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Deloading for Dummies

Figure 1. Some times you gotta know when to back off a little and laugh a little. Photo from Phil Steven’s collection

The Deload

We can’t stay on the summit year round. This was covered in a previous article I wrote, Training Peaks and Valleys. As detailed there, progress is anything but linear. It’s full of ups and downs; at times we push hard, at times we deload in order to reload for another push. Building off that article, I’d like to describe the deload process in a little more detail. The focus of this article is not so much on the scientific benefit behind its use in sport. (This was previously discussed by Sean Casey at the end of his interview with Christian Carter.) Rather, my intent is to explain some of the “how’s” and “why’s” for the types of deloads I employ on myself and clients.

The Two Primary Reasons for Deloading

1). Preparing for an event

2). Halting/Preventing Stagnation

Deloading for an Event

The purpose of the “event” deload is to allow your body the opportunity to fully recover prior to the actual competition. It is usually done just prior to the actual sporting event. Quite often during this deload week, individuals worry and fret over getting weaker if they don’t train balls-out. Don’t let yourself be one of them. Regardless of how hard you have or have not been training, there is nothing you can do during that final week to make yourself stronger. The best thing you can do is rest. In doing so, you’ll be able fully express the strength developed over the weeks/months leading up to the competition.

Deloading is particularly easy for athletes preparing for a specific event. For individuals not involved in an actual organized competition, I recommend fabricating your own events. Schedule 3-4 of these personal competitions each year. This will help keep your mind focused on whatever you hope to accomplish through your training.

When preparing for an event, some competitors take a full week off, doing virtually no physical activity. Although I’ve had some success with this approach, I get a bit sore in the joints using this approach. Through experience, I have found the most beneficial approach is as follows:

  • Consume as many calories as possible, being mindful of possible weight class restrictions
  • Increased sleep and rest
  • Minimize physical activity, except for quick LIGHT training sessions.

My definition of “light” means training with < 25% of your 1 rep max and total training time for the session ~30 minutes. The goal of this training is not to tax your system. Rather, it’s to move your body through a full range of motion, preventing stiffness from setting in, as well as increase muscle blood flow. To accomplish this, I like to complete complexes (As a FYI, complexes refer to do multiple lifts in a row, using the same weight/bar/etc without a break in-between). An example of a complex I may complete is as follows:

(using a 90lb/40 kg load on a barbell)

3-4 reps bentover rows —> 3-4 reps deadlifts.—> clean the bar into the front squat position —> 3-4 reps front squats, —> 3-4 reps push press —>on last rep, lower it on my back—> 3-4 back squats —> 3-4 good mornings —> Put bar down, relax and repeat 2-3x.

With respect to other aspects of deloading (food, rest, etc), I have found it beneficial to load up on as many calories as possible; Just don’t go overboard and eat yourself out of your weight class. Get plenty of sleep and rest. Minimize physical activity except for the training sessions described in the preceding paragraphs. I’m confident that if you use this approach, come day of the meet, your joints will feel like butter, you’ll feel strong as an ox and itching to tear a house down!

Halting/Preventing Stagnation

Due to various factors, people often “stagnate” with their training progress. The best approach to halting stagnation is preventing it from happening it the first place. Take one of these approaches:

Schedule a deload every 4 weeks

Error on the side of caution. Remember, most elite performers halter not from a lack of work, but rather, a lack of rest. If you are the type that lives “on the razors edge” all the time, schedule one every 4 weeks.

Go by instinct

This is the method I prefer. However, it takes a bit of mastery and maturity on behalf of the lifter. You must honestly evaluate how you feel, your level of energy, enthusiasm, sleep, weight loss, etc. For example, if I’m starting to lose weight for no reason, my enthusiasm is starting to lag and my performance is off on two consecutive sessions, its time for a deload.

When starting to experience a decrease in performance, some individuals will try to PUSH IT even harder. If you’re truly stagnated, this is like kicking the dead horse. The only thing that will come out of it is even greater decrements in performance or injury. Take the opposite approach; deload, recover and come back for round two.

What To Do If You Are Stagnated

Worse case scenario, you happen to find yourself stuck in a rut with your lifts. Here are 2 approaches that I’ve found useful…

1) Keep the intensity high and drastically drop the volume.

This deload method is most effective when an athlete is just a bit run down. In other words, one’s performance has dropped for a few consecutive sessions. Yet his/her enthusiasm, quality of sleep, body weight, etc, are still normal. In these situations, dropping volume can be an effective approach to get the ball rolling again. When using this approach, I simply drop everything but a few foundational exercises, or max effort exercises. I recommend only doing a single set at 90% intensity. For example, let’s say that the last week’s workout was:

Back Squat: 5×3; 500lbs
Zercher Squat: 3×10
Step-ups: 3×10
Heavy Ab Work

However, this performance was subpar and overall my training hadn’t been solid for a few workouts in a row. In this situation, during the following week, I’d simply do 1×3 at 450 lbs and walk away. The same would be done for all other sessions that week.

2): Have Fun and work at about 50-70%

I use this method when I or the individual I’m working with is totally zapped. In these instances, not only has performance dropped, but we are as enthused as Hugh Hefner at a convent, appetite is shot, and we’re sleeping horrible.

There is one method that I’ve found works best in these situations… Take a week and just have fun with the training. Come to the gym and do things you normally wouldn’t do in your training. Play around with machines. Maybe go play a game of basketball instead, or go hiking or kayaking, go play dodge ball. Get outside in the park, throw things and get some fresh air. Whatever, it’s all good as long you’re enjoying yourself.

Get the picture? FUN is a huge recovery aid for you whole body, mind, nervous system, muscles and more. Get out, have fun!. The novelty and the choice of doing whatever activity you want (vs. predetermined workouts) will mentally and physically replenish your system. Just make sure not to push things much over 70%.

At the end of the week evaluate how you feel. In an extreme case, maybe you’re not quite 100%. Then what? Simple, take another “fun” week and note this for future reference. Another option would be to take a second week like the one I outlined in option one (ie-decrease volume, high intensity) before getting back into your normal training routine.

In Summary

There you have it. A look into the deloads I employ and the reasoning behind each specific type. If you find yourself in a rut or approaching a competition, try them out. I’m confident you’ll have success with them.

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Written on February 27, 2011 by Phil Stevens
Last Updated: February 27, 2011

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Coach Phil Stevens is an accomplished strength athlete with considerable experience in Powerlifting, strongman competition, and highland games. Phil is the 2007 APA World Champion in the 242-pound class (total). He has held the APF 275-pound class raw National bench, squat, deadlift, and total records. Phil’s marquis lift was his 725-pound raw beltless deadlift, performed on February, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. He has been ranked in the “Top 10” in the deadlift across all national powerlifting federations. In addition, Phil has in a few short months moved to the A class in highland games with the goal of going Pro. His coaching services are avalable by clicking on the Strength Sport Consultation tab.
Professional Commitments:In addition to his coaching duties, he also serves as the California State Chair for the North American Highlander Association, as well as the founder of Lift For Hope an annual strength competition with proceeds donated to charity. He also runs his own printing business (business cards to t-shirts with everything in between) that can be found at www.bingcolorprint.com.