30 March, 2020
Your Program Sucks: Part 7
…because your deload game is weak (but don’t worry, we’re going to make it strong)
Hello friends and followers, and welcome to Part 7 of Your Program Sucks. When I realised this was going to be a series, I envisioned “deload” would be the final instalment, and that’s what I want to talk to you about now. To be honest with you though, I’ll probably have to write some kind of conclusion to tie everything together so this might be the final blog of this particular series but it also might not be, and if 2020 has taught us anything so far, it’s that sometimes plans get thrown out the window and literally anything can happen. Either way, I appreciate having you all along for the ride. Now let’s get stuck into it.
This blog series has so far covered technique, intensity, progressive overload, exercise selection, training specificity, exercise variation and what it means to train for health vs performance. Everything we have discussed up until this point relates to actively training, but we haven’t yet covered any kind of resting or recovery protocols. I think now is a more appropriate time than ever to discuss what it means to take time off training or reduce total training load, and how to structure this to allow you to still progress. That is what we are going to touch on now with a discussion around deloading for the strength athlete. In this blog I’m going to start by defining what a deload is, and the rationale for including a deload in a strength training block. Then we are going to have a look at the best way to approach deloading, and to wrap up I’ll give you some examples of how I like to tailor deloads for different categories of lifters to maximise results.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term ‘deload’, this training principle refers to a designated period of training where the lifter temporarily reduces their training volume and/or training intensity to give them a “recovery boost” and allow them to continue training at a given capacity. Typically athletes may use this at the end of a 4, 8 or 12 week training block (but it can be at any other time) before continuing on with their next training block. It’s similar to what a lot of strength athletes do prior to competition or max testing, although this same reduction in training volume/intensity immediately before performance or competition is often referred to as a ‘taper’. Deloading and tapering are really common methods that a lot of athletes will use to boost their performance or maintain training momentum. They are simple tools that can be used really effectively but can also be used incorrectly, and it’s my goal in this article to give you the knowledge you need to best use these training principles to improve performance for yourselves and your athletes.
So what exactly is the rationale for deloading? When we train, we are stressing our bodies. The adaptations our body makes in response to this stress is what allows us to make strength and muscle gains, provided our rest and recovery are adequate. I know some of you who read that last sentence will have blocked out the last 7 words, but if you did this then I need you to take a deep breath and read the whole sentence again. Ok, now one more time. A reasonable amount of rest won’t cause you to lose all your gains, and recovery is really important in order for us to grow and adapt. Not only that, but our ability to perform at any given time can be masked by our fatigue levels, so if we aren’t fully recovered when we go in to train, then our ability to train in the gym or even perform in competition will also be masked. By adding a deload in at some point of your training, the idea is that you will allow yourself some extra recovery without stopping your training altogether.
Now that we have the definitions out of the way, I know you guys and girls will be chomping at the bit to get stuck into the nitty gritty of how, when, where, and who to deload- and I get it. It feels good to walk into a gym, dressed head to toe in SBD gear and brazenly announce “Out of my way ladies and gents, this is my deload week”. But before you reach for your matching headband and knee high socks we need to discuss a few things. On the topic of recovery for the strength athlete, we can broadly categorise things as either recovery methods that we do inside the gym (deloading and other smart training principles fall under this category), or recovery methods we do outside of the gym. Before we discuss in-training recovery methods, I need to make one thing really clear for you. You can apply all of the smart training principles in the book and deload all you like, but if you are not doing the right things to recover outside of the gym then it won’t count for much. This means getting enough sleep, eating well, resting, managing your stress levels, maintaining your general good health, not partying to much and altogether making good life choices.
This brings me to my first point, and that is:
”If you are worrying about deloading or advanced recovery protocols but not doing the basics like getting enough sleep and eating properly, then your program sucks.
Now that we have the housekeeping out of the way, let’s get stuck into deloading. There are some athletes who I won’t program a deload for, others who I will deload occasionally, and in some cases I will prescribe something that resembles a deload to an athlete on a weekly basis. There is one principle that I keep constant with each of these options, and that is that I will always try to avoid reducing the overall intensity of the athlete’s training even while deloading. This is something I’ve always done intuitively since I’ve found most people need to recover from volume rather than intensity, and I’m happy to say that there’s a lot of science that supports using this approach.
Traditionally, a lot of deloads will involve a reduction in both training volume and intensity, but like I said, a lot of the research on this topic suggests that this is not the best approach because reducing your training intensity for an extended period may result in a loss of muscle size (which has a flow on effect to muscle strength), but maintaining training intensity while reducing volume does not seem to have this same negative effect. The reason for this potential loss in muscle mass is that training at a high intensity allows us to recruit the high threshold motor units which attach to a large number of muscle fibres, and these muscle fibres are very responsive to loading (in other words, will grow a lot from training), but lower intensity training where we don’t go close to failure stimulates far fewer muscle fibres, and these fibres that are stimulated by lower intensity training are less responsive to being loaded (in other word, don’t grow much from training). Further, there’s evidence to show that it generally takes 2-4 weeks for muscle loss to occur when you either stop training, or stop training in a way that recruits these high threshold motor units. What this means is that if you’re reducing your intensity for a couple of weeks then you’re in the clear, but any longer and your muscles will likely start to atrophy. Maintaining muscle size is important if you are training for aesthetic reasons, but since the size of the muscle is directly proportionate to its strength, it’s also critical for strength maintenance and even injury rehab. This is explains why, regardless of your goal, it’s probably a good idea for you to keep the training intensity high while you deload.
