Tapering Practices of Croatian Open-Class Powerlifting Champions : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research

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Original Research

Tapering Practices of Croatian Open-Class Powerlifting Champions

Grgic, Jozo1; Mikulic, Pavle2

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Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 31(9):p 2371-2378, September 2017. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001699
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Powerlifting is a strength-based sport that has become popular in recent years. It consists of 3 competition lifts—the squat, bench press, and the deadlift—with the goal of achieving the largest powerlifting total. Powerlifting can be divided into equipped and raw powerlifting. In equipped powerlifting, the athletes wear compressive gear, which helps them lift a greater load: a specialized shirt for the bench press and suits for the squat and the deadlift. In raw powerlifting, the use of compressive gear is not allowed, and athletes are specifically allowed to wear a lifting belt, wrist wraps, knee sleeves, knee wraps, and specialized footwear. Powerlifting may be of interest to a broad range of athletes and coaches because training methods used by powerlifters, if properly adjusted, may be used by athletes in other strength-based sports. Swinton et al. (18) researched the training practices of British elite powerlifters and found that 96% of the participants used some form of periodization in their training. In general, most of the periodized training programs end with a taper.

A taper period is one in which there is a reduction in workload before a major competition to maximize performance (10). Tapering can be performed using 4 different models (or types), as described previously in the literature (10). The first is known as a step taper and involves a complete and immediate decrease in training volume (22). A linear taper involves a decrease in volume in a progressive, linear fashion, whereas an exponential taper is progressive and can occur with a fast or slow time constant of decay, with the training load remaining higher during the slow decay taper (10). A properly conducted taper can improve performance through 2 potential mechanisms, including: (a) changes in hormonal or biochemical profile of an individual (13), and (b) changes in the nervous system (6). The optimal duration of a taper depends on the volume reduction and previous training loads (22). Busquet et al. (4) recommend a taper duration of 2 weeks for endurance sports such as swimming, cycling, running, rowing, and triathlon. During the taper, the volume is exponentially reduced by 41–60% without any modification in training intensity and frequency.

Although data on the taper practices of athletes competing in endurance-based sports are available (4,7,11), the literature currently lacks data regarding tapering in strength-based sports, specifically powerlifting. Obtaining this data for strength sports is essential because lifters often extrapolate data from endurance studies to plan the powerlifting taper, often yielding results that are less than ideal. The recent work by Pritchard et al. (14) with elite-level New Zealand powerlifters was, to our knowledge, the first to deal with this issue, and it showed that, during tapering, the training volume is reduced by 58.9 ± 8.4%, while training intensity is maintained or slightly reduced, and the last training session takes place 4 ± 2 days before the competition date. The participants in that study generally stated that (a) tapering is implemented to achieve maximal recovery, (b) assistance exercises are discontinued 2 weeks before competition, and (c) the deadlift is the hardest lift from which to recover.

One limitation of the study conducted by Pritchard et al. (14) is that they did not investigate types of tapering. The aim of this study was to investigate tapering practices and types of tapering employed by Croatian national champions by using similar methods as described in Pritchard et at. (14). In doing so, we would generate a comparative analysis of the best powerlifters' tapering practices from different countries. We hypothesized that there would be a reduction in training volume while training intensity would be kept high. The data presented here may be useful for the optimization of tapering practices in powerlifting but can also be applied to other sports where strength, particularly maximal strength, is a major factor of performance.


Experimental Approach to the Problem

We used semistructured interviews with Croatian open-class powerlifting champions for data collection. A semistructured interview is a qualitative method of inquiry that combines a predetermined set of open questions (questions that prompt discussion) with the opportunity for the interviewer to explore particular themes or responses further (17). Semistructured interviews are the best option when there is only one chance to interview someone (16). As stated by Pritchard et al. (14), the use of semistructured interviews helps ensure that information about people's experiences can be obtained, which may be missed with other methods, such as surveys, that predetermine the type of data collected. As seen in Gilson et al. (5) and Pritchard et al. (14), the use of a semistructured interview-based design can be suitable for topics regarding strength and conditioning.

