On this blog, I’ve always harped on the notion that sometimes, too much is too much, and that less could be more. I am a firm believer that full recovery is just as important as training hard to make progress in the gym, and just last week, we discussed tapering for a powerlifting meet. Clearly, the concept of deloading is important, and I think it’s about time we devoted some more time to it.
In order to push the limits of our performance, whether on the platform, in our rec leagues, or real life, there has to be an ebb and flow to our training in order to elicit adaptations to a higher baseline. It isn’t sustainable to train with maximum effort and intensity every day. Otherwise, powerlifters and weightlifters would be competing on a daily basis!
The chart above demonstrates the concept of supercompensation. The stress of training decreases your fitness, as you can see from the dip below baseline. Recovery brings you back to baseline and then above it–that’s supercompensation. If you train harder, you must recover at a higher rate or spend more time recovering, and in order to establish a higher base level of fitness, you have to continue training. Ideally you’ll do this while you’re still in that state of supercompensation, but before you completely return to your original base fitness level.
The problem is though, that many people train so hard and recover so little, that the chart above trends downward and towards an even lower baseline. In other words, the magnitude of the dip in fitness level due to training stress is much larger than the subsequent increase due to recovery. Unfortunately, many people feel like training with maximum effort and intensity on the reg is the fastest and the only way that they will lose weight or get in shape for that half-marathon. I hate to break it to you guys, but that’s actually a one-way ticket to fatigue, injury, burn-out, and illness. This is why January is the biggest month for commercial gyms; after that people just stop coming because they went too hard too fast in pursuit of their New Year’s resolutions.
Training properly is about consistency and sustainability. To prepare for a meet, a powerlifter typically tapers by seriously cutting down volume in favor of maintaining high intensity in the weeks before. It is rare to completely shut things down before a competition. Furthermore, when you hit certain milestones in your training process, don’t you want to at least stay there? Shutting things down completely won’t be conducive to this, but you might have to if you lack the self-awareness to know when your body is saying no but you still continue to push for gains that might not be available—yet.
This is like trying to get a newly-released iPhone before it hits store shelves. Every year, Apple officially announces a new phone at least two weeks before the official release date, and you know exactly what you’ll be getting. Naturally, you’re extremely excited to make the switch. In fact, you’re so excited that you go to the Apple store every day and try to purchase one even though it hasn’t been released yet! This is a complete waste of time on your part. The new iPhone will come; you just have to wait until it’s actually available.
Progress in the gym will come in the same manner, whether they are inches off your waist, seconds off your mile-time, or pounds on the bar. Train hard enough, and there will be days and weeks during which you can’t perform your best. Here are tell-tale signs you are in need of a deload:
- You start missing reps
- You can’t lift weights you’ve done before as fast as you’re used to
- Your body is hurting, and it isn’t just soreness
- Most ominously, you feel like crap both physically and mentally, not just in the gym but in life outside of it.
If you’re feeling this way, it’s prime time to take a slight step back and deload to reload. A proper deload will allow you to hit the gym harder in the next phase of your training, and this time you’ll actually be ready to do so. It’s not lazy to deload, it’s just smart. Here are 3 ways to do so.
1) Deload on volume
This is, anecdotally, perhaps the most popular deloading strategy I’ve come across, and also the preferred method of elite New Zealand powerlifters. Training for strength is so important, that the ability to express strength and lift heavy at the drop of a hat shouldn’t be lost, especially if competition and future training involves heavy weights anyway. This strength carries over into the rest of life as well, so it’s probably a good idea to preserve it.
In this case, you deload by cutting down on sets and reps. Ironically, the longer I’ve been in this field, the more I learn that nothing is sacred and that there are no hard and fast rules—the same is true with regards to deloading. The powerlifters in the study reduced their volume anywhere from 50-70% during tapering, while maintaining or slightly reducing training intensity. That reduction in volume is huge, and so is the variance from lifter to lifter even at the elite level.
