When the taper lengths were categorized, differences that approached significance were observed between body mass classes, with lighter athletes tending to have a higher proportion of shorter taper lengths compared with heavier athletes. Additional analysis revealed that the “step taper” was significantly shorter than the “exponential taper” (with a fast and slow decay) (7.9 ± 3.4 vs. 11.3 ± 7.4 days; p = 0.002) (respectively). No differences were observed for the “linear taper” (9.2 ± 6.3 days) and “other” (8.3 ± 5.2 days) taper. Strongman athletes reported that their final heavy training session (>85% 1RM) was 9.1 ± 3.3 days out from competition and the final resistance training session (at any weight) was 4.7 ± 2.0 days.
The average loading intensity used in the final heavy training session preceding a competitive event was 91%. Completion of the final heavy session generally was located at the end of the final peaking phase of training before implementation of the athlete's respective tapering method leading to competition. The rationale for the final heavy session was commonly associated with building confidence through training lifts at intensities close to what will be encountered in competition, followed by recovery and priming during the tapering phase. The average loading intensity used in the final training session was 68%. Priming was the main theme that emerged from the final training session followed by movement and mobility work. Recovery and psychological readiness were also related themes for the athlete's last training session.
Types of Training Performed During the Taper
Strongman athletes reported what type of training they do during their taper. A summary of these responses is presented in Figure 4. Muscular strength and muscular power were the most common types of training performed followed by aerobic conditioning. “Other” types of training included practicing events and fine-tuning technique, specific event conditioning, speed work, and improving flexibility, mobility, and recovery.
Strongman Events and Traditional Exercises Performed During the Taper
Strongman athletes reported what loads were typically used and when the main strongman events and traditional exercises were last performed during the taper (Table 6). Of the strongman events, the log lift and farmer's walk were performed significantly (p < 0.001) closer to competition than the yoke walk and stone lifts/work. Of the traditional resistance training exercises, the overhead press and bench press were performed significantly (p < 0.001) closer to competition than the deadlift. A significant difference (p = 0.008) was also observed between the squat and overhead presses with the squat being performed further out from competition than overhead presses. No statistical differences were observed between loads used (% 1RM) among strongman events and among traditional exercises.
Strongman athletes also reported what loads were typically used for other strongman events and traditional exercises and when they were last performed during the taper. Loads used and days out from taper (respectively) were reported for the axle lift/press (75.7 ± 16.6% 1RM; 5.5 ± 1.8 days, n = 79), sled/truck pull (76.7 ± 18.2% 1RM; 6.7 ± 1.8 days, n = 51), tire flip (81.0 ± 13.0% 1RM; 6.1 ± 1.5 days, n = 42), traditional assistance exercises (65.9 ± 13.6% 1RM; 4.9 ± 1.8 days, n = 46), and Olympic lifts (65.5 ± 13.2% 1RM; 5.1 ± 1.5 days, n = 34).
Strongman athletes were asked whether any other changes were made in terms of exercises being removed or added to their training programs. Fifty percent of athletes indicated that they reduced or removed assistance exercises and concentrated mainly on the core lifts. Twelve percent of athletes reported that they reduced or dropped the main exercises and used assistance exercises to help promote blood flow and aid recovery. Ten percent of athletes incorporated more stretching and mobility exercises in their taper.
Changes in Intensity, Frequency, and Duration During the Taper
Strongman athletes (n = 246) reported how their training intensity, frequency, and duration change during the taper. A summary of their responses is presented in Figure 5. Most strongman athletes reported that their training intensity decreases (55%), training frequency stays the same (57%) or decreases (40%) and training duration decreases (59%) or stays the same (37%).
Strongman athletes elaborated on how their training intensity, frequency, and duration changed during their taper. The athletes who decreased their training intensity during the taper stated that volume was reduced and intensity dropped to around 50% in the last week. A reduction in volume was also indicated by the athletes who increased their training intensity during the taper. Of the athletes who did not change intensity during the taper, the majority of this subgroup reported that they lifted lighter weights.
Athletes who indicated that their training frequency stayed the same, generally implemented higher competition specificity and technical work on competition lifts, in addition to volume and intensity changes. A decrease in training frequency (by 40–60%, down to 2–3 sessions per week) was indicated by some athletes as a result of more recovery days and longer periods between training sessions. Declines in training frequency were generally associated with reduced training volume and loading intensities. Complete training cessation was apparent for some athletes during the 7–10 days preceding competition, which was accompanied by a higher integration of active recovery and stretching sessions.
