The world of resistance training is full of irony:
- The bigger you get to impress girls, the more you have dudes telling you, “Nice arms, bro!”
- Getting big and muscular is seen as manly and alpha, yet the epitome of the sport is posing in a thong in front of a crowd of cheering men.
Okay, maybe you can’t relate to those, but you can probably relate to this:
The more you train hard to achieve your goal, the sooner you’ll hit a plateau and the more difficult it’ll become.
That’s due to two things: habituation/adaptation and training burnout. Let’s look at what they are and what causes them. Then I’ll present a novel way to avoid them and dramatically decrease the time it’ll take to reach your full potential.
What we call “gainz” is simply your body adapting to a physical and neurological stress imposed by the workout.
A workout is a planned and calculated stress imposed on the body to trigger an adaptive response. That response includes building larger and stronger muscle tissue, and improving the efficiency of the nervous system so it can better use the muscle to accomplish the task of lifting weights.
But a workout doesn’t automatically lead to gains. Not all workouts force the body to adapt. Heck, you’ve been in enough gyms to know that most people never really change despite training several times a week.
Why aren’t they gaining muscle or strength? “They don’t train hard enough” would likely be your answer. And, in a way, you’d be right. But more precisely, they aren’t imposing a large enough stress on their bodies (compared to what their bodies are comfortable doing) to force adaptation.
See, your body doesn’t want to add muscle. Muscle is metabolically costly and requires a lot of energy to sustain. Muscle imposes a greater load on the cardiovascular system. Your body will only add muscle if it “feels” like it really needs to.
If your body is adapted to a stress level of 15 – it has the muscle, strength, and neurological efficiency to handle that workload without being too taxed – a workout providing a stress level of 10 to 15 won’t lead to any adaptation (gains) because it’s not needed. Of course, the “stress number” is fictitious, but it helps us understand the concept.
The issue isn’t not training hard, but rather not training hard enough for what your body is already adapted to do. If, over time, you increase your training stress tolerance from 15 to 30, then the stress level 20 workouts that worked when you were at 15 won’t work anymore.
See what I mean? The more adaptation you get from training, the harder it’ll become to stimulate gains. Essentially, your body becomes “immune” to training. It’s like when you get a vaccine (or catch an illness), you become protected from that illness for a certain period of time via immunity.
Training is like a vaccine. It can make your body resistant to gaining once you become so well adapted that it becomes hard to impose a training stress that’ll lead to further adaptation.
“Just train more or harder!” Sure, that works. Until it doesn’t. Here’s the irony: the harder (or the more) you train, the more effective the stimulus is at triggering adaptation, which leads to becoming fully adapted sooner.
Not to mention, your body, especially if you’re natural, has a limited capacity to sustain training stress. If your training volume or intensity exceeds your body’s capacity to respond positively to training stress, you won’t progress from your session. You might actually regress and burn out.
What’s Training Burnout?
I use the term “training burnout” instead of “overtraining” because it better describes what’s going on physiologically. Burnout refers to an excessive training regimen relative to your capacity to recover. Symptoms include:
- Drop in motivation
- Concentration or focus issues
- Lowered muscle tone (softer, flatter muscles)
- Decreased strength, speed, and power
- Diminished endurance
- Motor coordination problems
The main cause of burnout? Excessive adrenaline production. You produce too much adrenaline for too long, too often, and your beta-adrenergic receptors become desensitized to your own adrenaline.
Since you have these receptors in your brain, heart, and muscles, they’re all affected.
Cortisol will increase adrenaline levels (via an increase in the conversion of nor-adrenaline into adrenaline), which is why training more or harder can eventually backfire.
I do recommend training hard and doing enough volume, but if you exceed your recovery capacities in hopes of overcoming a plateau, you might dig yourself into a deeper hole.
What About Deloading?
It’s common to include deloading weeks within a hard training cycle. It can be every 3-8 weeks depending on the plan, but normally it’s every fourth or sixth week of a program.
Deloading works, but it works mostly for preventing or reversing training burnout. While it can help slightly to reduce the risk of “training immunity/habituation” it doesn’t have a great impact.
