Training is hard. There’s no way around that. But it’s even harder when you are trying to train through a plateau, or are training with accumulated stress and small injuries. Your eagerness to get through your plateau may be resulting in over-training, and thus only making the plateau worse. How about that tightness and instability you develop in your hamstrings after weeks of doing heavy deadlifts and squats? Keep it up and you could get a ruptured hamstring. Or maybe you’re feeling other small aches and pains elsewhere in your body. Anyone who trains regularly is going to accumulate fatigue in their body – it’s just natural. You might think that if you’re not reaching your goals, you need to push yourself harder. The reality is that you need to learn how to listen to your body.
If you’re having trouble with a plateau or are suffering from accumulated stress injuries, it may be time to initiate a “de-load” or “back off” period. This simply means reducing your training volume or intensity for a specific amount of time, such as a week or for one cycle of your training split routine, however long that is.
What De-Loading Does
- Gives you a mental break from intense lifting and lets your central nervous system recover
- Allows your connective tissues – joints, tendons, ligaments, etc. – to recover
- Reduces the risk of or helps recover from over-training (also known as under-recovery)
- Helps you get over plateaus and prepares you for further gains
When to De-Load
You can’t train at your maximum ability all the time. Experienced athletes and lifters know this. Keep training at 100% for too long and you’ll just end up spinning your wheels or giving up entirely.
That being said, when to de-load depends on the program you are following, your experience, level of training intensity, age, ability to recover, how much progress you are making, and a lot of other things. New lifters probably won’t be able to overtax their bodies as much as experienced lifters, and thus they won’t need to de-load as often. However, if you are older than you may have a reduced ability to recover from workouts, and thus you may need to de-load more often.
In short, your frequency of de-loading needs to correspond with how hard you train how well you recover. Most people will find that de-loading every 4 to 8 weeks works well.
If you are feeling any of the following when training regularly…
- Stuck in a plateau without the ability to increase weight or reps in lifts
- Tired, burnt out, over-trained, under-motivated
- Aches, pains, sprains, tendinitis, peculiar muscle tightness
… then it’s probably a good idea to de-load!
In fact, if you’re already feeling any of the above symptoms, it’s already past time for a de-load. You should de-load regularly – just as you lift regularly – and you should do it before you have developed any problems.
That being said, if you are a beginning lifter that does not train regularly (i.e., 3 or more times a week following an actual routine), then don’t use the idea of de-loading as an excuse to be lazy. You need to learn to listen to your body! Push yourself hard, but be prepared to recover. Remember the old saying, “There’s no such thing as over-training, only under-recovery.” Furthermore, if you are a beginner that has not been training long enough to develop the above problems and yet are feeling them anyway, then you may want to make sure you are training correctly. Your exercise technique may be causes problems, instead.
How to De-Load
Your de-load period should simply be a back-off period from your normal volume or intensity level of training. Some people find 5-9 days to be ideal, while other times it may take up to two weeks to get rid of all residual fatigue. I would recommend just de-loading for one cycle of your regular training split routine.
Here are some things you should try during a back-off cycle:
- Train as you have been, using the same amount of sets and reps, but slash the weight used in your lifts by one third, one half, or slightly more or less. Experiment and find which works best for you.
- Whatever weights you use, keep them in a light range where you feel that your form and technique are absolutely spot-on.
- Temporarily remove lifts that are causing pain (such as deadlifts or squats if they are causing hamstring pain or other problems).
- Work on muscle groups that you have been neglecting and let the others rest.
- Work more on your cardio and less on your lifting. Or, if you do some other kind of sport, work more on it and less on your lifting.
You could try using any combination of the above things. In fact, once in a while you could just take an entire week or training cycle off, and just not train at all. If you’re training hard, you deserve it, especially if you are going on a vacation or something anyway. Although I would suggest still doing daily dynamic stretching in the morning, and relaxed static stretching at night.
Make sure your de-load periods are at least 5 days long but no longer than two weeks (5-9 days should be ideal), and make sure you do them regularly (around every 4-8 weeks for most people). Train with lighter weights with impeccable form and without any exercises that cause pain.
Your de-load periods should allow you to improve your gains, get stronger, faster, and get rid of mental and physical fatigue that has been built up. It should normally be a period of active recovery, unless you decide to take the period off entirely. This should be done sparingly. Use your better judgement and just remember that you need to recover as much as you need to train! Fatigue masks fitness.