Written by Nathan Travell
What Is Peaking?
To explain how peaking works, lets take a quick look at the concept of the fitness/fatigue model. This model explains that as fatigue goes down, fitness goes up. This makes sense – if we are tired, we can’t exactly perform at our best. How many times have you missed a session and felt stronger the next time you go in? In this case, fitness is described as our ability to demonstrate performance.
As you train, you accrue fatigue. This can build up across sessions for many months if you don’t fully recover. As this fatigue dissipates (or at least, begins to), the body tries to build itself up so that it is more resistant to future fatigue generation (this is what causes you to get bigger/stronger/faster and is why you need to increase volume as you progress in your training career). In a peak week (more experienced trainees will take longer than a week in order for their entire accrued fatigue to dissipate!), you will reduce the volume of your training, but increase your intensity so that you are preparing to exhibit the best performance you can, whilst being in the freshest state you can be.
It’s important to not completely take this week off (thinking that this can reduce fatigue even more) as you need to practice your ‘skill’ so that when you perform in competition, you are able to turn your increased fitness into actually performing. Not skipping on exercise completely can actually improve your recovery from your fatigue by inducing increased blood flow to your tired muscles too. You may find that your peak week makes you feel like you are wasting time – your sets may be stupidly easy. This just means that you are recovering and getting stronger! You shouldn’t be digging yourself into the ground this late into the game – you peak week is for you to prepare yourself for a test that you have spent many months training for.
You can’t reduce volume forever though- fatigue is necessary for future growth. In a way, peaking gives up long term progress for short term gains. If you keep the volume too low for too long, the lack of fatigue will induce a reduction of fitness (your body will see no purpose to having costly muscle tissue capable of powerful things) and not only will your progress halt, it may even go backwards! As mentioned, your peak week should consist of cutting your overall volume, whilst increasing the intensity of your training. This obviously would differ from sport to sport (a sprinter would not have much use of burning out doing heavy sets of bench press for instance), and I will only cover powerlifting peaking here.
The example that follows is based on a program that would normally be done with a training volume of 5 sets of 5 (5×5) with about 80% of your 1 rep max with a frequency of 3 times per week:
Friday: in the week before your peak week: 2×3 with 85%
Monday: Warm and hit your openers for a single ONLY (around ~90%)
Wednesday: Warm up ONLY (no work sets!)
Friday: Complete rest – focus on your mind game, prepare for the test ahead.
The purpose of peaking is to reduce fatigue so that you can exhibit your fitness. Your diet should match this goal. By eating at a caloric surplus (only has to be minor), your recovery is increased. Your peak week isn’t the time to be attempting to cut a weight class (though some experienced competitors may try to do this, for instance they may be doing a water weight cut which can drop in excess of 20 pounds in a couple of days) as you don’t want to mess your many months of preparation up. It terms of food composition try to eat what you would normally eat. If you know of foods that increase your performance, eat those. Don’t eat any foods that cause bloating – stick with your safe (if boring) staples. This isn’t the time to go experimenting and potentially messing things up!
Eat as you normally would – don’t try anything different at this crucial stage Reduce volume, but maintain/increase intensity Don’t worry if it feels too easy – your goal is to make your best performance feel easy, not to feel dog tired!