One of the most misunderstood training phases is the deload. It’s a shame, because if you don’t know what a deload is or why you need to take them, you’re probably going to chase your tail for a great number of months (or even years) before you learn that you can’t push yourself to the limit without occasionally dialing it back.
So what’s a deload? Deloading is exactly what it sounds like! For a short period of time, training load – intensity, density, frequency, and volume may all be reduced to facilitate improved recovery. After the end of the deload, submaximal training loads are resumed to stimulate further adaptations. Put simply, a deload will allow you time to rest your body so you can get stronger!
Although the concept may seem simple, you do need to know when and why to take a deload, how long it should last, what to do during the deload, and how to transition back into normal training. The answers differ on a case-by-case basis but there are some guidelines you should follow.
Let’s start off by looking at why you’d want to deload your training. As I mentioned earlier, the purpose of a deload phase is to improve recovery by reducing fatigue accumulated over the course of extended training periods. The circumstances of entering a deload are usually:
- To prolong training phases and avoid staleness. You may train a specific ability for months at a time. The intensities and volumes required to improve a given qualilty – like strength or muscle mass – can really beat you up over time. Taking a deload can refresh and rejuvenate your mind and body so you can continue to progress for longer before you plateau and need to switch training goals.
- To peak for a competition or test. Deloading during the weeks leading up to a competition/test will superpose training effects and ensure maximum performance during the event.
- After a competition. You need to allow adequate recovery before you return to normal training loads. Taking a step back to take two steps forward is a good way to look at it. If you don’t rest, you’ll just pile fatigue on top of fatigue and end up backtracking even further or put yourself at risk of injury.
- Between training phases. During a developmental program, you’ll likely focus on different performance elements at different points. Deloading will reduce accumulated fatigue and prevent injury so the training you did in the past can help you train harder in the future.
Fatigue & Recovery
Imagine if you will that you have a credit card with a $1000 limit. Let’s say that every time you train, you’re making an expensive purchase and incurring fatigue debt but also improving fitness – i.e. your recovery ability is reduced but you’re acquiring new toys or (in terms of performance ) like a bigger squat, improved marathon pace, or a faster Fran time.
As your recovery ability approaches its limit and you make more purchases – as you increase fatigue – you’ll eventually have to stop spending as much/training as hard or you’ll go into the red. At that point, fitness will be very high but preparedness – your ability to perform at a high level – will begin to decline. You’ve got to take a break from your shopping spree and pay off your card or (for our purposes) allow your body to recover. At this point, it’s time to take a deload!
Overtraining vs. Overreaching
Most of us will never max out our credit card/overtrain, which would result in everything from depression to catastrophic injury but we WILL overreach. Overreaching happens whenever you attempt to really push yourself to a new level and precedes the development of overtraining symptoms. This is when you make the most progress – overreaching is a good thing but you have to be careful!
In essence, you’re training on credit and your accumulated debt will eventually have to be repaid or you’ll have your fancy new improvements in strength, speed, and muscle mass repossessed by overtraining syndrome. Fear not though – overtraining is pretty darn hard to do. It’s a miserable condition where you can’t make any progress, you’re not motivated to train, and you start to get hurt. After your deload, you’ll be recovered beyond normal – you’ll have supercompensated and be better than ever! You can look at this like a period where your credit limit has been increased from $1000 to $1500. In other words, you’re ready to do big things because you allowed your body to fully adapt to the stress of training!
When to Deload
OK. Let’s quickly recap. To improve fitness, you have to incur fatigue debt. Overreaching is a period of accelerated progress that results in above-average levels of fatigue, and overtraining is a period of awful, terrible stagnation. “How do I prevent myself from overtraining while still making the most progress as fast as possible?” The answer is to intentionally overreach and then follow it up with a deload period.
Take for instance a simple wave loading protocol to gradually and intelligently intensify training while preventing stagnation. This type of training periodization is utilized in one form or another by many popular strength programs, including 5/3/1, The Juggernaut Method, and even Westside/conjugate styles of training.
- On a 6 week wave load, you’ll hit a single set of maximum repetitions between 75-85% of a 1 rep max over the course of three weeks.
- After three weeks you’ll work between 80-90% of your max for another three weeks.
At this point, you’ve pretty much overreached as far as you can without risk of burnout/overtraining. NOW is when you want to program a deload. This will give you respite so you can repay your recovery debt a little bit and enter into a new phase of training where you either realize the fruits of your labor – either in competition or a mock competition – or continue to accumulate strength.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. Now that it’s time to deload, you might ask “How long do I deload? What do I do?”
Deload Length, Active Recovery, and Extended Layoffs
First let’s look at what to do during a deload.
As a word of caution, if you’re one of those people that cannot go to the gym without pushing it to the limit, then the best thing for you to do during your deload is to stay out of the gym, do some stretching, and focus on something else. If you turn your deload into a normal week of training, you’re missing the point!
