By: Calvin Huynh | Macros Inc Coach
When you first started lifting, getting stronger was easy. You could slap on an extra 5 lbs or pump out more reps each week. Life was good, you were making solid, steady gains each week. Unfortunately, this pace of progress could not last forever. I mean… you sort of knew that deep down, right? If it did, we would all add hundreds of pounds to our lifts every year.
The further we progress in our training the closer we get to our genetic potential. And, as you get more advanced, you will push harder and the gains will be smaller and smaller, and, at some point, your body will also eventually push back. That is where deloading comes in. You simply cannot train consistently hard forever and you cannot expect linear progress to continue forever.
This is where the idea of a “deload” comes in.
So what is a deload?
A deload is a strategic period in your training to clear up stress and fatigue and allow your body to recover. Before I get into more details of deloading, it is important to understand what we are deloading from.
No pain, no gain is an overrated mantra, but it does have some truth. As you stimulate muscle growth and strength adaptations from hard training, experiencing fatigue is inevitable. By definition, fatigue is the objective drop in performance and subjectively, subjectively fatigue also makes you feel tired.
Fatigue can occur both acutely and chronically. For example,after a hard set, you feel tired and weak for a period of time and you cannot expect to match that same performance until the fatigue disappears.
You will come face to face with some level of fatigue with every set you complete. Some of this fatigue fades from set to set and from workout to workout, but some of it lingers and accumulates like debt.
At some point, you cannot keep going because the debt is too high to either allow for further progress or will result in an injury which nobody wants.
There are 4 types of fatigue that can occur and that a deload can address:
- Peripheral fatigue. This is fatigue local to the muscle. Peripheral fatigue does not affect other muscles. For example, if your legs are stupid sore and could barely move, your legs are compromised, but this should not impact your biceps.
- Systemic fatigue. This is fatigue that impacts all muscles. It stems from your brain, spinal cord, and nervous system. When you accumulate systemic fatigue, your brain is unable to recruit as many muscle fibers, decreasing strength, which does not allow those fibers to be stimulated and to grow.
- Joint/connective tissue fatigue. This is the stress on your joints and connective tissue. These areas can adapt differently than muscle tissue. If they are too stressed to adapt, your joints, tendons, and ligaments will hurt and injury is knocking on your door.
- Mental fatigue. This is psychological stress. You know, the “I am getting really sick of squatting an elephant on my back every week” type of fatigue. Even the best lifters often need a mental break.
Purpose of Deloading
Deloading serves several purposes:
- It clears up the underlying fatigue, so you can keep pushing harder again.
- It prevents injury.
- It gives you a mental break.
- It will resensitize you to the training stimulus.
Because the lingering fatigue will be gone, a deload may also set you up for a big personal record.
How to Deload
There are two components to a deload: the time of the deload and the structure of the deload.
For most people, a deload usually lasts around a week. I have found this to be a safe amount of time. Anymore is usually unnecessary and any less can be risky for people.
The deload week is essentially the same training week except you will reduce a combination of load, intensity, and volume.
Many people overcomplicate deloading, but the exact variables you reduce matters less than the larger goal behind the deload. The goal is not to make progress, but to allow for all fatigue to dissipate.
It can be difficult to know how to hit the brakes on your training and continue pushing hard during a deload week when you should be recovering.. Sometimes, people will feel good mid deload and start pushing at full capacity again. This fundamentally defeats the purpose of a deload.
So whatever variables you choose to reduce, you should not be setting any personal records in the gym and you should leave every workout during a deload refreshed.
The protocol for deloading can be simple. I keep all the exercises and workout frequency the same. I also keep the number of sets the same.
Instead, I will have clients use 50-75% of the load they were formerly using and now do sets of 5 with an explosive tempo.
This is called speed work in some circles. It keeps muscle activation high while minimizing fatigue which is why I favor it for deloading (1).
It also allows lifters to practice the same movements to keep proficiency high once they return to hard training.
Do I Plan my Deload
If you are extremely risk averse, you can plan deloads ahead of time. Most beginners will not need to deload at all, but once you get more experienced and training weights become heavier , you can plan a deload every 6-16 weeks.
In addition, you can also autoregulate (a fancy word for controlling yourself) your deloads, meaning you will deload based on your performance. The moment you see multiple lifts drop in performance is a good rule of thumb to start deloading the very next workout.
So keep this all in mind the next time your performance is starting to suffer. A deload may be the perfect thing you need in your training.