What the Heck is a Deload?
Plain and simple, a deload is a short planned period of recovery. You take your training slightly lighter, maybe workout a little less, and generally just ease things back. A typical deload will last a week.
To the uninitiated outsider, deloads seem like a waste of time or an excuse to sit on your butt for a week, watching TV instead of hitting the gym and shifting some heavy lumps of iron.
Not so fast.
What if deloads could actually be just what your workouts need? The secret ingredient to take your training from good to awesome. Feeling banged up, demotivated, or stuck in a training plateau? Adding a deload will do you the world of good and propel you on to greater gym gains.
How Do I Deload?
The most common method of deloading is just to reduce your poundages. As a guide, all your sets should be performed at around 40-60% of your 1RM. This doesn’t mean you go hell for leather and bust out a ton of reps either. The loads are light and the reps and sets are low. That’s the whole idea of a deload – you just gotta chill and take it easy.
A less popular option is to keep your weights more or less the same, but greatly reduce your volume. Say for instance your regular training program calls for five sets of five squats with 275 pounds. Under a normal deload, you’d probably do your five sets of five at around 155 to 175 pounds. With a volume deload though, you could stick at 275 and hit a couple of singles or doubles, or just go for one set of five reps.
This approach does work better for some people. Particularly competitive strength athletes who find performance suffers when they don’t have a heavy load on their back or in their hands week in, week out.
A more obscure, though equally effective way to deload is to change your exercise selection. This is harder to regulate but definitely has its advantages. As an example, Dave Tate advises taking four to six weeks after a powerlifting meet where you perform no barbell exercises whatsoever. This might sound a little extreme, but it can be particularly beneficial to do this after a long period of intense training and heavy poundages, or after a competition, just to give your body a break.
Finally, individual lift deloads work a treat when one lift is suffering, but the others are going along great guns. Say for example you just can’t get past a plateau on your squat, but all your other main and accessory lifts are increasing week on week and you’re feeling great. Taking a week off everything would be counterproductive, so just drop the weight on your troublesome lift, hit a few easy sets a couple of times and work on nailing your form and technique.
When to Deload
First thing’s first, if you’re following a pre-designed program, you deload when you’re told to. There’s no point following the weight, set, rep and exercise guidelines laid down by the Juggernaut Method, 5/3/1 or any other program you’re performing if you’re ignoring all the advice on deloading.
If you’re planning your own training though, there are a few key signs to look out for as an indication of when you should implement a deload:
Getting Weaker – No one wants to get weaker. It’s kind of the opposite of why we train. When your lifts are suffering, particularly on your low rep work, it could indicate you’re starting to overreach and your central nervous system is getting a little bummed. The solution? Have a week of downtime and take a deload.
Sore Joints – You’re going to get the odd injury from time to time and a little soreness is part and parcel of the wonderful world of the iron game. But being in constant pain, having your knees scream at you every time you squat, your elbows not playing ball when pressing, or your hips giving you grief just from walking up the stairs is not good. You’ll probably need a good dose of foam rolling, stretching and a trip to your physio or sports massage therapist, but combine this with a deload and your body will thank you.
After a Meet – We’ve already touched on this slightly, but if you’ve just competed in a powerlifting, weightlifting or strongman event, or even a CrossFit competition, it’s definitely time to deload.
People seriously underestimate how much mental and physical stress you put your body through in competition, so play it smart and take a deload. A little personal side note here:
I competed in my first powerlifting meet in the summer of 2012. The competition was on a Saturday and I had to cut a few pounds to make weight, which meant cutting water and sodium and going a whole day with virtually no food. Combine that with stressing about the three-hour drive to the venue, my nervousness about it being my first competition, listening for the calls, meeting other competitors and so on, plus the actual physical stress of trying to set PBs, and that’s a whole lot of pressure. After the (fortunately successful) meet, I was pumped and hit the gym the next day for a full-on session. Three days later I was in bed with the flu.
Coincidence? Maybe. But I’m pretty sure not deloading following the meet was almost solely responsible for my illness. Heed my advice, don’t try to be a hero – deload fully after a meet.
Can I Skip the Deload?
In a word – no. It’s horrid having to take things easy. If you’re in any way serious about your training, going a week without hitting the iron with a vengeance and having to take things light is a thousand times more painful than the most grueling Smolov squat workout. In the long run, though, deloading is without a doubt the smart thing to do.
This is certainly the case for beginners and intermediate lifters. When you’re a little more experienced, and know what your body responds best to, maybe you can skip the odd deload, push it back a few weeks, or cut it a few days short if you know you’re fully recovered, but for now, keep it in.