“Go big or go home!” “No pain, no gain!” “Don’t stop until you drop!” While these statements make cool slogans for Instagram and catchy quotes for twitter, they may not be the best advice all the time. I’m not against hard training. I know what it is like to throw up after a training session, to briefly blackout after an intense set and to not be able to sleep the night before a big, scary leg day. I know that brutally hard work on a simple program always trumps a half-hearted effort on a fantastic program. However, despite all this, I also know what is like to try to go “all-out” all the time and experience years of stagnant progress as a result. If you try to fight your body, you will lose every time. Training success requires that you work with – not against your body. If you are serious about making the best results possible, a properly timed and effectively executed deload week may be just what you need.
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The Benefits of a Deload Week
- You cannot go all-out all the time. If you try to, you will eventually get stuck in a rut of no progress, get burned out, get sick or get injured.
- Allows your body a chance catch-up and recover from the intense weeks of training
- You still get the health benefits of regular physical activity
- Provides an opportunity to practice your technique on key exercises and make sure you are not developing any bad habits
- It reduced the amount of de-training that can happen from a complete week off of training
- It allows advanced trainees (especially if you are drug-free) to push the envelope a bit so you can stimulate gains and then back off so your body can super-compensate and actually make those gains. Gives you mental break from intense training
- The week after a properly-done deload is an amazing training experience!
When to deload:
If you are a beginner, you may not need to worry about deloading at all – at least for now. As you get to the intermediate level, you may want to slip in a deload week every 6-12 weeks. If you are advanced, you may find every 3-6 weeks works well. Also, if you learn to autoregulate your training, you could deloads as needed instead of on a set schedule.
How to Deload
Cutting volume by 40-60% is a traditional way to deload. This is mainly accomplished by decreasing the number of sets and possibly accessory exercises. If you are doing a higher volume program, that can be a fantastic way to give the body a break and allow it to catch up on recovery.
While some experts may tell you not to deload intensity, it can work at times. I remember one time doing a heavy, lower volume program. After a while I got burned out and tried German Volume Training (10 sets of 10 reps for a 1 exercise per muscle group in a week). After a week of German Volume Training, I didn’t like it and went back to heavy lifting. I smoked weights I used to struggle with. While I’m not recommending German Volume Training for a deload, I brought it up to illustrate the point that doing something drastically different can be a refreshing break!
Certain training styles really tax the CNS (central nervous system). Examples include: training with loads above 90%, explosive speed and power training, and sets to failure and intensity techniques (e.g. drop sets, forced reps, rest-pause, etc.). If you are using these, having a rest from these can be very beneficial. Also, for best results, the intensity techniques should be used sparingly or for short periods of time.
Volume & Intensity Deload
If you are feeling beat up, a drop in both volume and intensity can be a great choice.
If you are doing a lot of things that swish your spine, (e.g. squats, deadlifts) a spinal loading break can do a world of good. Just replace squats with a lunge variation or hip belt squats and deadlifts with a something such as a hip thrust.
Certain exercises will place more stress on certain joints. If your joints are starting to get grumpy, give them a break with exercises that are more joint-friendly. For example, I have often replaced barbell exercises with dumbbell and ring exercises on a deload week.
Related: The Power of Training on the Rings
If you are doing a lot of sprinting, plyometrics or heavy farmers walks, go low impact on your deload week. You could also try some swimming.
Active Rest Deload
Except in the cases of overtraining, illness or certain injuries, I never recommend that someone stop all physical activity. However, sometimes it is good physically and psychologically to get completely out of the gym. With active rest, you stay active doing non structured activities (e.g. recreation, non-competitive sports).
- Years ago I heard this gem from Charles Staley – to recover, do the opposite. There are many ways you can do a deload. One option is to simply pick the option that is most different than what you are currently doing.
- Consider using your deload week as a change to re-groove technique and clean up bad habits.
- The more variation you have within your program, the less you will need to deload. For example if you alternate heavy and lighter sessions within a week or short blocks of training, you will avoid burnout much longer.
- A deload week should be easy enough that by the end you are hungry for hard training. Some folks are so afraid of going backwards never really deload enough. As a result, they just spin their wheels and invite injury.
- Ease back into training if you deload longer than a week.
- During a deload week it is a good idea to back down on the food a bit – especially the starchy carbs.
- I know it can be hard to go to the gym, lift lighter weights and not push yourself to the limit. This can be especially difficult when others are around. However, if you are serious about your goals, don’t worry about what others might think of you. Do what you need to do to be your best.
How about you? Do you deload? If so, how? What works for you? How often do you deload? I invite you to share your comments below or on my Facebook Page.