When you're trying hard to gain muscle and strength, you must train with a high level of effort, dedication, and intent. You also need a sufficient amount of volume to stimulate physiological adaptations. That type and amount of training can take its toll on both the body and the nervous system.
Old injuries can flare up, new ones can start to appear, and delayed onset muscle soreness might linger longer than usual. You might even begin to notice that your libido, along with your motivation to train, plummets. Not surprisingly, your mood might also start to sour.
Enter the deload, the solution to all training problems!
You decrease training stress by reducing the weights you're lifting, the number of sets you're doing, or the days you're spending in the gym. You can even exchange your exercises for less demanding ones. You do that for a week and then you feel better. Performance starts to go up again. But...
- What if you're feeling fine?
- What if you're showing no signs of fatigue or stagnation, or no aches or pains?
- Should you deload just because a training plan instructs you to?
- Wouldn't it be more useful to keep training hard and continue to ride the gains train?
- What does a deload even do, precisely?
Let's consider all those questions, along with examining some of the best ways to accomplish a successful deload.
The old theory about deloading has to do with a phenomenon called supercompensation. You overload the body so that there's a decrement in performance and then you allow it to rest. Nutrient levels and neurotransmitter levels supposedly swing back up and end up higher than they would typically be, allowing you to get a boost in performance.
But that only happens to glycogen stores, not to the factors that play a crucial role in lifting performance. As such, the method is moderately useful for endurance sports, but not so much for lifting.
Strength training performance is just not as reliant on glycogen stores as endurance activities. And unless your carb levels are extremely low, you likely will not achieve the level of glycogen depletion that would lead to supercompensation.
Deloading also doesn't supercompensate neurotransmitter levels, but it is true that a deload will help if you're noticing symptoms of fatigue and your performance is going down.
It has to do with beta-adrenergic receptor sensitivity. These are the receptors that interact with adrenaline to excite the nervous system. When they're activated, your mental awareness and focus increases, you're more competitive and energetic, and your heart beats faster and stronger. Activated receptors also allow your muscles to contract harder and faster so you're more efficient at executing movements.
If your training is excessive, or if the combination of exercise and day-to-day stress is high, cortisol goes up and these receptors can downregulate. This down-regulation means that you lose your capacity to respond to your adrenaline and your motivation, focus, and performance go down.
When you include a deloading week in a weight-training program, the beta-adrenergic receptors recover the lost sensitivity and once again respond more strongly to adrenaline. This will increase strength, speed, motivation, and focus, among other things.
Deloading is a tool. It's used to recover beta-adrenergic sensitivity reduced by high cortisol levels. If you don't suffer from such an issue, the deload won't do anything for your performance.
The training factors that can increase cortisol are:
- Volume. One of the main functions of cortisol is the mobilization of stored energy. More work means a greater need for fuel, which requires a more significant release of cortisol, which then increases adrenaline.
- Intensiveness. The harder you push a set, the more stressful it becomes. The closer you go to failure, the more cortisol you release.
- Psychological stress. When a load or an exercise intimidates you, it can also create a stress response that will lead to higher cortisol levels. Examples include attempting a PR or having a previous injury that makes you insecure about doing a movement.
- Neurological demands. The more familiar and efficient you are with an exercise, the less stressful it is on the nervous system. More complex movements, however, require a greater focus and mental awareness and in turn create stress.
- Density. Shorter rest intervals also lead to higher adrenaline levels, which require a more significant release of cortisol.
A training program that has a high level of several of these factors is more likely to cause "overtraining." If you only check one or two of these boxes, your chances of getting into an overtraining state are much lower.
But let's look at how the average lifter works out. I'm talking about the regular Joe you see at the commercial gym. They usually do not push hard, using perhaps a RPE (rate of perceived exertion) of around 7. They pretty much stick to "comfortable" exercises they love, along with higher reps to get "the pump." They usually chat a lot during rest periods.
The only thing they do that might lead to a high cortisol level is excessive volume, but regardless, few of these guys do anything in the gym to cause beta-adrenergic down-regulation.
However, if you're someone who does train hard, you might need to deload every once in a while. If you're brutal in the gym and you live a stressful life, chances are that you will need more frequent deloads.
