THE RESEARCHED GUIDE TO PEAKING FOR COMPETITION
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
This is the third installment in the series of articles continually released where I’ll share my notes, reflections, thoughts, and additional facts I’ve picked during my focused study of one aspect of strength science over one or several months.
I’ve been trying to still take this different, and new for me, approach self-education in exercise and sports science. Instead of trying to consume as much as I can all at once, I’ve been trying to focus on one subject exclusively until I think I have a better understanding of the intricacies than I did before. The goal is to eventually release one of these every or every other month but it’s slow going so far… Adulting is hard…
I wanted to brush up on the systematic structure of peaking for competition for this article because it’s probably one of the most misunderstood topics in program design and planning training of strength sports. There are mixed ideas as to what the best methods are for peaking and unfortunately much of the literature on the topic is pretty convoluted so I decided to not only read up on from resources covering the topic but to also ask friends and other coaches like Greg Nuckols, Max Aita, Yasha Kahn, and Josh Bryant what they thought were the top three mistakes coaches and lifters make in planning their peak for a competition.
In addressing the best practices of peaking, I’m going to review what it means to physiologically peak for a competition, what it looks like on a micro level, and the specific guidelines on how to plan a peaking cycle and taper for the best result in competition.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO PEAK FOR COMPETITION?
When we think about peaking for a competition, we need to first understand what it takes to effectively get there. According to Tudor Bompa, who has been called the father of sports periodization theory, we must advance through other “physical states” before we can reach the physiological readiness to put forth our best performance.
This basically means that you cannot just decide to max out or compete at your best ability if you have not spent a significant time in training cycles designed to develop attributes other than the ability to perform at the highest level (in strength sports this highest level can simply be understood as the ability to perform the true 1-rep max) .
Using powerlifting as an example – you need to first improve general qualities and general fitness, increase the body’s ability to perform work and increase circulation and maximize muscle growth. Then you need to spend time with this new fitness and greater muscle mass trying to produce more force in a strength block designed to increase this ability while still inhibiting your capacity to lift maximal loads through the fatigue induced from the training. Only after this can you finally enter a peaking phase designed to improve coordination, efficiency and build the capacity to handle the physiological and psychological stress of maximal loads.
Once the other physiological characteristics that lay the groundwork to elicit the best performance of the athlete are developed, the athlete can reach a state where, as Bompa puts it, his or her’s “capacity to handle many repeating moments of maximum intensity on the basis of high physiological efficiency and neuromuscular coordination is perfect.”
So what does this mean? Basically, the athlete has prepared the systems of the body, including but not limited to the CNS, to operate at its highest level of readiness. A state of readiness to be able to act at its peak ability, hence the term “peaking.” This state of readiness also implies that the athlete will be able to achieve states of arousal, both physically and mentally, to reach a level of performance not previously possible.
If you’re a competitor you’re very familiar with this state. Everyone has had at least one competition where you felt completely untouchable and where you could lift any weight asked of you to lift, even weights you never thought possible in the training leading up to the competition. You are in a state of to quote Bompa again: “biological harmony…high motivation.. High self-confidence…”
When laid out all like this, the information here seems very intuitive but yet many athletes and coaches still lose sight that the ENTIRETY of training for competition should be arranged and focused for this. Understanding the processes underlying the idea of why we structure training as I’ve laid out above is something often misunderstood or looked over.
The best way to define what Bompa classifies as physiological efficiency, in my mind, can be understood as the ability to perform a skill, whatever it may be, in both stressful and non- stressful situations alike, flawlessly in accordance with their maturity as an athlete. If the athlete cannot do this, the training was insufficient or arranged improperly to acquire or reestablish the skill. The skill is whatever the competitive event is for the athlete. For a powerlifter it would be squat, bench, and deadlift, for a weightlifter it would be snatch and clean and jerk, for a hammer thrower it would be throwing the hammer, for a baseball pitcher it would be throwing the ball.