To ensure that the data would have a high degree of applicability, the criterion for inclusion in the study was first-place status in a specific weight class in the Croatian raw national powerlifting championships held in 2015. Raw powerlifting was chosen because there is no equipped category competition in Croatia. To study the practices of the best powerlifting athletes in Croatia, for this research project we focused on open-class powerlifting champions. The competition was organized by the Croatian Powerlifting Federation, which operates under the auspices of the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF). None of the athletes failed a drug test, so the data here are perhaps applicable to other drug-free athletes. Most interview questions were taken from the study of Pritchard et al. (14), with the addition of a question regarding types of tapering. The questions allowed for freedom in the answers and were directed toward general procedures and individual views regarding tapering.


Before the research commenced, the study was approved by the Committee for Scientific Research and Ethics of the School of Kinesiology at the University of Zagreb. Upon receiving the approval of the Committee, we sought and were granted an approval for conducting the study by the Croatian Powerlifting Federation review board. Thirteen champions met the criterion for inclusion in the study. We were able to obtain an e-mail address or a phone number for 10 of those 13 national champions (76%). The 10 powerlifters were contacted, and all of them agreed to participate in the study. An explanation of the risks and benefits of the study, and the confidentiality of the data and information, was e-mailed to them, and all the participants provided written informed consent. The sample consisted of 6 male (mean ± SD: age 29.8 ± 3.8 years, Wilks coefficient 376.7 ± 46.5, body weight in competition 86.3 ± 16.8 kg) and 4 female athletes (mean ± SD: age 28.3 ± 2.2 years, Wilks coefficient 322.8 ± 55.3, body weight in competition 64.2 ± 9.4 kg). The individual characteristics of each participant are presented in Table 1. The Wilks coefficient is a bodyweight-adjusted scoring system that allows for comparisons in the weight lifted across weight classes (8). Four of the competitors were self-coached, whereas 6 worked with a coach.

Table 1.:
Body weight, training experience, and performance characteristics of Croatian open-class powerlifting champions.


During the initial contact, the topic of the interview was explained to the participants, and they were asked to consult their training logs to provide the details regarding their tapering routines. After the participants had agreed to take part in the study, the interviews were arranged. The interviews were conducted in person or by telephone. The interviews that were conducted in person were recorded using a built-in Dictaphone on a Samsung Galaxy S3 mobile phone (Samsung Electronics, Suigen, South Korea), whereas those that were conducted by telephone were recorded using the Another Call Recorder phone application (NLL, United Kingdom). The application made it possible to listen to the interviews more than once and to draft the transcript. The interviews lasted for 20–40 minutes during which the researcher also took notes. The same researcher conducted all of the interviews. Most of the questions were open-ended and allowed the participants to provide answers based on their individual experiences. Some of the questions were quantitative and required the participants to state their answers numerically. All of the questions that were asked pertained to tapering practices. The researcher listened to the interviews again and drafted the transcripts. The transcripts were then sent to the participants to confirm the accuracy of their statements. Two participants had minor comments on the draft of the transcript after which the transcript was edited according to their instructions. The questions asked during interviews are shown in Table 2.

Table 2.:
Questions that were asked during the interview.

Statistical Analyses

Descriptive statistics were used to sample the quantitative data (weekly training frequency, weekly frequency for each lift, intensity, volume). Intensity was calculated as % of 1 repetition maximum (1RM), whereas volume was calculated as sets x reps. For a comparison of the difference in the number of days before competition, each exercise was performed for heavy and final (regardless of weight) 3 lifts (squat compared with bench press, squat compared with deadlift, bench press compared with deadlift), we used a paired T-test provided in a computer software (Excel; Microsoft Corporation, WA, USA). The statistical significance was initially set at p ≤ 0.05; however, to control for multiple comparisons, we used Bonferroni adjustments (2) and divided the critical p value (0.05) by the number of comparisons being made (6 in total). Consequently, the critical p value for our study was set at p ≤ 0.008.

