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One of the most misunderstood phases during an athletes development is the deload. Deloading is exactly what it sound like. For a short period of time, training load – intensity, density, and volume may all be reduced to facilitate improved recovery. After the end of the deload, submaximal training loads are resumed to stimulate further adaptations. Put simply, a deload will allow you time to rest your body and refocus your efforts.
The most common questions I’m asked regarding deloading are when and why to take a deload, how long it should last, what to do during the deload, and how to transition back into normal training. The answers differ on a case-by-case basis but there are some guidelines you should follow.
Let’s start off by examining why you’d want to deload your training. As I mentioned earlier, the primary function of a deload phase is to improve recovery by reducing fatigue accumulated over the course of the training cycle. This is usually done at three specific points during a training cycle:
- Before a competition to create a supercompensatory effect and ensure maximum performance during the event
- After a competition to allow adequate recovery
- Between training phases during a developmental program to reduce mental fatigue and prevent injury
Fatigue & Recovery
Imagine if you will that you have a credit card with a $1000 limit. Let’s say that every time you train, you’re making an expensive purchase and incurring debt but also improving performance – i.e. your recovery ability is reduced but you’re acquiring new toys like a new television or (in terms of performance ) a faster Fran time.
As your recovery ability approaches its limit and you make more purchases – as you increase fatigue – you’ll eventually have to stop spending as much/training as hard or you’ll go into the red. At that point, you’ve got to take a break from your shopping spree and pay off your card or (for our purposes) take a deload!
In essence, you’re training on credit and your accumulated debt will eventually have to be repaid or you’ll have your fancy new improvements in strength, speed, and muscle mass repossessed by overtraining syndrome. Fear not though – overtraining is pretty darn hard to do. It’s a miserable condition where you can’t make any progress, you’re not motivated to train, and you start to get hurt. After your deload, you’ll be recovered beyond normal – you’ll have supercompensated and be better than ever! You can look at this like a period where your credit limit has been increased from $1000 to $1500. In other words, you’re ready to do big things because you allowed your body to fully adapt to the stress of training!
Most of us will never max out our credit card/overtrain, which would result in everything from depression to catastrophic injury but we WILL overreach. Overreaching happens whenever you attempt to really push yourself to a new level and precedes the development of overtraining symptoms. This is when you make the most progress – overreaching is a good thing but you have to be careful!
When to Deload
OK. Let’s quickly recap. Overreaching is a period of accelerated progress that results in above-average levels of fatigue, and overtraining is a period of awful, terrible stagnation. ”How do I prevent myself from overtraining while still making the most progress as fast as possible?” The answer is to intentionally overreach and then follow it up with a deload period.
Take for instance a simple wave loading protocol to gradually and intelligently intensify training while preventing stagnation. This type of training periodization is utilized in one form or another by many popular strength programs, including 5/3/1, The Juggernaut Method, and even Westside/conjugate styles of training.
- On a 6 week wave load, you’ll hit a single set of maximum repetitions between 75-85% of a 1 rep max over the course of three weeks.
- After three weeks you’ll work between 80-90% of your max for another three weeks.
At this point, you’ve pretty much overreached as far as you can without risk of burnout/overtraining. NOW is when you want to program a deload. This will give you respite so you can repay your recovery debt a little bit and enter into a new phase of training where you either realize the fruits of your labor – either in competition or a mock competition – or continue to accumulate strength.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. Now that it’s time to deload, you might ask “How long do I deload? What do I do?”
Deload Length, Active Recovery, and Extended Layoffs
First let’s look at what to do during a deload.
As a word of caution, if you’re one of those people that cannot go to the gym without pushing it to the limit, then the best thing for you to do during your deload is to stay out of the gym, do some stretching, and focus on something else. If you turn your deload into a normal week of training, you’re missing the point!
