Most fitness enthusiasts will tell you that the most dreaded part of their training program is the training deload.
Even the thought of taking your foot off the gas and coasting in the gym can be agonizing when you’re so used to tearing it up and going beast mode during your workouts.
But, training deloads are actually a really smart idea if you want to avoid injury and keep making gains from your training program.
A deload helps your body recover and eliminate the fatigue that may be hindering your fitness. For example, it’s quite common for my powerlifting athletes to struggle with a certain weight in the gym, only to lift a hundred pounds more on meet day after a proper deload.
However, these kinds of results are only possible if you deload properly. So, let’s talk about how to structure one in order to get the most out of it!
Intensity Reduction Deload Method
No matter what strategy you employ for your deload, the main goal is to decrease the amount of stress you are putting on your body from your normal training habits.
As you can imagine, there are quite a few ways to do this. One excellent way would be what I call the Intensity Reduction Method. With this method, you keep your training schedule the same but decrease the intensity of the workouts themselves.
Essentially, you do your normal workout except you decrease the amount of weight you lift and the RPE for each exercise.
Normally, I instruct my clients to decrease their normal weight by 10-20% while doing the same number of reps. This naturally decreases the intensity and RPE by 2-3 points as well.
For example, let’s say you are doing 3 sets of 6-8 reps on the overhead press. Let’s also assume that you normally use 155 pounds at around an RPE of 8-9. During an intensity deload, you would still do 3 sets of 6-8 reps except you would only use 125-135 pounds. This would bring your RPE down to maybe a 5 or 6 and cut down the overall stress on your body significantly.
Volume Reduction Deload Method
Although the intensity reduction method works really well, some people, especially strength sports athletes, don’t do so well with it because they find that they lose some strength from using such light weights.
So, another way which I call the Volume Reduction Method, is to reduce the number of sets, exercises, or training days in the program but keep the intensity the same.
Normally, I instruct someone to cut their normal volume in half compared to their normal program. But, they keep using nearly the same amount of weight that they were using in training up to that point.
For example, let’s say you normally do 4 sets of 5 with 225 pounds on bench press. During the deload you would only do 2 sets of 5 at 225 pounds. That way your RPE will stay about the same but you would reduce the total work and stress on your nervous system.
Additionally, I might eliminate some of the accessory work from your program during a deload week or consolidate your program from, say, 4 training days to just 2-3. It all depends on how overreached you are and how you tend to respond to training deloads.
How To Make Deloads Less Boring
Now, a lot of people will have a hard time staying motivated during a deload given the “easier” training style. But just because the weight or the volume is reduced, doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to get better!
Instead of going through the motions:
- Take the time to work on your lifting form when the weight is lighter.
- Try out some new lifting cues or techniques that could lead to better training in the future.
- Try out new exercises/mobility drills to see what you can do to improve your training going forward.
All of these things can keep your head in the game and give you something fun to focus on during this otherwise “boring” time.
Deloads Aren’t Always Enough
There are instances when deloads aren’t sufficient for recovering from your training. Instead, staying out of the gym completely is necessary in order to give your body the rest it needs.
This most often happens with athletes clients who need a total break from training after their competitions. But, you don’t need to be a competitor in order to warrant complete rest!
Just like it sounds, you won’t be doing any formal training during this time. However, that doesn’t mean you have to lay in bed all day.
I often encourage clients to stay “recreationally active” during these types of weeks. Some examples of things you can do include:
- Going on walks
- Doing some stretching or yoga
- Taking a swim
- Going for a hike
- Playing a friendly game pick-up basketball, volleyball, and the like
But it is a good idea to limit how hard you push yourself during those activities. Don’t go hiking the grand canyon from rim to rim or doing your best Michael Phelps impression in the pool. Keep things light to moderate and just enjoy moving your body.
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When Should You Deload?
At this point, you might be wondering when you should take a training deload.
Well, it would be nice if there was a tried and true answer for this. Unfortunately, knowing when to take a deload is more of an art than a science.
Some people can go months without a deload. Others will find themselves in need of a one after just a few weeks of really hard training. Fortunately, there are some reliable signs that you can look out for which include:
- Feeling less energetic and unmotivated to workout
- Changes in hunger (feeling starving or not having an appetite)
- Having an unusually hard time sleeping or falling asleep
- A marked drop in libido
- Getting sick or having more aches/pains/injuries creep up
The more of these symptoms you experience, the more confident you should be that you need to take a break.
How Long Should a Deload Last?
As far as how long a deload should last, most people do well with 5-7 days. But, if you engage in really intense training like crossfit, powerlifting, strongman, or obstacle course races, 10-14 days may be necessary. This is especially true after you complete some sort of competition or event.
It isn’t uncommon for me to give my clients a deload going into a competition followed by a complete week off afterward.
Again, this is more of an art than a science since everyone will respond differently. But you can use those signs/symptoms I listed above to guide your practice. Once you feel yourself getting back to normal, it might be time to get back to normal training.
Of course, you’ll need to fine-tune this over time as you learn what works best for you!
Training deloads may not be the most fun part of your program but it sure as heck beats getting injured and not being able to train at all. By deloading properly, you can avoid that fate and keep yourself on track to make more gains.
There are quite a few ways to deload but the intensity and/or volume reduction methods are, in my opinion, the best. However, sometimes complete rest is better when you’re really beat up or stressed out.
In any case, you can still use your deload sessions to get better. Whether it be refining your lifting technique or making progress on some of your other hobbies and life events, training deloads don’t have to mean stalling entirely.
And of course, if you think you need some help setting up your program for the best results, head over to our Online Coaching page and browse the options we have available!