Listen to Ep. 46 of the ETP Podcast, Breaking Through The Confusion w/ Greg Nuckols on iTunes or listen below on SoundCloud
If you can behave, you’ll want to engage in some active recovery – i.e. low intensity, low volume training that facilitates accelerated recovery. This is not a time to do hundreds of ab exercises and switch your routine from powerlifting to endurance running. You should still get some work in on your primary lifts – clean & jerk, snatch, squat, deadlift, bench press, etc. so you don’t detrain those movement patterns, and that’s pretty much it.
A common strategy that seems to work for lifters is to stay around 30% of your max for 1-3 sets of 8 repetitions twice a week in each lift. Organizing these sessions into full body routines rather than splitting up movements is ideal. Not only will this prevent you from overdoing it on a single movement due to boredom, but it will also make sure everything from your calves to your shoulders gets a good pump.
The length of your deload will depend upon a few factors. Commonly, a week is set aside and that’s usually all that’s needed. Any longer and you’ll probably begin to detrain abilities ever so slightly. Detrained abilities can always be brought back up, but your goal with a deload is to improve performance in the immediate future, not regress. However, if you’re particularly beat up – let’s say you have a chronic injury you’ve been dealing with for a long time and you’re finally ready to let it heal – there may be merit in taking additional time off from normal training. Under these circumstances, you’re really not deloading; you’re taking a layoff.
If you do need extended time off from training due to an injury, I’d advise you to talk to a specialist and follow their orders. If you need surgery or physical therapy, it could be a while before you’re back to normal. However long this period lasts, when you’re clear to return to your old routine, you’re going to want to gradually ramp up training load until you’re closer to your baseline. Don’t jump back in and re-injure yourself!
Nutrition During a Deload
An article on taking time off to recover would not be complete without addressing nutrition! Since the goal of this whole ordeal is to come out stronger, faster, and better recovered, you don’t want to drastically reduce calories. You may be thinking to yourself, “But I’ll gain body fat if I eat too much and exercise too little!” While it is true that your energy output will be lower than normal during a deload, you’re trying to let your body make up for weeks, if not many months of overreaching so that you can perform your best or undo some of the wear and tear associated with hard training.
So does that mean you should go balls to the wall and overeat? Not likely, unless of course you’re on a diet to gain weight as it is. Instead, you should maintain a steady intake of food that’s right around or just below your normal maintenance. To establish your maintenance calories, you can use a calculator like our own ETP Calculator, or you can track your food for a week and see how much you need to eat to maintain your body weight. The second option is more accurate but using a calculator is a lot easier and it should come pretty close.
Things are pretty straightforward then – you just keep eating normally, or maybe slightly less. The only modification I’d consider making, and this is entirely up to you, is to reduce carbohydrate intake during your deload and replace some of the calories with fat and protein. Since you’re not training very hard, you won’t necessarily need the carbohydrates so you can rely more upon fat. This should be a welcome change and allow you to reduce inflammation, which will also help you recover better.
Do I Need To Schedule Deloads?
Whether or not you plan your deloads or insert them into your training by feel is personal preference and the kind of programming you’re on and how advanced you are. Most recreational athletes can get by deloading whenever they feel it’s necessary. If you’re training mostly for your health and enjoyment, you can even deload specific movements or training modalities separately of one another – i.e. keep working on your clean & jerk but take a break from muscle-ups for a week.
If you’re a competitive athlete training on a schedule throughout the year, you will likely choose to deload as phases transition. For example, a powerlifter may spend from January-March working on developing general athletic qualities like muscle mass, flexibility, and aerobic capacity. Intensities and volumes should reach great heights during this period of training. When beginning preparation for a meet, they may take a week off to work on competition movements at a low intensity and drop some of the less specific movements and training methods they may have been utilizing in their off-season.
Deloading is more than just taking it easy for a week because your knees are bothering you; it’s an integral part of maximizing your potential through periodization. As you train harder and harder, you will accumulate fatigue and minor injuries. To put your body ahead of the recovery curve, you need to take short periods of time (usually just a week or so) to do low-intensity, low-volume versions of your normal workouts.
It’s a pretty bad idea to use a deload as an excuse to completely shift training styles. Powerlifters should not go from squatting and benching to doing ab exercises and cardio. Nobody should lay around like a frog on a log during a deload unless of course they’re injured and taking an extended layoff. To get the most out of your deloads, you need to engage in active recovery as described above. Drop your training volume and intensity – use lighter weights for fewer sets and reps – to keep technique fresh.
Competitive athletes should schedule deloads in advance every 6-8 weeks or between training phases, but recreational exercisers can feel it out and make great progress.
- Deloading is all about giving your body rest between training phases/before competition/after competition and keeping injury at bay. If you’re already hurt, take time off and go see a doctor before it gets worse!
- Deloading doesn’t mean sitting around on your butt all week doing nothing – you’ll actually benefit from doing light skill work that pertains to your overall goal and getting a pump while you take a break from greater training loads. That said, if you can’t back off and being in the gym gets you too riled up, stay out and focus on something else so you can reap the benefits of a deload!
- You don’t really need to eat much differently during your deload – just slightly fewer calories than normal, perhaps with less carbohydrate due to the reduction in activity.
- Training deloads don’t need to be strictly scheduled, but it’s probably a good idea to take one every 6-8 weeks, when you transition between training blocks, or before and after any big event/testing occurs.
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