While making generalizations can be problematic, we can safely say that:
- If you're experiencing just one of the cortisol-raising variables listed above, you probably don't need to deload... unless you have a stressful life, in which case a deload every 6th or 8th week might be justified.
- If two to three variables are high (or one or two are high and one or two are moderate) you will likely require a deload every 6th week, but perhaps even more often if you also live a stressful life.
- If four or five of the variables are elevated, then a deload every 4th week might be needed, even every 3rd week if you have a lot of outside stress.
Deloading can be an essential part of your plan, but doing it too often can decrease your progression. Conversely, waiting for too long might make you regress or invite injury.
The most important thing to understand when it comes to deloading: You need to decrease adrenaline, which is accomplished by reducing cortisol. You can do that by lowering any one or more of the five previously mentioned variables. The more severe your fatigue is, the more variables you need to decrease at the same time.
If you want to do a precautionary deload to re-establish proper receptor sensitivity, a reduction of one variable – preferably volume, intensiveness, or psychological stress – will be sufficient.
But if you start to see a reduction in performance and show symptoms of fatigue, you will need to lower two variables, maybe three. And if you feel like total crap, have no motivation to train, and have a drop in libido, you'll need to lower three or four, possibly even five variables.
Here's what deloading each variable looks like:
- Deloading via volume reduction. We can either lower the number of sets or the number of exercises. The goal is a volume reduction of around 40-50%. As far as sets, you could reduce them from 4 per movement down to 2. If you choose instead to reduce the number of exercises, you could skip the assistance work and stick only to the major lifts of the session.
- Deloading via reduction of intensiveness. This refers to decreasing the RPE for your work sets. It's straightforward: Just reduce the number of reps you did for each set from your last workout without lowering the weight. For example, if you did four sets of 6 reps with 200 pounds on the bench press during your last workout, you'd now do four sets of 3-4 reps with 200 pounds.
- Deloading via a reduction in psychological stress/intensity. This is the most common type of deload. You decrease the training weight while maintaining the number of sets and reps. A decrease of 15-20% is the norm, but you might need a greater one if you're starting to have some aches and pains. For example, you could go from four sets of 6 reps at 200 pounds to four sets of 6 with 170 pounds.
- Deloading via a reduction in neurological demands. Switch from more complex, more demanding exercises to simpler ones that hit the same muscle group(s). For example, go from squats to machine hack squats, deadlifts to Romanian deadlifts, or bench presses to machine chest presses, etc.
- Deloading by reducing density. This is the mildest form of deload, used mostly in CrossFit training. Just increase the rest intervals between sets. Decreasing density also means not doing any type of circuit or exercise combos. The less your heart rate increases during the workout, the better.
While restoring beta-adrenergic receptor sensitivity is the main way deloading can improve performance, there are other potential benefits:
- Decreased inflammation. If you continuously lift heavy weights, it's possible to develop aches and pains that can range from being minor inconveniences to being debilitating to the point of having to change exercises. Lowering the amount of weight you use during a deload can help heal you.
- Improved testosterone (or estrogen) to cortisol ratio. Cortisol, testosterone, and estrogen are made from the same mother hormone (pregnenolone). An overproduction of cortisol can lower pregnenolone levels, thus lowering testosterone or estrogen levels, so a reduction in cortisol, via a deload, can help restore sex hormone production.
- Enhanced immune system. If cortisol is unchecked, it can impair the immune system and make you more prone to illnesses. On top of that, the immune system is necessary for muscle repair. By improving it, you increase your capacity to repair and build muscle.
- Increased muscle glycogen stores. While this isn't as important for lifters as it is for endurance athletes, it can still lead to increased strength and performance during hypertrophy workouts. The impact on strength, however, has to do with muscle volumization – a fuller muscle can create passive joint stability (especially at the shoulder joint), which will increase strength.
- Improved mental state. Training hard all the time, taking short rest intervals, and chasing performance can take its toll on your motivation. After a while, you might even stop enjoying your workouts, but liking what you do is vital to sustaining motivation. A deload can be a welcome mental break that allows you to stay hungry.
It is possible that a deload could kill your motivation or discipline. When you're on a roll, everything is dialed in, and backing off might be extremely anti-climatic, so much so that you might not be able to get back into the same zone as you were before the deload.
That is all the more reason to plan your deloads smartly. Only deload when you need it, and use the type and intensity that will give you what you need but still allow you to stay focused.