How To Taper For Powerlifting (6 Mistakes To Avoid)

Tapering is the process of adjusting a training program to reduce fatigue built from training while maintaining strength adaptations

Tapering for a powerlifting meet or preparing to max out your lifts has historically been a matter of preference. And, while there is certainly personalization and preferential factors involved, studies show there is clear science in how to do it right. 

Tapering or “peaking” for powerlifting is the process of adjusting a training program to reduce fatigue built from training while maintaining strength adaptations.  Through a tapering process, lifters prepare themselves for peak performance to demonstrate their strength and ability in competition. 

There are several tapering strategies that will work depending on the individual, and no matter what strategy you implement, there are certain rules you need to follow regardless.  I’ll discuss everything you need to know to taper properly for a powerlifting meet.  Let’s go! 

What Is The Goal Of Tapering?

You’ve just spent weeks and weeks getting your muscles and CNS to adapt to moving heavier weight. 

You improved technique, grew your muscles, and did a lot of reps in between. You built up a lot of fatigue during that time – every workout probably left you a little more tired or groggy week after week as the workload built up. 

So although you are more trained than ever before, you’re more tired than ever before, and that fatigue will hide your true strength and abilities. 

In plain English, the point of the peak or the taper is to allow yourself to rest up without losing any gains or confidence before we do the best part of powerlifting – maxing out.

Training for strength and competing to demonstrate that strength are two different things that require different skills. 

We need to give preparation for competition a bit of a transition to make that adjustment from being the best training athlete we can be to being the best performing athlete we can be. 

The bottom-line goal of the taper is this: maintain your adaptation (or strength) while decreasing your accumulated fatigue.

What Training Variables Do We Taper (Volume or Intensity)?

several training variables in strength training - volume, intensity, duration, and frequency

So if the goal is to stay strong without being tired, how do you do that effectively? 

There are several training variables in strength training – volume, intensity, duration, and frequency. 

Fortunately, we have the benefit of research and experience to tell us exactly how to adjust those variables for the ideal outcome. 

In research done by Iñigo Mujika and Sabino Padilla, they found that strength is preserved when intensity stays high, not when the volume (reps x weight, or the amount of training) is high. 

Other, earlier research by Thierry Busso found that the biggest contributing factor in accumulated fatigue is volume, not intensity. 

So any approach we take in tapering comes down to this – drop your volume, but keep your intensity high. It’s the perfect recipe to stay strong while allowing your body to rest and recover from all the work you put into getting stronger. 

So now the question becomes: how much should you drop your volume during a powerlifting taper? 

Hayden Pritchard et al. answered that question for us back in 2015, where they found a decrease of 30-70% of volume would do the trick, depending on the athlete.  Yes, that’s quite a big range, but we’ll get into the specifics below.

With all this information, we can now dive into the different tapering strategies to address the frequency of training and the duration of your peak. 

After you’ve competed in powerlifting, you’ll enter the offseason phase of your training. Check out my article on Offseason Powerlifting Programming.

Powerlifting Tapering Strategies

I’m sure every powerlifting coach out there claims to have their secret sauce for the perfect peak, but just about every taper falls into one of four strategies:

  • Step Taper
  • Linear Taper
  • Exponential Taper with Fast Decay
  • Exponential Taper with Slow Decay

These taper approaches can be visualized on a graph, as you can see here:

taper approaches visualized on a graph
Pre-competition Tapering Strategies

Whatever strategy you take, your final week should only be about 30% of your normal training volume. 

Strategy #1: Step Taper

This first and most basic strategy of tapering takes the volume a step down all at once. 

In this strategy, the volume is reduced by 30-70% in one sudden drop. The last week of your strength training block, you’re working hard, doing a ton of volume at high intensity, then the next week that volume is cut in half or more. 

By dropping the volume immediately, the athlete is able to begin a period of greater rest without risking detraining during a longer transition.