Most athletes stated that training duration decreased (on average by 50%, down to 30–60 minutes of sessions) during their taper. The decrease was generally due to less volume of work (i.e., sets and reps) and exercises (i.e., less accessory work), longer rest periods associated with higher training loads, or lesser rest periods associated with lighter training loads. Training duration stayed the same for some athletes because of lower volume accompanied with increased rest between sets.
Other Taper Strategies Used by Strongman Athletes
Strongman athletes were asked to specify what other types of strategies they used during their taper. A summary of their responses is presented in Figure 6. Most strongman athletes used massage, foam rolling, nutritional changes, and static stretching in their taper. Other strategies included chiropractic and osteopath care, physiotherapy (included cupping and dry needling), mobility and active release work, hot and cold therapy, flotation, breathing work, sleep and meditation, and visualization of events.
When Tapering Did Not Work and Why?
Strongman athletes (n = 86) provided reasons or made specific comments of when tapering did not work and why. A summary of their responses is presented in Table 7. The 3 main reasons reported were injury and illness, training too heavy, or too hard and taking too short a taper.
The literature on the optimal taper format for strength sports has been limited. This study is the first to document the tapering practices used by strongman athletes. Strongman athletes reduced their training volume during the taper by 45.5 ± 12.9% with most athletes (55%) stating that their training intensity decreased to around 50% in the last week. Training frequency and training duration stayed the same or decreased during the taper, and most athletes (50%) indicated that they reduced or removed assistance exercises and concentrated mainly on the core lifts. Muscular strength and power were the main types of training performed during the taper followed by aerobic conditioning. The use of massage, foam rolling, nutritional changes, and static stretching strategies were also used in their taper. Strongman athletes stated that their typical taper length was 8.6 ± 5.0 days, and the step taper was the most common type of taper (52%) performed. The findings support the initial hypothesis that most strongman athletes responding to the online survey performed some form of taper in their strength and conditioning programs.
Eighty-seven percent (n = 396) of athletes reported that they used some form of taper in preparation for strongman competitions. The primary reasons reported for performing the taper were recovery, peak performance, rest, and psychological readiness. Previous researchers have stated that the aim of the taper is to facilitate regeneration and reduce fatigue, while maintaining or increasing fitness and technical/psychological readiness to promote maximal performance in competition (5,19,21,24,26). Interestingly, some strongman athletes (n = 13) who reported not using a taper, performed a peaking strategy in the form of a deload week or training cessation.
Strongman athletes indicated that their normal taper length was 8.6 ± 5.0 days, which is lower than what has been reported among powerlifters (18 ± 8 and 16.8 ± 6.3 days, respectively) (12,28) but within the guidelines (8–14 days) previously suggested for endurance athletes (5). Interestingly, in the study involving 10 Croatian powerlifters, Grgic and Mikulic (12) found that the HI group (Wilks coefficient > 350) had a much longer taper (18 ± 8 vs. 9 ± 1 days) than the LO group (Wilks coefficient < 350) who were coached and comprised mostly of women. It was surmised that the duration of taper may differ by the strength level or sex of the athlete. In contrast, no significant differences in taper duration and taper training characteristics were observed in this study between any subgroups (sex, age, body mass, and competitive standard).
The step taper was the most common type of taper (52%) performed by strongman athletes. Strongman athletes stated that the step taper felt best for rest and recovery and was easy to program. Previous studies (8,13) have reported that a 1-week step taper can improve strength measures in well-trained athletes. Grgic and Mikulic (12) found that Croatian powerlifters performed the step (40%) and exponential taper with a fast decay (60%). These tapers provide greater reductions in training load, compared with a linear and slow decay tapers, which give athletes more time for overcoming the fatigue accumulated during the last few weeks of intensive and extensive training before the taper (29). In this study, exponential tapers (i.e., fast and slow decay) were grouped (as previously reported in a reliability analysis (43)) and the exponential taper was found to be significantly longer duration than the step taper (11.3 ± 7.4 vs. 7.9 ± 3.4 days; p = 0.002) (respectively). Taper types and durations may be influenced by athletes' previous training load (18,19,29,34) and by the severity of fatigue the athletes carried into the taper process (5).
