Workouts plateauing? Feeling lethargic during consistent workouts but feel like your diet and recovery is on point? Might be time to explore the idea of a deload.
What does deload mean?
The term simply means a planned and structured drop of volume and/or intensity during a training block. To understand the deload concept we travel back in time. Circa 1940, a biochemist named Hans Selye was a well-established researcher in Europe and was specifically researching the triggers behind physiological stress. While researching at McGill University as a assisant professor, he tested with rats and cows and exposed them to environmental stressors and injected them with numerous hormones and found a common response from all of the animals. They all displayed physiological responses such as "adrenal hyperactivity, lymphatic atrophy, and ulcers". He proposed this phenomenon in a three-stage process from start to finish, and later published a paper calling this phenomenon "general adaptation syndrome" or GAS. He was the first researcher to identify stress as a attribute to sickness and disease. He later went on to publish over 1,600 papers in his career. This three step process is displayed in the graph below.
Alarm phase: Environmental stressor has been presented. This can be anything such as the feeling of being late to work, stress from a friendship, etc. But let's keep it within the gym setting.. which is the second we start working out, this alarm phase is now present. We are going from homeostasis (aka peaceful environment, at the start of a workout the autonomic nervous system is in more of a parasympathetic state aka "chillax" state and we have a normal breathing rate, HR, blood flow distribution to all areas of the body to name a few) to now we do cardio for warmup or start our warmup sets of bench press. Suddenly that autonomic nervous system kicks into that "fight or flight" response meaning the sympathetic nervous system is now in charge. HR is elevated, breathing rate goes up, blood vessels dilate, blood flow distributes more to the muscles being used, stress hormones released into circulation to name a few. This process is extremely important in order for the following two steps to occur.
Resistance phase: Environmental stressor remains, but the body now tries to cope with the stressor and do what it can to keep somewhat of a balance between the "chillax" nervous system and "fight or flight" nervous system (autonomic balance between the SNS and PNS). Too much activity of the "fight or flight" system and we ultimately run ourselves into the third phase of GAS.
Exhaustion phase: Exhaustion of our ability to calm down from the stressor which could ultimately lead to a weakened immune system, hyperactivity of organs in the body aka an array of potential health issues that can last for our entire lives. This is why stress management is so important if we have body composition goals (I'll save that tangent for another article because it deserves its own).
So how does this all relate to training and deloading??
Here I present.. ANOTHER GRAPH
Enter the law of supercompensation. This originated from principles pertaining to GAS which is why I prefaced with those concepts. Try to consider the important pieces from the GAS characteristics listed above, because they have a lot of similarities. I'll break down each phase just like I did with the GAS graph above.
Training: We start with our workout (let's use a leg day to paint a picture). We go in and crush a leg workout. The stress that comes from the workout causes a drop in performance relative to our baseline levels in the following 0-72 hours (this is closely related to when the resistance phase occurs of the GAS). The aftermath of a workout leaves the body with microdamage to the muscle fibers from the workout, which would be in our legs after a leg day. Thus, we have a huge demand for all recovery responses to happen such as parasympathetic tone, which helps bring us back to baseline levels and releases hormones to starts the process of recovery for the legs. Once this has started, we now enter the recovery phase.
Recovery: I'll keep this simple. This is the time it takes for us to recover fully from that workout until we are back to baseline levels. The microdamage reconstruction has been completed. We still have somewhat of a fatigued state and this can last for different durations for different people. Someone who is detrained might last in that recovery phase for 1-10 days, and someone who has trained for years might only take less than 48 hours. The recovery phase is most important IMO. The third graph to follow showing what can happen if we don't allow for ample recovery.. hence integrating a deload.
Supercompensation: Cool word huh? This phase is when the body has a surge of potential exertion following the fatigued state and will allow for increased performance markers, whatever it may be which depends on what style of training someone is frequently doing (strength, volume, endurance).
