Stronger by Science

Tapering and Peaking: Why and How

Tapering is one of the most overlooked aspects of training. Those wanting to enhance their strength or physique seldom use these methods because they either a) don’t think it’s important or b) don’t know how to properly incorporate it. This is problematic because it creates an eternal loop of working out with no end in sight. However, an appropriately timed taper can increase performance by 2-5% (Le Meur 2012) due to a reduction in accumulated fatigue (Busso 1994), which allows proper recovery from workouts. I understand the struggle with backing off the weights. It just doesn’t feel right. Recovery is important, so let me explain how we can optimize your taper to be efficient. Then you can get back to the hard work.  

Luckily, there are numerous studies and reviews that look at the effects of tapering in diverse populations, including semi-pro and college athletes as well as trained recreational lifters. I think most of the people reading this are probably somewhere in-between, so we will have to extrapolate a bit. We’ll go through a few of the studies, dig into the data, and then end with some practical applications.

Adapted from Prichard et. Al, 2015

Definitions

There are four main types of tapering: progressive, step, slow decay, and fast decay. The two we see most are the step-taper or linear taper. A linear taper is generally a progressive decline in training load for a set time. Linear tapering can be crucial for those competing in powerlifting or other strength competitions. However, some people may not compete in a sport that requires peaking. In this case, a one-step taper works very well. A step-taper is a set reduction in training usually done by percentage. For example, a one step-taper could use a 50% decrease in volume for one week after the overreaching phase of a program.

From Le Meur et. Al, 2012

Side note: No study to date has compared different types of tapers to each other. Most compare various tapering approaches to continued training or complete rest.

Training Variables

The essential components in tapering include a change in one of three variables: volume, frequency or intensity.

Volume – Total work done. Usually calculated by the product of sets x repetitions x weight.

Frequency – Number of training sessions per unit of time. Generally, per week.

Intensity – Often expressed as % of 1RM or RPE.

Overview

A periodized training program generally includes a taper. However, those who don’t compete may consider this more of a deload than peaking. The main purpose of a taper is to decrease training to improve performance.

Maintaining training intensity seems to be the key factor in order to retain performance during a taper. In fact, a high-intensity taper increased force production, muscle glycogen content, and mitochondrial activity compared to a reduced intensity taper in endurance athletes (Shepley 1992). Furthermore, as long as intensity is maintained, volume and frequency can be reduced. Several physiological improvements have been reported when training volume was reduced by >30% (Mujika 1998).

The obvious limitation with tapering is that it can lead to detraining. This doesn’t mean you magically lose all your hard-fought gains. It just means you could see a slight decrease in performance.  In fact, strength performance is readily retained for several weeks of reduced training, but sport-specific adaptations suffer more quickly (Neufer 1987). It also appears that completing 1/3 the volume of a normal program can help retain muscle strength over a 32-week period (Bickel 2011).

The Beginning  

One of the most comprehensive tapering studies done in what we’ll call the “modern” period of tapering research studied a cohort of trained athletes who underwent 16 weeks of periodized resistance training.

During the program, subjects performed 3×6-8 at 50-60% 1RM two times per week. Exercises included the bench press, squat, lat pulldown, shoulder press, leg curl, crunch, and a few others. The workouts lasted about 40 minutes, with participants taking approximately two minutes between sets. They then completed a detraining or tapering protocol. The detraining group underwent 4 weeks of no workouts, while the tapering group underwent progressive lowering of training volume with increasing intensity. During the taper, they used 3-4RM loads doing 2-3 sets with 2-4 reps per set. This study had a four-week taper, which is longer than any other study you’ll find, and researchers still found an increase in performance. There was also a control group for comparison.

The big takeaways from this study was that tapering increased bench press and squat performance, while detraining decreased performance in all outcome measures. They also found a small yet significant decrease in body mass of the tapering group, which is reportedly due to a decrease in body fat.

From Izquierdo et. Al, 2007

One of the reasons I love this study is because it can apply to so many people. It consists of 16 weeks (a college semester/ average mesocycle) and it uses exercises that most people know how to do. These subjects only worked out two times per week. This indicates tapering could be important even for those that don’t have a high frequency of training (Izquierdo 2007).

Reviews & Meta-Analysis

A meta-analysis is a great way to look at the whole-body of literature to discover effects of a training method. Meta-analyses use effect size to compare the magnitude of a difference between groups. If you need a refresher on how effect size is calculated, check out this article by Greg.

After reviewing over 180 studies, this analysis used 27 that fit the selected criteria. According to the data, a decrease in training volume of 41-60% had the largest effect size on performance. Looking at the other variables, we can see that 8-14 days seems to be the ideal taper length. Keep in mind that there is a large variability between studies, as evidenced by the 95% confidence interval. When looking at effect size on the left, know that the magnitude of the difference was interpreted as small (0.2), moderate (0.5), or large (0.8) in this analysis (Bosquet 2007). The only caveat to this meta is that the subjects were runners, swimmers, or cyclists, and the studies had to use performance-based criteria (i.e. competitive measures) to qualify for inclusion. If you want to see how they compare across training styles, they do that here too.

From Bosquet et. Al, 2007

This meta-analysis is from 2007, so what’s happened since then?

A lot has happened since 2007, including reviews by Braanstrom, Murach, and another by Pritchard (which we’ll cover next). The next set of studies focused on more relatable subjects.   