This efficiency also refers to the recovery ability and rate of recovery of the athlete. If the athlete has reached the correct state of readiness, he or she should be able to repeat frequent bouts of high power output actions. So, in the case of the weightlifter, he or she could work up to a near maximum snatch or clean and jerk on a weekly basis and be fully recovered to perform it again in the next planned heavy session. This is why the athlete had to have first gone through previous phases of training intended to give them a higher working capacity to be able to perform well in the phase intended to realize the ultimate performance built.
If the athletes capacity to handle and recover from high volumes of work wasn’t built, it’s unreasonable to expect their performance will be elevated when they transition to a peaking phase and finally competition.
Now that we understand what is happening when we are peaking for a competition we have to learn the tools to organize it.
SETTING THE SCENE FOR THE PEAK
When we peak for competition, we are effectively trying to reach a state of supercompensation. Coaches and sports scientists have changed and relabeled this term many times over but the point remains that the work done in previous cycles of training along with the “regeneration of the individual,” as Bompa puts it, brought on by an “unloading phase” where fatigue is reduced is what leads to the supercompensation, or improved performance from baseline that allows the athlete to exhibit and test his or her true limit capacities/abilities.
It’s important to understand that once an athlete is peaked for competition, this state of readiness cannot be indefinitely sustained and that it can and should be built on to achieve the best performance in two to three competitions one of which should be planned for to have the athlete at the highest level of ability. So when planning a macrocycle, it’s important to first have in mind when the competition phase is and what the dates of the major competitions are.
When planning the training calendar, first pick the competition where you want the best outcome. If you try to peak equally for all competitions, you will not completely peak for any of them.
It is easier to have a succession of competitions to peak for where the last is planned to be the most important and the highest peak like in the case for some team sport athletes and some field athletes. But in a sport like weightlifting in the United States, you may have a national level lifter who’s two national competitions are many months apart as is the case for senior nationals and the american open. So this must be taken into account when planning the training blocks leading up to each of these competitions. The most important competition must be prioritized and training planned out over the competition calendar to yield the best results for that. Local competitions can be planned closer to the most important competition to set up mini peaks for the athlete and give them opportunities to practice and mentally prepare for what’s to come
Through my experience coaching and competing myself, I’ve noticed how all this requires a tremendous amount of maturity and focus on the big picture from the athlete. Many newer or not mentally balanced athletes will get very overwhelmed and incapable of handling competing at a meet that they don’t feel peaked for even if they understand that a bigger goal is in mind. It’s important to address that in yourself or in your athletes and figure out what will help growth in this area, if anything will at all. Sometimes athletes don’t have the wealth of experience competing and they need to learn to develop this stronger mindset in time.
WHAT DOES THE PEAK LOOK LIKE?
I’ve seen some variation in what the peaking training cycle should specifically include. But among the best resources and coaches, although slight variation does occur, the general guidelines are the same. I’ve used many of these guideline in planning peaking cycles for myself and my lifters for many years but the best layout of the loading parameters I’ve ever seen is from the book Scientific Principles of Strength Training by Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. James Hoffmann, and Chad Wesley Smith. The ideas and specific guidelines that were presented in this book were almost exactly what I was taught, had learned from sifting through old weightlifting and S&C manuals and what I had been using in my own programming for a long time but I’ve never seen it laid out so succinctly.
You see, when you pretend to read the old Russian training manuals and textbooks like Supertraining, it’s hard to walk away feeling like you have tools that can be used the next time you sit down to write a program or coach an athlete. Yeah it will give you big abstract ideas to chew on, which is helpful in your own long-term development, but much of what’s in there is too heady or, in the case of some of these Russian training theory books I’ve read, was translated poorly so the sentence structure and terms used just confuse the hell out of you.