Strongman athletes decreased their training volume by 45.5 ± 12.9%, which is lower than those reported (58.9 ± 8.4 and 50.5 ± 11.7%) by New Zealand and Croatian powerlifters (respectively), but within the recommended guidelines (41–61%) stated in the literature (5). However, it has been suggested that athletes should consider volume reductions relative to the duration of the planned taper with larger decreases in volume for shorter tapers and more gradual reductions for tapers of longer duration (34,40). Interestingly, strongman athletes had a shorter taper and lower reduction in training volume than reported by powerlifters, with this perhaps reflecting the greater number of competitive events that comprise a strongman competition compared with powerlifting. Most strongman athletes reduced training intensity (by 50%) and training duration (by 50%, down to 30–60 minutes sessions), and maintained training frequency. Researchers have suggested that reductions in training volume should be achieved by decreasing the duration of training sessions, rather than decreasing the frequency and intensity of training (5). It seems that for strongman athletes to optimize a shorter taper period and lower reduction in training volume, manipulation of other training variables are used.
Strongman athletes' highest training volume occurred 4.3 ± 2.9 weeks out from competition, which is similar to those reported (4.5 ± 1.8 and 5.2 ± 1.7 weeks, respectively) for powerlifters (12,28). However, strongman athletes' reported highest training intensity (2.5 ± 0.9 weeks) was further out from competition (1.1 ± 0.4 and 1.9 ± 0.8 weeks, respectively) than powerlifters (12,28). Such differences may be influenced by the potentially greater physiological demands (4,10,16,20) and injury risks associated with strongman implement training (15,41). Winwood et al. (41) found that strongman athletes were almost twice as likely to sustain injury when performing strongman implement training compared with traditional training when exposure time was considered. It was also reported that of the 174 strongman athletes, 31% had sustained at least 1 competition injury (41) which may provide insight into why most athletes in this study reduced their training intensity during the taper.
Strongman athletes' training cessation was 3.9 ± 1.8 days out from competition. These findings are similar to those reported (3 ± 1 and 3.7 ± 1.5 days, respectively) by Croatian (12) and New Zealand (28) powerlifters. Previous researchers have reported that 3–4 days of strength training cessation may be optimal for maximal strength expression (38,39). However, no differences in training abstinence of 2, 4, and 7 days on the expression of maximal strength (bench press and squat) have been reported (1). Similar results were also reported by Pritchard et al. (27) who found that both 3.5 and 5.5 days off training have similar effects on strength performance measures (countermovement jump and isometric bench press relative force). These studies demonstrate that a training cessation of less than a week may be suitable for allowing for the expression of maximal strength.
Strongman athletes reported that their final heavy training session (performed with a loading intensity of 91%) was 9.1 ± 3.3 days out from competition. Athletes reported that this training session built confidence through training lifts at competition intensities and was located at the end of the final peaking phase before implementation of the athlete's taper. The peaking process has been described in the literature (35) as a 2-phase process, comprising of a pretapering phase and the final taper period culminating with the intended competition. The aim of the pretapering phase is to stimulate a controlled “over-reaching state” and elicit a supercompensatory adaptive response in the following taper (35).
Strongman athletes reported that their final resistance training session (at any weight) was 4.7 ± 2.0 days out from competition. Athletes reported that this training session was performed with an average loading intensity of 68% and was associated with priming, movement, and mobility work. Researchers (7,17) have demonstrated that priming activities performed in the hours leading to competition further improve performance on the day of a match. Currently, little information exists on the priming and preactivation strategies that strongman athletes use on competition day.
Muscular strength, muscular power, and aerobic conditioning were the most common types of training performed by strongman athletes during the taper. These training types are consistent with strongman training practices previously reported (42) and of the results of previous studies that reported the need for very high levels of muscular power (16), metabolic conditioning (4), high core and hip abduction strength/stability, and overall strength in strongman athletes (20).
