What's a Deload?
Deloading is a major part of most strength training plans. You train for three weeks, deload for one, then get back to training hard again.
That week of recovery is meant to keep you from getting burned out or overtrained. You do it by scaling back on volume and intensity: you still train, but you do fewer reps/sets, or you back off the heavy stuff. Then, ideally, you get stronger and make gains.
Sounds good on paper, but in the real world there's a better way to view the deload and plan your training. But first we've gotta talk about why the deload even exists and what it does.
Once muscular and neural adaptation have been met, gains tend to come to a halt. This is where deloading and recovery come in. To get the most out of deloading we need to delve into adaptation. What does that even mean?
As the body adapts to loading, it uses fewer and fewer motor units to move the same weights in a given pattern (the exercise itself). This is why, to get stronger, you have to lift heavier and heavier loads, or you have to move the same weight with greater speed, which will also activate more motor units.
Adaptation to strength, power, and muscular growth all have different physiological mechanisms that improve or increase them:
- Strength: The maximal amount of weight you can move. Strength has a neural component associated with improved motor unit recruitment of the prime movers in an exercise.
- Power: The maximal speed you can move a load. This is related to an increase in rate coding: the speed at which a neural impulse travels down a motor neuron leading to the activation of the working muscles.
- Hypertrophy: The maximal amount of muscle growth. This is what occurs from an increase in muscle protein over time due to the repair of micro-trauma to the muscle from mechanical tension or metabolic stress.
There's some overlap in all of these areas. But if you understand the differences in strength, power, and hypertrophy, you'll also understand that...
- A muscle can get stronger without actually getting larger.
- A muscle can get larger without getting maximally strong.
A larger muscle has to potential for an increase in strength, but until maximal strength is practiced, it won't be actualized.
This is why you should prioritize one thing in your training instead of trying to ride two horses with one ass. Most lifters seek to build multiple factors at once, without realizing that they're ultimately achieving less than they would if they'd just focus on one thing – strength gains or muscle gains.
You can't build maximum muscle size and maximum strength at the same time. Maximum strength and power have greater neural components associated with them than maximum muscular size does with either.
Without recovery, there will be no major improvement in either performance or muscle gain. And this is why the deload is so important. It's meant to circumvent "recovery debt."
But neural adaptions to strength can continue for months on end, especially if you're not overreaching in your training. The problems arise when systemic or muscular fatigue sets in.
Systemic fatigue is a recovery debt related to decreased neural output by the nervous system. It ultimately decreases a muscle's ability to perform. The more times you tap into the sympathetic nervous system, the deeper the recovery debt becomes.
Muscular fatigue is different. It's associated with a depletion of things like ATP, glycogen, proteins, etc. which impair the muscles' ability to perform or recover. A depleted muscle isn't going to perform at a high level, and a fatigued nervous system won't allow the muscle to produce much force.
In both instances, recovery would be defined as regaining homeostasis after it has been disrupted, or a return to baseline of these various physiological states. In essence, fatigue at either the muscular or nervous system level will impair performance and/or growth. This is why it's vital to get the proper nutrients and manage stress (both in the gym and outside of it) to reduce neural output.
Lastly, you can't overlook the psychological factor involved in training. You could be recovering from training at both the systemic and muscular level, but just be tired of training a certain way.
If you've been doing 20-rep squats for weeks on end and are still getting stronger and eating enough to fuel growth, you could still hit a mental wall even though you're recovering at a physiological level.
Everyone has different degrees of tolerance to intensity. Hard training can be sustained by some for long periods at a time. For others, not so much. This is an area that can't be dismissed when it comes to creating productive training and implementing a deload or time off.
You should approach training for competition differently than you would training for every day life – looking good naked, being jacked, or improving overall health.
If you're just hitting the gym to gain more strength or increase your chances of getting a date, then using a training modality that an elite strength athlete uses makes about as much sense as purchasing a Viper ACR as your grocery-getter. Especially when you're a parent of three.
Sure, you can and you'll look cool doing it, but it's truly not efficient for your lifestyle. Those two kids riding on the outside of the car might also bring attention to the local authorities.
A gym bro that wants a bit more muscle and a bit more strength should really ask himself if his training approach is congruent with his goals, training experience, and lifestyle. If you're working 60 hours a week at a high stress job, then you probably have no business eyeballing a training program that requires you to train six days a week, twice a day. You're not preparing for the Olympics, Brad.
For competitive athletes, there's often a timeline associated with competition, so training should be adjusted to peak for the competition. That means taking a planned deload after a period of purposely overreaching in training to create supercompensation. The key principles here are the timeline and goals. That itself will create an adjustment in training.
The gym bro doesn't need to train like the competitive bro. It's not necessary and won't benefit his lifestyle. Even if he wants to look like the competitive bro, his approach should make sense within the context of his life.
To meet the demands for recovery you have to bring one of three training variables down. If volume and frequency are high, then intensity should be low. If frequency and intensity are high, then volume must be low.
One way to "deload" without much deloading is to simply change the training stimulus. If you've been training high volume and high frequency, then reducing volume and frequency can be what you need to move past a plateau. If you've plateaued or are just feeling mentally drained from the current training plan, then adjusting your variables is often enough to move you out of Rutsville.
