The Tradeoff of Peaking

by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist | Jan 11, 2015

The practice of peaking is essentially the process of expressing maximal abilities at a specific timepoint or timepoints. When an athlete is brought to a peak, they are their very best when 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 fact that the very same hard training that makes you better in the long term fatigues you in the short term. Every hard workout both makes you better and makes you tired, such that the process of GETTING better means you'll be too fatigued to actually show off your best performance. In order to drop that fatigue, training must get a bit easier. Not so easy that you get worse, but easy enough that your fatigue drops off while your adaptations hang in. Of course DURING the process of dropping fatigue to generate a peak you don't actually train hard enough to get better, so in effect, peaking does not make you any better, it just shows off how good you've become.

The temptation to peak too often thus has a serious counter: the more often you peak, the less actual training time you get. The more you show off, the more you miss out on actually getting better. Sounds like a super cheesy line from The Karate Kid, but it's one of the cornerstones of sport science and has been for decades.

Ok, so you don't peak often, which means you're rarely at your best. This state of affairs can be psychologically tough for many lifters, and at least 4 temptations repeatedly arise, outside of actually planning to peak. Here they are in no particular order, with some advice:

1.) Drugs

If you can't always peak, you can certainly always take tons of drugs. Many lifters get such a good vibe from being strong and jacked when on lots of drugs, that coming down to maintenance doses (for long term health AND continual effectiveness) seems very unappealing. You feel worse, you look worse, you train worse, and you hate it. So why not take tons of drugs all the time and always be MUCH closer to your peak? Because taking consistently high doses of powerful anabolics is a pretty decent way to die early, and because even high doses of drugs eventually lose some of their effect, which only prolonged stretches of lower doses can return. 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 a surprise: this is the most unoriginal idea ever, and a rat with a lever can (and has) literally figured this "revelation" out. So do the right thing for your long term health and performance and have distinct periods of lower drug use. Or don't. Funeral processions are pretty neat to watch.

2.) Strength Testing

"I got weaker on my hypertrophy block man." Hmmm, that's interesting, I don't remember any 1RM TESTING BEING PROGRAMMED DURING THAT BLOCK. If you can claim that you lost strength during a hypertrophy block, or after an active rest block, this begs the question of what the fuck you were strength testing for? I can't put it any more simply: constant strength testing is fueled in almost all circumstances by a paranoia that strength is always at risk of being lost. Hypertrophy training does indeed temporarily lower your 1RM, but the benefit is that you get much bigger muscles which to train into more force production ability. 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, then perhaps you need to work on the psychological side of things. You don't lose your strength forever by not testing it once a month, I promise.

3.) Body Composition

Bodybuilders are in their best shape, BY DEFINITION only during their show(s), and it's usually just 1-2 shows at a time in as many weeks. That means, by definition, they are not going to look as good the rest of the season. 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 just stay in shape all the time. I've known many bodybuilders that have cut mass phases far too short because they freaked out about their worsening appearance. Therapy? Google some off-season pics of Dennis James at 305lbs... THAT is what it takes to step onstage at a lean 270... not just being 270 all the time. Plan to look great for the show, do what it takes to put on the muscle, and show off WHEN IT COUNTS. There is no award for leanest offseason bodybuilder at any show.

(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 the long term gains)

4.) Competitive Drive

"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 accumulated lots of fatigue without the adaptations to  show for it. You either have to accept a couple shitty sessions of training or take a couple of light days, both of which of course 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 just to train and improve without as much emotion can do wonders for preventing burnout so typical with 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.