Deloading One step back and two forward

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By strength training, more and more fatigue gradually accumulates in various systems in your body. As a result, you can no longer recover sufficiently from your training sessions, despite your rest days. Therefore, consciously build in a rest period every now and then for recovery and further progress. In other words, take a step back every now and then to take two steps forward.

Key points:

1.   Deloading in bodybuilding is a period of (relative) rest, usually at the end of a mesocycle (planned), but sometimes when you feel the need to (unplanned).

2.   Beginner and intermediate bodybuilders take a deload at least every three meso cycles, advanced in principle after every meso cycle. Typically, a deload lasts one microcycle (usually a week).

3.   The main purpose of a deload is recovery from fatigue that you build up over a longer period of time through strength training. This fatigue is mainly local: in muscles, joints, tendons and bones. The central nervous system remains relatively untouched during strength training. By deloading you prevent overtraining and injuries, and you avoid plateaus. And once you recover, you may come back stronger.

4.   A deload is also a way to resensitize your body (make it sensitive again to training stimuli), although you have to deload for at least a week (preferably longer).

5.   In addition, a deload acts as a mental break.

6.   There are several ways to deload and one is not necessarily better than the other. If recovery is your priority, it’s best to take a complete training rest. With a regular deload between two mesocycles, it is common to continue training, but with fewer sets and reps, and a lower RPE.

7.   Recovery requires sufficient nutrients: make sure you eat during a deload around maintenance or somewhat above that.

WHAT IS DELOADING?

‘Deloading’ in bodybuilding is the principle of taking (relative) rest. And it’s actually a logical principle, because as you may know, your muscles grow and you get stronger in the (rest) period between two workouts, not during the workout itself. So now and then you ‘just’ have to rest more for more growth and greater strength gains.

Deloading also plays an important role in injury prevention. Because with strength training you not only put a strain on your muscles, but also joints and tendons, for example. After a while, they are so stressed that they need longer to recover than the recovery time between two heavy workouts allows.

Usually a deload takes up a microcycle, so in practice a week. But it can also be just a few training sessions or a longer period. In addition, ‘rest’ often means ‘active rest’: you continue to train, but lighter than normal. And finally, by ‘lighter’, we usually don’t mean lighter weights, but less volume (fewer sets and/or reps) en less effort (you stay in your sets a bit further away from muscle failure).

THE FUNCTIONS OF DELOADS IN BODYBUILDING

Deloads are not very popular in bodybuilding. After all, people want to keep training. However, it is important to slow down regularly for the following reasons.

1. RECOVERY FROM CUMULATIVE FATIGUE

When most bodybuilders think of recovery, they think of recovery from a specific workout. But your body also needs to be able to recover from fatigue that you build up over a longer period of time: cumulative fatigue.

Recovery means that your body returns to homeostasis, the physiological balance that is disrupted during a workout. A pleasant ‘side effect’ of that process is that the disruption leads to structural adjustments (adaptation), so that you can better cope with subsequent ‘disruptions’ (ie training stimuli). So your muscles get bigger and you get stronger. The basis for a good recovery and a good adaptation is an optimal eating and sleeping pattern.

During strength training, damage is done in several systems in your body: in various places in your musculoskeletal system (muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons and bones) and in your central nervous system. Of course, between two workouts of the same muscle group you rest for 24 to 72 hours, so that you are in principle sufficiently recovered for the next load.

But fatigue accumulates: on the one hand due to the training sessions that follow each other, on the other because you apply progressive overload, if all goes well, so that the load per session gradually becomes more voluminous and intensive.

The different systems each recover at their own pace. And one makes a full recovery, while the other leaves something of fatigue:

  • Muscles recover fairly quickly, but with frequent loads, some fatigue accumulates.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the central nervous system recovers acutely and there is probably no cumulative fatigue. Fatigue after training is mainly local anyway, so around the place that you have loaded. The load on the central nervous system by strength training is relatively small.
  • Most fatigue from strength training builds up in stressed tendons and joints. Because this fatigue does not directly stimulate pain receptors, it is an insidious cause of injury for many strength athletes. When you start to feel pain, it is often too late.

The recovery function of deloads therefore primarily aims to prevent injury: prevention is better than cure.

Secondly, it serves to prevent training plateaus. After all, the greater the cumulative fatigue in a muscle, the more it becomes exhausted and thus the less well it can perform and recover. In short, cumulative fatigue reduces performance and growth.

While every strength athlete should deload on a regular basis, the need for a deload can be increased or decreased by factors outside of training, such as

  • age;
  • sleep;
  • stress;
  • nutrition;
  • genetics;
  • the kind of work you do.

2. RESENSITIZATION

Your body is constantly adapting to training stimuli. As a result, it gradually becomes insensitive to those stimuli and you will have to constantly give it new stimuli in order to continue to grow. Of course, a matter of using increasingly heavier weights. But progressive overload also requires a build-up in volume (the number of sets per muscle group) and in RPE, the extent to which you train to muscle failure. And both have ceilings: for volume, it’s the MRV, and for RPE, it’s muscle failure (the point where you can’t do any more reps).