So here are the guidelines found in Scientific Principles of Strength Training that were summarized from all these sources and mixed with practical experience. (I highly recommend buying the book and reading it in its entirety):
overload parameters – 85 or 90% plus depending on where you are in training year. 1-3 reps. 5-10 overloading sets per muscle group per week.
overloading sessions must become less frequent because neural fatigue. Neural SRA curves are longest and joint ligament and tendon integrity becomes an issuetechnical sessions are important because of infrequency of overloading sessionsusing limit loads once a week may be sufficient but if we need technical prowess we can use deload parameters for a second day of the same lift (improves recovery etc.)lighter lifters can take last max attempt 5 days before competition. Heavyweights might stop maxing 10-12 days out.Peaking phases last 3 weeks to 2 months.
Go through normal peaking volumes listed above or functionally overreach by doing volumes 1.5 – 2x greaterReduce volume but maintain or elevate intensityReduce and volume and intensity, averaging 50% volume and 50% intensity or normal peaking phase
FROM THE MOUTHS OF MOSTLY BEARDED CONTEMPORARIES
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I asked a few other coaches what they saw to be the biggest mistakes in peaking for competition. I got a bunch of great and different answers so I’ll just summarize some and take the best of what I got.
Mistake #1: Keeping volume too high, too close to a competition. Most lifters, in my experience, can still lift heavy the week before a meet, peak well, and be recovered on the platform. However, it can take 2-3 weeks (in my experience) for someone to be fully recovered from high volume training. And, at the very least, volume work isn’t going to be super helpful really close to a competition since you simply won’t have much time for additional hypertrophy. I think it’s generally a good idea to start tapering volume 3-4 weeks out, reaching pretty low levels by 1-2 weeks out – a couple heavy sets, and very little accessory work. Mistake #2: Not meshing training and nutrition. If someone’s cutting to make a lighter weight class and they’re in a hypocaloric state, you need to be a bit more conservative with volume and/or intensity (mainly volume) during your peaking block. People tend to keep this in mind with “normal” training, but may not take it into account if someone’s just dieting hard for a couple weeks leading up to the meet. Additionally, if they’re cutting water, that’ll naturally leave them feeling a bit more fatigued on the platform, magnifying the effects of any residual fatigue from training.
LASTING THOUGHTS FROM MY RESEARCH
One of the most interesting things I took note of when I was trying to gather helpful and practical info on all of this was a short paragraph from one of Bompa’s books. Here it is:
It is important that the coach also be in good shape. The coach’s behavior, optimism, confidence, enthusiasm, encouragement, and cheerfulness are important prerequisites for an athlete’s peaking, especially when the relationship between them is close. The coach’s role is not only in the training activity, but also in the responsibility of bringing the athlete to high psychological shape. A coach must be psychologically well balanced and calm, with the ability to hide his or her emotions before a competition. Well-controlled behavior has a tremendous impact on the athlete. Similarly, the coach must strive to neutralize all the stressors that might affect an athlete’s performance, such as peers, family, job, and intra-group conflicts.
I definitely think that the role of the coach in making sure that the athlete is doing the best things for themselves and providing a consistent environment for their athletes to come train in every day is not taken seriously enough. Most of us American coaches can’t control all, if any, personal stressors in our athletes’ lives but we can control the type of place that the athlete comes to train in every day.
One of the first things I teach and biggest priority I emphasize for any new coach I hire is something that my mentor ingrained in me. That’s to be the same person every day, no matter what. If you’re the coach, it doesn’t matter if you’re having a bad day or something isn’t going your way or you don’t like how training is going. Who cares how you feel? It’s not about you, if it is about you then you’re not an actual coach you’re probably a has been athlete trying to live through your athletes.
You’re there to be a constant in the athlete’s life, when everything around them is in constant change. This doesn’t mean you can’t use fluctuations in excitement and perceived anger at times as tools, but they must be tools. They can’t be reactions of yours, they have to be tactical actions. And even this needs to be consistent. I heard a football player say it best once – you can be a dick, but the key is to be the same dick every day, and not too much of a dick every day.