If you can behave, you’ll want to engage in some active recovery - i.e. very low intensity, low volume training that facilitates accelerated recovery. You should still get some work in on your primary lifts – clean & jerk, snatch, squat, deadlift, bench press, etc. so you don’t lose coordination. Keep accessory lifts – especially single-joint movements – out of the picture!
A common strategy that seems to work for a broad range of athletes is to stay around 30% of your max for 1-3 sets of 8 repetitions twice a week in each lift. Organizing these sessions into full body routines rather than splitting up movements is ideal. Not only will this prevent you from overdoing it on a single movement due to boredom, but it will also make sure everything from your calves to your shoulders gets a good pump.
The length of your deload will depend upon a few factors. Commonly, a week is set aside and that’s usually all that’s needed. Any longer and you’ll probably begin to detrain. Detrained abilities can always be brought back up, but your goal with a deload is to improve performance in the immediate future, not regress. However, if you’re particularly beat up – let’s say you have a chronic injury you’ve been dealing with for a long time and you’re finally ready to let it heal – there may be merit in taking additional time off from normal training. Under these circumstances, you’re really not deloading; you’re taking a layoff.
If you do need extended time off from training due to an injury, I’d advise you to talk to a specialist and follow their orders. If you need surgery or physical therapy, it could be a while before you’re back to normal. However long this period lasts, when you’re clear to return to your old routine, you’re going to want to gradually ramp up training load until you’re closer to your baseline. Don’t jump back in and re-injure yourself!
Nutrition During a Deload
An article on taking time off to recover would not be complete without addressing nutrition! Since the goal of this whole ordeal is to come out stronger, faster, and better recovered, you don’t want to reduce calories. You may be thinking to yourself, “But I’ll gain body fat if I eat too much and exercise too little!” While it is true that your energy output will be lower than normal during a deload, you’re trying to let your body make up for weeks, if not many months of overreaching so that you can perform your best or undo some of the wear and tear associated with hard training.
So does that mean you should go balls to the wall and overeat? Not likely, unless of course you’re on a diet to gain weight as it is. Instead, you should maintain a steady intake of food that’s right around or just below your normal maintenance. To establish your maintenance calories, you can use a calculator like our own ETP Calculator, or you can track your food for a week and see how much you need to eat to maintain your body weight. The second option is more accurate but using a calculator is a lot easier and it should come pretty close.
Things are pretty straightforward then – you just keep eating normally, or maybe slightly less. The only modification I’d consider making, and this is entirely up to you, is to reduce carbohydrate intake during your deload and replace some of the calories with fat and protein. Since you’re not training very hard, you won’t necessarily need the carbohydrates so you can rely more upon fat. This should be a welcome change and allow you to reduce inflammation, which will also help you recover better.
Do I Need To Schedule Deloads?
Whether or not you plan your deloads or insert them into your training by feel is personal preference. Some people take one every 6-8 weeks, and some people only take them when they feel it’s necessary. Likewise, you can deload specific movements or training modalities separately of one another – i.e. keep working on your clean & jerk but take a break from muscle-ups for a week. Still, those of us training on strict block schedules throughout the year may choose to deload as phases transition. For example, an athlete beginning sport specific work transitioning from general training may take a week off to work on skills at a low intensity and drop some of the less specific movements and training methods they may have been utilizing in their off-season.
- Deloading is all about increasing performance between training phases/before competition and keeping injury at bay. If you’re already hurt, take time off and go see a doctor before it gets worse!
- Deloading doesn’t mean sitting around on your butt all week doing nothing – you’ll actually benefit from doing light skill work and getting a pump while you take a break from greater training loads. That said, if you can’t back off and being in the gym gets you too riled up, stay out and focus on something else so you can reap the benefits of a deload!
- You don’t really need to eat differently during your deload – just slightly fewer calories than normal, perhaps with less carbohydrate due to the reduction in activity.
- Training deloads don’t need to be strictly scheduled, but it’s probably a good idea to take one every 6-8 weeks, when you transition between training blocks, or before any big event/testing occurs.