During the next 1-4 weeks of the taper, this volume stays low until competition day. 

Example of Step Taper For Powerlifting

  • Week 1: Decrease total training volume by 70%
  • Week 2: Hold volume at 30% of total
  • Week 3: Hold volume at 30% of total
  • Week 4: Hold volume at 30% of total
  • Week of Competition: One very light upper body workout and one very light lower body workout 5 days before competing

It’s that easy – Strip your program down to your squat, bench, or deadlift top sets, do one or two light cool down variation exercises, and you’re done. 

For example, if your squat day usually includes 5 sets for a top set, 5 sets for a squat variation, 4 sets for a second variation, and 9-12 sets of accessories, that’s a total of about 25 sets across 5 or 6 exercises. 

If I want to cut my volume by 70%, I can get rid of 17-18 total sets, leaving me a workout that consists of 7-8 total sets. So I’ll start with a normal program that looks like this:

Normal Pre-Taper Routine:

  • Warmup
  • Squat – 5 sets of 3 reps at 85%
  • Paused Squat – 5 sets of 3 reps at 75%
  • Pin Squat – 4 sets of 5 reps at 70%
  • Good Mornings – 3 sets of 10
  • Walking Lunges – 3 sets of 10
  • Seated Leg Extensions – 3 sets of 10

Then the first week of my peak, drop it down to something like this:

Taper Routine

  • Warmup
  • Squat – 3 sets of 3 reps at 90%
  • Walking Lunges – 3 sets of 10
  • Seated Leg Extensions – 3 sets of 10

Strategy #2: Linear Taper

This approach decreases the volume in a linear fashion, week over week throughout the taper. 

This approach is much more befitting of the term “taper” as it actually creates a gradual transition, as opposed to the sudden change in the step method. 

For example, you might decrease your volume by 20% week over week for 3 weeks for a total decrease of 60%, or do a slower transition by decreasing volume 10% over 4-6 weeks for the same total decrease of volume. 

Example of Linear Taper For Powerlifting

  • Week 1: Decrease total training volume by 15%
  • Week 2: Decrease total training volume by additional 15%
  • Week 3: Decrease total training volume by additional 15%
  • Week 4: Decrease total training volume by additional 15%
  • Week of Competition: One very light upper body workout and one very light lower body workout 5 days before competing 

A practical example of this would be to remove one exercise, or about 3 sets each week as you approach competition day. 

For example, if your bench workout is usually 5 sets of benching, 5 sets of a bench variation, 4 sets of a second bench variation, and 3 accessory exercises for 3 sets each, start removing exercises from the back end of your workout and make them one exercise shorter each week. 

At the end of the taper, all you have left is your 3-6 sets of competition bench press and 3 sets of accessories. 

Normal Pre-Taper Routine:

  • Warmup
  • Bench Press – 5 sets of 3 at 85% of max
  • Paused Bench Press – 5 sets of 3 at 80% of max
  • Close Grip Bench Press – 4 sets of 6
  • Skull Crushers – 3 sets of 10
  • Rope Pull Down – 3 sets of 10
  • Push-Ups – 3 sets of 10

Then by the end of my 4 weeks of peaking, as I remove one exercise a week, it should look like this (leaving one light accessory for a cool down):

Taper Routine

  • Warmup
  • Bench Press – 5 sets of 1 at 90% of max
  • Rope Pull Down – 3 sets of 10

Strategy #3: Exponential, Slow Decay

In the exponential tapers, the volume drops off gradually, but in an exponentially decreasing fashion. 

This model allows for a progressive adjustment away from volume, but you can determine if you want the volume to come off more aggressively early in the taper or later in the taper. 

The slow decay model offers less reduction early on, then progressively decreases from there. 

Example of Exponential, Slow Decay Taper For Powerlifting

  • Week 1: Decrease total training volume by 20%
  • Week 2: Decrease total training volume by additional 15%
  • Week 3: Decrease total training volume by additional 10%
  • Week 4: Decrease total training volume by additional 5%
  • Week of Competition: One very light upper body workout and one very light lower body workout 5 days before competing. 

