You are probably very familiar with the “go hard or go home” attitude when it comes to training. You’re either a big advocate of this yourself, or you definitely know of at least one person that lives his or her life by this rule. If you’re not pushing yourself every session in the gym, busting your ass grind out that last rep, then you’re missing out on potential gains, right? And if your muscles aren’t aching a couple of days after, well then you clearly haven’t trained hard enough and that session was just a waste of time!?
In most cases, this is far from the truth! Far too many people in actual fact, train too often at such high intensities, that this actually inhibits the positive affects you expect to be seeing from your training. Increased muscle size, increased strength, reduced body fat and improved fitness and performance. None of these will be optimal and will actually stop and even reverse all together if you are too fatigued for a prolonged period of time. The problem is, you may not even realise you’re fatigued. In many cases, if you have a session where you struggle to lift a weight you have previously found pretty manageable, your first thought may be, “I need to do more sets to build up my strength”, or if your muscle building and fat loss progress has come to a halt after 8 weeks of training 4 times per week you might think, “right, it’s time to take things up a gear and train 5 or 6 times per week”.
In reality, the approaches above will do more harm than good. It is true, in order to get the results you want, training must be progressively overloading, which involves taking measures such as increasing the amount of volume (sets and/or reps), increasing the intensity (amount of weight) or increasing the frequency (the number of times we train a body part or muscle group per week) in your training. However, as the amount of work you do accumulates over the weeks, so does your level of fatigue. Both these parameters need to be considered on a cumulative level and there comes a point, where individual rest days throughout the training week are not sufficient. This calls for a temporary, strategic reduction of these training parameters in order to reduce cumulative fatigue levels, realise the improvements developed during a specific training period and allow for continued progress in the future. Hans Selye’s stress model called “General Adaptation Syndrome“ explains this very well with its three stages:
- 1) Alarm, is the initial reaction to a stressor, i.e. Work done during a session causes your muscles to feel tight and shaky immediately after your session.
- 2) Resistance phase is where the body builds up the capacity to resist or withstand the stress being applied and if recovery is sufficient, adapts to be able to deal with that same stressor in the future. Stress in this case, being training and the adaptation may be being stronger muscles in the areas that were trained.
- 3) Exhaustion occurs if the stress applied to the body is too great i.e. training too heavy, too frequently or for too long. A prolonged amount of training will become intolerable and produce too much fatigue, leading to a decline in performance and possible injury.
As you can see, it is pretty crucial to avoid entering this exhaustion phase as the consequences are harsh. In order to do this, it is useful to a utilise what’s known as a “deload week”. As the name suggests, this typically lasts for around a week and if done properly and planned BEFORE cumulative fatigue turns into exhaustion and overtraining, it will effectively reduce fatigue, leaving you to feel fresh, niggle free and mentally recharged to take your training up a gear come the start of your new training week. With that being said here are some ways to tell if it is time to back off and have a week of less volume and lighter weights.
WHEN SHOULD YOU DELOAD?
Exactly when, or more precisely, after how many weeks of training you should take this deload week will be very individual. It will depend on a number of factors including training level (novice, intermediate or advanced/elite), age, training goals and style of training. There are however, a few clear signs that may suggest it’s that time that the training/gym addict in you takes your foot off the gas for a week:
HIT A PLATEAU OR EVEN WORSE, GETTING WEAKER
If you feel your lifts are suffering and your struggling to even maintain the weights you were lifting three or four weeks ago let alone trying to increase the weight, it could be an indication you are beginning to overraech. Increasing your volume, increasing your training days, performing drop sets or getting a spotter to help you with eccentric repetition are all ideas, but probably very bad ones. Instead have a week off from heavy intense lifting, lower the reps, sets and/or weight and take is easy.
YOU ARE PICKING UP NIGGLES, ACHES AND JOINT PAINS
Aches, pains and sometimes injuries are just part and parcel of training can competing. However, if you are in constant pain, or have niggles or aches in the same areas that don’t seem to be easing and are getting worse with the same exercises week to week, this is not good. A sore knee that’s “ok to work through” every time you squat, a niggling shoulder that “only hurts when you bench heavy”, or a hip that’s gradually developed into an uncomfortable problem even just from walking up the stairs, are not things that should be ignored and trained with or around. A delaod week, combined with lots of foam rolling, stretching and probably a massage will do you the world of good and go a logn way to reverse the issues.
TRAINING SESSIONS ARE BECOMING A CHORE
As well as feeling physically tired and not 100%, a gruelling training program even just three or four weeks long has the potential to leave you feeling mentally beat up. If you are finding that you are beginning to lack the motivation you had a few weeks ago to go the gym or are struggling to put the same effort into each session, a week of some very different and physically less demanding exercises can help to reset your brain. The break should allow you to mentally recharge and return focused and ready for the challenge of a new program, or even the same program with increased intensity.
So, a deload week is quite simply a fatigue management strategy. The week allows for the fatigue built up from weeks of previous training to be reduced, which allows for muscle, strength and performance gains to be realised and subsequent weeks of overloading training to be performed. Don’t be too proud, foolish or stubborn to take a deload week. If you begin to feel like your lifts are stalling, you have a recurring ache or niggle or your sessions a turning sour, it’s probably time for a break. As you become more aware of how your body is responds to certain programs and types of training you will better be able to judge when the perfect time to deload is. Until then, always better to be safe than sorry, take your deload slightly earlier if needs be. If you leave it until you have already hit the exhaustion phase, it could take up to 4 weeks to fully recover.