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ART OF THE DELOAD: DOING LESS TO BUILD MORE SIZE AND STRENGTH

Wanna make gains, and take names?

It’s all about going full beast mode bro. No days off!

...

I’m kidding, of course.

Sure, you need to lift heavy and often and keep on top of your nutrition, but constantly beating yourself up in the gym is actually one of the worst things you can do. Planned properly you really can get more by doing less.

Planning your training with a long-term view is crucial to making maximal progress. This planning is known as periodization in the sports science and coaching world. You need to plan when to push your training hard and when to back off. That is where deloads come in.

If you want to get bigger then you need to gradually do more and more work to force your body to grow. This all sounds like a recipe for training 24/7, 365 days of the year. In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth. You need to plan downtime where your efforts in the gym are reduced or, perish the thought, you don’t train for an entire week.

These lighter weeks are known as deloads or unloading weeks. Planned properly they are a case of temporarily standing still to take two, or three, leaps forwards. In the excellent Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning they state that…

"The purpose of this unloading week is to prepare the body for the increased demand of the next phase or period, and to mitigate the risk of overtraining.”

As such, a proper deload is critically important to any serious trainee’s progress. Deloads allow for full recovery. With full recovery comes super-compensation. Super-compensation is that cool thing where you slingshot past your previous best to reach new heights. So, with super-compensation comes greater gains. It is for this exact reason that elite athletes the world over use deloads year round. They also taper before major competitions to peak when it matters. Speak to any top-level powerlifter and I guarantee you they will tell you how they hit PBs right after a deload or taper.

FLOGGING A DEAD HORSE

Just in case you still aren’t convinced of the merits of deloads here is a summary of the findings from a review published in the NSCA's Strength and Conditioning Journal (credit to Bryan Krahn for compiling this list in his article):

  • Up to 20% increases in strength and power
  • Increases in muscle cross-sectional area of 10 to 25%
  • Lower levels of stress hormones
  • Higher levels of Testosterone
  • Better moods during the day, and better sleep at night”

art of the deload

So, we know deloads are a good idea. We know they can serve as a springboard to further progress in both strength and size. In other words, a bigger and stronger you. We even know that all elite strength coaches insist their athletes take them and that most serious gym rats think they are a good idea. But, as Bryan Krahn points out there is one major problem with deloads…

“The trouble is this: nobody does it…nobody bothers to take a back-off week.”

Why not?

Unfortunately, most gym junkies understand the logic behind deloads but, they get caught up in the emotion of transforming their physique. Logic goes out of the window when it comes to their own training. A day off…ermm…maybe. A week off…are you freaking crazy? I’ll lose all my gainz bro!

These guys think deloads are an excuse to be lazy. A reason to sit on your arse all week, play video games, scroll through social media, and go from full beast mode to full “Netflix and chill” mode. Instead of grinding out sets of squats they think a deload is just about being lazy. Psychologically, this doesn’t mesh with their goal of being huge, ripped and awesome. As a result, they disregard deloads and just keep grinding away, banging their head against a brick wall in the gym.

Big mistake! Not convinced?

Ponder these words from my buddy Mike Samuels…

“What if deloads could actually be just what your workouts need? The secret ingredient to take your training from good to awesome. Feeling banged up, demotivated, or stuck in a training plateau? Adding a deload will do you the world of good and propel you on to greater gym gains.”

Sold?

About time. Now onto the details of making deloads work for you…

HOW TO DELOAD

First things first! It needs to be a deload. No shit Sherlock! This blindingly obvious point is one that so often gets overlooked. A deload should feel easier than a normal training week. As Matt Rhodes says…

…“If your deload work is beating you up, or you still feel banged up when you get back to normal training loads, then your deload isn't effective. A difficult deload defeats the purpose of what it's supposed to be about. A deload is giving your body an active rest, so that it gets recharged to effectively handle your next block of training. You may have to check your ego at the door, but you have to give your body a break.”

