|Tapering for Resistance Training: Less is More!
By Jake E Theis, Zachary Mang, M.S., & Len Kravitz, PhD
Introduction: What is Tapering:
Tapering is a strategically planned recovery period that occurs after a heavy training block, which may be employed prior to an athletic competition or start of a competitive season (Murach & Bagley). There are several ways to execute a successful taper, including reduced training volume (i.e., reps x sets), training cessation (i.e., complete rest), decreased workout intensity (i.e., load), or lessened training day frequency (Murach & Bagley; Turner, 2011). Although endurance athletes have used tapering for years, there is also evidence that exercise enthusiasts and strength/power athletes can benefit from tapering phases in their resistance training (RT) programs, which is the focus of this research column.
Why Should Your Clients Taper their Resistance Training Program?
Recreational exercisers and fitness enthusiasts may benefit from tapering phases, especially if they are training at a strenuous level throughout the year. Your client will not adapt if they become overstressed, and tapering may stimulate improvements in fitness by helping the neuromuscular system fully recover. Furthermore, Murach & Bagley (2015) highlight research showing that tapering improves mood and frame of mind, which will help prevent psychological burnout and improve the quality of future training sessions. Where athletes use tapering to prepare for an event or competitive season, recreational exercisers can use tapering to transition between phases of a training program. For example, if your client has been training with high-volume and low intensity for 6-8 weeks, you can employ a 1-2 week taper before beginning a low-volume high intensity training block. This will allow your client to rejuvenate mentally and physically before transitioning to another demanding block of exercise. Importantly, Turner (2011) cites several studies showing that tapering has led to performance gains for weightlifters, rowers, triathletes, cyclists, swimmers and runners.
Where Does Tapering Fit in a Periodized Resistance Training Plan?
Periodization is a systematic and logical training plan that allows fitness professionals to program for specific physiological outcomes while managing their client's fatigue and recovery (Turner, 2011). With some sports, a strength coach will employ a taper to allow fatigue to dissipate while fitness adaptations solidify prior to a competitive season. It has been shown that 1-2 weeks of tapering can improve strength, speed, and power while reducing feelings of tiredness, depression, and anxiety (Turner, 2011). Your clients may experience similar benefits by incorporating a taper after a challenging training period. For example, Rhibi et al. (2016) report that squat jump (+1.9 cm), countermovement jump (+2.0 cm), and half-squat strength (+26.5 kg) improved following a 2-week taper phase in which volume was reduced by 20-40%.
Discontinuous Training: Will Short-term Rest Affect Long-term Gains?
Some clients may need complete training cessation for rest and recovery. Uniquely, discontinuous training (DT), which includes 1-3 weeks of complete rest in the middle of an exercise program, may be used as an extreme form of tapering. For example, Ogasawara et al. (2011) compared the effects of continuous training (CT) to DT in healthy, untrained male participants. All participants lifted 3-days/week and performed 3 sets of 10 repetitions (75% 1-RM) on the bench press with 2-3 minutes recovery between sets. The CT group performed progressive RT for 15-weeks while the DT group performed 6-weeks of RT, stopped training for 3-weeks, and performed another 6-weeks of RT. The CT group logged 15-weeks of RT while the DT logged 12-weeks of RT. Improvements in strength and muscle size in the DT group were similar to those observed in the CT group, meaning the 3-weeks of complete rest did not negatively affect the long-term progress of the DT group.
In another study, Hwang et al. (2017) examined the effect of DT in 20 male participants with at least 1-year of RT experience. During the study, participants lifted for 4-weeks, stopped lifting for 2-weeks (i.e., tapered), and then continued training for 4-weeks after the tapering period. For volume and intensity, the researchers employed 3 sets of 10 repetitions at 75% of 1-RM for all exercises. Results indicated that muscle size and strength were unaffected by the 2-week tapering period, which shows that experienced lifters can maintain their fitness while taking a break from their routine.
Reduced Intensity During a Taper: Can You Go Too Low?
