Adventures in Powerlifting: Peaking Sucks

My meet is just a week away, meaning that I just finished up my peak cycle. Let me tell you something about that: it sucks. I can’t say that I wasn’t warned, but I’ve developed a very high opinion of my ability to recover quickly, so I was floored, both literally and figuratively, by exactly how exhausted I was (which, as Shawn pointed out to me more than once, is the point of a peak cycle).

What the hell is peaking anyway?

The principle of peaking is simple: In order to hit peak performance on the day of a meet, you need to be at your strongest that day. Affecting this is more nuanced and complex, but can be oversimplified thus:

  1. You need to use your muscles a lot to build strength
  2. Using your muscles fatigues them
  3. Recovery time addresses muscle fatigue

Taisuke Kinugasa, Head, Athlete Pathway Innovation Division, Department of Sport Innovation at Japan Sport Council

Most training seeks to effectively balance fatigue and recovery, keeping an athlete somewhere in the neighborhood of
80% of peak performance. A peak cycle drops performance through cumulative fatigue, which is the product of high volume work and limited recovery, then tapers training to give the body time to fully recover. This produces super compensation, which is the stage I want to be at come meet day.

What this means is that as the five week cycle went on I needed longer rest times between sets, I couldn’t do as many reps in an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) set, and I felt weak and began to hate life. Just kidding!

I did really feel weak, though, particularly in my squat. As my strongest lift, I got a little freaked out when I could, all of a sudden, only take 2-3 at 225 lbs. Shawn’s only response was, “Good. You’re fatiguing,” leaving me feeling marginally better.

My account glosses over all the details and science and rigor behind peaking for powerlifting. If you want to read something with loads of detailed information about peaking, check out this article from Juggernaut, which is amazing.

Recovery: The Not-so-Secret Weapon

I’ve learned that during  a peak cycle, recovery is the most important thing in the universe. I guarded it jealously, sleeping as much as possible, eating everything in sight, and laying in bed until almost 7 on days when I’m normally at the gym by 5:30 or 6. As mentioned, I’m a pretty quick recoverer; I almost never get the dreaded delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and I’m typically ready to jump up and push hard through a boot camp class the day after lifting. Not so much during this cycle, though I did justify a few boot camps by telling myself they’re active recovery—it was Tim’s final stretch of coaching boot camp, and I was damned if I was going to miss those classes just because I was tired.

The final recovery stretch is the hardest for me because I get antsy if I don’t get to the gym for any real length of time. Fortunately, my antsiness going to be mitigated by some light form work in all three lifts—this final week incorporates a significant decrease in both volume and weight—with full rest days Thursday and Friday. It’s difficult to not push my hardest, but I’ll do it because the recovery period before a meet is the MOST IMPORTANT (see the really cool graphic above for why). I don’t want to be at 80% come meet day; I want to be at 110%. And that means resting just the right amount for my muscles to repair themselves, but not so much that atrophy sets in and fitness decreases. A four to six days is pretty typical, and I’m right in the middle of that with a five-day recovery period.

Not Eating Everything: Cutting Also Sucks

I’m not a dieter (you may have picked up on that in my previous rants, located here, here and here), but there are times when what I weigh matters. Competing in a sport with weight classes constitutes an acceptable reason (one of the very few) to pay attention to the scale. Over the past ten weeks, I’ve gained approximately eight pounds, which is great because MUSCLE. However, it puts me about three pounds above my weight class.  From a competitive standpoint, being at the top end of the 84 kg class is vastly preferable to being at the lower end of the 84+ kg class—the more you weigh, the more you can effectively lift, at least that’s the theory.

Now that my peak cycle is over, I’ll be cutting (no major restrictions; I’m not looking to spend my time hangry and miserable) to try and drop 2-3 pounds. I’ll also be doing a water fast the day before the meet, which will ideally cut an additional 1-2 pounds, leaving me squarely in my usual weight class.

The trick to effectively cutting is to start with a wicked high metabolism. As noted above, I’ve been eating everything in sight during my peak cycle, meaning my metabolism is running hot. Now, it’s time to eliminate sufficient calories to lose fat without inducing atrophy (where one’s body uses muscle for energy) or decreasing my metabolic rate (because as soon as this cut’s over, I’ll be going back to eating whatever I damn well please). With that in mind, I’m eating approximately 100-200 calories less than my typical caloric expenditure (that’s about 1900-2100 calories a day, depending on whether it’s a gym day or not).


If you’re in the Twin Cities (or feel like a road trip!) you can come see the Twin Cities Open at Allegiance Fitness in Mounds View, MN. Details below:

Date: Saturday, August 22, 2015
Time: Session 1 (all men’s weight classes) starts at 9 am, Session 2 (all women’s weight classes and bench only) starts at approximately 3 pm
Cost: $10 for adults, kids 12 and under are free


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