What’s the Deal with Deloads?

Nov 21, 2018

Deloading is a commonly misunderstood concept. When properly applied, deloads offer a way to reduce fatigue that has been accumulated as a byproduct of training overload. That means, all the hard work you’ve put in for the last X weeks have led to a substantial increase in physiological fatigue, in terms of musculoskeletal microtrauma, changes to biochemical regulators, as well as a decrease in sources of energy such as intramuscular glycogen. These are all factors which, if often overlooked, can contribute to decreases in performance. If the goal is to keep training productively and injury-free, we need to implement the right recovery strategies to effectively get rid of this “baggage”.

The factors that make up short-term fatigue – substrate depletion, central nervous system fatigue and tears to muscle, ligaments and fascia – do not simply show up overnight; they elevate over weeks of hard training. However, because they take a while to add up, they also take longest to heal, and that’s where deload weeks come in.

Deloads typically last a week as that’s the general length of a microcycle, which coincides well with a calendar week. A well-structured deload reduces training volume and intensity just enough to get rid of accumulated fatigue while still retaining desired training results such as strength and muscle mass. For that reason, it is important that a deload phase be incorporated at the right time within a training block (typically at the end) and within the best possible volume and intensity parameters.

When it comes to training intensity and volume, it is the latter that’s the culprit for most accumulated fatigue, so reducing training volume has the most impact on fatigue management. It also allows us to keep intensity relatively high, which is good news since our goal is to retain as much strength as possible.

Putting all this into practice is simple. Take a look at the sample program below. As a general rule of thumb, reducing the training volume (sets x reps) to 50-70% of the previous week’s for at least the first half of the week, and at least 50% for the latter half seems to work for most people. Training intensity must be kept high enough, but still needs to be reduced if our goal is to allow musculoskeletal units such as tendons and ligaments to heal. I recommend dropping to 90% of the previous working week’s load for the first half of the week, and no more than 60% for the remainder of the deload week.

Do I Really Have to Deload?

You don’t have to do anything. A deload is simply a means of resetting your body back to a less-fatigued state. If you can find other ways of achieving the same results, by all means, do that.

I personally believe there is a time and place for deloads, and that high-intensity training (read: heavy training closer to your 1RM) for extended periods of time will eventually call for a lighter recovery week. If you never need to deload, chances are you are not training hard enough.

How often should you deload is probably one of the most commonly asked questions. Anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks, depending on the goal of the training cycle, seems to be appropriate for most lifters. As a coach, I implement deloads after a week or training block where the lifter has ‘earned’ it, in a sense. The goal is to train hard, recover hard, and get ready for another training block, so a deload week becomes then a seamless transition between mesocycles that allows for recovery and a mental break from near-maximum intensity at the same time.

What about Unplanned Deloads?

In a perfect world, we’d all be able to follow through with our strength programs, without ever taking a day off unless the program actually called for it.

In reality, most of us have demanding lives outside of the gym that more often than not interfere with training. Stressful weeks, illnesses, breakups and emergencies do happen, which can wreak havoc in our ability to not only train hard, but recover sufficiently for the subsequent sessions.

At the end of the day, there is no overtraining without under-recovery, so fatigue management is a smart way to stay on top of recovery.

Unplanned deloads can be implemented as the name suggests – outside of the training plan – when occasions arise where a lifter may be unable to continue with the program due to extenuating circumstances such as injuries, illnesses, or from simply being too burnt out. At some point, all of us will have experienced an unplanned deload, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Autoregulation outside of a single training session, in the form of a few days off the gym, can work wonders not just for the body but for the mind.

The Takeaway Message

Deload weeks are one of a few forms of managing fatigue within a training plan. It allows us to recover both physically and mentally, setting us up for subsequent training weeks where overloading training will once again be present.

Deloads are best implemented following a hard week of training; in a sense, then, recovery is ‘earned’. They can be used to bridge the gap between adjacent mesocycles, but must be properly implement in order to retain as much strength and muscle mass as possible.

At the end of the day, a deload week that does not bring about reductions in fatigue serves no purpose: it must be neither too stimulating, nor too easy. Achieving the right balance obviously yields the best results, and a reduction in training volume generally takes care of most fatigue reduction. However, structural damage such as tears to musculoskeletal tissue typically requires more than just a drop in training volume, so a decrease in intensity will also be in order, but not to the same extent.


About The Author

Barbara Martins

At Barbell Strength, Barbara is the Strength & Nutrition coach for females looking to get stronger, both online and in person.

Her primary focus is to help clients increase general strength and improve body composition through training and nutrition coaching that is individualized to each person and sound in principle.

With over 5 years of coaching experience, her passion for strength training has helped her develop a writing voice that she uses to communicate scientific training knowledge to the average lifter and fitness enthusiast.

Click here to find out more about working with Barbara.