A strategy of tapering in sports is to reduce RT volume, with a slight reduction in intensity, to stimulate recovery. Indeed, with intensity, research suggests there appears to be a performance difference if intensity may be reduced too much in some athletes. Specifically, Zaras et al. (2014) examined the effect of low (30% 1-RM) and high (85% 1-RM) intensity RT during tapering in 13 trained track and field athletes. In this study, participants underwent two separate training blocks of 12 and 15 weeks, which were both followed by 2-weeks of tapering. The authors report that muscle thickness did not change after the tapering interventions, which means that muscle mass was maintained despite a significant reduction in the 30% 1-RM taper. However, compared to low intensity tapering, high intensity tapering induced greater squat jump power (+5.1 vs. +1%), 1-RM leg press strength (+6% vs. -3.4%), and rate of force development during the 1-RM leg press (+38.1% vs. -2.9%). The researchers suggest if a central training goal of the tapering period is to increase strength and power, training with the higher 85% of 1RM is preferred over 30% of 1RM.
Conclusions and Practical Application
Tapering is an evidenced-based strategy that personal trainers can utilize to enhance several aspects of fitness, and it may contribute to long-term exercise adherence and enjoyment. Here are some practical tips for an effective taper to individualize for your client's needs (see Side Bar #1 for an example):
Duration: Tapering phases are usually 1-2 weeks and should take place after a period of high-intensity and/or high-volume training. They can also be used to transition between two phases of training within a program
Intensity: If a principal training goal of the tapering period is to increase/maintain strength and power, we recommend training in a range of 60-85% of 1-RM. Training too low (i.e. 30% 1-RM) may be detrimental.
Volume: We recommend reducing training volume by 30-40% during a taper, although some research has reduced volume by 70% without compromising neuromuscular performance
Side Bar #1: Tapering within a RT program
The tapering may re-sensitize the muscle to adapt better when it is challenged again.
Program #1: Taper with reduced volume and sustained intensity
Weeks 1-4: 4 sets; 10 repetitions; 75% 1-RM
Weeks 5-6 (Taper): 2 sets; 10 repetitions; 75% 1-RM
Weeks 7-10: 4 sets; 5 repetitions; 90% 1-RM
Program #2: Taper with reduced volume and intensity
Weeks 1-4: 4 sets; 10 repetitions; 75% 1-RM
Weeks 5-6 (Taper): 2 sets; 15 repetitions; 60% 1-RM
Weeks 7-10: 4 sets; 5 repetitions; 90% 1-RM
Jake E. Theis is currently an undergraduate exercise science student at the University of New Mexico. His research interests include resistance training for hypertrophy, maximizing athlete's performance through training, and practical rehabilitative interventions.
Zachary Mang, M.S. is a doctoral student in Exercise Science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque where he works as a teaching assistant. His research interests include resistance training for hypertrophy, oxidative adaptations to resistance training, and using resistance training as a frontline defense to prevent chronic disease.
Len Kravitz, PhD, CSCS, is the program coordinator of exercise science at the University of New Mexico, where he received the Outstanding Teacher of the Year and Presidential Award of Distinction. His third book is, <I>HIIT Your Limit: High-Intensity Interval Training<I> (Amazon).
Hwang, P.S., Andre, T.L., McKinley, S.K., et al. (2017). Resistance training induced elevations in muscular strength in trained men are maintained after 2 weeks of detraining and not differentially affected by whey protein supplementation. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(4), 869-881.
Murach, K.A. and Bagley, J.R. (2015). Less is more: the physiological basis for tapering in endurance, strength, and power athletes. Sports, 3, 209-218.
Ogasawara, R., Yasuda, T., Sakamaki, M., et al. (2011). Effects of periodic and continued resistance training on muscle CSA and strength in previously untrained men. Clinical Physiology Functional Imaging, 31, 399-404.
Rhibi, F., Chtourou, H., Zribi, A., et al. (2016). Effect of electrostimulation during the tapering period compared to the exponential taper on anaerobic performance sand rating of perceived exertion. Science and Sports, 31(4), e93-e100.
Turner, A. (2011). The science and practice of periodization: a brief review. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 33(1), 34-46.
Zaras, N.D., Stasinaki, A., Krase, A.A., et al. (2014). Effects of tapering with light vs. heavy loads on track and field throwing performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(12), 3484-3496.