Deloading is a planned reduction in training stress to allow the body to recover and be ready for a subsequent bout of hard training. Several variables make up training stress. The three main ones are volume, intensiveness (how hard you’re pushing your sets) and psychological stress (largely correlated to how heavy you go). These are the three main things you can lower when deloading.
You can also decrease neurological demands (using easier/simpler exercises) and density (taking longer rest periods), but lowering one or both of these is normally not enough by itself to properly deload.
It’s been postulated that deloading works mostly via surcompensation. That’s a process in which the body “rebounds” in its storage of nutrients like glucose/carbs as muscle glycogen, and protein as muscle tissue.
This is based on the initial research done on endurance athletes. They found if you deplete an athlete (high volume of work, lower carb intake) and then follow that with a period of reduced training volume and increased carbohydrates, you’ll store glycogen to a greater extent than what you normally would. This provided an advantage in endurance activities.
The same phenomenon led people to believe you build more muscle during a deloading phase. Why? Because when you store more muscle glycogen, your muscles will appear and feel bigger and denser. This can easily give the illusion of added muscle (just like having flat and depleted muscle can make you feel like you’re losing muscle).
But you can’t “surcompensate” protein like you can glucose. You can’t “deplete” protein content in your muscles. So, there’s no such thing as “rebound” growth.
However, there are a few things that can actually lead to more growth during a deloading phase, at least if it happens along with an increase in muscle glycogen (more on that in a second).
Most of the benefits of deloading are lost if you lower carbs/calories to avoid gaining fat during the time you don’t train as much. You should at least maintain carbs and calories, and ideally increase them.
Let’s look at what happens during a deload and why it works in the context of resistance training:
- If you dramatically lower training volume and/or frequency while increasing daily carb intake you’ll store more muscle glycogen. This provides more fuel for hard lifting, making you look bigger and fuller, and improving intramuscular leverage.
- Storing more muscle glycogen gives you fuller muscles and also leads to a bigger pump. An increase in intramuscular pressure (from storing “more stuff” in there) increases protein synthesis which can lead to more growth. In a sense, it’s possible to increase muscle growth when you deload, if you lower volume and increase carbs enough to increase glycogen stores.
- Carbs are the number one “supplement” to lower cortisol and adrenaline levels. If you increase carb intake during the deload week (while you’re reducing training stress) you’ll lower cortisol and adrenaline to a greater extent than if you had only decreased training stress.
- Decreasing training stress leads to lower cortisol levels. This favors net anabolism by decreasing catabolism. It could even decrease myostatin expression because too much cortisol increases myostatin. (Myostatin limits muscle growth.) Lower cortisol will also facilitate glycogen storage and make you retain less subcutaneous water. Cortisol increases the production of adrenaline. Decrease cortisol and you also decrease adrenaline.
- Lower adrenaline allows you to restore beta-adrenergic sensitivity. That leads to more motivation, more strength and power, better coordination, increased endurance and a higher muscle tone. When you train hard you’ll produce a lot of adrenaline which will down-regulate beta-adrenergic receptors. This will gradually decrease performance potential. When you deload you bring it back up. That’s why a lot of people feel like they gain a lot of strength during a deload or peak week. They do, but it’s because it allows you to respond more strongly to your own adrenaline.
- You can reduce systemic and local inflammation which decreases tightness and pain. It can also increase insulin sensitivity, further helping with glycogen storage.
There’s no doubt that deloads work when it comes to decreasing fatigue, reducing the risk of a training burnout, and allowing you to keep training harder for longer.
But because you keep training (albeit at a slightly reduced level) it will not prevent habituation. If you hit a point where you can’t build any muscle because your body is almost fully adapted to resistance training, a deload will be of little help.
That’s where reload weeks can be useful.
Enter Reload Weeks
When an advanced lifter stops stimulating a muscle completely for a long enough period of time, he’ll find this muscle will respond a lot faster when he gets back to training it seriously.
Here are some real life examples:
Hockey players used to not lift during the season.
When the off-season started, many would gain 10 or 15 pounds of muscle in their first month back. Some of it was regained muscle, and some was because their bodies were hyper-responsive to lifting again.