Qualitative data were grouped according to Patton's guidelines for strength and conditioning (12). Themes were classified according to Pritchard et al. (14), and the answers were grouped based on their frequency into general (themes applicable to all or all but one participant), typical (themes applicable to more than half of the participants, but fewer than the number of participants to which general themes may be applied), and variant (themes applying to two or more participants, but fewer than the number of participants to which typical themes may be applied). Themes were classified according to the representativeness shown, as had been done by Tod et al. (19) and Pritchard et al. (14).


Quantitative Data

The participants trained 4 ± 1 days per week. The weekly frequency for the squat was 2.1 ± 0.6 times per week, for the bench press 2.3 ± 0.5 times per week, and for the deadlift 1.1 ± 0.3 times per week. The total training volume peaked 4.5 ± 1.8 weeks before the competition. During the taper, the volume was reduced by 50.5 ± 11.7% while the intensity reached its highest values 8 ± 3 days before the competition. The participants stated that their taper length was 18 ± 8 days before the competition. Six participants in this study had a Wilks coefficient score higher then 350 (HI), and the remaining 4 had a Wilks coefficient score lower than 350 (LO). The HI group had a mean duration of tapering of 24 ± 4 days, whereas the LO group had a mean duration of tapering of 9 ± 1 days. The final week of the taper also included a reduction in the frequency of training sessions by 47.9 ± 17.5%, whereas the final training session was performed 3 ± 1 days before the competition.

The characteristics of the final heavy training session and the final training session for each lift are presented in Table 3. No differences between the lifts were observed among the conditions.

Table 3.:
Final training sessions.*

Qualitative Data

The qualitative data were grouped by the most common themes and subthemes according to the questions asked during the interview. The italicized text represents direct quotes from the participants, and the numbers in brackets represent the percentages of participants who expressed that theme. Broad themes, subthemes, and the sample representativeness from the interviews are presented in Table 4.

Table 4.:
Broad themes and subthemes from the interviews and the sample representativeness.

Tapering Types

Exponential Type With a Fast Decay (60%)

Participants reported that they are using an exponential type of tapering because “[an] exponential type proved to be the best to maintain my levels of strength and reduce the amount of accumulated fatigue in order to achieve the best performance possible.” The participants stated that the large initial drop in training volume in the exponential type contributes to the reduction of fatigue: “In the first phase of tapering, I reduce the volume by 40% and then by another 10–15% until the end of tapering. That has been shown to be a good option because the initial drop in volume reduces fatigue greatly.”

Step Type (40%)

The second tapering type used by the participants was the step type. The athletes reported that they are using the step type based on their past experience: “The step type showed to be the best for me based on previous experience.”

Tapering Differences Between Lifts

The Taper Is the Same for All Three Lifts (70%)

Most of the participants reported that the tapering practices were the same for all 3 lifts because of simplicity and based on experience. The typical comments were as follows: “It is the same for all 3 lifts; it has been shown to work well for me.”

The Largest Reduction for the Deadlift, the Smallest for the Bench Press (20%)

Only 2 athletes stated that the reduction in training volume is the greatest for the deadlift and smallest for the bench press. The greater reduction in volume for the deadlift was because “it is the lift that I find to be the hardest to recover from; I keep the volume for the bench press high because it is the easiest to recover from.” We can see that even though the manipulation of training variables is mostly the same for all 3 lifts, some of the athletes still stated that the duration of recovery is the longest after the deadlift training sessions.

Information Sources for Taper Strategy

Recommendations From My Coach (60%)

The athletes stated that tapering is prescribed by their coach based on their feedback. Their statements were: “My coach told me how to change training variables based on my feedback.” The services of a coach were used by more than half of the participants in the study.

“By Feel” (30%)

Others stated that their tapering strategies are adjusted as needed. Some of the participants stated that they plan out their program and then modify it “by feel”: “I plan my training ahead and then modify it ‘by feel.’”

