Deloads are the one thing fitness-enthusiasts are really hesitant in getting into. Probably because we are all simply wired to do work, so when we hear or read that we need to rest or take a week off in the gym from time to time, we tend to assure ourselves that we don’t need such nonsense like “Deloads are for weak people” – But the truth is that if you truly don’t need deloads, it’s either one or both of the following:
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You are consistent, but your training simply isn’t hard enough (this can be not enough sets, too far away from failure, or training too occasionally).
You train hard enough when in the gym, but not consistently enough, so really all those missed days function as a form of fatigue management (the purpose of a deload). If you are only one call away from the homes to make you skip the gym, then you’re probably just in this fitness thing to be healthier, have a few muscles, and be a little stronger than average. But you aren’t in it all the way, ya know? And that’s cool, but that means this article isn’t for you. But, it’ll be here if you ever do take this training stuff more seriously. Managing fatigue comes down to utilizing light days, rest days, and deload weeks.
The first 2 are optional as it’s all in context of the training program. For example, you likely won’t require light days in your training weeks if training frequency isn’t considered high (say training every body part every 4-7 days), or if you’re training 3x a week for example; as you now have plenty of rest days or recovery time during the week. But, you may need light days if you decide to train 7 days a week, or have a high-frequency program (training each body part every 2-3 days). De-load weeks, however, are mandatory. The very training that we do to cause overload to create the adaptations that we want also creates fatigue, so you’ll want a way in which to bring it down (when needed), as it accumulates as a result of hard overloading training. If fatigue is not brought down regularly via deloads, it will severely interfere with performance, and the risk of injury will only rise. Fatigue masks fitness, so with a proper deload, you’ll maintain your fitness (which are the positive adaptations that have already occurred from training), while dropping fatigue; leaving you stronger than ever and feeling ready to crush some more weeks of training. Fatigue isn’t all that bad though, we need it, if it isn’t accumulating then your training is just too easy. If your training is too easy then you won’t be progressing, or at least progressing at the rate you could be (remember this comes down to how serious you are about training).
Fatigue only becomes a problem when it gets too high. Once fatigue is too high, performance can only then increase once it is brought down. As your train week through a week, your gains in strength are eventually masked (temporarily) by fatigue, as well as other things such as muscle damage. A deload functions to decrease fatigue, which subsequently reveals your newfound strength. No human is immune to fatigue, so if you think you don’t need deloads because you’ve never used them, you have to take a good look at your training structure and consistency, as you likely have fatigue management built in without even knowing it, and if that’s the case, you likely aren’t getting the best gains you could be. A lot of people don’t like deloads regardless because they think, or perhaps have seen this from experience, that after returning to training; they are weaker than before the deload even began. This only occurs if you deload the wrong way, or took a week off. Yes, there is a wrong way to deload. Since the purpose of the deload is to maintain fitness and reduce fatigue, our training during the deload must not allow fitness to drop along with fatigue. Dropping fatigue is easy, you could just skip the gym for a week; but, this also reduces fitness. If you deload right, you won’t lose any gains. Yes, you won’t be creating any new positive adaptations during a deload week, so you can view this is a maintenance week if you want, but there’s no way around it. If you never deload, you’ll either stop making gains, since fatigue has built up immensely that you can no longer overload your muscular system, or, you’ll just get injured. Think of a deload as an oil change for your bike.
Depending on what you ride and the oil used, you may have recommended oil change intervals between 3k and 15k miles. Let’s say this is 5k miles; will it do any good to change it at 3k miles? Probably not. But can you get away with it and change it at 10k miles? Probably, but it won’t be good for your motor in the long run. For most people, I recommend a full deload week every 4-6 weeks. Yes, you can design your training in a way where you can deload every 8, or even every 12 weeks, but that doesn’t mean it is any better. I prefer hard, dedicated training for a few weeks at a time, followed by a deload. If you think about it, if you deload every 5th week, that means you are spending 80% of your time doing hard, cumulative, overload training, and 20% dissipating fatigue.
That’s not so bad if you ask me, and in my experience, reduces chances of mental burn out and injury. A few common deloading strategies I see rolling around that I do not agree with, are: Train @ 50-60% of normal weights for the same sets and reps. So what this means is that if you normally do 200lb squats for 5 sets of 5, you would do 80-120lbs for 5 sets of 5. Not only is this so light that it becomes boring, but it is insufficient in load, so that even though you are practicing the movement itself for the same total repetitions, when you return to training and back to 200lbs (or 205lbs if you added weight), not only will the weight feel heavier than normal, but chances are you’ll get really, really sore afterwards, since you essentially de-trained yourself by using such a light load and being so far away from failure. Being sore is not the goal, improving at the lift is the goal. Doing cardio instead of weights. Use exercises you normally don’t do. Focus on weak body parts. First of all, doing cardio instead of weights is just de-training yourself all over again like we just discussed, and doing exercises you don’t normally do is a great way to cause muscle damage (which is not what we want out of a de-load). As far as focusing on weak body parts goes, not only should weak muscle groups already be addressed in your regular training, but hammering “weak”, or “small” quads during your de-load (for example) is a great way to get yourself stuck in a wheelchair for a week, effectively defeating the purpose of your deload.
SO HOW DO WE DELOAD? Since the purpose of the de-load is to reduce fatigue, we want to primarily adjust the volume. The easiest way to do this is to drop the number of sets. In most cases, I recommend dropping just 1 set from what you would normally do. Or, if you want to get really specific; I recommend cutting 1/3 – 1/2 of the number of sets you normally do. So 5 sets become 3, 4 sets become 2, 3 become 2 etc. If you leave volume high, you won’t recover properly and it’ll be a wasted week with no recovery, yet no further adaptations. Now that we know what to do with the number of sets, the next step is to maintain training intensity (weight on the bar) by dropping anywhere between 0-15% in weight from what you would normally do, depend on the exercise. If you cut way too much, you’ll lose the adaptations and your next squat day will feel like you’re holding a truck on your back, trust me. Furthermore, you’ll accumulate a lot of muscle damage leaving you sore and unable to resume hard training as quickly. Remember, the de-load won’t leave you weak or halt progress if you do it right, it’ll leave you stronger with more predictable progress.
The intensity of effort should also be lower. Typically when we train, we want to be within 0-2 reps away from failure by the time we reach the last set on any given exercise, depending on the exercise; with compounds being on the higher end, and isolations or less systematically taxing compound lifts on the lower end. There are a time and a place for failure training, but deloads definitely aren’t one of them. So during your deload, make sure you leave around 3-4 reps in the tank on each exercise. So what are some examples of this in practice? If you normally do 200lbs for 5 sets of 5 with 1-3 reps in reserve, for your deload, you could do 175lbs for 3 sets of 5. There is no perfect equation, you just have to make sure that you maintain intensity (weight on the bar) while leaving 3-4 reps in the tank. If you begin your deload sets but you are really struggling (bad day), make sure you lower the weight or do fewer reps. Keep your rep target close to your training weeks rep target, however. You probably don’t want to go from doing 5’s on the squat to doing 10’s, or singles.
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