Once you’ve overcome the psychological hurdle of taking it a bit easy in the gym you can move on to fine tune your deload.

The first thing to consider is your training experience. An appropriate deload for a beginner is very different to that of an Olympian.

FREQUENCY OF DELOADS RELATIVE TO TRAINING EXPERIENCE

Beginners don’t need to deload as frequently as more advanced lifters. They simply haven’t developed sufficient strength levels to cause enough damage to need one. As Eric Cressey explains…

…"Generally speaking, beginners can go longer before taking time off, as they lack the neural efficiency to really beat the body down,"

Chad Waterbury agrees…

…"A beginner can go months without pulling in the reins because he's so far from his ultimate potential. If you're a beginner, go until your performance suffers."

So, if you are a novice in the gym just keep training hard and aim to add weight to the bar. Once you hit a plateau and can’t add weight for a few sessions in a row it is probably time to back off, take a deload week and then go again. In most cases this will take at least 12 weeks to happen for a beginner.

Intermediates will need to deload more frequently than beginners. On average something between every 6 to 12 weeks is a good guide. If you are an intermediate following standard hypertrophy protocols then you are much more likely to overtrain with volume, as opposed to intensity. As such, you need to pay close attention to your total training volume and watch for when progress plateaus or even declines.

Advanced trainees need the most frequent deloads. For example, a 3 on 1 off frequency often works very well for truly advanced guys.

WHEN TO DELOAD

The best time to deload is at the end of a very-high-volume phase. At this point you will be feeling like crap and struggling to recover from your training. As Jack Reape says…

"You have to impose fatigue in order to develop fitness."

You should be close to, or even above your maximum recoverable volume (MRV). One indicator is when performance actually drops. So, keep pushing volume up until you notice a decline in performance.

When you get weaker you almost certainly need a deload.

Getting weaker? No one wants to get weaker.

Why would you get weaker?  It’s the exact opposite of why we train.

If you push your training volume hard enough that your lifts start suffering, it could indicate you’re starting to overreach. Overreaching is fine if it doesn’t become overtraining. Genuine overtraining takes months to recover from.

The solution? As you begin to overreach shut things down there and then. Take a deload and you will recover fast and be back making progress ASAP.

For example, I went from benching 5x8 one week to getting 8, 6, 4 the following week before wrapping up my benching efforts there. This was 6 weeks into a high volume training block and told me my recovery was no longer able to keep up with the training load. I took a deload and then was able to come back and do another 5 weeks of high volume training pushing heavier weights than ever before. Then performance suffered and I had to deload again.

WHAT TO DO IN A DELOAD

In the past I always kept intensity (%1RM) high and just reduced volume in a deload week. For example, if the final week before a deload had you doing 5x6 squats you would keep the weight heavy in the deload, but simply reduce volume by doing less sets. In other words, do 3x6 in the deload. This strategy works very well for beginners and many intermediates. Especially if your primary goal is strength. For hypertrophy goals and more advanced lifters I don’t think it is optimal.

As you get more advanced you run into problems by only deloading on volume. Hitting big compound movements heavy all the time still beats you up even if you drop the number of sets to reduce overall training volume.

Consider this view from Bryan Krahn…

“Not every part of your body recovers at the same pace. You can restore energy substrates in your muscles faster than you can remodel tissue that's been damaged from serious training. Muscles repair themselves faster than connective tissues. And connective tissues might be ready for a serious workout before your central nervous system has fully recovered.”

Still hitting the big lifts heavy, but with lower volumes is likely enough for the muscles to recover but, your tendons, ligaments and nervous system will thank you for some lighter sessions. Also consider that…

"Inevitably, a hypertrophy or strength phase is going to involve a lot of spinal compression and stress on the shoulders."

