Fallacy Friday – Debunking the Deload

What’s the TL;DR.

  • Deloads are in essence mini tapers
  • They should be used after marked increased periods of intense and voluminous training.
  • Most people aren’t training hard enough or heavy enough to warrant a “deload”.

Everyone loves a good deload be it your internet guru or your local friendly strength and conditioning practitioner ask most strength athletes about the subject though and for the most part you are likely to get a bemused response or puzzled look.

Fitness vs Fatigue

The concept of overreaching and the bedrock for all of the perodisation models floating around today have their roots in the GAS model or General Adaptation Syndrome originally described by Dr. Selye it describes a biological system’s response to general stresses.  In essence an external pressure or stress is placed on a biological system (stress / injury / disease) this is manifested in three stages.

1 – Alarm – the body’s or person’s initial reaction (fatigue after exercise, muscle soreness after weights for example)

2 – Adaptation – The body’s medium term reaction to a stress (increased immunity, increased CV function, increased muscular strength)

3 – Exhaustion – the system finally breaks down under the continual loading. (I.e. body gives into overuse injury)

Enter the sports scientists

 Above is a schematic representing what is known as the fitness fatigue theory or in other terms super compensation.  In simple terms it follows the following principals.

  • You are at x level of fitness
  • You perform a session or block of training that out exerts your current level of preparedness (you run more volume, perform more intense sessions or overload via some protocol).
  • Your performance levels drop because you have placed too much stress on your system (next few days / weeks you are stiff or sore, you can’t run as fast etc because your body is trying to recover from the stresses you have been putting it through)
  • After a period of “over reaching” you take a step off the gas and taper / de-load.
  • Your body recovers “super compensating” i.e. becoming stronger / faster / bigger / building an immune response so the next time it comes across a stressor of that magnitude it is up to the task of dealing with it more comfortably.

What does this all have to do with de loading?

Deloads when used correctly are effectively a mini taper where you remove volume of training from your programme to allow your body to recover from an extremely intense period of training that has left your body shattered and seen your performance decrease significantly in training.  Before we go any further I feel I should clarify what a “taper” is.

A taper is usually used in the build up to an important competition when an athlete want’s to be at their best performance wise it is in essence maximising what you have.  The majority of training tapers do the following.

  • A drastic reduction in the amount of training done ( < Volume)
  • Keeping in short intense work periods (sprints / lifting @ 90%+ for singles but with very little or a drastically reduced amount of time spent training).
  • An emphasis on speed / velocity / quality of efforts
  • Maximising your performances in training
  • Periods of total rest to allow type IIa fibres to take on the characteristics of type IIx which the the “fastest twitch fibre” (also known as coach potato fibres as they are present in sedentary individuals and are thought to be a contributing factor to obesity).
  • Allow for rest / relaxation and mental preparation.

These are all extremely important for maximising performance in an important athletic calendar event now ask yourself three questions?

  • Do I train with extreme intensity / volume session in session out to the point where you feel lethargic and mentally drained in day to day life?
  • Do I have an important competition coming up?
  • Have I trained to the point where my performances in training are getting worse session to session no matter what rep range or sets I perform?

If you answered no to all of these questions then there is a strong nigh on certain possibility you have no need to perform any kind of deload/taper.

Let’s face it unless you are training on a permanent basis and pushing the boundaries of what’s physically possible you probably don’t need to deload or taper unless you are entering a competition and want to do as well as possible.  I find the need for de-loads in ,my training to be non existent and I am a pretty well trained individual in my sport and I really fail to see the need or logic for deloads in anyone’s training unless it’s for a taper or following a disgustingly intense period of training.  If you are running 5/3/1 by taking the 4th de-load week at 50% you are in effect de-training for that week and loosing training stimulus and time especially if you are a novice/intermediate athlete.

I don’t care what level of competition you have achieved it doesn’t matter if you are Olympic or world champion in that sport unless your sport is a pure strength/power sport then you are a novice strength athlete and as such should train as one, it is very difficult for someone of your training level to put significant amount of stress on your body to actually require a deload or period of overreaching.

What is a novice strength athlete?

IF you can’t rep at least 2xbw for sets on the squat, deadlift 2.25x bw for sets on the deadlift or clean 1.5x bw your probably a novice strength athlete and don’t really need to follow a heavily perodised approach what you need is good programming.

A good programme will provide a continual undulation in volume and intensity in a sensible, systematic and progressive manner. 

I have seen people with 320+ (700lb) squats/deadlifts and 200kg+ (440lb+) bench presses make sustained and good progressive of 5 week linear blocks that went from high volume to low intensity for 4-5+ blocks (20-25 weeks of intense training with no de-load) my guess is that most athletes and coaches drastically underestimate the physical capacity of their athletes.  I have seen time and time again international level athletes see huge strength and power gains (10-20% increases in 1RMs in 1-3 months on athletes who have been in “elite sport” for 3+ years) with out the need for a de-load.

The bottom line if your not verging on over training and not coming into an important competition you probably don’t need to “de-load”.