So if I’m modifying my program to taper this way, I’d remove a few things the first week of my taper, a few more things (but not as much) the next week, and then just one or two adjustments the next two weeks. 

For example, if my deadlift workout usually looks like this: 

Normal Pre-Taper Routine:

  • Warmup
  • Deadlift – 5 sets of 3 reps at 85% of max
  • Paused Deadlift – 5 sets of 3 at 75% of max
  • Stiff leg Deadlift – 4 sets of 6
  • Lower back extensions – 3 sets of 10
  • Bent over BB rows – 3 sets of 10
  • Lying hamstring curls – 3 sets of 10

Taper Routine

During my taper, I would start by maybe cutting out one of the accessories and one of the variations, like this:

  • Warmup
  • Deadlift – 5 sets of 3 reps at 85% of max
  • Paused Deadlift – 5 sets of 3 at 75% of max
  • Lower back extensions – 3 sets of 10
  • Bent over BB rows – 3 sets of 10

Then the next week, I’d remove the other variation, like this:

  • Warmup
  • Deadlift – 5 sets of 3 reps at 85% of max
  • Lower back extensions – 3 sets of 10
  • Bent over BB rows – 3 sets of 10

Finally, I’d remove the next two accessories AND reduce the total reps of my top set over the next two weeks, so that my final week looks like this:

  • Warmup
  • Deadlift – 5 sets of 1 reps at 90% of max
  • Bent over BB rows – 3 sets of 8

Strategy #4:  Exponential, Fast Decay

With the fast decay model of the exponential taper, the lifter can experience a sudden decrease in volume, then continue to decrease from there. 

This model is similar to the slow decay model. It’s simply a decision of when to activate the bigger drop in volume. 

Example of Exponential, Fast Decay Taper For Powerlifting

  • Week 1: Decrease total training volume by 35%
  • Week 2: Decrease total training volume by additional 15%
  • Week 3: Decrease total training volume by additional 10%
  • Week 4: Decrease total training volume by additional 5%
  • Week of Competition: One very light upper body workout and one very light lower body workout 5 days before competing. 

This example would be very similar to the program changes above in the slow decay model, but we would remove more exercises or sets of another exercise in the first week or two instead of near the end. 

7 Rules To Follow When Tapering For A Powerlifting Meet

7 rules to follow when tapering for a powerlifting meet

We’ve compiled seven rules to follow when peaking for a meet: 

  • Pick a volume reduction plan 
  • Keep average and peak intensities high
  • Maintain or reduce lift frequency
  • Don’t max out
  • Get comfortable with your openers
  • Increase exercise specificity/reduce secondary lifts 
  • Practice the competition standards/commands
  • Get a head start on weight cutting (if necessary)

1. Pick a Volume Reduction Plan

Look at the strategies above and decide how you will reduce your volume. It doesn’t matter too much which path you take, just make a plan and stick to it based on your preferences.

Over time, you might feel like you need to keep the volume a bit higher a bit closer to the competition, or you might find the opposite, you prefer to drop volume off earlier in the training cycle.  

After competing many times, you’ll find a tapering strategy that works the best for you. 

Check out my other article on How Do Powerlifting Meets Work (10 Things You Need To Know)

2. Keep Average and Peak Intensities High

Even with reduced volume, keep (or increase) the intensity of your lifts. 

Just because we are reducing volume doesn’t mean we are letting off the gas. Quite the opposite, we want to keep that intensity high. 

Remember to offset that reduction in volume with an increase in load and intensity. 

That means heavy triples and heavy doubles and eventually heavy singles. Use this time to get comfortable with near-max weights and bring the intensity so you don’t lose your strength gains with the decreased volume. 

