Deloading Done Right

by Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS
The author, Joe Giandonato

If sustained increases in strength and athletic performance are desired, read on.

While fervent gym goers may eschew the idea of taking time off, serious iron warriors and athletes can benefit from scaling back their workouts in terms of intensity and volume during their strength training careers.

Those who pride themselves on going “HAM” every workout would balk at the notion of reducing training volume and intensity.

Conversely, the contingent of newbies and lesser dedicated would likely embrace reduced training volume and intensity.

In either case there must be a balance and at some point, training “down time” is warranted.

What is a Deload?

A deload, which is alternatively referred to as an “unload” or “offload” in strength training circles, is a period characterized by a planned deliberate reduction in exercise frequency, volume, and or intensity. Deloads may span days, weeks, or entire training cycles depending on the training age, health and injury history, and goals of the lifter or athlete.

Why Deload?

Training needs to be viewed as a stressor. Training with a greater amount of intensity, with higher volumes, and at a greater frequency, doesn’t necessarily equate to enhanced performance or improved body composition. Contrariwise, training in the aforementioned manner may prove disastrous. Ideally, training periods should be paired with appropriate periods of rest. Alternative to total rest periods are deload periods, which are inherently critical to the longevity of a lifter or athlete as they:

1) Help maintain a sense of routine
2) Revitalize the interest and motivation of the lifter or athlete
3) Recalibrate the pendulum swinging between the stimulus of training and recovery
4) Encourage lifters and athletes to hone form on exercises
5) Spare the detrimental effects of constantly training hard on the nervous system and musculoskeletal systems without adequate recovery

Training intensely for prolonged periods taxes the Central Nervous System (CNS) and if very heavy loads are utilized within a training program, the musculoskeletal system takes a pounding.

Sparing the CNS

The CNS is considered by many sports scientists to be the body’s strength headquarters as its involvement is at the forefront of human movement. Compromised functioning will render decrements in strength, speed, and power.

While the physiological cross sectional area of muscles, moment arms, lever lengths, body weight, nutritional status, and hormone secretion all influence strength to some degree, the CNS is of paramount importance in the expression and development of muscular strength. Ultimately the CNS makes the final call – determining the quantity of muscle that’s used (motor unit recruitment) and how rapidly it gets used (rate coding). Motor units, are single motor neurons and all of the corresponding muscle fibers they innervate, are broken down different types.

Slow twitch and fast twitch motor units must be recruited concurrently to express the greatest amount of muscular force. Their firing rate is intensified via rate coding which collectively hinge on the power and efficiency of the CNS.

Training too frequently, too intensely, and with an excessive amount of volume exhausts the CNS, causing the body to reach a point where the body experiences troubles with neurotransmitter release and muscle activation via neurotransmitter binding. At this point, simple tasks may evolve into arduous feats. Training vigor is suffocated by sluggishness, causing strength and performance to dissipate quicker than a new college grad’s first paycheck.

Sparing the musculoskeletal system

On the other hand, the body’s musculoskeletal system, comprised of muscles, tendons, bones, joints, and ligaments, can take a beating throughout the course of one’s training career. While cumulative effects of strength training elicit increases in muscular size and bone density, they can also wear down joint structures if recovery is insufficient.

Practical Deloading Considerations

For years, a 3 on 1 off format has been instituted by advanced strength athletes. The format limits intensive strength work to three weeks, capping it off with a one week deload period characterized by a concordant reduction of intensity and volume.

In lesser experienced athletes, it is suggested that deloads punctuate longer training periods. For instance, a novice lifter or athlete would benefit from training more consistently to ingrain needed lifestyle habits and more specific to the training aspect, developing proper motor engrams necessary to perform key movements. Depending on one’s experience, deloads may occur following a range of 4 to 12 weeks.

Lifters and athletes may ascribe to a training program by fluctuating stress through varying movements or emphases within a certain block of training as an alternative to deloading. For example, a powerlifter may devote one week’s max effort lower body training to deadlifting and the next week; perform that movement as a dynamic effort exercise.

Athletes approaching a season may substitute certain movements to ensure that they can devote energy to sport specific preparation.

Highly disciplined athletes and those in touch with their bodies can auto-regulate their deloads, by gauging their strength, performance, and recovery.