Strength Training Programs: 4 Reasons You Might Not Need to Deload
Written on June 25, 2013 at 6:58 pm, by Eric Cressey
I'm a firm believer that deloads – or planned periods of reduced training volume or intensity – are an important concept to understand if you're looking to get optimal results with your strength and conditioning programs. In fact, I thought it was so important that I wrote an entire 20-page e-book on the subject.
That's not to say, however, that I think absolutely everyone needs to worry about incorporating deloading periods, though. In fact, I think there are several scenarios in which they aren't necessary. Read on.
1. You train less than three times per week.
If you want to deload, you actually need to load first. That's hard to do when you're only getting to the gym 1-2 times per week.
A while back, Dr. John Berardi talked about the importance of getting in six hours of activity each week even just for general health and maintaining or enhancing one's fitness; I've definitely seen this duration to be an appropriate target for folks. If you're a 4x/week strength training guy, you usually hit this number, if you figure 75 minutes per training session, plus a bit of additional activity throughout the week. And, even if you only lift 3x/week, you're still going to get very close, as the full-body sessions tend to run a bit longer. If you're only 2x/week, you're going to be at least three hours short on the week. Adding in more deload time to an already deloaded schedule would be silly.
The obvious exception to this rule would be in-season athletes doing their strength training at a reduced frequency. These individuals are, of course, accumulating a lot of other physical activity from their sports. They'd still want to reduce volume or intensity a bit in the weight room every 4-6 weeks, because you can't count on your "sporting volume" ever dropping predictably during the season.
2. You're a complete beginner.
The great thing about being a beginner is that just about everything works. You could show up to the gym, do one set of preacher curls, then bang your head against the wall for 45 minutes and you'd still probably get bigger and stronger as long as you eat enough. My feeling is that if you can do "anything" to improve, you might as well do a lot of "anything" while you still can. Just dropping volume for the sake of dropping volume every few weeks isn't a good move, as you're likely missing out on a big window of adaptation.
Beginning lifters really aren't neurally efficient enough to impose a lot of fatigue. And, just as importantly, they actually need a lot of volume early on so that they can practice new movement patterns. Finally, on the psychology side of things, you never want to hold someone back too much when they're first starting with an exercise program. The immediate results are incredibly motivating, and if you cut volume back substantially, you run the risk fo them not coming back after a period away from the gym. Don't give them a chance to get disinterested.
In my e-book, The Art of the Deload, I outline a strategy for beginners to "deload without deloading." I call it the "Introduction Week Deload:"
This is best suited to beginners who need a chance to learn the movements with light weights.
It’s very simple: the set/rep parameters stay the same for the entire month, and the only thing that changes is the load utilized (lifter gets stronger). At the end of the month, you change exercises and stick with the same approach. You’ll find that in Week 1 of the new program, the beginner will be using markedly less intensity, as he or she will be cautious in feeling out the new movements.
You can “ease” into this transition by using “variation without change.” In other words, change the exercises, but don’t completely overhaul the nature of the movements. An example might be to switch from a neutral grip pull-up to a chin-up (supinated grip), or moving from dumbbell reverse lunges to walking dumbbell lunges.
3. Your program is predominantly corrective or rehabilitative in nature.
I know this might come as a shocker, and I really hate to burst your bubble, but side-lying clams don't impose enough fatigue to require a deload. Stop overthinking things!
Now, don't get me wrong: I'm a firm believer that lifting heavy stuff can be tremendously "corrective" in nature as long as it's done with correct technique. However, there are going to be times when it just isn't feasible to maintain a training effect in full. Imagine, for instance, what happens shortly after a shoulder surgery. If you're in a sling, you obviously can't do anything to load the affected side. You also can't deadlift or squat, and just getting into positions for exercises like barbell hip thrusts isn't going to happen. You have to be careful about exercises with arm swing, so dragging the sled (if you even have the equipment or space to do so) is potentially out. In other words, you're basically left training the other arm and then doing glute ham raises, leg curls, and leg extensions. We can do more at Cressey Performance because of our equipment selection, but most folks don't have that luxury at their commercial or home gyms.
That said, it would be incredibly hard to overtrain – or even overreach – with those implements and restrictions. So, there's no reason to cut back every fourth week just because you're supposed to do so. Besides, if you have surgery, you're going to be on the shelf for 10-14 days anyway, as you'll be hopped up on pain killers, short on sleep, and likely restricted from going to the gym in the short-term to minimize the risk of infection. There's no need to take more time off!
4. You have deloads within the week, rather than within the month.
This point actually piggybacks somewhat on point #1. Some lifters will have two more challenging training days during the week, and then supplement them with 2-3 lower intensity and volume sessions during that same week. In other words, rather than deload for an entire week every three weeks (7 out of 28 days), they'll deload a few days within each week (2/3 out of 7). With this approach, the "supercompensation" curve is less "up and down;" the highs aren't as high, and the lows aren't as low. However, this often yields a consistent upward and more linear trend in fitness gains.
In my opinion, it is an approach that is much more sensitive to outside factors. Getting poor sleep, or adding in travel demands can quickly throw you for a loop, whereas you can plan around these things a bit more when you deload for an extended period of time. You can either move the week-long deload up a bit, push it back slightly, or shorten it because you don't feel like you've loaded enough going into it. It's harder to have that same "loading flexiblity" within the week, as opposed to within the month.
To reiterate, I think implementing strategic deloads is incredibly important for the intermediate and advanced lifter, and there are certainly many different ways to implement these periods. However, as you can tell, there are also definitely some scenarios when it's best to skip the deload period and keep on getting after it in the gym. Take a good look at your training program and experience – and then ask yourself how you're feeling – and you'll have your answer.
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