Training with Purpose: Properly Tapering Volume and Intensity

TAGS: testing athletes, testing, tapering, strength performance, Gabriel Naspinski, training athletes

At times, testing is a necessary component of the training process in order to gauge progress and the effectiveness of programming. This can be something that the physical preparation coach may be interested to know or it may be dictated by a sport coach who has an interest in certain assessments. Either way, the issue at hand can be how to program this into the big picture of preparing an athlete for his sport. Time may be limited, and completely designating a time to taper and peak for general tests may not be needed or feasible depending on the athlete and calendar.

The concept of tapering is related to this. When deciding to test athletes, coaches should consider how much volume or intensity is needed and the amount of time it may take to taper. This can also apply to tapering and peaking for contests. Oftentimes, some may err on the side of doing too little or even nothing leading up to an event. Some considerations may need to be made as far as the consequences of doing too little and how this can affect performance at certain times.

Testing…wait, what are we looking at?

Before I really go into this, check out this video:

This video is from a presentation by track coach Dan Pfaff. I recommend watching all the videos in this series because there is a lot of great information. However, in this particular video, at the 3:57 mark, Dan discusses testing during recovery weeks and gearing athletes down. He says that this causes poor results in comparison to what the athletes were doing during loading and then discusses trying to test early in a cycle and why this also led to submaximal results. He talks about figuring out ways to test during the training cycle and how certain athletes perform poorly on designated tests. Because of this, Dan devised ways to test without necessarily allowing the athletes to know.

This is important is for several reasons. Figuring out ways to test during training is more efficient and allows training to occur with fewer interruptions. With limited amounts of time in certain sports, sacrificing a few weeks to completely taper and test could be inefficient because it may take away from the main goal of contributing to increased sport performance. Also, depending on the level of the athlete, it may not be needed to completely taper (or deload, as some may say) to gauge if progress has occurred.

Mark Watts posted something on Twitter about high school aged kids talking about deloads when in reality they haven’t actually reached a level where they even need to deload. I won't say that this means young athletes never need periods of decreased loading, but to gauge some qualities, it may be unnecessary. The other point that Pfaff makes is that some athletes completely shit all over themselves when they know that it's a test. Because of this, designated tests are unreliable and may not show what the athlete is truly capable of regarding the qualities being examined.

I've dealt with this same thing in the past. I've had an athlete who kills it in every training session whether it is speed, strength, or any other skill that we want to discuss. Then when we decide to test this skill, the athlete gets lost in his head, technique goes down the tubes, and it looks like the athlete has never performed the skill in his life. As coaches, this is frustrating because it doesn’t give us an indicator of the athlete and doesn’t allow us to see if our training was effective. This can also be problematic when presenting to other coaches because some coaches may be present only for testing or may only see the written results. They won’t care that the athlete looked rock solid every day except on the one day that you tested, so other measures may need to be used in order to have tangible data to present and rule out the “head case” factor. Pfaff makes another point about correctly timing when testing occurs, which is something I'll address later in this article, but it also brings up a valid reason to come up with ways to test during training.

Now that all of that is out of the way, let’s think about what we're actually testing for in the first place. Much of this will depend on the actual sport because each sport has its own qualities. I'll go with football because it's the sport I currently work with. While it varies by position as to how much each of these qualities matter, abilities such as maximal strength, speed, explosive strength, and reactive ability are important. Tests such as weight room lifts (I use the squat and its variations as well as the bench press, but use whatever you want), sprints, and jumps are skills that can be used as a means of assessing these abilities. They also can be used as tools to overload and develop certain qualities. Basically, by testing these skills, we're checking to see that we're developing the appropriate qualities. As far as transfer to the sport of football, this depends on other factors such as qualification and the programming of more specific exercises to allow for the expression of the desired abilities on the field.

