Cycle, Peak, Taper, Dominate
by Jack Reape
Two of the hardest things about competing are sending in the
entry fee for a competition and then not pulling out the last
few weeks. Some of you don't compete and are just training
for self-actualization, self-esteem, and to be healthier and
more whole in your daily interactions in the journey we call
a life experience.
That is really wonderful, and makes superb small talk over a
nice Pinot Noir, but the cold reality is unless you train for
and compete in a powerlifting meet, an Olympic lifting meet,
a bodybuilding competition, a strongman event, or just
schedule a photo shoot with your thong on, you're not going
to reap the maximum benefits of your training.
You're not going to fully learn about how your body works,
and you're not going to get the maximum carryover into your
"life experience" from training that simply performing on
somebody else's time schedule brings. Building a training
plan that produces maximum results requires a cyclic
approach to a peak, using a taper, and then a mental and
physical plan to enter the arena and to dominate both
yourself and your competition.
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Make no mistake, we're all our own worst enemies when it
comes to a stressful situation, and competition is stressful.
Stress, however, is far superior to wondering about what
could've been with a Pinot hangover. You can minimize and
harness stress with the knowledge that you're bringing your
best to the arena of competition, and you're going to deliver
your best due to your mental and physical preparation.
The discipline and confidence you gain from this experience
will make the next cycle more refined and your ability to
handle stress and other problems will skyrocket. While the
principles and ideas I'll share are going to be mainly applied
to powerlifting in this article, these principles are universal
across all sports, allowing for more focus on skill, speed
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strength, strength endurance, VO2 max, etc., depending on
the event and what it requires.
How we train boils down to either doing the most we can and
still recover, or the least we can and still progress. The five
variables we can manipulate to accomplish this are:
4. rest between sets
5. recuperative methods (1)
Let's take a look at each.
Volume can be described as either the total number of barbell
lifts (NBL) you do in a workout per exercise, or with this
formula: reps x weight = total poundage. The total poundage
method is misleading as it only tells poundage and has no
indication of the intensity of the load. I like NBL for its
simplicity. It's what I'll use as it saves a lot of number
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Intensity is the percentage of our 1RM (rep max) and is the
average of all your work sets. So as an example, if your
50% x 3, 60% x 3, 70% x 3, and 80% x 3 x 5
Then your average intensity is (50 x 3) + (60 x 3) + (70 x 3)
+ (80 x 15) = 1740/24 =72.5%
It's easier if you just do the same warm-ups to your work sets
every workout and not worry about averaging them in. If you
do a fixed weight workout it's a simple computation, and by
just changing your reps each set (a la Poliquin) you have a
very effective approach.
If you're doing rack pulls, shirt benches with boards, or high
box squats, compare them to your meet lift in full
competition gear, not your PR for that pin, board or box to
get a percent. This is pure overload training and you need to
be aware of that. Not much more than 10-15% over your
meet max is a good tradeoff between the benefits of overload
and injury risk.
These lifts dramatically raise the intensity of your workout
and must be limited and managed carefully. The key idea to
apply to your planning is that you use percents as guidelines,
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but in the gym you're going to use bar weight rounded off to
easily loadable weights. There are no weights in any gym I
know that say "45%."
Sequence is the order in which we do exercises within a
workout, week, or training block. You can use sequences of
bench-squat-bench or squat-bench-squat to jack up your
volume and intensity in a workout. The lift in the middle can
be a hard workout or just an extra workout. I'll discuss that
more in depth later.
Rest Between Sets
Rest between sets isn't just the rest between each set in a
workout, but days off between workouts. In general, never
sacrifice a good set to maintain a given rest period. When
you're in top training shape you can do 8 sets of 2 with 56%
and choked blue bands with 60 seconds rest in the box squat.
Otherwise, lengthen your rest periods and work on GPP
(general physical preparedness) afterward.
Recuperative methods include all manner of enhancing
recovery. For the most part, almost all weight training falls
under doing the most we can do and still recover. The
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technical name for this is "concentrated loading." It requires
a back-off week after every 3-4 weeks training period. (2)
The other approach uses much less volume but still requires
a back-off after every 5-8 week training block. (3) The
technical name for this approach is "distributed loading". It
can yield some results, but its effectiveness quickly ends
because of the rapid ability of the body to compensate to
Trained, high level athletes can handle three of these training
blocks in a row, separated by a back-off period of 7-10 days.
(5) Our back-off weeks will consist of either following the
60% rule and doing about 60% of the volume we did in the
previous week at about 60% intensity, or doing some higher
rep dumbbell, barbell, band, sled pulling, or bodyweight
You can also just take the week off like the Metal Militia
does. Do no assistance work on your back-off weeks, but
some easy GPP work can be done. The point of the back-off
weeks is to let the body catch up a bit, but it may test your
stay-out-of-the-gym willpower. Do you want to be a gym rat
or do you want to be the one to dominate? Think about it!
In my example we'll be using three training blocks and a
taper block, but you can taper after only 1-2 training blocks
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if time requires it. This can be endlessly studied and
examined in chapters 5 and 6 of Supertraining.
Picking and Applying a Training Template
I'm not going to lay out a sequence of particular workouts for
peaking, because this isn't a specific workout article. You can
select from many superb approaches including:
Dave Tate's The Art of Program Design
Chad Waterbury's Science of 10 x 3
Ian King's Wave Loading Manifesto
Charles Poliquin's Manipulating Reps for Gains in Size and
Westside Barbell's "Don't Chase Your Tail" or "Importance
of Volume" by Louie Simmons
The set, rep, rest and sequence template you choose or blend
is up to you, but there are some important things to consider
with respect to your workout time constraints, areas of
weakness, level of (or lack of) overall fitness, and technique
issues. You must pick a template that fits your life and
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If you're woefully out of shape, your GPP needs to be
considered and addressed in picking a template. You don't
need to be able to run a 10k to train for powerlifting, but you
do need to be able to make it through your workout and
recover in time for the next one. If your technique is lacking
or you're just starting out in the sport of powerlifting, you
probably want to pick a template where you practice the
main lifts a great deal.
When you look at these templates, you need to evaluate them
objectively in terms of number of barbell lifts, intensity,
technique building, and rest periods required in the pursuit of
big lifts on a certain day. If you were more bodybuilding
focused, you'd focus more subjectively on how your program
addresses your preferences and weak body parts. In both
sports, as competition day approaches, the variables and how
we manipulate them begins to change.
Now that you've picked a template, let's lay out some basic
guidelines to consider when planning a training cycle.
1) The volume and intensity aren't going to increase together.
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In fact, they should be independently waving over the
training blocks before the peaking and tapering phase.
However, the intensity and volume will rise overall. Once we
move into the peaking phase, the volume will drop 15-30%,
but the intensity will ramp up a bit more.
2) Keep in mind that volume builds muscle mass and
connective tissues in the joints, and that change in intensity
has a much higher effect on training than change in volume.
3) Use the Bill Murray Ghostbusters rule when it comes to
planning volume, intensity, and training guidelines: "It's
more of a guideline than a rule."
In your planning, say you decide to do 8 sets of 2, or 10 sets