On just about every weekday, T Nation posts a new article showing you the latest and best ways to get bigger, stronger, leaner, and, to use a purely scientific phrase, cock-diesel jacked.
But there’s another way to send your strength, size, and conditioning levels through the roof. It won’t cost you a dime, and best of all, it requires only as much effort as it takes to back away from your normal training routine for a week.
The trouble is this: nobody does it. At least it appears that way. Every coach in the world insists that you do it, and every gym rat in the world will agree with him, but nobody bothers to take a back-off week.
A back-off week, or deload, is a planned reduction in exercise volume or intensity. In collegiate strength-training circles, it’s referred to as the unloading week, and is often inserted between phases or periods. Quoting from Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning: “The purpose of this unloading week is to prepare the body for the increased demand of the next phase or period,” and to mitigate the risk of overtraining.
But it’s not just an ivory-tower concept. You can’t go all-out all the time, no matter if you’re a guy who squats 800 pounds in a Metal Pro suit or the type who grinds out endless sets of concentration curls while wearing a vinyl weight-lifting belt you bought at Sears. At some point, you just have to take your foot off the accelerator and allow your body to coast for a few days.
Why? Four reasons:
1. Going hard all the time never, ever, works
If you try to go hard every single workout, week after week and month after month, you’ll end up with a mix of serious and half-assed workouts, and if you don’t get hurt, you’ll probably burn out completely at some point.
By the end of any given training year, you’ll discover you would’ve been better off taking planned breaks, rather than letting your body and brain decide when you’re ready to push toward a peak and when you’re not.
2. Your muscles and joints need a break
Not every part of your body recovers at the same pace. You can restore energy substrates in your muscles faster than you can remodel tissue that’s been damaged from serious training. Muscles repair themselves faster than connective tissues. And connective tissues might be ready for a serious workout before your central nervous system has fully recovered.
3. Sometimes you get stronger by not training
With full recovery comes supercompensation. With supercompensation come greater gains in size and strength and higher levels of fitness and conditioning. This is why swimmers and runners taper before major competitions in which they hope to break records, and why a lot of serious lifters will describe how they hit PRs right after a deloading phase.
A review published in the NSCA’s Strength and Conditioning Journal compiled this amazing list of benefits that research has attributed to tapering:
• Up to 20% increases in strength and power
• Increases in muscle cross-sectional area of 10 to 25%
• Lower levels of stress hormones
• Higher levels of Testosterone
• Better moods during the day, and better sleep at night
4. Training is a marathon, not a sprint
Finally, unloading is just plain healthy, no matter what your age. Along with pampering the musculoskeletal and nervous systems, a phase of relatively easy training is also good for the immune system. Train too hard for too long, and you’ll not only feel tired and unmotivated, but you’ll also increase your risk of catching a cold or flu.
Since a nasty case of the stomach flu can torpedo any program, in the long run you’ll rack up more workouts, and better workouts, by giving your body a break from time to time.
Who Needs to Unload?
Every system with a reputation for getting results — high-intensity or high-volume, Doggcrapp or Westside — has a mechanism for modulating the volume and intensity of the training stimulus to prevent burnout and foster long-term gains.
But that doesn’t mean every lifter in every gym needs to put equal emphasis on deloading. The coaches I interviewed are unanimous in their view that training age — the amount of time you’ve spent under the bar — is the most important factor.
If you’re still sporting eleventeen-inch arms and shooting for that first body-weight bench press, your need for regularly scheduled back-off weeks is fairly low. You can’t deload what you haven’t yet loaded.
“Generally speaking, beginners can go longer before taking time off, as they lack the neural efficiency to really beat the body down,” Eric Cressey says.
Chad Waterbury agrees: “A beginner can go months without pulling in the reins because he’s so far from his ultimate potential. If you’re a beginner, go until your performance suffers. Then add an unloading week every six weeks or so.”
T Nation readers who fall into this category — someone who’s been training seriously fewer than two or three years, who’s made good progress but hasn’t yet reached a squat or deadlift of 1.5 times body weight — could get a lot of benefit from regularly scheduled back-off weeks.