When considering how we'll test these skills, we have to look at how it fits into the grand scheme of training. In some cases, coaches may set aside a designated amount of time to run their battery of tests. This can be relayed to the athletes, and adjustments can be made such as designated periods of time with tapering and rigid structures for each test. This structure would be something such as a 1RM in lifts, a 40-yard dash, measured jumps, and so on. There isn't anything wrong with this, but it isn’t always efficient or reliable due to time constraints and the “head case” factor. Even if you may be tapering and adjusting volumes, remember that athletes do things outside of training such as school work, jobs, home life, partying, and staying up playing video games. Because of this, even a well-designed testing protocol may be a poor representation of what that athlete is capable of due to outside stressors. So the question then becomes, how do we deal with this?

I've done something similar to what Pfaff talks about by making testing a part of training. I also use material that I've gathered as tests even if the athletes don’t know it. I do this for several reasons. It takes out the “head case” factor. If the testing is occurring and the athlete doesn’t exactly know that it is a true test, he may be less likely to have shit rolling down his leg as he performs. Because of variables that may be outside of my control, I'll have multiple points of evaluation during a training cycle. For example, with weight room tests, I often use rep maxes at certain percentages to gauge progress. Let’s say an athlete hits a PR during a training session that involves an all-out set at 85 percent of his max and he performs it for an amount of reps that shows that it's closer to 70–75 percent of his max. It's easy to see that the athlete has improved his strength. Let’s say that on the following week, he's set to use 90 percent, but he sleeps poorly, has an exam, or has some other reason that causes him to perform poorly. There will still be data from a previously tested max from the week at 85 percent that proves he's gotten stronger. This isn’t exactly perfect, and I know that with highly advanced lifters, this isn’t necessarily reliable, but remember that we're talking about athletes who are average as far as lifting goes. Also, for speed indicators such as 10-, 20-, or 40-yard sprints, the same can be done during designated training sessions. Times can be kept, and data can be collected. After the session, this can be shown to coaches, athletes, and any other interested parties.

As far as manipulation of volume or intensity, it can still be handled to taper for these “tests.” This brings up the next point that I want to cover, which involves handling tapering, volume, intensity, and a few factors that can influence test results.

Stimulate, adapt, stabilize, actualize…

Something posted by Dave Tate made me first research this topic. This is an email from "The Thinker" to Dave Tate discussing some issues that he was having with his training. Basically, after a period of loading, he ceased the intensity and volume and went to all restorative work. This led to other issues that were undesirable. This made me look at my own training and the training of my athletes. From my experience in powerlifting meets, I know that I've always felt the worst when I performed a week or two of very light loading of low volume or even no volume at all the week of the meet. I usually missed my opener on technical issues or everything felt heavy. I also started to look at what happened sometimes when I tested athletes after a week of low intensity, low volume loading, or no loading. The results were sometimes inconsistent.

This led me to look up some of the sources such as Dan Pfaff that "The Thinker" quoted and brought me to the presentation that I discussed earlier in this article. In that presentation, the following three videos are included and further describe what is going on here:

(13:45 mark)

As both "The Thinker" and Pfaff discussed, people get caught in the stimulate/adapt continuum but don’t consider the components of stabilize and actualize. Inconsistency in performance can occur due to a sharp decrease in loading. This causes biochemical changes in the body that can lead to undesirable performance and is known as acute relieving syndrome. I like to think of this using the example of a heroin addict. Basically, training is the drug. When the intensity and/or volume are sharply decreased or completely removed, it is like having a heroin addict stop cold turkey. This can lead to withdrawal and, in some cases, death. Instead, there needs to be some gradation to this. The same can be said about training. To avoid acute relieving syndrome, loading should be decreased, but some variables may need to stay at a level that is enough to still provide stimulation so that the body doesn’t completely gear down.

With this in mind, there are a few things that can be done to avoid this. One option is to simply reduce the volume but keep the intensity high. This provides stimulus but allows for some recovery because the total amount of work decreased. For example, keep the intensity of an exercise at a relatively high level but reduce the total volume performed. If we're talking strength, this may be performing a certain volume at a certain percentage. So let’s say that ten days out of the test date or meet, three singles are performed with 90 percent. The volume could be lowered so that you're only performing two singles and then finally one single on subsequent workouts. This could also work for sprints, jumps, and other similar movements. This is very basic, but in some cases, this variation could be too intensive.

