“Deload” is one of those words that is used to explain something people already do, but needed a scientific word for. Personally I think we could’ve found a better word for it – I mean, you “deload” the bar every time you’re finished, you may “deload” without actually using any less of a “load”, and most importantly and annoyingly every single time I type out the word deload autocorrect fixes it to “reload” but alas, I am too late to the table to change it.
Now whilst I can’t change the name, I can give you a pretty comprehensive guide on exactly what it is, why you use it, dismiss some common objections and then give some practical ways that you can use it in your training.
What is it?
Simply put, a deload is a period of training designed to help reduce fatigue by lowering the volume and intensity of training. Well designed training plans will always include a deload of some kind.
How they are structured, in terms of how often and how they are done, depends on a number of factors:
- Intensity of training block
- Total training volume
- Type of training
- Nutritional situation (gaining vs cutting)
- Time of year (In-season vs offseason)
- Athlete differences (muscle fibre type, volume tolerance etc)
- Current training progress
So why should we do it?
Well-designed training plans are designed to get you better. You get better by progressive overload, challenging the body just a little bit more each week. Progressive overload is used as both an indicator of previous progress AND a tool to elicit future progress.
I’ve found a lot of guys fail to wrap their head around this. You can only meet a greater challenge if you’ve made the necessary training adaptations to meet the challenge, likewise, you need that greater challenge to further your adaptations as you continue on your program.
This is the magic of training, but everything in life comes with a cost. If we could just progressively overload forever then I would be squatting 2000kg by now. Obviously that isn’t the case, and I’m still stuck 10 years into training trying to battle with less than 10% of that.
The biggest reason for this is quite simply fatigue. Each session causes a good deal of fatigue, and although this fatigue drops down before you train again, it isn’t eliminated completely. So over time, weeks and weeks it eventually adds up to a point where you can no longer overload effectively. Your underlying fatigue builds up and prevents you from achieving that overloading stimulus.
That is when you should deload.
This deload enables you to recover, reset and get ready for another period of overloading training.
But, how come most people don’t deload?
There are two types of people that won’t deload – most have never heard of deloading and therefore have never given it any thought, the others simply don’t believe in deloads. Let me take a stab at why these people are wrong.
The first and most obvious reason that many people don’t deload is pretty simple:
Most people don’t train hard enough to cause the fatigue that would make a deload necessary!
If my plan was to do 1 push up a day, I too would never need to deload, I also sure-as-shit wouldn’t be making any progress either! The guys who do in fact push themselves will mostly only do so once a week (per “body part” as they follow the traditional bro-split). Giving each muscle group an entire week to recover from a session is inefficient and unnecessary. Sure, you recover to go hard again, but it’s such an infrequent stimulus that the body doesn’t really adapt much. Arguing against the bro-split isn’t the purpose of this post, so I’ll leave it there. I’ll just add that if these guys are truly making progress week to week without deloading, they’ll fall into this second group of people…
The “life-deloaders”… Most people aren’t consistently training for week-in, week-out for months on end. Work gets in the way, social arrangements, vacations, all sorts of things will stop people from training. Sure, this isn’t a planned deload, but it is a period of time where the body gets to flush out the fatigue of training. If training is rigorous, progressive and consistent, fatigue will build up, which means that eventually the “life-deload” will unfortunately come in the way of tiredness, illness, and worst-case – injury.
The body has a funny way of getting what it wants, it doesn’t want to be fatigued all the time… going back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this would’ve made us vulnerable to predators. And so we end up chronically tired, unable to progress in our training, extra unmotivated to leave our comfort zones and just generally feeling awful. These are major warning signals from the body saying “I am weak right now, I need a break” – if you ignore these signals then the vulnerability will eventually catch up to you in the form of illness or injury.
So in reality, everyone does deload, whether it’s purposeful or not. Anyone that trains smart, will pre-empt all this with a deload.
So how is it done?
As mentioned earlier, there are many ways depending on a number of variables. Generally though, you’re looking for a reduction of total training volume and/or intensity to about 60-70% of your previous training block. Volume creates more fatigue than intensity, so that should be the first place you deload (particularly as a beginner/intermediate lifter) and if you are feeling particularly rundown, go ahead and reduce both. If you’re doing particularly intense conditioning then it’s a good idea to reduce that volume too.
If you’re in the off-season and just need to get out of the gym, then taking an entire week or so off is also a good strategy. This can help reset the “hunger” to get back into the gym and allow you to focus on other areas of your life that have dropped off a bit as your were finishing up your training block. In-season I would try and keep some intensity going just so that you’re ready for match day.
Finally, don’t make the same mistake I was initially guilty of early in my training career (when I didn’t quite understand deloads) – DO NOT introduce new exercises during a deload week.
Throwing in a completely new stressor can just create more fatigue! I get it, you want to do something different to your normal training but remember the entire purpose of the deload is to eliminate fatigue and get back to baseline.
When is it done?
There are 2 schools of though here. Firstly we have a “reactive deload” whereby you would continue working on progressing through your program indefinitely whilst paying close attention to your performance and recovery. When you notice things like your progress start to decline, your stress, irritability, soreness, tiredness and general fatigue go up, you implement a deload. If you wait for your performance to actually drop off, you maybe have waited too long (unless you’re purposefully overreaching). This is a bit of a challenge, because there are many things at play here. The time you train, your work life, your social life and so many other things will factor in to how you feel. Your training performance can still vary on a day to day basis, so one bad session doesn’t always mean a deload. In general it’s a tricky situation to manage, but late intermediates and advanced trainees generally can do it. It isn’t perfect, and you depending on your personality, you risk overtraining too often, or deloading too often and missing out on progression.
The other idea on deloads is to just have them be a part of the program, every 4-10 weeks you’ll just go ahead and do your planned deload. Not only does this have the benefit of you not having to question whether you’re being a bitch, but you can also gauge your training, knowing that early on in your block that you should play it safe, and later on when a deload is coming up that you can really try and push it. As a rule of thumb, the more advanced you are and the more volume and intensity you train with, the more often you’ll need to schedule these in. There’s still the same risks as above only this time the program is the judgement call away from you.’
As everyone is different, I personally like to do a mesh of the two.
Depending on what training outcomes we’re aiming for, deloads will be scheduled every 4-10 weeks. However if the athlete is smashing progress and feeling fine, I’m not against extending the block up to a few weeks. Likewise if they aren’t progressing and they feel like they’ve been hit by a truck, we can always deload early and assess. In my opinion this gives us the best chance to really push training whilst minimizing the risk of fatigue slamming us.
Are you sure I’m not just wasting my time?
Gains are made by training hard and smart for months-on-end. If you took a deload every 6-7 weeks, that means you’re still training hard for well over 40 weeks of the year. On top of that you’ll be managing your fatigue so well that you’ll make huge progress over those weeks. Unfortunately a lot of guys aren’t interested in what they can achieve in a year. Instead they constantly look to do as much as they can in a month or two. Hopefully here, I’ve convinced you that if you’re serious about this and in it for the long haul, then you’ll be proactively using deloads as a vital part of your training process.
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