Deloads - The Muscle PhD


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Anytime you listen to an expert talking about long-term training programs they almost always touch on the idea of deloads. What are deloads? Why do we need them? When do we need them? How do we deload? As you can see, there are a lot of questions swirling around the topic of deloads. Therefore, let’s get into it.

Why do we Need Deloads?

First, what is a deload? A deload is simply a planned (or unplanned) period of time in which training load is reduced. Typically, there’s a conscious reason why we’re reducing training load, but deloads can also unintentionally happen during things like vacations, injuries, holidays, travel, etc. Why do we need to deload?

Our bodies are adaptation masterminds. They can literally change their appearance and function in response to a stimulus that is experienced over time. This is why we grow muscle and get stronger when we lift weights for a while. However, anyone with a few years of training experience knows that you can’t just keep overloading from week-to-week. Initially, scientists termed this idea “adaptation energy” and claimed that our body could only handle so much adaptation in a given window. While our understanding of this concept has expanded, adaptation energy is still a pretty accurate way to describe it.

As we train hard, we deliver a stress to the body. Repeatedly. For weeks or even months at a time with little rest. Eventually, we get to the point where our training stress is outgunning our recovery efforts. Essentially, we’re breaking down tissue and not providing enough time or energy to rebuild the tissue before the next workout. As this damage persists from workout-to-workout, we start to develop more and more central fatigue. Now we’re cranky, can’t sleep, and don’t want to eat much. With all of this combined, we lose our motivation to train and even start to dip into overtraining territory where we’re doing more harm than good. A well-designed training program should avoid most of these pitfalls, but that ignores the real life dynamic of the human performing the training.

While overtraining is less common in strength sports than things like running or swimming, overreaching absolutely occurs. We have two different types of overreaching: functional and non-functional. Functional overreaching is where we’re pushing ourselves just enough to make gains. A few days of rest and you’re back to normal. Non-functional overreaching is usually a step beyond that and requires a little more rest and recovery to bounce back from – this is typically where we want to institute a legitimate deload.

So, all-in-all, we need the occasional deload because we constantly kick our own butt in the gym and sometimes need to chill for a few days. What does science say about deloading?

What Does the Science Say?

We really wish there was a mathematical formula that described the perfect deload. Something like, “reduce sets by X, intensity by Y, and frequency by Z” would be a perfect way to cap this article. However, no such thing exists. There’s very little literature about deloading in strength training as most strength training studies last 12-weeks at the most and typically use untrained individuals. There’s no need to deload in that small of a time frame when subjects are probably only working out 2-3 days/week as it is. Frankly, you’re not going to find many answers in strength training research as these training programs are basically deloads in and of themselves.

Longer term strength training research is often observational – researchers essentially observe what athletes, coaches, or teams do throughout 1-2 years of training. Again, the deloads undertaken in these studies are designed by the coaches or athletes themselves and are probably constructed by any random combination of evidence, experience, and intuition.

We do have a little bit of research on deloads in runners, cyclists, soccer players, and swimmers, and that’s mostly what “evidence” is used or theorized by many coaches in the field. As we’re hopefully all aware, evidence from swimmers and runners doesn’t always bleed into resistance training very well. It’s a useful starting point, but frankly, I think we can forego those works and focus on what many coaches have developed over years of practice.

So That was Helpful. Now What?

Let’s get into some of the deloading methods we use at ASPI with our clients who perform both resistance training and conditioning.

When we track training load, there are three factors we look at: volume (sets x reps x weight), intensity (% of a max effort), and frequency (days trained per week). When we want to deload someone (or ourselves), we select 2 of the 3 factors to reduce. Therefore, there are a few combinations that work for a deload:

  1. Maintain training frequency but reduce intensity and volume.
  2. Maintain intensity but reduce volume and frequency.
  3. Maintain volume but reduce intensity and frequency. This one is kind of tricky so I wouldn’t recommend this. It’s nearly impossible to maintain overall volume while reducing intensity and frequency. Plus, volume is typically the most stressful component of a training program. Therefore, I rarely recommend maintaining volume unless you really want to drop down weight and do super high reps.

When we deload clients at ASPI, we generally maintain frequency (so members get their money’s worth) but drop intensity and volume. When I deload myself, I typically drop all three since I’ve been training a long time and everything hurts. Part of coaching is learning to read your client (or yourself), so it’s important to pick the optimal scenario.

What else can you do to optimize a deload? I have three other concepts I typically use, but again, it totally depends on the client (or you) and their (or your) goals.

  • Emphasize recovery. This is the most common recommendation with general population clients. Eat more, hydrate more, sleep more. Essentially, do all of the things that help rebuild while lowering things that induce damage.
  • Try new things! Some people are going to disagree with this and that’s fine. Frankly, I think deloads are a great time to try new exercises, new rep ranges, or even new activities (like yoga, for instance). This is one of the few things I’ve taken from running and swimming literature. Part of why those athletes overtrain more often than bodybuilders is that they perform the exact same motor patterns every day. Now, think if you’re in a real overloading block in bodybuilding where you’re focused on progressing the same 2-3 exercises for each body part. Eventually, these exercises start to hurt! You can deload by simply doing something different. I’d still drop volume and intensity, but try a new variation, new machine, or even go super high reps and low weight for a few workouts.
  • Last but not least – I mostly save this one for bodybuilders or powerlifters – take a mental deload. Literally avoid the bodybuilding/powerlifting lifestyle for a few days. Spend a weekend not counting macros. Skip a meal or two. Eat whatever you want. Sleep as much or as little as you’d like. Drink a few cold ones with the boys (responsibly, of course). Just relax and not be uptight about nutrition, rest, and hydration for a few days. This can do absolute wonders for strength athletes who are getting burnt out. I often use this for myself when I lose motivation to train. I’ll take a full weekend off and just live like a normal person for a few days. It’s kind of amazing, actually.