Another option is to keep the volume around the same level but lower the intensity. So perform three singles at 90 percent and then, in subsequent workouts, perform the same amount at 85 percent and then 80 percent. The intensity is still high, but it decreases slightly to still allow recovery and also provide stimulus. The volume is also lower when adding up the amount. To perform this with sprints, perform more intensive work in relation to the event early on, which also includes an amount of volume that decreases as the test or event nears. The distances of the sprints in relation to the event may decrease. An example of this is Charlie Francis's ten-day taper model.

Another way to maintain stimulus but allow for recovery is to use another means or a partial version of the test or event. This would be similar to using a partial lift or walk out to handle a heavy weight (not necessarily maximal but intensive enough for stimulation). Another example is using a weight room exercise to provide stimulation that doesn’t negatively affect the competitive event or test. Dan Pfaff talked about this in the above videos, and Charlie Francis has also discussed the use of weight room exercises to stimulate the central nervous system. In some of Charlie Francis’s taper models, the bench press is used very close to track meets as a means of central nervous system stimulation without overloading the working muscles. Dan Pfaff talks about performing lifts even on the same day as the event. While these models differ, the point of all of this is that a certain amount of stimulus is still provided to avoid experiencing acute relieving syndrome.

With this in mind, when testing athletes, there are some ways to use this to build in testing while accounting for volumes and intensities. If the plan is to test, the volume could be tapered down while keeping the intensity high. The volume can then be ramped back up slightly leading up to the test (a two-phase taper) or a stimulus can be provided through other means. This can be a more time efficient measure as opposed to performing an entire testing week of all qualities that are considered measureable for the sport.

The concepts of stabilizing and actualizing are other considerations. Stabilization isn’t completely dissimilar to the concept of tapering. However, this could be done outside of the narrow scope of testing or competition. Oftentimes, when an athlete hits a PR in a lift, sprint, jump, or other movement, the coach or athlete feels that this is now what the athlete should train off of. This could also be true of the acquisition of a skill. Sometimes when a skill is learned, a coach or athlete will believe it to be something that is permanent at that point and that the next cycle of stimulating and adapting can begin by using that skill (actualization). It would be great if it was this simple, but it isn’t. It takes time, practice, and a level of comfort with the skill to actually be able to use it or intensify it. Also, in the case of PR performances, the body may not be completely capable of training off of that attempt. Let's say that this was something hit in a competition or on a test day that included a well-designed taper and peak with emotional or psychological arousal. This won't be something that can be replicated on a daily basis. Because of this, the percentages may be too intense to use it as a basis for strength training or tempo. Time may be needed using a lowered percentage of that PR to allow stabilization of the performance. This needs to be kept in mind whether we're talking about strength, speed, or other factors such as technical and tactical preparation.

Conclusion

When testing athletes, it is important to remember that the purpose is to make sure that athletes are progressing in appropriate measurements that enhance on-field performance. Measurements of these abilities should be efficient as well as relevant to the sport. Testing shouldn't turn weight rooms into powerlifting or Olympic lifting meets every time strength needs to be assessed. Conversely, to measure speed, athletes don’t necessarily need to be lined up like at a combine or track meet. Much testing can take place in the process of training, which can lead to a more efficient use of both the coach's and athlete's time. This can also help eliminate negative performances related to testing anxiety.

In reference to tapering, it is important to realize that not every athlete needs a complete deload. At times, too much reduction of a stimulus is counterproductive. The point is to find the right amount of intensity and volume to allow for recovery while still maintaining a level of appropriate stimulus.

When post-testing or testing after a skill has been learned, it is important to remember that not everyone is able to train off a PR or use a skill that was just acquired either in a game situation or in an endpoint of all components of the skill. We've all seen the guy who thinks he can train off of his PR the day after the meet or the athlete who has recently acquired good technique in a basic drill but still can’t actually use it in the big picture. It takes time for these qualities to be actualized. Lowering the amount of volume or intensity but allowing practice can stabilize these performances.

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