One Step Back
It’s easy enough to accept the message that you have to train harder to see better strength gains. The old pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It makes sense, and it taps into that lingering suspicion that you’ve been coasting through your existence in the gym.
Almost as a rule, we all like being told we need more gas pedal.
But suppose you were told that the route to the top required you to cut back on all your lifts and train less?
That’s a move that takes guts.
And yet, it’s absolutely true. If you really want to see optimal progress across the big lifts, you need to treat the deload week as an unavoidable necessity.
When Progressive Overload Stops Working
Strength training isn’t one unbroken path to the top. It shouldn’t need saying, but unfortunately, it’s a fact of the iron game that still escapes lifters. In an ideal world, you could progress your big three week by week, adding a smidgen of weight at a time. A simple effective strategy known fondly as progressive overload.
If you’re a rank beginner, this could work, at least until you were no longer a rank beginner. Eventually, you have to wrap up the honeymoon period. Progressive overload stops being so reliable, and those incessant gains begin to dry up. The little line that could, flattens out into a screeching halt.
Suppose you had enough self-awareness to notice that the squat hadn’t budged in a month. Most don’t, but the fact that you’re reading this blog suggests you like posing questions. So do you press on, or switch things up? Let’s say you’ve been following my powerbuilding series.
A programme like DUP could vary the intensities enough to get past the repeated bout effect, by stopping the stress of training from getting too predictable. Switching to DUP also tends to provide more frequency for the big lifts, which would help you hone in on the skill component.
It might also be that you’re simply not making the most of the mechanism that actually produces muscle growth. In other words, ensuring that your working sets are taken to close proximity to failure. Effort matters, and the majority of lifters simply don’t train hard enough.
But despite the fact that both variety and effort are levers that will almost certainly help you break past plateaus, there will inevitably come a point where neither of these fail-safes can produce the goods and shift you back into upward motion. Because there has been a growing cost to all that heavy lifting. A debt that won’t go away until it’s paid.
When you reach a point where your big lifts plateau over 3 or more weeks, you might need to seriously consider cutting back on the lifting and letting the body recharge back to peak capacity.
Is Ovetraining A Myth?
We shouldn’t dance around the fact that many of our favourite health-focused habits inflict significant doses of stress on the body. Fasting, ketosis, cold exposure, and giant barbells are all potent sources of stress. While it’s a critical component of becoming stronger, stress has a dark side. If the dose regularly stretches beyond your ability to recover, it ends up masking your true performance.
In the case of weight training, there’s a ton of metabolic waste, muscle damage, and systemic fatigue being produced with each hard session. If you’re making a regular habit of lifting heavy and taking it within close proximity of failure, that stress is going to build up relatively quickly. Sooner or later, you won’t have a chance of training at peak capacity, which is a shame when your programme is instructing you to max out every Tuesday.
This isn’t the term overtraining that you might have heard bandied about by worried relatives. That’s a rare phenomenon that’s generally reserved for elite athletes who haul their bodies across the brink, grab a quick shake, then make their way back to the starting blocks. It’s a level of volume and intensity that regular Joe gym rats won’t come close to touching.
Overtraining as a medical textbook shows it, involves running into alarming symptoms like heart palpitations and rampant insomnia. But that doesn’t mean overtraining is a myth as far as we’re concerned.
It is very much a possibility, just a watered-down version with milder symptoms. It’s not going to put you in the hospital, but it can definitely rain on your chances of getting a deadlift PR over the next few months.
- Chronic fatigue
- No explosiveness
- Persistent muscle soreness
- No enthusiasm for bending barbells
- Strength plateau
The fact is, accumulate enough fatigue, and your performance will suffer. Hold the gas down for long enough, and your chances of strains and injuries go up significantly. You never get to see what peak performance feels like. Stress and mechanical tension exist in a delicate balance, and sometimes you’ll need to pull back and redraw the battle lines.
When And How Do You Deload?
A deload is a real viable way to maximise performance by removing built-up fatigue and giving the joints some respite. There’s no set figure for the frequency of the deload. It could be every six weeks, every twelve, or even sixteen at a push. It’s very much dependent on the intensity of the programme and the fitness and fatigue-management of the lifter. But to streamline the process, it’s worth slotting the deload in between training programmes. So if you’re following a DUP phase that wave-loads up over 12 weeks, you might as well aim to bring in the deload before and at the end of those 12 weeks.
That being said, there’s always room for exceptions. If you’re halfway through, and the lifts haven’t budged over 3 weeks, then it might be time to break the glass.
Perhaps the lifts are feeling clunky, and the joints are sore. Or maybe you’re feeling wiped out and lack any explosiveness on the platform.
Each of these are valid reasons to bring in a deload. Just don’t start seeking it out the moment progress stops. Be patient, give it at least 3 weeks, then panic.
A period of 8-14 days appears to be the ideal length for a deload. During this stage, you cut back on your lifts and let the body recover. Turn off the screech metal if you have to. But what you probably shouldn’t do, is take the week off. If you have a holiday booked in a remote island without access to a gym that goes over 10kg dumbbells, then fair enough. You’re not risking much. But if you’re able, get in and continue to train.
Now there are two ways to cut back on the lifts. First is the classic option, intensity, or weight on the bar. Then there’s volume, the equation of weight x reps. Most people appear to opt for the former, since it makes sense to drop the weight when you’re feeling beat up.
But the research actually supports the idea of reducing volume while maintaining or even increasing intensity. An earlier study from 1992 showed a high intensity deload resulting in increased force production, muscle glycogen content, and mitochondrial function.
If that seems a little confusing, intensity over volume is supported by the physiological fact that high volume actually causes more systemic fatigue than lifting heavy weight. So it would make sense, in the event of a deload, you’d drop the one that was causing the most stress.
Volume itself only needs to be at 1/3rd of the original amount to retain muscle. You can cut back drastically without suffering any drawbacks. Just as long as you continue to lift heavy.
By prioritising weight on the bar, you’ll retain the neuromuscular strength adaptations, while making the most of the receding fatigue. You might even be able to set a lifetime PB while you’re off recuperating.
That certainly makes the idea of a deload a little more enticing.
The Deload Prescription
- Use every 8-12 weeks, or at the end of a programme of similar length
- Also can be used when you’ve stalled over 3+ weeks, or showing symptoms of overtraining
- Should be done for around 8-14 days
- Volume gets cut down to 40-60%
- While the weight stays level or even goes higher