In sports, the practice of peaking is essentially the systematic process of expressing maximal athletic abilities at a specific point in time. When athletes are brought to a peak, they perform at their best compared to other points during the training cycle.
Peaking works because you can't be your best all the time. If that were the case, peaking would be pointless!
The fundamental physiological need for peaking arises from the same hard training that makes you better in the long term and fatigues you in the short-term. Every hard workout makes you better and makes you tired, such that the process of getting better means you'll be too fatigued to show off your best performance.
To drop that fatigue, your training must get a bit easier for a short time. Your training should never be so easy that your performance declines. However, it should be easy enough that your fatigue decreases while you maintain your adaptations. Striking the balance between these two ends of the spectrum is critical for optimal peaking.
Obviously, you don't train hard enough to get better during dropping fatigue to generate a peak. So, peaking does not make you any better; it just shows off how good you've become.
The temptation to peak too often, however, has a serious drawback. The more frequently you aim for peak performance, the less time you have for focused training and improvement. Additionally, the more you prioritize showcasing your abilities, the less opportunity you have for growth. This principle has long been a cornerstone of sports science and remains true to this day.
Unfortunately, the inevitable reality that you can rarely perform at your best can be psychologically discouraging for many ambitious lifters. Furthermore, at least four temptations repeatedly arise from this discouragement.
4 Common Peaking Tradeoff Temptations
If you can't always peak, you can take tons of drugs. Many lifters get such an incredible feeling from being strong and jacked when on lots of drugs that coming down to maintenance doses (for long-term health and continual effectiveness) looks pretty unappealing.
You feel worse, look worse, train worse, and hate it. So, why not take tons of drugs all the time and always be much closer to your peak abilities? Because taking consistently high doses of powerful anabolics is an unfortunately effective way to die early. Even high doses of drugs eventually lose some of their effects, which only prolonged stretches of lower doses can return.
So, if you think you're the first person to discover that taking more drugs all the time makes you jacked and strong all the time, you're in for an awkward surprise: This is the most unoriginal idea ever, and even a rat with a lever could (and has) come to this "revelation." As tempting as it may be to ignore this advice, it's probably best to do the right thing for your long-term health and performance by implementing distinct periods of less aggressive drug use. Or don't! You are free to make your own decisions about balancing your athletic performance and health.
2.) Strength Testing
Every once in a while, you might hear a lifter say: "I got weaker on my hypertrophy block, man."
That's interesting because there's no good reason for any 1RM testing to be programmed as a part of a hypertrophy block.
If you can claim that you lost strength during a hypertrophy block or after an active rest block, it begs the question of why you were testing your strength in the first place.
As blunt as that may come across, it can't be phrased any more simply. Constant strength testing is fueled in almost all circumstances by paranoia that strength is always at risk of being lost.
The slight grain of truth here is that hypertrophy training temporarily lowers your 1RM, but the benefit is that you get much bigger muscles that can be applied toward more force production in the future. This, in turn, yields much bigger 1RM results way down the line.
There's a reason the strongest people on the planet are usually some of the biggest. If you can't take the temporary hit to your strength from hypertrophy training or even doing an active rest phase to recover for your next meet prep, you need to work on the psychological side of lifting. Either way, you don't lose your strength forever by not testing it once a month.
3.) Body Composition
By definition, bodybuilders are only in their best shape during their shows, and these shows usually only occur once or twice over a few weeks or maybe a month.
That means, by definition, they are not going to look as good the rest of the season. This begs the question: Why not just always stay competition lean?
Because the same hypercaloric diet that makes you a bit fatter also puts on the most muscle.
Bodybuilders that have always stayed super lean are the same people that make the fewest changes from show to show. It's, of course, a terrible idea to get sloppy fat between shows, but likewise, not a great idea to stay in shape all the time.
Over the years, many bodybuilders have cut their massing phases far too short because they freaked out about their worsening appearance. Need some therapy? Google some off-season pictures of Dennis James at 305 pounds. That is what it takes to step onstage at a lean 270 pounds. It's not just about being 270 pounds all the time.
In summary, plan to look great for the show, do what it takes to put on the muscle and show off when it counts. To our knowledge, no award for the leanest off-season bodybuilder at any show exists.
The above is Dennis James in his off-season conditioning; he's certainly not looking to stay in stage conditioning year-round and understands the short-term loss in conditioning for long-term gains.
4.) Competitive Drive
Sometimes our competitive natures can get the best of us.
"I know I wasn't supposed to max out, but a guy at my gym called me out, and I had to step up."
"The Crossfitters at my gym bet me I couldn't finish Fran in a reasonable time. I showed them!"
That's nice! But now you've accumulated a ton of unnecessary fatigue without any adaptations. You either have to accept a couple of shitty training sessions or take a couple of light days, which interfere with adaptations.
The time for a crazy competitive drive is during the actual competition and the weeks leading up to it. Taking the off-season to train and improve without as much emotion can prevent burnout, which is typical of overly competitive people.
It can be tough to resist a good challenge, but remember, you're an athlete with a training plan, not an aimless high school weight room ego case.
The most important thing to remember here is that peaking should be done strategically in a calculated, poised manner.
Remember, you can only perform at your very best in rare cases. Because of that, it's best to spend most of your training in a productive, non-peaking state. Structuring your training in a mature way will inevitably make your peak performances even more exciting than if you were to do it randomly for immature reasons.
Consider adding our Peaking Training Templates to your educational library for even more information on how to peak correctly. Why keep yourself in the dark if you doubt how to execute a proper peaking phase? Our templates will bring you all the structure and autoregulatory considerations to ensure you're putting up your best numbers at the perfect moment. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.