This is a normal flow of stressor, recovery, growth that we undergo daily following a training session. Here's what happens when we neglect the recovery phase.. overtraining.
So that little part of the graph that's red and yellow is one wave of training, recovery, and supercompensation that's listed in the graph above. We can go in one of two ways. Here's what happens when we underestimate how much recovery we need.
That purple path occurs. We continue to go through training, recovery, and "compensation" but it's not super at all.. it's just digging yourself in a deeper hole of sand at the beach that keeps getting filled back up with sand no matter how hard you dig. We can experience phenomena of symptoms from overtraining such as
- Decreased appetite
- Lack of consistent sleep
- Digestion issues
- Lack of concentration
- Extreme soreness
- Rhabdomyolysis (aka your muscle cells literally die and you have to pee them out which can cause kidney failure)
- Imbalances of hormone distribution
- Imbalances of autonomic nervous system aka we can stay in that "fight or flight" mode way longer than we need to, thus affecting our HRV.
..... kind of scary. A lot of people go about their training sessions not knowing they can work themselves to the ground because they are so focused on the present and don't have a plan of attack. You see this happen a ton in the group fitness community that pushes people to do excessive burpees and plyometrics followed by "make sure to come here 5x a week if you really want to see results". Rinse, wash, repeat. And people wonder why their bodies are constantly sore and actually go in the opposite direction with water and fat retention.
Enter the deload
Deloading is a planned decrease in either one of two things in a specific timeframe. Usually deloads last from 3-10 days depending on the activity. Lets use 5 days as an example and my imaginary client "Rob" normally trains with me M-F.
1) Deloading intensity: Deloading the intensity in the strength and conditioning world consists of dropping either the primary exercise of the day or the entire workout intensity by roughly 40-60% of whatever weight is prescribed for the regular training session.
Barbell back squat that's normally completed for 6x4 @ 315lbs would then be cut to 6x4 @ 126-189lbs (40-60%). This would be a great opportunity to address movement faults or bar speed, that way we still get something quality out of the training session. Moving the weight like it's 315 is just as important in the long run as doing the actual set of 315.
2) Deloading volume: Deloading the volume of the primary exercise or the volume of the entire workout. Thus we maintain the intensity we'd do normally in a set and cut out a lot of the working sets and make quicker jumps to our top set weight selection.
Rob's bench pressing 300lbs pretty consistently. Our bench press day consists of 5x7 with 3 of those sets increasing weight until set 4 and 5 top at 300lbs. Deloading volume would more than likely take out 1 build up set and 1 top set (or however you'd prefer it's ultimately up to you). New plan for our deload bench day would be 3x7.
Are either of the two more beneficial than the other?
Classic answer.. well it depends. A ton of factors can play into what option is better. Generally speaking, if i'm working with a beginner and we have a deload week i'm more than likely going to deload intensity, and i'm most likely going for a shorter duration deload because they don't need it as much. A more experienced lifter has the capacity to sustain intensity due to their adaptations already accumulated so i'll more likely deload volume for that person and i'd extend the deload duration a bit longer towards that 7-10 day window.
How to tell when it's time to deload
Most important piece of this article. LISTEN. TO. YOUR. BODY.
- If the body is more sore than usual
- Joints are extremely stiff days after you completed the workout and they normally wouldn't feel that way for that long
- Stress levels are extremely high from lifestyle (we cannot live life in a stressed state 24/7 and expect ANY results to come from training)
- After completing a training block and are getting ready to start another one
- You feel sick
Listening to the body should be the priority. Jay Cutler who was a 4x Mr. Olympian claimed to take rest days every 2-3 days and deload every 3-4 weeks because he understood the importance of ample recovery and supercompensation. When you decide to deload and however long it lasts, use that opportunity to work on things that are neglected in your training regimine such as
- more flexibility/mobility
- meal prep and spend time making quality meals
- program the next training block and get hyped
I hope this is useful :)