Training Deloads

For us as athletes we are always striving to drive our performance to new heights, we obsess over the smallest details that will allow us to get most out of our training and to maximise our results. For many individuals, they believe the way to achieve this is by finding the next product or a new secret technique but, sometimes less is more! The belief that all improvement takes is a little more work along with some extra blood and tears is a frame of mind that is prevalent within the lifting community but, just because some is good DOES NOT mean more is better. Sometimes it is not a lack of work that holds back progress but a lack of structured recovery, that is why today I wish to explore the importance of deloading and the place it should hold within your programming.

First things first, what classifies a deload and how should they be structured? A deload is defined as a pre-determined or self-regulated period (usually a week), in which your volume or intensity is titrated to achieve a workload below your current output. The goal of these periods is to provide a period of lessened physical stimulus to encourage adaption and recovery from the high stress of previous training weeks (or supercompensation). Now contrary to what Is usually prescribed a deload doesn’t always have to be a 50% decrease in both volume and intensity and a deload shouldn’t be a full week off training! 

For performance-based athletes the structure of a deload can be manipulated (within reason) to maximise phase potentiation or the effectiveness of transition between training blocks. So, what does this mean? For instance, if a deload is being implemented before the beginning of a peaking cycle and the athlete is accustomed to somewhat heavier loading and lower volumes, intensity can be maintained at around 70-80% while taking a greater drop in the relative volume of primary and accessory lifts in relation to previous weeks. 

 This means that the lifter is awarded an extra week to get accustomed to the positioning and execution of lower rep schemes without backing down to insignificant percentages. The end goal is to still provide enough stimulus that meaningful technical improvements can be continued but levels of fatigue are minimised so supercompensation can manifest. A deload should not be a wasted week of training, as productive work can still be done whilst lowering fatigue! The same principal can be applied when transitioning to a higher volume block through manipulating intensity. Rather than maintaining a 70-80% range, a greater drop in weight can accommodate a higher training volume to get the lifter prepared for the demands of inflated rep schemes. In both instances an equal amount of fatigue is dissipated, however these small alterations in structure can work wonders in preparing an athlete for the demands of their next training cycle.  

It is extremely important however to remember that the magnitude of the deload must be based off each athlete’s individual situation, in some instances it is necessary for substantial drops in volume and intensity if greater levels of recovery are needed. For example, the week before of a competition, as in this period the purpose of the deload is purely to lower fatigue with no other objectives. Although this is not always the case as too high a frequency of very aggressive deloading can slow progress, there can be too much of a good thing.

With structure covered, when is an appropriate time to implement a deload? In terms of deload frequency many people have differing opinions although when push comes to shove frequency Is determined by the physiological and lifestyle traits of the individual. characteristics such as size, gender, skeletal structure, current strength and training age along with lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep quality and level of activity all come into play when calculating deload frequency. It inevitably comes down to how much damage and fatigue an individual can put through their system within a given timeframe.

Realistically for a beginning lifter, they don’t have the skill nor capacity to warrant a high deload frequency. For some, 8 weeks (for the upper limit) can go by before they accumulate the appropriate amount of fatigue that a deload will elicit an efficacious response. The reason why is that their strength is not the limiting factor, in many cases underdeveloped technique limits the load they can use forcing volume and intensity to remain rather sub maximal. On the flip side, for a seasoned lifter who has the technical ability and the physical adaptations to output close to maximal forces for high volumes, the potential for fatigue is EXPONENTIALLY increased and therefore the frequency of deloading must too! Anywhere in the range of 3-5 weeks is acceptable with periods of 6-8 weeks being considered on an individual's circumstance.

Gender and overall structure can also play an important role. For smaller lifters in specific lighter weight class females, they can handle much greater relative intensities at a higher volume and frequency under the condition they are also technically efficient. As they are moving a lighter bar for far less distance than a 6 foot male with grater ranges of motion and less technical efficiency. In this case the female may be able to sustain over 5 weeks of 90% intensity with greater quality and higher volumes whilst under the same relative load the male could require a deload after 3 weeks. 

Even the overall technical demands of each lifting style can be considered. If we compare the stresses of a sumo versus a conventional deadlift, the greater biomechanical efficiency of a sumo pull can lend the ability to produce a higher workload with less accumulated fatigue over the course of a training block. The main takeaway here is that both large and small factors must be taken into account when determining deload frequency, a one size fits all approach does not exist!

Once a general idea of deload timing is generated for each athlete, the implementation for the most part can be left to auto regulation, this however does require clear communication between the athlete and coach to understand when to push harder and when to taper off into a deload. In reality, a deload can fall a week before or a week after its scheduled date depending on the lifestyle factors and stress of the individual. 

Taking all things into account it is needless to say that how and when a deload should be implemented is dependant largely on individual factors. Regardless of who you are, deloading plays an important role in encouraging training adaptation and minimising the risk of injury. They should be implemented as needed and structured in such a way to serve the purpose you wish to elicit and as with all training should be performed with intent and structure.


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