Let's say you've been training for six weeks like this:
- Frequency: Four days a week
- Split: Upper body, lower body, upper body, lower body
- Volume: 5-8 working sets per muscle group
Then at the six-week mark, assess everything – mind and body. If you're seeing a decline in rep PRs, or progress has stalled, the best solution may not be a traditional deload. Often, a slight change in the movement that has stagnated will be enough to spur you on past a plateau.
For example, swapping out squats for safety-bar squats, or even changing the rep ranges you've been using. Little adjustments are often enough to move past a sticking point. This can also be a time to simply scale back on frequency and volume, but increase your "effort" (in this instance defined as intensity).
This reduction in training load can often be the prescription you need to get back on the gain-train again, because it simply restores your performance.
If your body feels trashed, then a true deload at this point is probably the solution. How long of a deload? Get completely out of the gym until you feel like a raging savage again and want to bang your head on the rusty bumper of a 1978 Ford truck in the parking lot before a set of squats.
"How about some light squats and presses during this time?"
What part about getting completely out of the gym did you miss? It means not going into the gym or lifting weights at all during this time. Again, you're not going to lose any real ground over the long haul by taking some serious time off. But guys don't believe this. They start to freak out about losing gains after two days out of the gym. In reality, it doesn't work that way.
"So then why not do the three weeks of training then one week of deloading?"
It's a viable option. But if your goal is maximizing strength, then it can take months to fully adapt to a movement from a neural perspective. Second, why would you take time off after three weeks if you're still in the midst of busting rep PRs?
Remember, the traditional deload in the fourth week is meant to circumvent overtraining. But is it needed if training performance is still on the upswing and your body and mind feel good? Probably not.
This is why the bro that's been training four to six days a week, hitting a body part twice a week for months on end, will often see new gains by scaling back to three times a week with a greater degree of training intensity poured into fewer sets.
Even though he's still training hard, the reduction in frequency and volume can reduce fatigue and allow the gains from the previous months of training to show up. Now he can stretch out this type of training until the gains come to a halt.
The competitive athlete will probably need to plan these types of meso-cycles out in preparation for competition. The gym bro can use some autoregulation to decide when it's time to make these changes. Which leads to this point...
In a 2013 study, one group trained consistently for six months and the other trained in waves of six weeks with three weeks of detraining. Both essentially arrived at the same place after six months in terms of hypertrophy (size gains).
The latest study on German Volume Training showed that 10 sets weren't really any better for growth than 5-6 sets. This also confirms that doing a lot of extra work has no real benefit other than making us tired.
Additionally, a recent study showed that training a muscle group twice a week only yielded minor benefits compared to training a muscle group once per week (bro-split style).
And since we're on a roll, leaving 1-2 reps in the tank, compared to going to complete failure on a set, yields about the same results when it comes to strength, plus it's less demanding of recovery.
When you look at this collectively, it shouldn't be hard to decipher that the best way to create your optimal training philosophy is not to ask how much you can do (and get away with) in the short term, but instead to find the middle ground on all of these variables.
Give up the belief that more is always better. Three sets might be better than one, but six sets might not be better than three. Anything past what stimulates the need for growth or an increase in strength is like putting more gas in your car than the tank can hold. It's a waste.
Ask yourself this: If I had to set up a training plan for the next year, with no planned deloads, how would I structure it to consistently meet recovery?
- What would be my optimal days per week?
- How many sets and exercises would I do per workout?
- What would be my plan for loading and intensity?
The average gym bro should stop trying to push extremes when it comes to training variables because he believes that it's somehow going to catapult him into more muscle and strength. Being consistent with a training dose that he can tolerate for months on end is probably best.
- The three-weeks-on, one-week-off deload plan isn't going to hurt you. But if you're after maximizing strength, then the timeline should probably be longer before you deload. Figure out a training dose for strength that you can stretch out for 8-12 weeks.
- If you're after muscle growth, look for the middle ground when it comes to training load, not finding out the absolute maximum amount you can tolerate for short periods. Over the long haul, your results are going to end up at the same place from a results standpoint. But when you're pushing the envelope, you increase the risk of injury. For most people who are looking to find an overall training load they can tolerate, it will likely be in the range of three times a week, using 8-10 working sets per muscle group per week.
- Use some autoregulation in regards to how your body and mind feel rather than a pre-planned date. Life often takes care of that as well. It will give you forced rest in the way of sickness, injury, vacations, deaths in the family, births in the family, weddings, divorces, getting fired, getting a new job, etc. Most of these things ultimately cause training to take a backseat for a bit.
Powerlifter Kirk Karwoski once told me that during his 12-week peaking cycles for competition, he already knew there would be one week in there where he wouldn't squat or deadlift. He didn't plan it out ahead of time, he just knew it would happen.
- Ogasawara R et al. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Apr;113(4):975-85. PubMed.
- Brigatto FA et al. Effect of Resistance Training Frequency on Neuromuscular Performance and Muscle Morphology after Eight Weeks in Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Aug;33(8):2104-2116. PubMed.
- Amirthalingam T et al. Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Nov;31(11):3109-3119. PubMed.
- Davies T et al. Effect of Training Leading to Repetition Failure on Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Apr;46(4):487-502. PubMed.