Strongman athletes in this study indicated what loads were typically used and when the main strongman events and traditional exercises were last performed during the taper. Although no statistical differences were observed between loads used (% 1RM) among strongman events and among traditional exercises, statistical differences were observed among strongman events and traditional exercises when last performed during the taper. The log lift (5.7 ± 2.0 days) and farmer's walk (6.1 ± 1.8 days) were performed significantly closer to competition than the stone lifts/work (7.6 ± 2.8 days) and yoke walk (8.2 ± 3.5 days). Researchers have reported that stone lift and yoke walk events accounted for the highest number of injuries in strongman athletes compared with other strongman events (41). Such injuries may be a result of the very high lower erector spinae activity associated with the stone lift and high spinal compression loads associated with the Yoke walk (20).
Of the traditional resistance training exercises, the overhead presses (5.3 ± 1.9 days) and bench press (5.7 ± 2.1 days) were performed significantly closer to competition than the deadlift (7.8 ± 3.2 days). Previous researchers (28) have reported that powerlifters' final deadlift session was further out from competition than their final bench press and squat session so athletes could gain additional recovery time. In this study, the squat was also performed significantly further out from competition (6.6 ± 3.2 days) than overhead presses. Traditional exercises such as the deadlift and squat produce exceedingly large hip extensor torques (6) and compressive or shear lumbar forces (6,9), which may influence postexercise fatigue. Recently, researchers (3) found no differences in central fatigue between the squat and deadlift exercises, which could indicate that similar recovery times are needed for these exercises. It is quite likely that strongman athletes are aware of the physiological stresses associated with strongman and traditional exercises and program the appropriate recovery periods near competition.
Strongman athletes indicated that massage, foam rolling, nutritional changes, and static stretching were types of strategies used in their taper. The use of foam rolling and nutritional changes were also tapering strategies reported by powerlifters (28). Studies have shown that myofascial release through massage and foam rolling acts as a mood enhancer and reduces fatigue, thereby acting as an ergogenic aid (14,37) and the nutritional benefits for sports performance are well documented (30). Other strategies (chiropractic and osteopath care, physiotherapy, hot and cold therapy, flotation, breathing work, sleep and meditation, and visualization of events) were also used by strongman athletes during the taper. The strategies reported by strongman athletes provide insight into potential recovery and performance enhancing modalities that may be beneficial for strongman competition performance. Whether all of these precompetition strategies are beneficial, performance may still need to be determined, because the evidence base for some of the strategies may still be limited.
Strongman athletes (n = 86) provided some insight into when tapering did not work. The main reasons reported were injury and illness, training too heavy or too hard, and taking too short a taper. Overexertion during the taper was a common theme reported among powerlifters (12,28). The researchers (12,28) suggested that powerlifters use training diaries to monitor their responses to training and tapering. Such practice allows athletes to accurately reflect upon their training and tapering practices, which may better inform their training practices. Previous researchers (42) have reported that most strongman athletes (83%) use a training diary/log in their strength and conditioning practice. Strongman athletes in the current were asked to refer to their training diaries/logs when completing the online tapering practices survey to minimize the limitation of recall bias. To further improve the robustness of this study design, a test-retest reliability analysis was conducted on the strongman tapering practices survey (43) to support the inferences drawn from this study.
This article serves as the first comprehensive description of tapering practices of strongman athletes. The information in this study will serve to help strongman athletes, coaches, and sports scientists in their goal of achieving the optimum training mix during the taper, leading to more peak performances at the expected time of the season.
To taper successfully, strongman athletes should reduce the total amount of volume of training relative to the duration of the planned taper. For shorter tapers (<10 days), volume reductions may be best performed using a step taper with reductions in training duration and intensity. Tapering should include a high degree of competition specificity including technical work on competition lifts. Such training will assist with reduction of fatigue while maintaining/improving strength expression and performance. Strongman athletes must be aware that strongman events carry a higher risk of injury than traditional lifts, and exercises such as the yoke walk and stone lift must be programmed accordingly so as not to impair competition performance. A training cessation of 3–5 days should end the taper to provide sufficient rest and recovery for athletes before competition. It must be noted that the expected performance improvements after tapering are a result of both the pretapering phase and the final taper. These 2 training periods should be considered as a continuum in an athlete's periodized plan to achieve the best possible performance at competition. The strongman athletes weekly training characteristics presented in this study will allow athletes and coaches to place the tapering practices data in context to athletes' normal weekly training practices.
The authors thank all the strongman athletes who participated in this study and the Strongman Corporation and the World Strongman Federation for their support of this research.
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