Serious training builds up fatigue. It’s a fact. If you’re training hard enough to get stronger then you’re training hard enough to dig yourself into a recovery hole. Now, there are a lot of ways to work around that which might include varying the exercises over time, dropping volume as the weights get heavier or moving into different phases of training. But when it comes to making your training sustainable in the short-term, deloads are one of the easiest and most proven methods for making your training sustainable.
While not defined in most textbooks, deloading is talked widely about in general training culture and has been written about extensively. It generally means a deliberate reduction in training stress that is done to allow for recovery. So as multiple weeks of hard training compound togethe,r a single week of reduced training stress will allow the lifter to bounce back so that they can continue to hammer the iron once again. This can be done by reducing volume, intensity, effort, aggression, changing the exercise or doing some combination of all..
For planning your recovery week, it makes the most sense to reduce the thing that has been the focus of your training most recently. So if you are in a phase of training where you are regularly handling maximal loads, it makes sense to deload by spending a week with significantly reduced percentages. Similarly, if your training has been extremely high volume and you have been consistently building to more sets week to week, it makes sense to take a short period of time with a reduced number of sets and reps. I’ve even heard discussion of so-called ‘pivot blocks’ where the strain of main movements is lessened by replacing them with easier variations. Deadlifts might be swapped for Romanian or Ukrainian deadlifts, squats may be swapped for belt squat or leg pressing and pressing can be done with dumbbells or machines. By reducing the total number of motor units that are included with each hard attempt, the nervous system gets to breathe and the body can once again allocate resources to growth.
In the books I’ve written so far (Base Strength, Peak Strength) I’ve only touched on deloads in passing. The truth is I don’t rely on them heavily and many lifters don’t need to either. That’s not to say recovery isn’t important; it absolutely is. But the point of the deload is to make sure that fatigue doesn’t accumulate without restriction and, as long as training features a regular ebb and flow of weight, volume and effort, progress can continue over a longer period of time without need for a restorative week.
I typically program around three or four week waves where the stress of one variable ramps up aggressively before resetting at the start of the next wave. If I’m focusing on volume then I’m actively adding sets each week until it reaches a crescendo around week 3 or 4 where the number of sets again drops allowing recovery. Ramp back up again with more weight and repeat. If I’m focusing on intensity in a very strength specific block then I am ramping weight up at a particular rep range, again, starting relatively easily and increasing effort week-to-week until I reach the hardest possible week. Reset, recover, repeat.
Now we can split hairs as to whether or not that first week of reduced recovery counts is a deload. In some sense I’m sure it does, but I choose not to think of it that way and the reason is psychology. When lifters view their training as a deload, they are often likely the phone it in on the rest of their work out; I know I do. When I run through a deload week I’m doing everything in my power to make sure that recovery is prioritized and I generally take it easy on everything. The first week of a new wave, however, I’m still training with purpose and intent as the work done there sets me up for success on the hardest week. Accessory exercises still get done with authority and I’m still taking my main lifts very seriously, as that makes up the ground work for each successive workout leading to the top of that wave.
I do recommend deloads to those who don’t follow a wave pattern. So if you follow a very linear type of progression or some type of classical periodization, where everything moves from light weight to heavy and high volume to low, inserting a deload after every second or third week can allow you to hit the gas a lot harder on those training sessions without worrying about accumulated fatigue preventing that progress. For those who base their training around top sets or maximal efforts, you may have encountered periods where immediate strength gain is followed by stagnation and then some inexplicable regression. Even when training is going well and you are entirely recovered, you might notice that too many weeks of maximal effort in a row results in the warmups feeling heavier and your performance backsliding. Intermittent deloading is the answer to this problem. You can theoretically max out on your lifts two to three weeks in a row before including a deload and that will make productive a mode of training that would otherwise be unsustainable and counterproductive.
I do think that deloads are something that should be earned. Many programs insert them as kind of a catch-all; an insurance policy ‘just in cas’e. The most advanced lifters (who also tend to be the most experienced and know exactly when they need to insert a deload into their training) are the ones that will require these more often. Specializing in strength means a lot more work dedicated to the highest percentages and that comes with a high recovery costs. However the average trainee doesn’t merit walking such a razor thin line between stress and recovery and should hold off on deloads unless they are explicitly using maximal training on a weekly basis or using increases in the effort as a primary means of progression (ONE MORE REP!!). Those following a basic wave structure in their training will usually find that the regular ebb and flow of stress is more than enough to sustain them through several months of training before a deload is warranted.