be wondering IF you’ll PR, the only question should be, “HOW BIG will those PRs be?”