By the way, this allowed me and other strength coaches to look like geniuses by adding 15 pounds of muscle to a guy in four weeks!
During the pandemic, gyms were closed.
Some people were able to maintain a decent amount of size by using bodyweight training. When they got back to heavy lifting, many noticed they progressed faster than before and ended up stronger and bigger.
The fact is that muscles, just like receptors, can be re-sensitised if you stop stimulating them or if you barely stimulate them.
“Reload weeks” are not a new concept. Bryan Haycock called it “strategic deconditioning” over 20 years ago. His approach consisted of not doing any lifting for 9-12 days at the end of a hard 6-8 weeks training cycle. This would act both as a deload and as a way to make the body sensitive to training again.
As a kid whose life was training, I scoffed at the idea of not training for 9-12 days! But now that I understand the body better, I absolutely include periods of no weight training. This allowed me, at age 44, to get back up to a muscular 230 pounds after not being able to get above 221 for six years. I also squatted over 500 pounds for the first time in 18 years.
For less advanced lifters, 7 days of no lifting will be enough to greatly re-sensitize your body to strength training. For more advanced individuals, Haycock’s recommendation of 9-12 days works best.
I’m Going To Lose Muscle, Bro!
No, you won’t. One study found that if protein intake is maintained during a two-week layoff from lifting, people actually continue building muscle even during that time off. Even if their protein intake was lower, they only had statistically insignificant muscle loss in the second non-training week.
Also, most people can take a one-week vacation, lose zero muscle, and come back stronger. What CAN happen? Your muscles may feel flatter. Psychologically, this might trick your brain into thinking that you’re losing muscle.
By reducing inflammation and water retention you can feel smaller and looser. This can further reinforce the belief that you’re losing your gains. But you aren’t. Especially if you keep up (or increase) protein and carbs.
Does That Mean I Don’t Train At All?
You can do that. If you’re showing signs of low adrenaline (loss of motivation, decreased strength and power, softer muscles) that might be a good idea.
But if you simply want to re-sensitize your muscles to weight training, you can keep doing some activity. Here’s what you can do:
Mobility and movement work
This is the perfect time to do it if you’ve been neglecting it. You’ll come back to lifting with a better movement capacity. It can be done daily.
Sprints, jumps, and throws
They’ll keep your nervous system efficient and will help with strength even more when you get back to the gym. Most people should sprint or jump provided they have no limitations. It can be one once or twice in the reload period.
Highly underrated! Because it’s not hard, people assume it has no benefit unless someone is really out-of-shape. Not true. If anything, it’s a great stress reliever, which will be useful during a deload or reload period. It can also help with recovery by increasing blood flow without increasing stress hormones or causing trauma to the body. It can and should be done daily.
There’s a lot to be said about having a stronger, more efficient cardiovascular system. For the natural lifter, having a better cardiovascular system helps build muscle.
The muscle you have requires blood flow. The more muscle you have, the harder the heart must work. Your body won’t allow you to add muscle it can’t support safely. So, being in better shape will help you build more muscle. Furthermore, asking your muscles to work in a completely different way than when you lift will re-sensitize them even faster than doing nothing. Cardio can be done 3-4 times in the reload period.
Volleyball, basketball, boxing, golf, etc. Staying active and asking your muscles to work differently than when you lift will speed up re-sensitization while keeping you sane. Just keep an eye on energy levels and recovery.
Stay active, but remember that the reload week is also a deload. If you run yourself into the ground via other types of training, you’re not better off.
Lose the Fear, Get the Gains
Training reduction, or even stopping training for a week or two, can be frightening for most of us. But you will gain more muscle in the mid and long term.
Now, some lifters are addicted to training and they don’t want to suffer withdrawal. I understand. I was a stimulus addict most of my life. But the more I learn the more I realize you can either be addicted to training or addicted to gaining.
Being addicted to training certainly gives you the drive to get great gains at first. But it prevents you from using strategies that would allow you to gain more to reach your potential.
You haven’t progressed in months? Most likely, it’s because your body is becoming less responsive to training. Doing more is not the answer for the dedicated lifter. Instead, get reloaded.