“These guys are starting to pushing the envelope of what their body is capable of, so you have to start reining them in,” Waterbury says.
Cressey suggests a volume-reduction approach with intermediates, dropping total reps by about 40% every fourth week. Thus, if an intermediate lifter is training for three weeks with 25 reps per exercise — five sets of five reps, say — he’d cut back to around 15 reps per exercise in Week 4.
“The goal is to maintain or even increase intensity, but not miss reps,” Cressey explains. “You’re much more likely to overtrain with volume, as opposed to intensity.”
“An elite lifter is by definition someone who benefits most from frequent back-off weeks,” Waterbury says.
How frequent? When Robertson works with his strongest clients, he manipulates volume and intensity every week. A four-week cycle might look like this:
Week 1: base load
Week 2: increased volume (generally 20% over Week 1)
Week 3: deload (generally 60% below Week 1)
Week 4: increased intensity (up 10 to 15%), decreased volume (more than Week 3, but 20% less than Week 1)
Cressey also modulates training volume weekly with advanced lifters. “Very few individuals can handle two consecutive weeks of heavy loading,” he says. The lucky few include “the genetically blessed or the chemically assisted.”
Here’s how Cressey, an accomplished powerlifter, manipulates loading:
Week 1: high
Week 2: medium
Week 3: very high
Week 4: low
If you use weights greater than 90% of your one-rep max in the first three weeks, Cressey advises using nothing heavier than an 8RM load during Week 4. That should allow you to achieve full recovery and supercompensation. Cressey says you can expect to see the benefits as soon as Week 1 of the next phase.
Which is not to say an advanced lifter won’t see more direct effects from the week of reduced intensity, especially if he isn’t used to doing higher reps with lighter weights. The unfamiliar training stimulus could actually result in bigger muscles — not a bad side effect.
When is the Best Time to Unload?
“I spent the first five years of my training learning to never miss a workout,” says powerlifter and T Nation contributor Jack Reape. “I’ve spent the last 25 learning which ones to miss or throttle back.”
For everyone else, the best time to taper off is at the end of a very-high-volume week, when you’re feeling like a beat-up sack of shit. “You have to impose fatigue in order to develop fitness,” he says.
Once you’ve accomplished that fatigue, a strategically timed back-off week can ensure you get all the benefits of your hard work.
What Do You Do when You Unload?
This is where program design shifts from science to art. (In fact, Cressey’s ebook on the subject is called The Art of the Deload.) There’s no single way to handle a back-off week, and what works best for you might not work very well at all for another T Nation reader.
“It’s important to know whether you get bogged down with intensity or volume,” Waterbury says. “If you struggle with high intensities, your back-off week should consist of lower-intensity sets. If volume runs you down, you’ll benefit from less of it for a week,” he says.
Waterbury recommends the one-third rule: Drop your weights by a third while keeping volume constant, or drop volume by a third but use the same weights.
You can also unload simply by changing exercises. Cressey suggests scaling back or even dropping the ones that are neurologically taxing, like Oly lifts, or that punish your joints, like vertical and horizontal presses.
Fix problems before they occur
Santa Monica-based trainer Chris Bathke takes a different approach, using deloading weeks to mitigate overuse injuries. “Inevitably, a hypertrophy or strength phase is going to involve a lot of spinal compression and stress on the shoulders,” he says. “So my primary reason for deloading is to give the joints a break.”
Bathke usually includes drills to address the areas most abused or neglected by guys who train hard and heavy. “The idea is to work on core strength, scapular activation, stability, and other qualities that usually aren’t the primary focus during heavy phases,” he says. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be working hard. In fact, depending on your level of conditioning, you might find one of my deloading-week workouts harder than a traditional workout.”
If you don’t believe him, take his workouts out for a test drive; you’ll find a week’s worth at the end of this article.
Develop new skills
Cressey suggests an even more utilitarian strategy: Spend the deload week learning a new and technically complex lift, one that requires the integration of a lot of cues.