Based on the Literature (30%)

A few of the participants stated that they generally base their tapering practices on the existing literature on the subject. Some of the statements were: “I decide based on [the] literature” and “I decide based on the Prilepins chart; the basics are from the literature and the rest is modified ‘by feel.’”

On Previous Experience (20%)

Some participates stated that they decide based on previous experience, not based on the recommendations from a coach or from the literature. The comments were “I decide based on my previous results” and “mainly based on previous experience,” as stated by one participant.

Motives for the Implementation of Tapering

Reduce the Amount of Fatigue and Maintain Strength (90%)

Almost all of the participants stated that the goal of tapering is to reduce the amount of accumulated fatigue. Common comments were: “Tapering generally for me lasts for 3 weeks. That is a time frame that I think is necessary to maintain strength and reduce fatigue.” We can see that the main goal is to reduce the amount of fatigue during tapering to be ready and rested for the competition.

To Train With an Intensity That Is Going to Be Used at the Competition (50%)

Besides reducing the amount of fatigue, the participants stated that their goal is to train with an intensity that awaits them at the competition. They said: “I need to get used to the maximal load as if in a competition”. We can see that specific training is one of the main reasons for tapering.

To Induce a Super-Compensation Before the Competition (20%)

A few of the participants stated that their goal is to train intensely during the tapering to induce a supercompensation at the competition. They stated: “I train very hard prior to competition and then take a few days of rest to achieve a super-compensation at the event.”

The Focus Is on Specific Training

Training Equipment Is similar to That Used During the Competition (100%)

All of the participants stated that their training equipment resembles that found at the competition: “I use training equipment as I would in the competition.” We see that the use of training equipment is necessary for a proper adaptation to the demands of the competition.

Assistance Exercises Are Removed From the Program (70%)

The majority of athletes stated that during tapering, assistance exercises are discontinued: “Two weeks prior to competition I remove all of the assistance exercises because my training needs to be as specific as it can get.” Besides specificity, the athletes stated that the removal of assistance exercises is correlated with the reduction of fatigue: “I remove assistance exercises 2 weeks prior to the competition because I don't want to accumulate additional fatigue prior to the competition.”

Assistance Exercises Are Kept (30%)

Even though most of the participants stated that they remove assistance exercises during the taper, some of them report that they still keep these exercises: “I do assistance exercises all the way leading up to the contest, but I reduce the volume on them.” They state that assistance exercises help break the training monotony: “I do them because they are a breath of fresh air in training,” one participant stated.

Poor Tapering Experiences

Volume Is Too High or Too Low (20%)

Most of the participants reported that they had not had any poor experiences with tapering. Those who had had a poor experience reported that volume is a factor that can influence the final outcome. As one participant stated: “The biggest problem is to determine optimal volume; volume that is too high or too low can lead to poor tapering effects.”

Intensity Is Too High or Too Low (20%)

The second variable that the participants mentioned can lead to poor tapering experiences is training intensity. They stated: “For one meet I trained with a lower intensity and that didn't work because the training was not adjusted to competition conditions.”

Additional Strategies Employed During the Taper

Nutrition (60%)

Nutrition is an important factor during tapering, as stated by the majority of the participants. Some of the typical statements were: “I need to consume enough carbs 2 hours prior to training in order to have the necessary energy for training”; and “I track my caloric intake using an app in order to determine an optimal calorie intake according to my training and manipulate my body weight.”

Static Stretching, Foam Rolling, and Massages (50%)

A common subtheme among the participants was static stretching and foam rolling. Typical statements of the participants regarding static stretching were: “I need to increase the amount of static stretching in order to avoid stiffness in the muscles.” Some of the participants stated that they also include a foam roller during tapering: “I also include foam rolling at least 2 times a week for the same reasons as static stretching”; and massage: “During tapering, I include massage that helps me in my recovery; I always hit a PR in the squat or the deadlift after a massage.”

