If you had asked me early on in my lifting career what I thought of deloading, or periods of lowered volume and/or intensity in order to increase recovery, I’d have groaned, rolled my eyes, and begrudgingly told you that “Yes, I use them” in the same way that I also brush my teeth every night and take my vitamins in the mornings. They aren’t particularly sexy, but more often than not are an entirely necessary part of seeing progress. They’re boring, but useful, right?
Well, I’m actually not so sure.
Now before anyone here starts having a fit and throws a fistful of academic papers at me letting me know how incredibly wrong I am, let me be the first to acknowledge that planning for periods of lowered absolute & relative intensities in training is absolutely necessary to seeing progress, and that nothing that we can conceive of in our known universe can simply expand without limit – strength training is no exception to this. We can only squeeze so many kilograms out of a development cycle or two before we accrue too much aggregate fatigue in our system, and slowly see diminished returns from our effort until we start to reach a baseline of recovery again.
My issue is less with the concept of deloading, and more with the execution of it, which is where I believe that we as coaches and strength athletes can simply be doing so much better to get results for our clients, athletes, and ourselves.
What I’d like to dive into straight away is a critique of many routinely accepted models of deloading training blocks, namely the old 50% volume OR 50% load trick. Somehow this has crept its way into the lexicon of commonly accepted training practices and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.
Most deloading protocols follow a pattern that looks somewhat like this (for the sake of this argument, let’s just assume this is a straight hypertrophy block, which is more or less how we were instructed to design things when I very first started as a PT anyway):
4-6 Weeks @ RPE 8
4-6 Weeks @ RPE 9 or higher
1-2 Weeks @ 50% Volume/Intensity
Rinse/Repeat ad Infinitum
So we end up with an 8-12 week block + 1-2 weeks of deload, which on paper seems fine. But the issue here is that it holds next to no room for movement or freedom, and certainly doesn’t factor in the individual to your training and programming selections. It should come as no shock to you that some people can quite simply push harder for longer, extending their ability to perform at a higher level for 3 to potentially even 4 development blocks at a time (typically lighter female lifters), whereas others (heavier male lifters) may only be able to train at a high intensity for 4-6 weeks before things start to go south.
Within that same approach to individualising the length of a training cycle for a lifter should also come the idea that we must then also individualise the deload for that lifter, and how we approach that deload. The idea that we simply cut volume in half is an easy enough option for a template, but for the majority of our time we are actually working 1:1 with people – we need to do better.
Put simply, the goal of the deload is to resensitize the lifter to the effects of training, and re-create a novel training stimulus.
OR IN OTHER WORDS
Think back to the time when you get the absolute most out of your training, especially if you’re someone that has been training for 5+ years – what was the period that you saw the greatest growth and most apparent change? The answer is likely when you very first started. The first weeks, months and even the first year or two of your training are going to be when your body is at its prime for receiving new information and responding to new stressors. It will be at the peak of its adaptive processes, readily taking in training stress to rapidly produce adaptations, so long as the programming is halfway reasonable and there is a semblance of consistency to the training
The goal of each de-load cycle should not be to simply take your training from a period of over-reached to very much under-reached, because this is simply too short sighted. For too long, we seem to have put the cart before the horse in terms of how we view training recovery. When we look at a de-load of training stress as an opportunity to increase recovery, we aren’t positioning ourselves well to push into further training, which often causes us to take the wrong approach to reducing training stress – we slash it in half, because we are trying to reduce stress because that’s what we have been told is bad.
Is that true to an extent? Yeah, sure, kind of, but it’s really only a half-truth at best. Your washout or de-load period will likely come at a point where your training is feeling over-reached, but if the only goal was to reduce training stress, then why not just sit on the couch for a week and crush Pringles & Tim-Tams? Well, sometimes that might not actually be the single worst idea in the world, but we probably want to minimise that because it leads to poor adaptation and kills training momentum.
Are you starting to see where I am going with this?
We need to instead start to look at how we can begin to chain these periods of highly specific, high intensity training with low specificity, lowered relative intensity training. This is where the need for an individual approach is crucial.
It’s here that I actually have no intention of being prescriptive at all in suggesting how you approach a washout cycle for an athlete, or for your own training, other than to say that the best possible way to approach is to LISTEN to them and SEE what they respond best to. Rather than taking the same movements as before, and slashing volume, take this as a 2 week period of training that will demand a high level of technical execution. Take movement variations that demand lower bar loads, apply tempo or extended pause work, and focus on muscle driven isolation movement for accessory work that, again, requires your lifter to reduce total bar load and therefore total stress, but allows them to feel as though they’re keeping a certain level of sharpness to their training.
Or you could take a different approach, and some lifters may respond better to circuit style work that is more focused on cardiac output – this in itself will still require a lower bar load, lowered systemic stress, and allow the lifter to change the training stimulus so that when they come back to a block of higher specificity two weeks later, their response will be, again, sharper (rather than dull and desensitized).
I find success with my lifters by applying a mixture of both methods, and refining it over time, but I absolutely take umbrage with the idea that the best solution is to arbitrarily drop volume or intensity by a percentage. This focus too much on what the person is feeling in the moment – instead, reframe the conversation and focus on the de-load or washout weeks being the crucial launching pad for future training progress.