Maximal strength is a physical quality imperative to success in strength sports and can also play a role in enhancing performance within many other sports. Tapering is a reduction in training load frequently undertaken prior to competitions in order to minimise training related fatigue and thus improve athletic performance. There is currently limited research for athletes and coaches to utilise when planning tapering to maximise strength at key events. This thesis investigated how strength-trained men can best structure the taper period to improve strength performance and attempted to identify the mechanisms underlying any performance improvements.
Two literature reviews (Chapters Two and Three) were performed to provide background information regarding training for maximal strength and summarise current knowledge on tapering for maximal strength. The literature revealed that maximal strength training should involve high intensity training (>80% one repetition maximum (1RM)), for multiple sets, with at least two sessions per week for each major muscle group. The current literature indicated that reductions in training volume (by 30-70%) with maintained, or slight increases, in intensity were most effective for improving maximal strength. However, optimal magnitudes of change during the taper were unclear. Short periods of training cessation (less than a week) were also found to be effective at enhancing, or maintaining, maximal strength.
The first study (Chapter Four) used a qualitative approach to determine strategies currently utilised by 11 elite New Zealand powerlifters (age = 28.4 ± 7.0 years, best Wilks score = 431.9 ± 43.9 points). Athletes reduced training volume by 58.9 ± 8.4%, while maintaining (or slightly reducing) training intensity. The taper lasted 2.4 ± 0.9 weeks, with the final resistance training session 3.7 ± 1.6 days out from competition. Tapering was performed to achieve maximal recovery, and practices were largely informed through trial and error, with changes based upon ‘feel’. Athletes usually removed accessory exercises and focused primarily upon the competition lifts during the taper.
The first training study (Chapter Five) involved a cross-over design to determine the effects of two durations, 3.5 or 5.5 days, of training cessation on performance following four-weeks of training. Eight resistance trained males (age = 23.8 ± 5.4 years, bodyweight (BW) = 79.6 ± 10.2 kg, relative deadlift 1RM = 1.90 ± 0.30 times BW) completed the study. Combined data showed significant performance improvements, compared to pre-training, for both countermovement jump (CMJ) height (P = 0.022) and isometric bench press (IBP) relative peak force (P = 0.011) following short term training cessation (both small effect size (ES) = 0.30). This significant improvement was not present on the final training day, showing that training cessation was an effective means of enhancing strength and power. No significant differences were observed between 3.5 and 5.5 days of training cessation for any measure. These results suggest that a short period of strength training cessation can have positive effects on maximal strength expression, perhaps due to decreased neuromuscular fatigue.
The second training study (Chapter Six) also had a cross-over design to determine the effects of two variations in intensity (+5% or -10%) during a one week strength taper with volume reductions (-70%), following four-weeks of training. Eleven strength-trained males (age = 21.3 ± 3.3 years, BW = 92.3 ± 17.6 kg, relative 1RM deadlift = 1.90 ± 0.20 times BW) completed the study. Combined data for both groups showed significant improvements in CMJ height over time (P < 0.001), with significant improvements across all time points (pre- to post-training P = 0.010, ES = 0.23; pre-training to post-taper P = 0.001, ES = 0.37; and, post-training to post-taper P = 0.002, ES = 0.14). Combined data for CMJ flight time: contraction time also showed significant improvements over time (P = 0.004), with significant improvements from pre- to post-training (P = 0.012, ES = 0.27). Combined data for isometric mid-thigh pull (MTP) relative peak force showed significant improvements over time (P = 0.033), with significant increases found from pre- to post-training (P = 0.013, ES = 0.25). The higher intensity taper produced small ES improvements following the taper for CMJ height (ES = 0.43), CMJ flight time: contraction time (ES = 0.42) and MTP relative peak force (ES = 0.37). In contrast, the lower intensity taper only produced a small ES improvement for CMJ height (ES = 0.30). However, differences between groups were not significant. These results indicate that a strength taper with volume reductions can have positive effects on maximal strength and power performance, with a tendency for higher intensity tapering to be more effective.
This thesis has documented current tapering practices of strength athletes and demonstrated both short term training cessation and volume reduced strength tapers as effective methods of improving maximal strength following training. When tapering, athletes should make substantial training volume reductions with little changes to training intensity. During a taper, training should focus on competition specific strength exercises, and strength training should cease a few days prior to important events.