Exercise is a form of stress – it’s actually termed ‘Eustress’. Eustress is positive stress, stress causing some favourable effect to your body. None-the-less, it is stress, and stress has the potential to cause damage and degeneration. The beneficial effects of exercise far outweigh the potential negatives, but sometimes we have to carefully manage our training to ensure the positives continue to outweigh the negatives.
A major training/programming strategy to ensure we retain a net gain from our training is the use of a deload week. Deloads aren’t for everyone, only the committed – they have to be earned – we’ll touch on this at the end of the article.
A deload week is a week of reduced training stimulus that allows your body to recover from an extended period of hard training. Even though certain systems in your body can adapt on a day to day basis, others need a helping hand. While your muscles may recover in a couple of days, your connective tissue (ligament, cartilage, tendon) and nervous system occasionally needs longer. Basically a deload week is giving you body time to catch up and recover from the stress you’ve been placing on it. This reduced stimulus may take the form of reduced intensity, volume, or a combination. We’ll discuss specific deload week strategies shortly.
The benefits of a deload week are numerous:
- Allows ‘supercompensation’ to your last training cycle/phase.
- Muscle recovery.
- Joint recovery.
- Tendon recovery.
- Nervous system recovery.
- Optimises and normalises hormone levels (testosterone and cortisol) for general health.
- Mental recovery and ‘recharge’, allowing you to approach training fresh.
- Increases your intensity in the week before your deload, knowing you have a recovery week coming up.
- Prepare your body for increased training volume or intensity in your next training phase.
- Helps you appreciate the privilege of hard training post- deload.
There are several criteria of an effective deload week:
- A deload week should be on your own terms. It should be proactive, not reactive. If you wait until you’re overtrained or injured to have a deload week, it’s already too late. Your deload week should be pre-programmed and non negotiable. ‘Listening to your body’ isn’t the best approach in this case, instead, listen to your program.
- It should be a ‘deload’ week, not an ‘unload’ or ‘rest’ week.
- This is a recovery week, so you shouldn’t be adding in any additional stimulus that your body will need to recover from. Your body has finite resources, so make sure it can utilise all of them in recovering from your previous training cycle, rather than recovering from new stimuli you’re throwing at it.
But what if I lose strength/fitness/ability during a deload week?
- Research by Ogasawara et. al. found that a deload period of up to three weeks “…does not inhibit muscle adaptations (size and strength).”.
- A separate research study, also by Ogasawara et. al., found that repeated extended deload periods of deload DO cause a slight loss in muscle mass, but that upon return to training, there is a rapid increase in strength – similar to that experienced in novice exercisers.
- You should have a deload week at least every eight weeks, depending on your training volume and intensity. As little as every fourth week is acceptable.
- Keep the movements in your training the same, but reduce the volume and intensity. Changing volume is easy, simply do less time, reps or sets. Changing intensity is a bit more subjective, because intensity is a relative term. An easy way to reduce volume is to reduce loading, that is, the weight you’re lifting as a percentage of your one rep max. If a training session normally calls for 75% of your max, maybe drop it to 50%, and do the work in the same time as the 75% would take you. You’ll have the added benefits of improved technique and movement speed which will pay dividends long term.
- Increase the amount of recovery work you do. PNF stretching and soft tissue therapy (trigger point work, massages, foam rolling etc). You can learn about more in 11 Ways to Maximise Recovery from Intense Exercise.
- Avoid (or modify) sessions with a high Neuromuscular Fatigue Rating. This includes; Heavy or moderately weighted barbell conditioning sessions; high volume bodyweight stamina sessions; heavy Olympic lifting; heavy (max effort) power lifting – particularly lower body.
- Retain; fast, light conditioning sessions; continuous cardiovascular/aerobic sessions; lower intensity barbell and bodyweight skill work; upper body strength work; gymnastics (though nothing that requires a lot of tendon strength), swimming; low volume sprint, agility and plyometric work.
- Train at 60-75% of your usual training volume (ie: number of sessions).
- Don’t work higher than 7/10 rate of perceived exertion.
Summary of your deload week:
- At least every eight weeks.
- Increase the recovery (PNF and soft tissue release) work you’re completing.
- Reduce your percentages for all weighted work, and do it in the same time.
- Reduce the time for all high volume work, but don’t increase the intensity.
- Avoid or modify; heavy or moderately weighted barbell conditioning sessions; high volume bodyweight stamina sessions; heavy Olympic lifting; heavy power lifting.
- Train at 60-75% of your usual volume.
- Don’t work higher than 7/10 rate of perceived exertion.
For a lot of people, the natural rhythms and interruptions of life negate the need for deload weeks (as they occur without design). These people are not approaching the line of overtraining, and as such, deload weeks aren’t necessary. YOU CAN’T DELOAD WHAT YOU HAVEN’T LOADED. For those athletes committed to improvement however, their single minded commitment can be both their biggest strength and their biggest risk – making deloading a valuable tool.
Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology. He has worked with many thousands of individuals along the full spectrum of health, and has coached at The CrossFit Games. He regularly presents to corporate and fitness industry groups and mentors Fitness Professionals.