I first stumbled on the concept of deloading towards the end of 2011. At the time I was following a modified power hypertrophy split and over Christmas I had gone away on holidays and only had access to the gym about twice over a 10 day period. I feared that the strength I had accumulated over the year would soon be lost, however the exact opposite happened. I returned after vacation and broke through plateaus that I had previously stagnated on.
My second experience with deloading came when early the following year when I was prepping for a powerlifting meet and running a program called Sheiko. Sheiko is a program which focuses heavily on CNS elevations and has a period built in to the template where training intensity and volume get reduced for about 10 days leading into competition. Although I had experienced good results with deloading before I was still sceptical that reducing work load could relate to larger weights lifted. I arrived at the meet and I was shocked at the numbers I had managed to lift.
So what is deloading?
Put simply, a deload is a brief period (usually 5-10 days) whereby intensity, volume, frequency or a combination of the 3 are reduced from normal training periods.
After a training period where an athlete has pushed for new training adaptations and has worked with heavy bar loads or volume there comes a point where progress will often stagnate and in certain cased my backslide. If the athletes training program has been structured correctly then this may be the desired goal and is known as functional overreaching.
The reasons for this decrement in performance likely have a lot more to do with the central nervous system (CNS) then the muscle itself and can often be classified as central fatigue. Central fatigue may arise from a decrease in neural drive and can be related to a lack of action potential initiation (needed for muscle contraction), leading to a decrement in performance and slower muscle contraction.
“Central fatigue can be considered a safety precaution for the active organism to balance the function of various organs.”
A major function of the deload is to attempt to allow your CNS to ‘recover’ from the demands placed on it during the loading phase, whilst still maintaining the adaptations gained from the previous training cycle.
There is also a heavy mental aspect to deload weeks. Over time even the most dedicated athletes can become slightly unmotivated and struggle to maintain the mental capacity to complete weight training session endlessly without breaks. This is another aspect the deload week can assist in. Myself, as well as many others have found that the weeks after you return from the break you will feel like an animal in the gym and have a fresh and renewed outlook towards the gym.
Who needs deloads?
Whilst deloading isn’t necessary for everyone it certainly can provide an edge for most lifters, particularly the more advanced lifts who have worked their way up to loads which can really tax their tendons and joint.
The reason it is so important to look after tendons and joints, especially in the advanced lifter is due to the recovery abilities of tendons vs muscle. Muscle tissue can recover at a faster rate when compared to connective tissue or tendons, so ensuring you stay on top of tendon health allows for longevity in the gym.
How to deload.
Deloading can be done in a number of different ways and provided you reduced at least one training variable you can’t really go wrong.
A common method of deloading is to reduce your typical working weight by approx 60% and cut back on overall sets by about 1/3.
A quick note on HIIT cardio. During the deloading phase it would make sense to also deload any forms of high intensity cardio that you may be doing as HIIT places similar demands on your body and energy systems as weight training does.
During the deloading week you should also place a large emphasis on soft tissue work as well as any mobility issues you may be having.
Why not just take a week off?
Some people prefer to just take a full week off of training as opposed to going in and lifting lighter loads for the duration of the deload, however in my opinion you would be better off by using the deload to ingrain good form in your lifts as you are able to pull back the loads and work through any tweaks you might have with form. You also preserve neuromuscular pathways by lifting and not taking a full week off.
Other notes about deload weeks.
- Do not reduce your nutrition intake. If anything nutrition should be more of a focus during this phase. It seems logical to reduce food intake as you are expending less calories, however when you step back and look at the purpose of a deload week it is to RECOVER. Keep intake up!
- Speed work is quite popular during deloading phases as it allows practice with rate coding and rate of force development. This can be done by using ~45-55% of your 1RM and perform 7-10 sets of 1-3 reps with a focus on bar speed. Don’t kill yourself with these as you want SPEED. If bar speed suffers then the load is likely too high. Accommodating resistance such as bands and chains can be of great assistance.