“You’re going to be using lighter weights when learning a new exercise anyway,” making it a perfect choice for an unloading week, he says. “You’ll see much quicker improvements in movement technique if you practice while you’re fresh.”
How Should You Eat During a Back-Off Week?
If your goal is maximum hypertrophy, keep your caloric intake the same during back-off weeks to allow maximum supercompensation to occur. If you’re in a cutting phase and most concerned about body comp, you can scale back the calories.
The Ultimate Back-Off Week Workout
Chris Bathke put together this one-week unloading program for bodybuilders and other serious lifters. You’ll train three times in the week, using some exercises that probably aren’t familiar to you.
The weights you use should be challenging, but you shouldn’t miss any reps.
For each workout, warm up for 10 minutes with foam rolling, mobility work, and your favorite movement drills. Make sure your body is awake and that you have full mobility in your hips, shoulders, and ankles.
|A1||Turkish get-up with dumbbells or kettlebells||5||10/8/6/4/2|
|A3||One-arm kettlebell or dumbbell swing||5||10/8/6/4/2||* *|
|B1||Bear crawl with dumbbells *||3||20 feet||30|
|B2||Farmer’s walk with dumbbells or kettlebells||3||40 feet||30|
|B3||Neutral-grip face pull||3||12||* *|
* Bear crawl with dumbbells — Keep it light and focus on form and range of motion.
* * Start with 60 seconds rest and decrease 15 seconds each round.
|A1||Barbell or sandbag Zercher squat to low box||3||12/10/8|
|A3||Ab wheel or barbell rollout||3||8||* *|
|B2||Cable scapular cross||3||12||* *|
* Barbell or sandbag Zercher squat to low box — Keep it light and focus on form and range of motion.
* * Start with 60 seconds rest and decrease 15 seconds each round.
|A1||Kettlebell or dumbbell one-arm clean and jerk||2-4||1 min/side|
|A2||Single-leg Romanian deadlift with dumbbells or kettlebells||3||12/10/8|
|A3||Cable alternating row||3||12/10/8||*|
|B2||Supine hip extension/leg curl on stability ball or power wheel||2||12|
* Start with 60 seconds rest and decrease 15 seconds each round.
Selected Exercise Descriptions
Lie on your back and use two hands to lift the kettlebell into the starting position. You want your left arm locked out as you hold the kettlebell with that arm straight over your chest.
Bring your left leg in, bending it at the knee, and set your left foot flat on the floor. As you do that, shift your weight to your right arm, with your right palm flat on the floor.
Now fire your right triceps and left leg (hamstrings and glutes). As you sit up, bring your right leg underneath you and lift yourself until you’re in the bottom position of a lunge — keeping your left arm perpendicular to the floor and locked out.
Take a second to catch your breath, then forcefully stand up. Hold for a couple of seconds. To return to the starting position, first do a reverse lunge, stepping back with your right leg. Place your right hand on the floor, then contract your abs as you get back down on the floor. That’s one rep.
These are just like standard pushups except you bring one leg off the ground and touch your knee to your elbow on each rep. Alternate legs each rep and try to keep your body as stable as possible.
One-arm kettlebell or dumbbell swing
Place the ‘bell between your feet and get into the Romanian deadlift position, grabbing it with one hand instead of both. Remember to keep your back flat and to look straight ahead.
Swing the kettlebell between your legs forcefully, as if you were hiking a football to someone behind you, and then quickly reverse the motion, explosively driving through with your hips and bringing the ‘bell to waist level. Let gravity pull it back down between your legs as you repeat the motion.
Bear crawl with dumbbells
Get into push-up position with a dumbbell in each hand. (They’re even better if you can do them up and down a flight of stairs.) Now walk forward with your arms, while keeping your legs straight and shuffling your feet. Focus on keeping your body in a perfect plank position and not allowing any wobble. Keeping your arms straight and shoulders pulled back will work shoulder and scapular stabilization as well as core strength.
