08 Aug Why You Need To Deload
I’d like to start this by prefacing that if you’re a beginner, and/or haven’t been training properly for a couple of years, this won’t apply to you.
This is aimed at those who’ve been training a few years, have built up a good base level of strength and are now in their ‘intermediate’ years (and beyond) of training.
If there’s one thing serious trainees always overlook, it’s incorporating deloads into their training.
These are periods where you don’t push heavy loading as hard and give yourself a break from all the pounding your knees, hips, shoulders, lower back take with every brutal training session.
I love training hard as much as anyone, but the fact is we can’t go balls to the walls year round. We need to cycle our intensity and volumes so that we can continue to make long-term progress and most importantly, stay healthy.
If I look at all the injuries I’ve picked up over the years, they’ve almost always come when I’ve strung out training cycles too long and haven’t stayed in tune with listening to my body’s feedback.
I see this with clients too, and the ones who never want to back off. These are the same people who are always picking up niggles and getting hurt.
I get where they’re coming from. I know it’s hard to scale back from time to time.
You think you’re going to get weaker, smaller and fatter. But I’ve never seen this actually happen. I always see people come back stronger for it.
If you look at all the sports in the world – football, rugby, boxing etc., all of these sports have periods of ‘in-season’, where they push their bodies hard, and periods of ‘off-season’, where they cycle down intensities to let their bodies recover.
I know what we do isn’t a sport. For most, it’s an outlet and an anchor in their day to clear their minds and focus on themselves for an hour. But we’re still putting our bodies through hell, so we need to respect this and cycle our training accordingly.
Why Do Deloads Work?
You may have heard the phrase before that ‘fatigue masks fitness’.
What deloads allow your body to do in simple terms is dissipate residual fatigue that builds up over time in the body.
When you’re a beginner, the fatigue you accumulate is minimal as the loading isn’t high, your ability to tax the nervous system is low, and your recovery capacity is generally a lot higher.
As you progress, this fatigue becomes more prevalent so we need periods of ‘unmasking’ this so we can stay strong and healthy.
It’s a ‘1 step back, 2 steps forward’ approach that can reap real dividends when applied in the correct time and manner.
The benefits include:
- Longer term strength progression
- Less injuries and niggles
- Healthier joints
- Better hormonal health
- Improved sex drive
The latter two often surprises people, but what I tend to see is when you’ve pushed a training cycle too far, the testosterone:cortisol ratio tends to get skewed in the wrong direction for too long. When you back off and recover, testosterone goes up, cortisol goes down and you feel ten times better.
When Should You Deload?
This is very dependent on you, but what I’ve found from experience is that a deload every 6 to 8 weeks seem to be best practice.
For the majority of my clients, it makes sense to let a deload fall naturally around their holidays, bank holidays or busy times with work.
There are times however where I may suggest a deload sooner. If you’re feeling particularly run down, or have been pushing to failure too often recently, or if motivation to train is waning, a deload may be in order.
I’m not a huge fan of planned deloads for most people – unless I’ve worked with them for a long enough time to know when it’s best. For most clients, I try and get them in tune with their bodies and learn the feedback they should look out for to signal a deload may be in order.
The problem with planned deloads well in advance is you’re not going to know what your life stresses are going to be like at the time. You might plan it in every 4 weeks, but what if you’re killing it in the gym, super motivated and still making great progress? Are you still going to back off?
I think it makes sense for us (who aren’t competitive athletes) to ride the wave and try accommodate deloads with life itself, and when you need it. That being said, what we don’t want are ‘forced’ deloads, when injuries leave you with no choice. It should happen before this.
In my own personal training, I know I need some form of a deload when my hips and lower back become cranky no matter what I do, and I start to get mentally fried of ‘going’ to the gym. It’s usually my body’s way of saying it needs 3 to 5 days off completely, or at least a few days of reduced volume.
Motivation to train is an important indicator, and I find whenever someone starts to dread going to the gym consistently (not just a one off), it’s probably time to back off and take some days off.
As you become more experienced though, you’ll find your intuition and personal experience will guide your deloads. But if you’re training hard, typically you’ll usually see this fall in the 6 to 8 week bracket.
How To Deload
There’s many ways you can do this. You can cut volume, intensity, frequency, or you can just get out of the gym.
I like a combination of them all.
If you read my article on ‘training to failure’, you’ll know I like to gradually ramp up intensity over a training cycle to a ‘peak’.
During this ‘peak’ I like to cut volume, and push to set some repetition PRs. I know in the lead up to these weeks I’d have built up a fair amount of fatigue and I’m ready to back off a little.
So these sessions will be short, cutting sets by 40-50%, but making each set count. Maintaining intensity and dropping volume is key here, as most people tend to feel the accumulated fatigue from the overall volume of their training (again, this is dependent on what they’re doing).
After this, I’d do one of two things the following week:
1/ Keep the same structure of program, but back off loads by 10-20%. During this week I’d stay at the top of the rep range, ‘reset’ perfect technique and stay away from failure. After this week, I’d start to ramp up again over the course of 6-8 weeks and repeat.
(Note: this method of back cycling can actually be used during a training cycle on specific lifts. Say your bench is plateauing, but everything else is going up well. Back cycling on just the bench without deloading the whole body can be done to stimulate strength gains again)
2/ If I’m really spent from training, motivation is dragging, and mentally I need a break, I’d just take 3-7 days off completely. How long I take is usually governed by when I feel ready to go and ‘itching’ to train again. This is generally my preferred option, and I usually time it with a holiday so I’m out of my normal routine.
For clients, this is the way I do it for many. I push them hard in the lead up to a holiday, and then tell them to back off when away with either no training at all, or just some bodyweight / light workouts if they want to do something, like those found here.
After taking some time off, I’d revert to option 1 and ramp up again.
What To Do After A Deload
I covered this briefly above but I want to reiterate this as I see too many clients make this mistake:
Do not go balls out in your first week back!
You need to back cycle the loads after a deload and then work back up with the idea of beating previous PRs. Again, it’s that 1 step back, 2 steps forward mentality you need to have.
Even if you feel great, which you will do, resist the temptation and work the plan. In the long run, you’ll be able to string out a longer training cycle and go for more PRs.
Deloading doesn’t need to be complicated. For some, it’ll fall in line with life. For others, it’ll require a little intuition and listening to the feedback your body gives you.
Either way, once you’ve got a few years of training under your belt, you’ll need to start thinking about incorporating deloads as a strategy of continuing your progress going forwards.
And no, deloading doesn’t make you a p*ssy. If you train hard, you’ll need it.