“Less is more.”
We have all heard this phrase at one point or another.
On surface level, of course, it is quite an oxymoron. However, this phrase indeed holds true in many walks of life.
When it comes to training, this phrase certainly has considerable merit for many of us.
We all want to be bigger, leaner, faster, or stronger. We want to challenge ourselves and unleash our body’s full physical potential. However, MORE is not always the answer.
Year after year the fitness industry has made considerable progress in understanding the importance of proper recovery in a quest for improved performance. However, as a whole, understanding has not translated into application.
People still widely glorify phrases like, “no pain, no gain” or “there’s plenty of time to rest when you’re dead.” They tag their ridiculous gym-selfies with #nooffdays. They still think crossfit is cool. Apparently there’s still even enough interest to keep The Biggest Loser on the air.
People love the idea of pushing their own limitations, oftentimes, however, to a fault.
Let me clarify and say that there is absolutely a time for pushing yourself to the limit. You are going to have to challenge your body to progress. However, pushing the body’s limits is not for everyone and certainly for not everyday, or even on a regular basis. Training at such a high intensity or volume regularly is going to be counterproductive and reckless for just about everyone.
When it comes down to it, your progress toward your goals and your ability to boost your performance are going to be determined by your ability to recover.
In order to maximize your progress, whatever your goal, it is going to be essential to learn how to manage your training appropriately in order to maintain progress and to keep your body and nervous system fresh.
Learning how to properly incorporate a deload, or “back off,” period is key for keeping your body fresh and preventing the accumulation of fatigue and the potential injuries and setbacks that come with it.
What is a Deload?
Deloading is essentially a period, generally of a week or so, during which you lower volume (reps and sets) and/or intensity (% of maximal exertion or weight lifted) for the purpose of recovery, injury prevention, and improved performance.
What’s the Purpose of a Deload?
The idea behind a deload week or phase comes from what is called the General Adapatation Syndrome, or what some might call the Law of Supercompensation.
Let’s quickly break this General Adaptation Syndrome down into 4 phases
1) Alarm Phase
The alarm phase occurs when you apply a stress to your body in the form of training or working out. In this phase you will see a decrease in performance due to general fatigue.
2) Resistance Phase
In the resistance phase, your body adapts to training to return energy stores and performance to baseline levels.
Progress comes in the supercompensation phase. This is when you body adapts to training by boosting performance above the previous baseline level in order to leave the body better prepared to handle the same stressor.
Essentially your body then requires the less energy, or effort, in order to perform that same amount of work.
The fourth phase is what we are going to refer to as overtraining. Overtraining occurs when the body is pushed too hard for too long.
Consistently pushing the body beyond what it is capable of recovering from can often result in injury. However, even if injury is avoided, overtraining will cause the body and nervous system to begin to essentially shut down, drastically decreasing performance, so that they can finally recover. When the body reaches this point it can take days or even weeks to recover.
So either way, if you reach this point of overtraining, you’re really setting yourself back considerably, whether it be with injury or accumulating fatigue.
How does this apply to your training?
If you have been training for any significant period of time and you are training at a high enough volume or intensity to stimulate adaptation (or a high enough level to elicit change), then you need to take periods of rest to allow your body to recover.
That said, when we talk about the frequency with which you should take time to deload, or back off, things get a little less black and white.
As with just about everything, it will depend on a multitude of factors, such as:
How long have you been training? What does your training look like? What is your goal? How old are you? How well do you recover? Etc…
Deloading Frequency for Beginners
If you are a beginning lifter or new to training, taking time off will not be quite as vital to your success.
Early on a majority of your progress will be neurological. You will learn to coordinate and execute new movements, then increase the efficiency with which you perform such movements.
Until your body becomes more efficient, you will not need to put it under a tremendous amount of stress in order to progress. As long as you aren’t consistently pushing your body beyond what it can handle from a recovery standpoint, you should be able to go 2, 3 or even 4 months without having to take time off.
Deloading Frequency for Strength
For those who have been training for a significant amount of time, the frequency with which you take time off is really going to depend on your goal.
If your goal is strength, you are likely going to need to deload with greater frequency. As a general recommendation, intermediate lifters pursuing strength goals should deload at least every 6-8 weeks.
Advanced lifters, on the other hand, should look to deload roughly every 4 weeks.
This is because you become more efficient with greater experience. This requires the more advance lifter to train at a higher intensity, or subject his body to greater stress, in order progress. The greater stress requires more frequent periods of rest.
Depending on the phase of training, elite level powerlifters may require a deload period as often as every 2 weeks.
Deloading Frequency for Fat Loss or Bodybuilding
Now, if you are a bodybuilder or your goal is strictly fat loss, you likely don’t care too much about what you bench, squat, or deadlift. Or, at least it takes a back seat to physique or dropping unwanted pounds.
If you are a bodybuilder, or simply looking to achieve a leaner physique, you should deload just often enough to stay fresh, prevent accumulating too much fatigue, and keep progress going.
So, barring you being a beginner, or new to training, it is generally a good idea to back off roughly every 4 weeks before your body becomes too well-adapted to the program.
After a period of deloading, you can switch up some variables to provide a new stimulus to the body and to promote further progress. This can be changing sets and reps, altering rest periods, varying exercise selection, progressing to new exercises, or any combination of these.
What to do on a Deload Week
Now, you know when your scheduled deload week rolls around you need to lower volume and/or intensity. But how much?
Well, there’s not necessarily one particular way in which to go about it. Some may be fine maintaining intensity and decreasing volume. Some may need both. However, a good recommendation is to cut the volume of your highest training week by 50-60%, along with a slight decrease in intensity.
So, if your highest week had you performing 5 sets of 5 reps at an intensity of 9-10 out of 10, your deload week could consist of 2 sets of 6 at an intensity of roughly 7-8 out of 10.
While you may not be crushing heavy sets of bench press and squats or getting a massive pump, these training weeks will essentially provide you with the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
As you give your body and nervous system some much-needed time to regenerate, take the opportunity to spend a little more time on mobility work, clean up your technique on your bigger lifts, or learn a new complex movement.
This way, not only will you enter your next training cycle refreshed and ready to dominate some weights, you’ll be moving better, working more efficiently, and may have added a new exercise added to your arsenal.
So, while some may prefer to just simply listen to their body and others may attempt to go 100% all of the time, I am confident you will find that taking a planned deload week or period will deliver better and more consistent results in the long-run and help you avoid the setbacks of overtraining and injury.