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5/1/2023 Newsletter

Travis SK, Mujika I, Gentles JA, Stone MH, Bazyler CD. Tapering and Peaking Maximal Strength for Powerlifting Performance: A Review. Sports (Basel). 2020 Sep 9;8(9):125. doi: 10.3390/sports8090125. PMID: 32917000; PMCID: PMC7552788.

To date tapering literature has included many periodization models over 6-10 weeks and has shown improvements of 2-11% during those periods of time in competitors and non competitive athletes. The periodization models reviewed have included linear, daily undulating, and block models.

Tapering has been defined as a progressive reduction of training load during a specific period of time to reduce stress of training to optimize performance. Some people also will take time off of training as part of their “tapering strategy”. However this might be more of a deload as prolonged periods of time without training will lead to reduced performance.

Linear tapers- (also known as exponential taper at times) can be a gradual or rapid reduction in training loading this can be done by reducing it by a large amount right away or gradually over time.

Step tapers- reducing training load by a constant amount over the period of the taper

Exponential taper- typically where the training volume is reduced over time but by different amounts. Like reducing in the first week 50% then 25% the next week.

Most tapers last between 7-28 days and intensities are wither maintained, reduced by 8.5-25% or increased by 5.9% on average. Overall reduction in volume reduction ranged between 31-72% and performance was only improved in those who took 7 or less days off training.

Interestingly in this study they also discussed tapering in endurance sports and found most studies showed improvements in performance with volume reductions of 40-70% over 2-3 weeks.

It also appears that shorter tapers of 2 weeks with volume reductions of 30-50% elicited the most improvements in performance for strength sports.

Circling back to training cessation: maximal strength can typically be maintained for around 30 days without any training. Training cessation for more than 7 days typically results in a 4-7% decrease in maximal strength and typically strength decays more rapidly after 15 days.

Shorter training cessation periods do seem beneficial for performance however with most studies showing a 2-3 day cessation of training leading up to testing or competition is beneficial. And it may be beneficial to have larger reductions in volume or cessations of deadlift training of 7-10 days.

Stina S, Häkkinen K. Step vs. Two-Phase Gradual Volume Reduction Tapering Protocols in Strength Training: Effects on Neuromuscular Performance and Serum Hormone Concentrations. J Strength Cond Res. 2022 Oct 1;36(10):2771-2779. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003939. Epub 2020 Dec 16. PMID: 33337705.

Overall we typically see that both step and gradual tapers lead to improvements in weight lifting performance. Also the type of taper based on this small sample might not significantly influence muscular size at least over the period of time this study took place.

It might also be important to note that tapers might be more beneficial only for those who are overreaching. Or currently training beyond their normal recovery capacity. As the research overall on tapering in sports like powerlifting isn’t very vast. Many lifters often likely taper because they think they need to do it based on tradition. It is possible to train into a competitive day and just plan accordingly to manage fatigue and have the day of the tests be a normal day you might be testing higher intensities. We have to remember most of the training adaptations are likely due to our training program and not the taper itself. The taper is to reduce fatigue only if necessary to allow someone to express strength. But if a program is properly managed then fatigue shouldn’t be as much of an issue and not “require” a taper.

If you wanted to create an environment that lends itself to tapering having the biggest effect you could consider doing an overreaching program prior to a taper increasing volume by 50% for 1 week and then reducing volume into the taper. Tapering strategies are likely more effective when you see a program is generating a lot of fatigue and is causing performance decreases because of this.

This study showed an improvement in squat performance when reducing volume around 56%, but this was after a period of time with increases in volume. But again if we are already performing lower volume work with higher intensities a taper might not be fully needed. One could train into a competitive day. But likely based on tapering research and how many strategies exist it would be best to try several strategies and find what works best for you, using prior information provided here to help develop a plan.

Steele J, Malleron T, Har-Nir I, Androulakis-Korakakis P, Wolf M, Fisher JP, Halperin I. Are Trainees Lifting Heavy Enough? Self-Selected Loads in Resistance Exercise: A Scoping Review and Exploratory Meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2022 Jul 5. doi: 10.1007/s40279-022-01717-9. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 35790622.

Most often we work off estimates of one rep max when designing programs for training. Especially for certain movements, however there are times where max testing is performed but can be time consuming and intimidating for inexperienced athletes.

One of the issues with self selected loads however is that on average it appears athletes will end up selecting a load that is around 53% if 1RM. This is problematic because it is not heavy enough to elicit most adaptations we aim to achieve. And it appears that with self selected loads this seems to occur regardless of training age, and proximity to last 1RM test. Most people when given the option to self select a load will tend to select lighter loads in particular when performing high rep sets and the opposite with lower rep sets. And higher rep sets on average lead to participants selecting lighter weights due to discomfort, pain, and cardiovascular strain. Which hinders their motivation to train.

Particularly in the range or 8-15 reps novice trainees will self select insufficient loads. Many studies included in this review said things like select a weight that you feel would provide a good workout. But this may be insufficient guidance, as studies that provided more clear instructions for the selection of loads resulted in participants using heavier weights.

On average participants when self selecting loads may only be using 53% of 1RM. If someone is going to momentary failure this may be beneficial, but this causes issues in monitoring fatigue if we are constantly training to failure.

While self selected loads may make training more enjoyable for many trainees due to program structure set up to preference improving adherence. With this it may be practical to periodically take exercises that are used without more explicit instructions on load selection to failure.

In programming this is why use of multiple metrics like RPE, RIR, and progression schemes may be important. Especially as discussed in the next section percentages used during training is important to maximize adaptation. Practically, we should have athletes use failure as part of their programming, especially when percentages are not being used for load selection, use multiple ways to track proximity to failure or fatigue to have better estimates of if the load is sufficient, have athletes reflect more on RPE and RIR to improve their skills at self selecting adequate weight.

Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3. PMID: 20847704.

Typically in novice trainees hypertrophy takes a while to note, with changes noted in the upper body before lower body. Strength gains seen in that time are largely due to neural changes. Proper routine design becomes more and more important as we advance in training age due to the difficulty of adding lean mass.

Muscle hypertrophy typically occurs due to adding sarcomeres in parallel or series, and also due to expansion of cellular matrix inside a muscle. We can also see there can be changes in muscles via non contractile elements and fluid increasing which is one reason why hypertrophy is not always correlated with strength.

We typically see muscle hypertrophy occurs when the synthesis of protein in a muscle exceeds degradation and is thought to also be impacted by satellite cell activation that become activated when sufficient mechanical stimulus is imposed on a muscle. Another example of how satellite cells aid in hypertrophy is by increasing the number of nuclei in a muscle aiding in muscle growth.

Mechanical stimulation also helps to stimulate several pathways that aid in hypertrophy including those that are calcium dependent, mitiogen-activated protein kinase. There are also hormonal pathways related to insulin like growth factor, growth factor and testosterone.

Specifically training to target the aforementioned pathways in isolation are not currently best practice. These are just processes involved in the way our bodies produce hypertrophy.

Cell swelling is also involved with muscular hypertrophy due to hydration aiding with cellular function. Also when cell swelling occurs there is increased pressure that causes a threat to cell integrity which in turn stimulates processes associated with hypertrophy. Fast twitch muscle fibers in particular are sensitive to these changes due to water transport channels. Increased cell hydration (similar to that which is seen with creatine) is seen more in exercises that rely on anaerobic glycolysis (weight training, sprinting etc) given that this process attracts 3 grams of water for every gram of glycogen.

Hypoxia like that seen with blood flow restriction training also helps stimulate growth due to accumulation of metabolites. Also the hypoxia during exercise causes an increase in blood flow following exercise which may impact delivery to natural anabolic agents being delivered to satellite cells.

Mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress are the main factors associated with hypertrophy of a muscle.

Mechanical tension is seen when muscle cells are stimulated to a high degree and there is stretch and or tension within the fibers.

Muscle damage is resultant from doing novel exercise or protocols often and is seen to be associated with hypertrophy but practically is not the best target for hypertrophy. This is because of how this impacts quality of life, and performance in subsequent training sessions.

Metabolic stress is seen due to accumulation of metabolites and is thought to be more involved in why bodybuilding style routines with moderate intensity had volume have larger effects on hypertrophy compared to powerlifting type routines. Because of an additive effect with mechanical tension.

What training variables matter most for hypertrophy?

Volume is the product of total repetitions, sets, and weight used. Higher volume and set routines consistently produce more growth than those with less sets and total volume. And typically those who are “non responders” see improvements when adding more volume. Practically it’s best to start by adding maybe 1-2 sets per week due to the overall fatigue that is added due to added sets.

Intensity is the weight we use. This usually is expressed as a percentage of 1RM and the number of reps that can be performed. Higher rep protocols tend to be inferior at producing hypertrophy due to the percentage of 1RM and requires more training to failure. Typically sets of 15+ reps produce less hypertrophy when performing non failure training (BFR being an exception). Reps between 6-12 reps seem to be a range that significant muscle growth is seen the most with likely related to the percentage of 1RM and overlap with mechanical tension and metabolic stress. As with tension there will be a maximum threshold of how much hypertrophy can be stimulated with just that factor. Weights over 65% seem to stimulate mechanical tension from the onset of a set as well.

Rest Intervals or the time taken between sets of exercises. This is important because sufficient time between sets allows for someone to regain energy and strength to carry out sufficient training volume without changing the weights used. It may be practical to use moderate rests of 60-120 seconds for smaller muscles or isolation exercises and for heavier multi joint exercises 2-5 minutes depending on context.

Exercise selection is important because of how different variations might impact growth of certain muscles. For example, you wouldn’t expect bicep curls to grow your triceps or even squats to produce significant calf hypertrophy. Multi joint exercises tend to make up the bulk of most peoples programs and recruit the most amount of muscle when compared to isolation exercises. This also significantly impacts hormonal responses to training. Although this is not a main consideration for most practical applications. Single joint exercises while not time efficient to train all muscles with, do have significant benefits. As single joint exercises allow for more focus on a specific muscle group and can help target areas often not significantly stimulated by multi joint exercises like the rectus femoris which does not grow as much from squats as compared to leg extensions.

Muscular failure or often is defined by volitional failure. Or the momentary stopping or inability to complete a rep. Failure training often ensures that high threshold motor units are maximally recruited and can stimulate significant metabolic stress and muscle damage. However, training to failure is not required for most training loads or weights you cannot perform more than 12 reps with.

Rep speed: there seems to be benefit to performing fast reps with concentric speed of 1 second or less. This is because with the intention to move fast you activate high threshold motor units, which seems to play a role in mechanical tension. Super slow training appears to be suboptimal for hypertrophy but sometimes is useful in contexts where you cannot add weight, or while dealing with injury to artificially produce difficulty and thus causing you to lower the overall weight. Eccentrics appear to have the most effect on muscle development to where some studies show only completing eccentric training, while not practical, produced as much growth as normal training.

Practical applications- performing 10-20 sets per week per muscle group with 6-12 reps per set, loads of 60-90% 1RM, with rest of 60-120 seconds, with concentric action of 1-2 seconds and eccentric action of 2-4 seconds, and using both multi joint and isolation exercises will cover most bases to elicit sufficient hypertrophy.

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