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Deloads: what, why, when, how?

What is a deload week?

Put simply, a deload is a light training week, where we temporarily decrease training volume and/or intensity. A deload week gives your joints, muscles and nervous system an opportunity to recover well.

Why deload? Won’t it undo all my progress?

Nope! Training is a stressor on the body. When we train regularly, we can accumulate fatigue. This can stop us from performing to our full potential. These graphics neatly demonstrate how fatigue accumulates across a training cycle and how a well-timed and considered deload week enables us to manage and reduce fatigue, enabling us to train harder after the deload, and continue to progress.

Deloads help us to avoid plateaus in training and reduce injury risk. Try to see regular deloads as part of your training, which can help to optimise your performance.

When to deload?

If you are training frequently and consistently, it’s a good idea to plan a deload every 4-8 weeks. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, particularly with all the fitspo yelling at us to go hard or go home! But a deload week is your ally in helping you to reach your goals and keep progressing over time.

Ideally, we want to take the deload before we feel we need it. It might be helpful to complete the following checklist* after each training block, to get a sense of whether you’re in need of a deload.

  • Are you dreading the gym/training?

  • Is your sleep worse than normal?

  • Are your loads/reps decreasing?

  • Is your stress worse than normal?

  • Are any aches and pains worse than normal?

If you answer yes to two or more questions, a deload would be a good idea. You can simply treat the first week of your new training block as a deload, before continuing to build again.

* Credit to The Muscle And Strength Pyramid, Eric Helms, Andy Morgan, Andrea Valdez

How to deload

An easy way is simply to reduce volume for a week. So if you’d normally do four sets of each exercise, we would reduce it down to two or three sets for a week. We can also reduce the training intensity (rate of perceived exertion or RPE), either in conjunction with the reduction in volume or as a standalone adjustment. So if you normally aim to work to 8RPE, finishing with 2 good quality reps in reserve, we could adjust the RPE target down to 6-7RPE, finishing each set with 3-4 good reps left in the tank. This might require a reduction in the load you are using, to enable you to hit a lower RPE.

Avoid high intensity cardio during your deload week, as the goal is to reduce the stress on your body and nervous system.

What if the deload doesn’t help improve my performance?

If your training is well-organised, you’re doing an appropriate amount of volume for your level (i.e. not trying to do too much) and you’re confident that you’re not training beyond your capacity, but you still feel fatigue is not controlled, look at the bigger picture.

The central purpose of a deload is to manage accumulation of fatigue, so if there are other main drivers of fatigue and resource depletion (e.g. poor sleep, poor nutrition, poor hydration, life stressors or transitions like perimenopause), we need to look to address these as best we can, because a deload in and of itself won’t be a magic bullet.

For novices - because we all start somewhere…

If you’re new to training, I encourage you to focus on not trying to do too much to start. If you’re unaccustomed to a certain training modality, you will generate fatigue quickly, and that fatigue will take longer to “clear” but, because there is a lot of “learning” that takes place initially, you will also adapt and progress quickly, meaning you probably don’t need to deload until your progression begins to stall.

That being said, fairly frequent and planned deloads act as a nice insurance policy! Don’t fear them!

Need some more support?

With LIFT, my online strength and conditioning programme, I take care of organising your training so that you don’t have to make decisions about what movements to perform, how many times, and how frequently to train. I am on hand to guide you through each training block, and answer any questions you may have along the way. You can see my LIFT plans here.

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