Let’s say that during the final week of a training block, you squatted 315 pounds for 3 sets of 3. To deload on volume, you can do 315 for 3 sets of 1, or 2 sets of 2. This doesn’t just apply to one exercise either. You should also chop off sets and/or reps for any secondary and accessory work you do as part of a well-balanced program. For serious lifters, everything besides their most important lifts might be omitted entirely, because it takes longer to recover from very hard bouts of exercise. Generally speaking, the heavier and more demanding the main lifts in one’s program are, the more dramatic the deloading is in terms of volume, exercise selection, and time. This is why powerlifting tapers could last upwards of a week. For most of us, we don’t need quite as long.
2) Deload on intensity
If it is okay to deload on volume, is it also okay to just deload on intensity? It certainly is. Thus, instead of manipulating sets and reps dramatically, the weights will be taken down a few notches while sets and reps stay mostly the same.
I find that when I deload on intensity, either for myself or with clients, I actually have an excellent opportunity to focus on two things that matter when it comes to strength; speed and technique. These two tend to fall by the wayside as training intensifies and weights get heavier. When deloading on intensity, you want to reduce weight as much as necessary so that reps feel fast and absolutely perfect. This is entirely subjective, but the INTENT to lift fast and efficiently goes a long way.
The more taxing the lift, the larger the subsequent reduction in intensity has to be during deloading. As such, the deadlift would require the largest reduction, followed by the squat, the bench, and then everything else. Again, there are no hard and fast rules here; in the past, I’ve reduced intensity by 30-50% during a deloading phase depending on exercise and feel.
As an example, let’s say I maxed out on my deadlift last week, peaking with 500 pounds for five singles. To deload, I’d cut that weight in half and focus on singles or doubles with super-strict form and speed. 5 reps of 2 would be fine here. In fact, the volume is the same here as the previous week (250lbs x 10 reps total vs. 500 lbs x 5 reps total), but the much lower intensity means that I’ll barely break a sweat and won’t be feeling soreness or fatigue in the days to come—and this is perfectly okay.
3) Do something different
Short of doing absolutely nothing, if you are really feeling down in the dumps, doing something entirely different isn’t a bad option as a last resort.
The major rule of thumb here is to be wary of options that elicit soreness and fatigue, which could interfere with your recovery even more. This rules out exercises that have a big decelerative/eccentric component, such as heavy lunges. You also want to limit your time under tension and avoid metabolic stress (“feeling the burn”), so longer body-builder style sets are out. Thus, while lunges (especially barbell lunges) are great, 3 heavy sets of 6/side during a deload probably isn’t a good idea. You can probably get away with (very) light lunges done for speed and technique though, as the deceleration demands are lower and there won’t be enough time under tension and metabolic stress to produce soreness. This rule of thumb applies for all other exercises as well—you want to minimize the combination of factors that produce soreness.
Thus, this doesn’t rule out things like sled pushes or low-intensity recovery runs at 60-70% of HRMax. The former is almost entirely concentric, and we’ve spoken about the benefits of the latter here (In the Gym, Do More by Doing Less). Mobility circuits are also fair game. At the end of these workouts, you should more refreshed and yes, you should even feel happier than when you started. After all, exercise has a huge influence on mood and emotions.
For most of us, a week-long deload is usually enough to get our training back on track. Once again, there are no hard and fast rules here. As long as you feel refreshed and ready for the next phase of training ahead of you, you’ve done a good job. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to take a small step back in order to take a big step forward later, and that’s the idea behind deloading to reload.
by Jeremy Lau
Jeremy Lau is a Senior Staff Coach at Halevy Life.
Jeremy graduated cum laude from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BSc. in Biomedical Engineering and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Exercise Physiology at Columbia University. In addition to his academic accolades, Jeremy is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).
Prior to joining the team at Halevy Life, Jeremy completed a coaching internship at Cressey Sports Performance, where he coached both amateur and professional athletes, among whom were many professional MLB baseball players.
As an athlete, Jeremy has played baseball competitively for most of his life.