From Braanstrom et. At, 2013

Let’s get right to it. This table is from a review by Braanstrom et al, in 2013.  I think it does a great job summarizing several studies.

The review concludes the following:

  1. Both progressive and one-step tapering are effective in increasing or maintaining maximal power.
  2. Increased maximal power could be obtained after various periods of tapering.
  3. The physiological mechanisms of tapering are most likely associated with higher neural drive and increased CSA of type IIA muscle fibers.

Notice that the studies that increase neuromuscular power (Chtourou, Trappe, Trinity) had one thing in common: decreased volume of training. The two Santos studies at the bottom use adolescent subjects, which could confound the analysis because they could have an ability to recover faster than adults.  

The 2012 review by Murach et al, covers endurance, strength, and power athletes. It offers the following practical applications:

  1. Some elite and world-champion athletes do not adhere to the optimal tapering protocols outlined by the scientific literature and likely do not achieve true peak performance, and
  2. Nonfunctional overreaching, a common practice among recreational and elite athletes alike, may undercut the benefits of tapering.

I don’t consider many people elite, so the first point may not apply. However, the second point brings up something I think a lot of recreational lifters struggle with: nonfunctional overreaching (NFO). This occurs when athletes don’t adapt to a training stimulus. Check out the review by Meeusen et al at the end of this article, for more information on the topic.

One of my favorite pieces of literature is the 2015 review by Pritchard et al., which looks at the effects of tapering on strength. They found maintaining or slightly increasing intensity had greater effects on strength than reducing intensity.

From Pritchard et. Al, 2015

Here you can see the summary from the Pritchard study. There seems to be one thing in common with all of these reviews: They all have similar interpretations of the science and similar recommendations. Granted, there aren’t many studies on tapering, but I’m not sure we’ll see a resurgence of interest in this area in the near future.

I think these reviews are instrumental in telling us what occurs if we include a taper. Let’s narrow it down a tad further though.

This table is similar to those seen previously, except I’ve picked studies that are relevant to those of us who are past the beginner stage but not yet to the elite stage. I like to consider the low end “intermediate” and the high end “sub-elite.” Those are just convenient labels, nothing scientific. I also chose studies with an outcome measure that is practical. While maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) is relevant, you aren’t going to be maxing that out with elbow flexion anytime soon. We would more likely use a bench press or squat to measure progress.

Only two studies make the cut; however, they both found significant changes in performance outcomes while using a taper.

One more thing: Notice something odd about all of these tables? Maybe that most of the studies are done in men? That leads to an interesting question: Does tapering enhance performance in women? It’s difficult to speculate, but there is some evidence that women recover faster than men (credit idea: Menno). This could mean women don’t have to taper as much, or as often. One study used a mixed population, but only 6 females were included (Zaras 2014). So, to put it bluntly: I have no idea.

(Greg’s note:  In my experience with my own lifters, I’ve noticed that women generally don’t need to taper for quite as long as men.  Around two weeks, or slightly longer for larger/stronger lifters, generally works best for men, whereas 7-10 days tends to work best for women.)

What causes the adaptation?

Unfortunately, the exact mechanism of performance enhancement from using a taper is currently unknown. Researchers have speculated that sustained maximal power after tapering is due to maintaining neuromuscular adaptations, muscle fiber size and type. The increase in performance is thought to be through both physiological and psychological recovery (Braanstrom 2013).

Hypertrophy of type IIa/b fibers during resistance training likely plays a role in increased performance (Staron 1989). The only tapering study done at the single muscle fiber level was completed in swimmers. I don’t believe the exact same adaptations occur in swimming versus resistance training, but it’s still worth the discussion. Trappe et al, found that tapering induced alterations mainly in the contractile properties of Type IIa fibers. They found an increase in peak power and muscle fiber size. This makes sense because a larger muscle is generally a more powerful muscle. However, when they normalized power to muscle size, they still found a two-fold increase in peak power in the taper group.  The increased power could be due to a 60% faster shortening velocity of the fiber, which allows quicker contractions to occur. More contractions in a smaller amount of time could cause an increase in power. It’s also been shown that the metabolic properties of different fiber types are altered with tapering in endurance training (Neary 2003).

Maybe there is a hormonal adaptation occurring?

Interestingly, there were no differences in testosterone, cortisol or growth hormone after tapering in two studies (Kraemer 2005, Iqzuerdo 2007). For what it’s worth, I think the hormone hypothesis is becoming less and less important for muscular adaptations due to resistance training. I believe there may be a neural factor involved. Indeed, one group showed increases in EMG activity after a 1-week taper (Hakkinen 1983). It’s still hard to tell exactly what’s happening. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Practical Applications

I want to emphasize that science changes. There could be new studies published in the future that completely change these recommendations. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow them – it just means you should be aware of new research. I already know if you’ve made it this far then you love the details.

  1. By the time you start a taper, you should need it. A taper would typically follow a 12-16 week training cycle.
  2. During a step-taper, reduce training volume 30-60%.
  3. Maintain or slightly increase training intensity while keeping frequency the same.
  4. Suggested taper length is 8-14 days, although some have found increased performance with longer and shorter periods.

Now use this new information to create a yearly training program with appropriate tapers included so you can get the most out of your time in the gym.

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