I mentioned previously that there are three broad categories of lifters that I may or may not program a deload for. Let’s take a closer look at those now.
- The “no-deload lifter” – this is the approach that I generally take with any novice lifter. In fact, in there have been many times that I’ve programmed the first 12 months of a novice lifter’s training without scheduling any deload at all, and they have continued to progress and remain injury free over this time. There are two reasons why I am confident in taking this approach for a novice lifter. The first reason might be a little bit touchy, but to put it simply novice lifters are generally not working at an intensity that is high enough to deserve a deload. The second reason is that these are often general population clients who do not eat, sleep, breathe and dream training and as such, deloads tend to just happen because life happens. When their kids get sick, they go on holidays, work commitments come up, or anything else of this sort, these people end up doing unplanned deloads because real life takes priority. I know, weird right? At the time of writing this article I know there will be a lot of people in this boat and for whom life is taking priority, but remember it does take a while before you lose significant amounts of muscle, and there are always ways to maximise the outcomes of your training like including high intensity sets. If you are a hobby lifter, a beginner, or someone for whom life gets in the way of training, that’s totally fine. But if you’re also programming in deloads, then I’m sorry but your program kind of sucks.
- The “sometimes-deload lifter” – this category includes 99.9% of my athletes who are no longer novice. I also include myself in this category. For these lifters, training fatigue accumulates and a deload can be a very effective way of enhancing recovery where needed for continuous training progression. For these athletes, I will take one of three approaches in this order of preference:
- Reduce volume while maintaining intensity. This approach gets one big fat tick of approval from me, and it’s my go to method of deloading. With this option you are able to get the most out of the least, meaning that by making the smallest change to your training you will get the biggest reward (remember, most people who have accumulated fatigue need a break from volume not intensity). For this, halve your number of sets, and if you started with an odd number then take a conservative approach and round down (e.g. 5 sets becomes 2, 3 sets of 5 becomes 1 set of 5 ;)). There’s nothing magic about halving the sets, it’s just a really simple suggestion that’s easy to follow and seems to work.
- Reduce volume and decrease intensity. “But wait Bas, didn’t you say NOT to reduce the weight??” If you just caught yourself thinking this, then give yourself a gold star for listening. Nerd. Now turn your attention back to me because I’m going to explain this to you. Hypothetically you shouldn’t need to do this, because you should never be overreaching with your load selection. However, if I have an athlete who is extremely committed to their training but has a lot of personal stress either accumulating or suddenly showing up then this can be a good option. Some of my high level athletes will also take this approach with one of more of their lifts while keeping the intensity of other lifts high (thus still stimulating the high threshold motor units that are so important for hypertrophy). And lastly, accidents can happen and sometimes people do overestimate their numbers, in which case a reduction of volume and load will be very useful.
- Stop training altogether. This is the kind of thing you would only do in pretty extreme circumstances, for example if a super virus were taking over the world and every country was suddenly in lockdown while they search for a vaccine. This is generally not my preferred approach, but as we say here in Australia, “shit happens”. Always remember though, it takes 2-4 weeks to lose muscle size so don’t stress. Also it’s worth noting that if you find yourself in these kind of extreme circumstances, sometimes training isn’t the most important thing anyway.
If this is you, and you find you are regularly having to make unplanned reductions to your intensity or stop training altogether, then your program sucks! Go back and reread Your Program Sucks Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 where we discuss the optimal training intensity for guaranteed progression, and why going too heavy too often is actually setting you back.
- The “deload every week lifter” – I’ve already mentioned that some of my high level lifters will reduce both intensity and volume during a deload, and generally that’s what happens with the “deload every week lifter”. For these athletes, their training loads are simply too high to be lifting heavy on all compound lifts week after week so I rotate the intensity of their main movements so each lift has a “deload” every second or third week. One week might be heavy deadlifts while we deload the squats, then in the next week we deload the deadlifts while increasing the intensity for the squats. Some people might not even consider this to be deloading and would argue that this is just smart programming, and if this is what you are thinking then my response is “thank you for the compliment”. Regardless of what you want to call it, this is a technique that is really effective for very high level athletes who have big goals and lift big numbers. If this is you then your program…. actually doesn’t suck. This is very smart programming 😉
So there you have it my friends, this is a basic rundown of my deload philosophy and the science to support it. As with most things, there is no “one size fits all” approach to deloading and every single athlete should follow a slightly different methodology tailored to their specific needs. A deload is a great tool for you to use, but one that should be optimised to get the best results. Until next time, happy training! And of course, happy resting and recovering too.