Everything Is Kept the Same (50%)

Half of the participants reported that they do not change anything besides training during tapering: “I keep everything pretty much the same.”


This is only the second study that investigated tapering practices in high-level powerlifting athletes. Generally, our participants stated that they keep training intensity high until the taper phase, and that they even increase it during the taper phase, which is a common occurrence and in accordance with recommendations set forth in the literature (10). At the same time, the training volume during tapering was reduced by as much as 50.5 ± 11.7%, which the athletes claim correlates positively with the reduction of fatigue. These findings support our initial hypothesis that the training volume is reduced while training intensity is maintained or even slightly increased. The main reasons why our athletes employ the taper are to maintain strength and reduce fatigue. The athletes typically stated that: (a) they reduce training volume using a step or an exponential type of taper, (b) the taper structure is the same for all 3 lifts, (c) their source of information is their coach, (d) the equipment used in training during the taper is the same as in the competition, (e) assistance exercises are removed from the training program during the taper, and (f) emphasis on nutrition, foam rolling, static stretching, and massage increases during the taper.

The training volume was reduced using 2 types of taper: step and exponential with a fast decay. Mujika and Padilla (10) describe different types or patterns of taper, including the linear taper, an exponential taper involving a fast or slow constant of decay (reduction) in training load, and a step taper. We may hypothesize that the step type and the exponential type with a fast decay are the best for powerlifting because they allow for the big initial drop in training volume. As stated by Pyne et al. (15), a fast-decay taper provides more time for overcoming the fatigue accumulated during the last few weeks of the intensive and extensive training before the taper. We may also hypothesize that using the exponential type with a slow decay or the linear type would require a longer tapering period and may result in suboptimal performance at the competition.

The duration of tapering (18 ± 8 days) in our athletes is similar to the duration of tapering for endurance athletes (4) and, as was recently found, for elite New Zealand powerlifters (14). An interesting finding of this study concerns the differences between the lifters with the higher Wilks coefficient (>350) and the lifters with the lower Wilks coefficient (<350). The HI group had much longer taper (24 ± 4 days) then the LO group (9 ± 1 days). Taking into consideration the fact that the LO group (all 4 participants in the group worked with a coach) was comprised mostly of women (3 out of 4 participants), it could be surmised that the duration of the taper may differ by gender. The data suggest that women may benefit from a taper of shorter duration because they tend to recover strength faster than men (9). It is important to note that 2 of 3 females in the LO group stated that they prepared for the competition for only 2 months, which may have reduced the need for a longer duration taper. Besides gender, relative volume is another important factor to consider when discussing the duration of a taper. It is likely that the years of experience and the powerlifting total are highly correlated, and it is also likely that more experienced powerlifting athletes train with heavier loads, i.e., at a higher percentage of 1RM and with more absolute and relative volume. If this is indeed the case, the higher relative volume would require the longer taper because more time is needed for recovery and for the elicitation of supercompensation effects for the competition. Athletes who are working with higher percentages of loads proportional to their 1RM will require more time to recover, as opposed to those who train with lower percentages of 1RM loads, provided that the movement velocities are the same. Based on our results, it could be argued that gender, the duration of the preparation for the competition, and relative volume are the most important factors that will determine the length of a taper in powerlifting.

The cessation of training occurred 3 ± 1 days before the competition, with 7 of 10 athletes reporting a cessation of training 2–4 days beforehand. These findings are similar to the ones recently published (14) in which Pritchard et al. reported that New Zealand elite powerlifters performed their last training session 4 ± 2 days before the competition date. Training cessation that lasts for 2–4 days may be best for strength, as shown by previous research (20,21). As shown by Anderson and Cattanach (1), training cessations lasting 2, 4, and 7 days yielded small improvements in 1RM on the bench press among 41 track and field athletes after 5 weeks of strength training. Obviously, a training cessation can lead to strength gains but should not occur too early. In that regard, Busquet et al. (3) showed that prolonged training cessation can negatively affect maximal force production. A training cessation that is longer than 3 weeks leads to significant reduction in the ability to generate maximal force. Reasons for this are typically classified as central (or neural) and peripheral (or morphological) factors (3). Our data reinforce the idea that stopping training 2–4 days before the competition would perhaps be best for the ability to generate maximal strength, as it is expressed in powerlifting competitions.

