Understanding the Taper: reviewing recent research

The sport of powerlifting is a demonstration of maximal strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.   Months of training culminate in just one day of testing each lift.   One of the more misunderstood topics in powerlifting is “the taper”, or how to manage fatigue at the end of a training cycle in order to create the best possible outcome on the day of competition.   While a taper won’t always create significantly higher outcomes than pre-taper values, a mishandled taper can cause decreases in one repetition max (1RM) performance.  We’ll talk a lot about athlete “preparedness”, and this just means how prepared the lifter is to display their true capabilities of 1RM strength. 

In order to understand the importance of a taper, let’s take a look at two models that are often used to explain variances in athlete preparedness throughout a training cycle.  A one-factor model, called the Theory of Supercompensation, looks at the short-term effects of each training session.  According to the Supercompensation model, there is a sharp decrease in preparedness immediately after a training session due to decreases in numerous biochemical substances.  A good example of this would be the reduction of available muscle glycogen after a high volume training session.(1)  There will be a period of time needed for restoration, and then those substances are thought to rise above previous levels in the supercompensation phase.  Many of the supposed substrate increases are unproven in research, and the Theory of Supercompensation has lost popularity in recent years because it tends to oversimplify the changes that take place throughout a training cycle.1,4

With volume being a critical driver of strength, the amount of volume needed to progress often does not allow for complete restoration between training sessions.

While it would be great to see a linear increase in preparedness (shown above) from the start of a training cycle all the way into competition, the truth is that there will be accumulated fatigue and preparedness often declines during high-volume phases.  With volume being a critical driver of strength, the amount of volume needed to progress often does not allow for complete restoration between training sessions.  A two-factor theory was introduced to account for some of the variables that are missed in the Theory of Supercompensation.  The Fitness-Fatigue Theory looks at the positive effects of training (fitness), as well as the negative effects (fatigue), and how those variables contribute to an athlete’s preparedness.(4)   In order to maximize competitive performance, steps are taken at the end of a training cycle in order to reduce fatigue, maintain or increase fitness, and increase preparedness.  This is where the taper comes into play. 

Pritchard et al. recently reviewed the effects of tapering strategies on maximal strength output.  According to their research, there have been four main strategies that have been applied in studies.(2)  A “step taper” involves a single reduction in training volume or intensity that remains unchanged heading into competition.   An example of a step taper could be a 50% reduction in volume during the final week of training.  A “linear taper” involves a progressive reduction in volume or intensity.  An example of a linear taper might be a 10% reduction in volume each week starting 4 weeks out from competition.  A “slow decay” taper also involves progressive reduction in volume or intensity, but does not occur in a linear fashion.  In a slow decay taper, the initial reductions may be slight and then become more dramatic as the competition approaches.   The slow decay often allows training loads to remain high.  A “fast decay” taper occurs over a shorter period of time and may require sharp reductions in both volume and intensity in order to allow recovery from fatigue.(2,3)  Pritchard’s findings indicate that both step tapers and progressive tapers can be effective in shedding fatigue and creating positive post-taper outcomes. 

Unfortunately, few studies have examined tapering effects on maximal strength, with the majority of research focusing on aerobic endurance.  According to Pritchard’s review, maintaining or even increasing intensity while reducing volume during the taper period appears to be the most effective for maximizing strength.(3)  However, there needs to be more research comparing individual taper strategies. There appears to be no research comparing tapering strategies against each other for maximal strength outcomes.  (If anyone needs a thesis, this sounds like a great topic!)

It should be noted that the improvements in research from pre-taper to post-taper generally range from 2-8%.(3)  Don’t expect miracles!  The majority of training adaptations take place over the course of the training cycle, and the taper simply allows the athlete to express those adaptations to their full potential.  In future articles we’ll look at ways to monitor fatigue and how that plays a role in determining the taper strategy. 

Eric Bodhorn, CSCS

1. Baechle TR and Earle RW. “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning”. (2008) pp 75,214.
2. Mujika I, Padilla S. “Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies”. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 35: (2003) 1182–1187.
3. Pritchard H, et al. “Effects and Mechanisms of Tapering in Maximizing Muscular Strength”. Strength & Conditioning Journal Volume 37 Number 2. (2015) 72-83.
4. Zatsiorsky VM, Kraemer WJ. “Science and Practice of Strength Training”. (2006) pp 12-15.