Dedicated and well-intentioned iron brethren often have the mistaken attitude of “going HAM”—”giving 110%” and “bringing the lunch pail to work every day.” Although hard work and consistency have merit in the weight room, holding this mindset 100 percent of the time makes it difficult to see sustainable results.
At a certain point, your body might not be able to take intense workouts anymore. You will fail to adapt and might actually start to see a reduction in strength, along with a subsequent decrease in workout quality.
Sometimes, it’s best to take a step back.
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Deloads, also referred to as “unloads” or “offloads,” are periods marked by a deliberately planned reduction in one or a number of loading parameters, including how often you lift, the intensity of your workouts and the volume of work you do in each training session. Deloads account for planned time off, in contrast to “detraining,” which typically involves abruptly discontinuing exercise.
Deloads are taken following periods of frequent, intense and/or high-volume training in the hopes of causing muscles to adapt and get stronger. Key reasons for taking a deload include:
- Help to maintain a sense of routine
- Revitalize interest and motivation
- Recalibrate the pendulum swinging between the stimulus of training and recovery
- Encourage practice of complex movements with considerably lighter loads
- Ensure longevity of the neuromusculoskeletal system
Halson and Jeukendrup (2004) recommend up to two weeks of reduced training to facilitate continued improvements. Longer time off resulted in decrements in performance and lean body mass. Häkkinen and colleagues (2000) noted that three weeks of complete rest resulted in reduced isometric strength, but no changes were noted in muscular hypertrophy, suggesting that neuromuscular adaptations were more impactful than structural ones. A recent study observing the effects of eight weeks of detraining revealed significant structural changes, including reductions in muscle thickness and physiological cross sectional areas, accompanied by lower maximal voluntary contraction capacity (Watanabe, Kouzaki, & Moritani, 2015).
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Based on these studies, it is probably best to limit complete rest to one week and cap a deload period after two weeks. But the duration of a deload period should be based on an individual’s training age, injury history, competitive and competing demands.
Novice athletes and lifters need to seize the opportunity to improve movement quality and work capacity. Therefore, barring injury, they should employ deloads following longer training periods. Conversely, more experienced athletes and lifters, who are likely stronger and have more wear and tear on their bodies, would benefit from deloading every three to four weeks.
Athletes approaching a season may consider deloading or scaling back the time spent in the weight room so they can devote greater energy to sport-specific preparation during pre-competitive blocks.
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If you’re “going HAM” with your workouts or get stuck on a plateau, you might want to take more frequent deloads. If you’re continuing to make strength gains, you can put off deloading a bit longer.
This might sound like a complex topic, but deloading is actually extremely simple. Take the current workout you’re doing and halve the amount of weight and sets you perform on your primary exercises (e.g., Bench Press, Squats and Deadlifts). For the remainder of your workout, do half the number of exercises you normally perform. It’s up to you to pick and choose which moves to eliminate, but do your best to maintain a balanced program. For example, for an upper-body lift, don’t eliminate every back exercise because you like working your chest and hate working your back—keep a fairly even split between the two.
Ultimately, taking am occasional step back will propel you to greater strength, size and power gains.
- Halson, S.L. & Jeukendrup, A.E. (2004). “Does overtraining exist? An analysis of overreaching and overtraining research.” Sports Medicine, 34, 967-981.
- Häkkinen, K., Alen, M., Kallinen, M., Newton, R.U., & Kraemer, W.J. (2000). “Neuromuscular adaptation during prolonged strength training, detraining and re-strength-training in middle-aged and elderly people.” European Journal of Applied Physiology, 83, 51-62.
- Pritchard, H.J., Tod, D.A., Barnes, M.J., Justin, W.K., & McGuigan, M.R. (2015). “Tapering practices of New Zealand’s elite raw powerlifters.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. [Epup ahead of print].
- Watanabe, K., Kouzaki, M., & Moritani, T. (2015). “Spatial EMG potential distribution of biceps brachii muscle during resistance training and detraining.” European Journal of Applied Physiology, 115, 2661-2670.