You can read more about lifting maximal loads in my article on the Max Out Method

3. Maintain or Reduce Lift Frequency

Take a few extra days off each week and reduce your lift frequency. 

If you’re accustomed to training six days a week, this is a great time to add 2 or 3 more rest days in. As long as you are training with intensity in these shorter, less frequent sessions, you won’t lose your gains, but you’ll gain all the rest and recovery you need to show what you can do when the day comes. 

In some taper strategies, you may still hit the gym with the same frequency as before, but your workouts should be much shorter with the reduced volume. 

Looking for other resources on how often you should train?  Check out these articles:

4. Don’t Max Out

Do not attempt a max out during the tapering period. 

You’ll be hitting heavy doubles and singles to keep things intense, but that does not mean that you are maxing out during this time. 

The heaviest attempt you should take is at or around your planned second attempt weight, not heavier. 

For some lifters, it may not even be necessary to hit that planned second attempt weight during the taper. You only have a certain capacity for handling 3rd attempt weights, and you need to save these for competition. 

5. Get Comfortable with Your Openers

Take lots of sets with your planned openers. 

This should be a weight you are very confident performing for a single rep in the gym, so hit it several times. Remove any doubt that you could have about failing your opening weight by practicing it during the peak. 

This could be a top single that you hit before doing 2-3 other sets of lighter singles or doubles, or a whole set of 6-8 single reps with your planned opener. 

I wrote an entire article on How To Pick Your Attempts For Powerlifting, which will walk you through step-by-step on how to put together your meet day plan. 

6. Increase Exercise Specificity/Reduce Secondary Lifts

As you reduce your total volume, remove the secondary and accessory lifts from your program so you can spend more time focused on your specific, competition lifts in their competitive form. 

Cut out the speciality bars, cut out the bands and chains, cut out the fancy tools that make us stronger and spend your time and energy focused on the way you will squat, bench, and deadlift on the platform.  

However, after the competition, feel free to add in the accessory lifts again, and choose from my lists below: 

7. Practice the Competition Standards/Commands

Have a friend or gym partner give you the competition commands with your single reps

Along with tapering our workload, we also want to transition our habits and mindset for competition, and that means being familiar with and ready to follow the ref’s commands on the platform. 

Pay attention not only to the commands, but the standards. If you typically squat high, you should have addressed that weeks ago, but make sure you are squatting deep enough now. 

If your bench pause is typically fast, you should have addressed that weeks ago, but practice a longer pause

If you’re used to dropping your deadlift after lockout, practice hanging on to it until it hits the ground. 

Know the standards of the federation you’ll be competing in and engrain them into your head during your tapered workouts. 

Here are my guides to understanding the powerlifting rules: 

Get a Head Start on Weight Cutting (If Necessary)

If you are cutting weight for the meet, get it started before you taper

Sure, it can be done simultaneously, but drastically cutting your volume at the same time you cut your calories leaves a lot more surprises for you than if you change them independently. 

You may also meet surprises or frustration along the way, so getting started on your weight cut early will keep those surprises away from any surprises your peak might bring. 

Read my complete guide to Weight Cutting For Powerlifting if you need to drop weight before you compete.  

6 Mistakes People Make When Tapering

mistakes people make when tapering

You can’t get much stronger in 1-3 weeks of a taper, but you can get much weaker pretty easily. 

We’ve seen the great results from peaking well, and we’ve seen the heartache, anger, frustration, and disappointment from doing it wrong. Be sure to avoid these top six mistakes when tapering: 

  • You Don’t Plan A Taper At All
  • You Max Out Too Often
  • Your Taper Is Too Long or Too Short
  • You Reduce Your Intensity
  • You Try New Things
  • You Mismanage Your Weight Cut

1. You Don’t Plan A Taper At All

Don’t make the mistake of not tapering at all. It makes a difference when you do it right. 

At the end of the day, the taper can account for a 0.5-6% swing in performance, or 3% on average. 