– Chris Bathke

Thus, a key reason for deloading is to give the joints a break. As a result, I have refined my approach to deload weeks with my clients. Now I reduce volume by doing less sets but, also reduce intensity (%1RM) slightly to allow full recovery. Usually I recommend the following:

  • Reduce weight on the bar by 10-20%
  • Do half the number of sets
  • Reduce the reps per set by 2 reps

art of the deload

This strategy works great! For some of my more advanced clients I have a slightly more involved protocol for deloads. It follows the same principles of reducing volume and intensity, but the week is divided in two. The early part of the week is mainly a reduction in volume. The second half reduces both volume and intensity significantly.

An example deload week for an advanced trainee focused on hypertrophy

Someone who has been following an upper/lower split 4xweek would deload in the following manner:

Mon (Upper) – Reduce sets by 40-60%, load by 10%, and reps per set by 2.

Tues (Lower) – Reduce sets by 40-60%, load by 10%, and reps per set by 2.

Wed – OFF

Thurs (Upper) – Reduce sets by 40-60% AND weight by 20-40%

Fri (Lower) – Reduce sets by 40-60% AND weight by 20-40%

Sat – OFF

Sun - OFF

When doing this your sessions will obviously be shorter because you are doing fewer sets. This frees you up to do other things. For many of you it means more free time to get on with your life. For others who just love being in the gym you can use it to work on some neglected areas of your training. For example, mobility work is a great addition to a deload week as it isn’t demanding on recovery but, is often ignored.

A good practical approach to this outlined by Matt Rhodes is…

“Coupled with your abbreviated workout, spend the rest of your training time warming up and stretching. Use a foam roller or whatever is your favorite stretching device, but be thorough.”

Doing this is an excellent way to aid your recovery and lay the foundations of long-term progress. Simply, rest, recover and prepare the body for the next block of hard training.

Besides performance suffering there are a couple of other reasons to deload:

  1. Achy joints. The injury rate from weight training is actually remarkably low, but, the chances are you will get sore from time to tie if you are training hard. That’s fine. A little bit of muscle soreness is to be expected and is actually a good sign you have worked the target muscle. Being in constant pain, however, is not. If your joints are always aching or your warm-ups are taking longer than your sessions because you are so beat up then you need a deload. Do the sensible thing. Back off for a week and your body will thank you.
  2. Another time it is sensible to deload is right after an event. Been training hard for a bodybuilding show, powerlifting or weightlifting meet, a CrossFit comp, end of a grueling rugby season, or even (god forbid) a marathon? Doing all of these takes a toll on the body and you need to recover before pushing again. So, you guessed it…take a deload. 

HOW TO EAT DURING A DELOAD

Nutrition during a deload can be a tricky one. You aren’t as active so you don’t burn as many calories so logically many assume they should cut their intake. This isn’t always the best approach though. Depending upon your goals at that time then your nutrition during a deload will be different. For example, if you are trying to pack on muscle then keeping your caloric intake the same during the deload is a good idea. This allows maximum super-compensation to occur. Now since activity is reduced you could lower your carbs and increase fats accordingly.

art of the deload

If, however, you're deloading during in a cutting phase then I would keep the calories the same or make a small reduction. Don’t go crazy and slash the calories super low though. After all the deload is supposed to give you allow your body to recover. If you starve it of nutrients it cannot do this. I would suggest dropping them by about 250kcals from the week preceding the deload would be reasonable for most.

Now, if you deload right, you should, be itching to train by the end of the week. In fact, if you aren’t ready to kick down the doors of the gym and smash some weights the following week you probably didn’t deload properly.

So, there you have it. Deloads aren’t for wimps. They are, in fact, for those who want to maximize their results long-term. Think of it this way:

“The goal of incorporating back-off weeks is to get bigger and stronger by doing less for a short, defined period of time.”

Do less (for a week every now and then) get more! Win Win!

http://musclemonsters.com/massinaflash
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom is a former skinny kid who was told he was too small to make it as a rugby player. Since then he has added over 40 pounds to his frame and helped hundreds of clients to build muscle and drop fat.

More recently he founded Flat Whites Free Weights to provide a hub for his online clients and to share his thoughts on training, nutrition and the ultimate pre-workout supplement…COFFEE!

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