How do I know if I need a Deload?

This is probably the most important thing to learn from this entire article. Every expert will recommend listening to your body while training, and if you listen hard enough, your body will tell you when it’s time to deload. What should you look for?

  • The main thing to look at is trends in training, motivation, and energy in/out of the gym. I always know that I need a deload if I have two bad workouts in a row in which I had little motivation. Paying attention to these trends can also help you realize what types of training lend themselves to greater deload needs. Pay attention to fluctuations in volume and/or intensity and your need to deload relative to those changes.
  • That being said, 2 bad workouts in a row with little motivation is probably the biggest sign that it’s time to deload. Everyone has a bad workout here and there, but 2 in a row with no motivation is pretty hard to come by.
  • Your soreness really isn’t going away. This isn’t to say that you have awful DOMS all the time, but if you’re always feeling kinda tight with achy joints, it’s probably time to take a few days off.
  • You’re cranky. This is a tell-tale sign of non-functional overreaching, but you’ll probably hit your 2 bad workouts in a row before getting to this point. If you find yourself snapping at your significant other over pointless things, it might be time to take a few days away from the gym.
  • Sleep quality and appetite decrease. If you’ve made it this far down the list, you absolutely need a deload. These are symptoms that are a little more common with overtraining, so if you’re noticing these issues, you need to take more than a few days off.
  • You have an additional stressor in life. This is almost always the case in overtraining scenarios, but if you have a big stressor looming (a test, court date (no judgment), etc.), it might be a good idea to dial back training a bit.

Realistically, #2 or #3 on the list is as far as you should ever get if you’re doing a good job of listening to your body. With those signs out of the way, how long does your deload need to be?

How Long Should I Deload?

Again, just about everyone will have a different theory based off of evidence, intuition, practice, or even a combination of all three. Heck, competitive swimmers will often taper for months before a major competition. That’s really not necessary, or recommended, in bodybuilding or powerlifting.

Unfortunately, science or math calculations don’t do much for us here. We need to rely on subjective and qualitative data again. Therefore, it’s pretty simple. You deload until you feel better. That’s pretty much it. When you’re overreaching, it feels like you’re trying to lift weights on Jupiter – I know my deload is done when I’m screwing around in the weightroom after a few days off and it feels like someone turned the gravity back to normal. Then I slowly ramp things back up.

Other things to look for when you know your deload is over:

  • You WANT to workout again. This is the single biggest sign you can get. When you wake up itching for the weights again, your deload is over and you can start ramping back up.
  • Your aches and pains go away. You’ll probably feel this after #1 or #2 since you’ll have to be back in the gym pushing it a bit to realize your joints don’t feel like Jolly Ranchers anymore. But happy joints and muscles is a good sign that your deload was successful.
  • Your mood is better outside the gym. I see this more often with bodybuilders and powerlifters who take a mental deload, but you’re going to be happier when you start to feel better. Once the aches and pains start to diminish, your good moods will crawl back into place.

For most people, this should take anywhere from 3-7ish days depending on how soon you caught your initial “symptoms.” For me, I’m usually able to handle it in 3-4 days since I’ve gotten good at catching it, but it’s going to be tougher to catch with your clients or athletes. You can’t feel what they’re feeling and, odds are, they’re not in tune enough with their body to accurately tell you how they feel, either. Pay attention to their body language and posture. Once they start to get some pep in their step again, their deload is over. The easiest thing to look for with clients or athletes is keeping track of how talkative they are. When they’re down in the dumps needing a deload, they won’t be very chatty. When the jokes and stories start flowing again, it’s probably safe to push them back to normal.

Keep in mind that you probably shouldn’t just bounce straight back to your previous intensity and volume levels. If you feel good to go after 3 or 4 days of deloading, still take an additional 3-4 days of slowly ramping things back up. Even though I’m ready to go again after my 3-4 day deload, I typically devote a full 7 days to a deload so I can ramp back up to my previous training levels. Since you’re already deloading, it’s worth taking a few extra days to make sure you’ve done it right.

Conclusion and Application

People often gravitate towards numbers, calculations, and rules, but deloading is a topic that doesn’t really lend itself to objective data. This is one instance where you really need to learn to listen to your body and pay attention to your clients’ moods, posture, and energy levels. I think the main takeaway is that you’re probably due for a deload if you have 2 bad workouts in a row in which you had no motivation to train. In addition, your deload needs to last until you’re motivated to train again – this will typically take somewhere from 3-7 days.

Of the three main loading factors (volume, intensity, and frequency), I’d suggest maintaining either intensity OR frequency while reducing the other two factors. There’s no rule for how much you need to reduce, so pay attention to what feels right. How do you know what feels right? Don’t plan on making gains during a deload. Therefore, you’re not going to be pushing past your comfort level during a deload.

Does everyone need to deload eventually? Probably not. Honestly, most casual gym goers don’t train hard or consistently enough to really need to plan deloads. Life’s little interruptions, like vacation, work trips, etc. are often enough deloads throughout the year for this crowd. However, the more hardcore folks will likely need to deload somewhere in the 8-12-week range of consistent training. When I’m pushing all out, I usually need a deload every 8-weeks or so. But in my maintenance phases, I don’t need to deload at all. Pay attention to your body and embrace the qualitative data you gather from listening to yourself or your clients. This is just as important as tracking your reps, sets, and weights!

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