Most of our participants (70%) reported that there were no differences in their tapering practices across lifts. By contrast, the results of Pritchard et al. (14) showed differences when tapering practices were compared across the deadlift, the squat, and bench press. The participants in that study indicated that the deadlift was the hardest lift to recover form. The main reason for the discrepancies between our results and those of Pritchard et al. (14) may be the level of relative strength of the participants. The average Wilks coefficient in their study was 431.9 ± 43.9; whereas in our athletes, the average Wilks coefficient was considerably lower at 355.1 ± 54.8. As indicated by the higher Wilks coefficient, the participants considered by Pritchard et al. (14) were considerably better trained and therefore had likely trained with a higher relative training volume. That may be the reason why they needed more rest before the competition. The differences between the studies are also likely related to the ranking of the powerlifting athletes; i.e., national-level vs. international-level athletes, where international-level athletes may have a better understanding of the training practices, as shown in a previous study on athletes competing in a strength-based sport (23). In our study, 3 of the 5 best-ranked lifters pointed out that the deadlift training session is performed furthest from the competition and that it is the hardest lift to recover from although the differences across lifts were not significant. It is important to note that our participants performed the deadlift with the lowest weekly frequency (1.1 ± 0.3 times per week), which may be the main reason for a more problematic adaptation and recovery.

Six of the participants reported that they work with a coach, and all of them said that training fluctuates based on their feedback. This highlights the importance of a good communication between an athlete and his/her coach. Monitoring % of 1RM, repetitions in reserve based rate of perceived exertion (24), and velocity are all tools that can optimize the planning of training. Keeping notes and a training log may help identify poor choices and reduce the probability of error. Further, all the participants in our study reported using the same equipment in training as in competition, and most of them (70%) reported that they had removed assistance exercises from their training during the taper. It is apparent that specificity is emphasized during tapering in powerlifting and that the removal of assistance exercises before a competition contributes to an overall reduction in training volume, which can reduce the amount of fatigue. Similar results were also obtained by Pritchard et al. (14).

The results presented here may help athletes who compete in powerlifting to optimize their tapering practices. This study is not without limitations, however, because only Croatian open-class champions were recruited for the study, resulting in a relatively small sample size. Also, different strategies may be observed in lifters who compete in junior and master events and in equipped categories. Finally, it is important to reiterate that the data presented in this work were collected using interviews. The effectiveness of tapering methods and procedures that the powerlifting athletes reported using was not tested by the authors in any way. Therefore, one should exercise a degree of caution when making practical recommendations based on the presented data.

Practical Applications

To carry out a successful taper, the athlete should reduce the total amount of volume while maintaining/increasing training intensity. The reduction in volume may be best performed using a step or exponential type of taper with fast decay. The exercises and equipment used in training during tapering should be highly specific to meet the demands of competition. An end of a taper should include a training cessation of 2–4 days to provide rest for an athlete before a major competition. Overexertion before the competition can yield a negative impact on the athlete's readiness because of the accumulation of fatigue close to the competition and can result in suboptimal performance. On the contrary, underexertion or training with too low of an intensity may lead to the lack of specific adaptation, which is another factor that can lead to poor sports performance. For coaches, it is important to emphasize the need for good communication with their athletes and the need for effective monitoring to prescribe effective tapers and minimize errors. The results presented here may be most useful for powerlifting although some results may benefit other strength-based sports (e.g., strongman, etc.).


We would like to thank to all of the athletes for participating in the study. The results of the present study do not constitute endorsement of the product by the authors or the NSCA


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strength training; periodization; training volume; training intensity

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