2. You Max Out Too Often

Do not max out during the peak! 

This is not the time to get antsy and test your maxes, no matter how good your lifts are feeling. 

You may tell yourself that hitting the weight now will be a confidence boost to take away some pressure on meet day (after all, how scary is it to hit a lift in competition when you’ve already hit it in the gym?). 

But you only have so much energy, and the whole point of this period is to build that energy back up to match your abilities. Don’t waste it on a gym rep that doesn’t matter. 

Secondly, you can still overreach without attempting a max. This can be done by trying to do too many reps (even singles), too many sets, or too many days of training. 

3. Your Taper Is Too Long or Too Short

Don’t make your taper too long, and don’t make it too short. 

There’s not a perfect template we can create, because lifters and circumstances vary. Use your experience from past competitions, use the experience of others, and plan how much time it will take. 

Look at the day you want to compete and plan backward. If the meet is on June 1, you like taking 4 weeks to peak, so you should start that about May 1. If you follow a 12-week training block (not including the peak), then you should start that block about Feb 1. 

If you don’t have past experience, create some experience! Set a mock competition for yourself and do the same reverse timeline process to decide when to start your peak and when to start your training block. 

Finally, if you don’t know how long you want to peak, create a tapering experiment. Try following a peaking program for as many weeks as possible and measure your fluctuations. Eventually, you’ll accumulate too much fatigue and drop off. Identify which week that happened, and set that as your upper limit for peaking. 

So if you were able to maintain a peaking program for 6 weeks before it became too hard to maintain, then never peak more than 6 weeks. 

If in that time you found things felt the best on week three, then plan a three-week peak in the future. 

Create your own experiences so you can prescribe the best course of action when it matters. 

Just don’t start a taper without a clear timeline. 

4. You Reduce Your Intensity

A reduction in volume does not mean a reduction in intensity. Do not decrease your intensity. 

This is an easy mistake to make. After completing what should have been a very intense, high-volume training period, the feeling of dropping the volume can lead you to think this period is all about resting and recovering so we are fresh for meet day.

But resting and recovering is only half the plan. If we aren’t keeping the intensity up, we are losing the gains we worked so hard for. 

5. You Try New Things

Do not start trying new things during your peak. Stick with your squat, bench press, and deadlift. 

Lifters tend to get in their heads the closer we get to the competition. We see some YouTube video about a grip change or hear a friend discuss a new cue for their bench press, or see a new piece of equipment added to the gym. 

Now is not the time to be trying new things or drilling into variations and accessories. In fact, much of the volume you dropped to begin the peak should be in the form of variations and accessories. Don’t be tempted to add it back in til after you compete. 

Use this time to get really, specifically good at your squat, bench, and deadlift. As we stated in our rules above, perform every rep exactly like you want to perform it in competition to get the most out of this time. 

6. You Mismanage Your Weight Cut

Don’t ignore the impact of a weight cut during your peak. 

If this is your first competition you shouldn’t be cutting weight.  It can lead to added stress on competition day, and no matter how good your taper cycle was, you might throw it all out the window becuase of a mismanaged weight cut.

Final Thoughts

While much of the way you taper into a competition will depend on your preference, there is a ton of science that has shown us how to do it right. 

As you adjust your tapering plans for competition, make sure you aren’t ignoring the science to favor your preferences. Plan to drop your volume way down at some point, whether right away or gradually. Plan to keep the intensity of your lifts high. And plan to keep doing the squat, bench, and deadlift reps exactly the way you want to do them in competition. 

Each time you peak for a competition, look back at your last experience and adjust the variables that make sense to adjust without throwing out the entire playbook of what has already been proven through research. 

The more you focus on those three areas (lower volume, higher intensity, and specificity) the better off you’ll be for competition day. And the better you refine it, the better competitor you’ll learn to be over time.

Make sure to check out my other article that discusses the differences between a Deload Week vs Week Off.


About The Author

Adam Gardner

Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.