If you’re reading this, my guess is you enjoy exercising, and not exercising is a foreign concept to you. But deloading – a purposeful reduction in training frequency, volume and/or intensity – is necessary to help your body and mind recover and keep making progress.
Deloads are boring. But Alex Viada said it best at the recent Hybrid Athlete seminar at CSP (I’m paraphrasing a bit here):
I want my athletes to want to train during their deload. If they deload and they come to me and say, “Man, I really needed that,” I know it was too late.
That’s because we want to back off just before we reach the point of exhaustion as defined in the stages of General Adaptation Syndrome. Any sooner and we left some progress on the table. Any later and we risk stagnation or injury.
I recently came off a deload week that followed an intense training cycle. I finished up with a nice 15-pound squat PR and then backed off a bit to recover for the next phase.
With all the downtime during the deload, I contemplated all the mistakes I’ve made and seen others make while deloading. Avoid these mistakes to maximize your recovery:
1. MISSING REPS
Training to failure might help you build muscle quickly, but it’s got no place in a deload week. Especially heavy, low rep sets. Missing a rep during a heavy single or double can set you back big time.
I’m a big fan of keeping weights somewhat heavy during deload weeks (more on that in the next point), but check your ego for a week and stay away from failure.
2. DROPPING VOLUME AND INTENSITY
You shouldn’t drop both volume and intensity too much during a deload. Pick one or the other.
Why not cut everything way back? Because you’ll bounce back faster if you keep the weights a bit heavier. Volume is really what causes fatigue anyways, and reducing the weights too much will make things feel extra heavy when you resume normal training.
Try this: cut your volume in half and cut your intensity by 10 percent for a week. This will almost always work better than cutting volume and intensity in half.
3. TRYING NEW EXERCISES
A deload might seem like the perfect time to try new exercises since you’re not pushing anything else too hard, but new exercises lead to soreness. If you’re getting DOMS during a deload, you’re doing it wrong.
Plus, theoretically, you’re fatigued during a deload and recovered after. Motor learning doesn’t happen effectively under fatigue. You’ll learn a new exercise faster when you’re fresh.
4. NOT DELOADING YOUR CONDITIONING
Deloads apply to all facets of your training. Stress is stress, period. That said, you need to back off your conditioning as well.
You can’t crush sprint intervals or run a marathon and expect optimal recovery. High-intensity and low-intensity conditioning are highly fatiguing in their own ways. Cut your mileage if you’re running or cycling long distances, and take it easy on the hill sprints and Prowler suicides.
5. EATING TOO LITTLE
Perhaps the most common deload mistake I see others make, people tend to decrease their food intake as exercise decreases. That’s the last thing you want if recovery is the goal. If you stop eating normally during your deload week, your body has no material to build you back up.
You’ve gotta eat to recover, so keep eating as if you were exercising. Keep protein high (1 gram per pound of bodyweight is a good start) and consume carbs based on your normal activity levels. The more volume you perform, whether it’s lifting or conditioning, the more carbs you need, so fuel up.
6. USING OVERLOAD TECHNIQUES
Gadgets like reverse bands and Sling Shots are fun, but even though they might make heavy weights feel easier, you’re still shocking your systems with loads heavier than what you’re used to handling.
That said, the last thing you want during a deload is a shock to the system, so put the toys away. It might be tempting to “unload” the bottom portion of the lift, but straight weight is the way to go during a deload.
7. TOO MUCH ECCENTRIC EMPHASIS
I’m a firm believer that slow eccentrics build tremendous strength and pack on muscle, but that’s because they increase time under tension and build both mechanical and metabolic stress. We want to remove stress during the deload, so remove as much eccentric stress as possible.
Don’t lower the weight too slowly. Don’t use bands. Don’t do a ton of plyos. Pull a sled. Drop the weights from the top position (on deadlifts, not the bench press, please.) There are plenty of ways to reduce eccentric stress, so do it.
8. ALWAYS DELOADING ON A REGULAR BASIS
Many exercise programs have built-in deloads every 4-5 weeks. That’s great, if you actually need it. But chances are, you don’t need to deload that often, especially if you’re still feeling great and making progress.
Volume and training frequency will dictate deload frequency. If you’re training 6 days per week with insane volume, ala one of the Smolov or Sheiko programs, then maybe you should deload every month. But if you’re only training 3 days per week and doing 10 total working sets, you might only need to deload 2-3 times a year.
Don’t deload just because. Make sure you actually need it.
9. DELOADING EVERYHING AT ONCE
Usually, deloads drop the volume and/or intensity of every exercise. But some of the smartest lifters I know deload certain lifts individually. This tactic works wonders and allows a stalling lift to recover while the progressing lifts keep climbing.
I know I said stress is stress, but sometimes the fatigue is more mental. Or maybe technique is suffering. Sometimes the best thing you can do is back away from the struggling lift and focus on what’s working.
No need to ditch three or four main lifts if only one is sputtering. Try cycling out a heavy exercise everything fourth or fifth week while keeping everything else steady.
10. DOING NOTHING AT ALL
Rarely if ever should you stop exercising all together. Life builds these types of deloads in automatically. They’re called vacations. Or road trips. Or family emergencies. Don’t add extra periods of no exercise because you know they’ll come up unexpectedly anyways.
Even if you stop lifting for a week, you need to keep moving. Active recovery has been proven time and again to be the fastest way to reduce muscle damage, move lymphatic fluid and reduce inflammation. Foam roll, lunge, crawl, skip – do something. Your body is made to move, so move it.
DON’T BE A DELOAD DUNCE
I’ve made all of these mistakes at least once, and my recovery suffered. Don’t let these deload mishaps happen to you. Be smart with your recovery so you can bounce back harder and faster.