Neutral grip face pulls
Using a rope attachment on a cable station, grip the ends with your thumbs up (neutral grip). Step back and row the middle of the rope attachment toward your face while letting your elbows flare out. Pinch your shoulder blades together.
Lie flat under a racked bar positioned at about hip height. Taking a medium width, pronated grip, and with your legs straight, pull your chest up to the bar while keeping your body stiff as a 2×4. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and trying to pull the bar down to you.
Medicine ball slam
Cable scapular cross
Position each arm of a dual arm cable station a little wider than shoulder width, and adjust it so it’s about shoulder height. Grab the left side with your right hand and right side with your left hand so your arms are crossed. While keeping your arms straight, do a reverse fly while depressing and retracting your scapula.
Kettlebell or dumbbell one-arm clean and jerk
You’ll begin with grasping a kettlebell or dumbbell that’s in front of you on the floor. Start with a swing, and clean the weight up into the rack position, with the ‘bell resting in the crook of your elbow between your shoulder and wrist. If you’re using a dumbbell, your wrist will be locked and supporting the weight in a position similar to the top of a hammer curl.
The next portion of the lift is driving the weight overhead, ending with your elbow locked out and your arm next to your ear.
Similar to an Olympic barbell jerk, you want to initiate the overhead portion of the lift with a slight dip and leg drive. As you drive the weight up above your head, you’ll do a slight hip and knee dip and catch the weight in the overhead position. Complete the lift by locking out your knees.
To finish the lift, drop it back into the rack position, then down into a swing. Start the next rep off the swing, rather than setting it down on the floor. This should be a flowing move rather than a hard, snappy one.
Cable alternating rows
This is done just like a standard cable row, except you’ll be using two individual handles. Row one side at a time while keeping the non-rowing arm straight. Resist any torso rotation! The goal is to keep your body facing straight-forward while retracting only one scapula at a time.
Supine hip extension leg curl
Lying flat on the floor with your feet on a stability ball (or better yet a Power Wheel), do a glute bridge while keeping your body straight. Now, while holding your body perfectly straight, with only your upper back touching the floor, do a hamstring curl by pulling your feet towards you while keeping your hips as high as possible. Extend your legs back out and bring your hips back down to the floor. This is one rep. Do this slow and controlled while focusing on glute and hamstring activation.
Lie face down on an incline bench holding two dumbbells. I usually start most guys with 3 or 5lbs (this will really impress the women). While keeping your thumbs up and arms straight, do a reverse fly in a “Y” shape, arms 45 degrees to your head, then one in a “T” shape (arms perpendicular to your body). Next, while bending your elbows, row the dumbbells toward you. Then when your scapula are fully retracted, keep your elbows at 90 degrees and raise the dumbbells up towards your head externally by rotating the shoulder (thus making an “L” shape). This is one rep.
Wrapping It Up
The goal of incorporating back-off weeks is to get bigger and stronger by doing less for a short, defined period of time — we use a week here, but it could be more or less time than that, depending on your goals and the amount of fatigue you’ve accumulated from heavy training.
If you do it right, you should, in the words of Eric Cressey, be ready to kick down the doors to the gym by the end of the back-off week.
Jack Reape describes that desire to get back to training as a physical “itching” you may feel in your muscles toward the end of your back-off week. That, he says, is what it feels like to be almost fully recovered.
We’ve included all kinds of tips and strategies for using your deloading week productively, and even provided a week’s worth of challenging workouts to allow you to work hard and develop muscular endurance, shoulder stability, and core strength while backing away from heavy weights and potentially overtaxed movement patterns.
But there’s still one more option, and it might be the best one for guys who’ve pushed themselves in the weight room for an extended amount of time without taking a break.
“You could just spend a week doing whatever the hell you feel like doing,” Waterbury suggests. “It’s really that simple.”
Cressey concurs. “The general idea is to get out of the gym for some of the week and devote that training time to some active endeavor that offers fun and mental clarity,” he says.
So ride your bike. Go to the batting cages. Play pick-up basketball. If you feel like you need a complete break from the gym routine, you probably do.