At the end of a mesocycle, you should be training just a little below your MRV and RPE is close to muscle failure (some sets you might do all the way to muscle failure). In order to start your next cycle with a low volume (Minimum Effective Volume, MEV) and a low RPE (about 2-4 repetitions of muscle failure removed) you will need to resensitize your body somewhat. ‘Somewhat’, because one week of training with a low volume and a low RPE is obviously not enough to be training sensitive as a newbie again.

Something that does not seem possible for an advanced bodybuilder, although you could already resensitize your body with 2 to 4 weeks of ‘active rest’ – according to a scientific analysis by author Greg Nuckols. According to him, every advanced person would do well to build in an active rest period of 2-4 weeks 1 to 4 times a year. One of the studies he cites shows that 24 weeks of training with alternating 6 weeks of training with 3 weeks of rest yields the same strength and mass gains as 24 consecutive weeks of training. According to yet another renowned coach and author, Christian Thibaudeau, for resensitization of any significance you need at least 9-12 days :

9-12 days of rest is the best length to keep your body responsive to training without losing gains.

If resensitization is an important goal of your deload, it is better to deload for longer than a week. In addition, it is best to make it a passive rest period (also called unloading, see below), so that your body is free from strength training stimuli.

3. MENTAL BREAK

As much as you probably like going to the gym (and also benefit mentally from it), strength sports also generate a certain amount of psychological stress. Because you have to make a big effort almost every day, while you also have to make continuous progress. With a week off, you also recharge the mental battery.

DO YOU LOSE MUSCLE MASS DURING A DELOAD?

Many bodybuilders are afraid that a week of no/less/lighter training will be at the expense of their gains. However, that fear is completely unfounded. Various studies have shown that with 1-2 weeks of non-training muscle mass is preserved, and probably for longer. Hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld also confirms this, as does Greg Nuckols in the article just cited.

However, the muscles often look smaller during a period of non-training, because they retain less glycogen and fluid.

Most forms of deloading are based on active recovery, which means that you keep training, albeit lighter (see below). Muscle growth is the result of overload and you try to avoid that during a deload.

PLANNED VERSUS UNPLANNED DELOADS

Advanced bodybuilders usually plan their deloads. Because they train relatively heavily and a lot, it is common for them to deload for a week after a meso cycle and then start the next cycle. You then start out stronger and more training-sensitive than if you hadn’t done a deload. In addition, this way you can avoid plateaus, which often occur because you no longer recover sufficiently from your workouts. Last but not least, planned deloads are the way to prevent injuries.

If you’re new to training, you probably don’t necessarily need to deload after each mesocycle. Coach Eric Helms, an authority on natural bodybuilding,  recommends deloading at least once every three mesocycles. In practice, this means that you should never continue training for more than three to six months without deload.

Some advocate autoregulation, where you adjust the intensity of your workouts to how you feel at the time. That would make deloads redundant. Especially Helms’ colleague Menno Henselmans advocates autoregulation as an alternative to planned deloads. According to him, planned deloads are not always necessary, at least not for all muscle groups at the same time:

Muscle growth is a local process. (…) What I usually implement is what I call reactive deloads, which are planned by a rule. That rule could be: if you don’t progress as planned, by example more than 50% than expected, you start a deload.

The principle for reactive (unplanned) deloads is thus:

You plan the rule in advance, but you don’t plan the deload in advance.

Henselmans emphasizes that the need for deloading is also strongly related to unexpected circumstances, such as mental stress. Mental stress can seriously disrupt your recovery capacity and even double your recovery time. With only planned deloading you do not take these kinds of things into account.

Although a proven training method, pure autoregulation is only reserved for experienced strength athletes who are well able to continuously perceive fatigue signals from the body and act accordingly.

CHECKLIST FOR DELOADING

How do you determine whether or not you should deload after a mesocycle? Or that you might already be ready for a deload (reactive deloading)? According to Eric Helms, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I sleeping worse than usual?
  • Do I have less energy than usual?
  • Do I have more joint pains than usual?
  • Am I making less progress in strength than usual (or even none at all)?
  • Are my overall mood and stress levels higher than normal?
  • Do I have less motivation than usual to train?

If the answer to three or more of these questions is ‘yes’, then you are probably ready for a deload. Because those might be (the first) signs of overreaching.

These questions may be difficult to answer at times. All the more so because some forms of fatigue are not immediately noticeable. Coach Mike Israetel about this:

Some systems take longer to recover than your perception of effort and your ability to acutely exerted effort.

We have already seen that muscles recover much faster than joints, ligaments and tendons. So while you may initially feel well enough to start a new cycle, you may still be billed for overworked joints later on.

Therefore the advice to always deload when in doubt. The worst thing you have to lose is that you may progress a little less quickly. But if you do not deload for a long time, you have much more to lose. Eric Helms about this:

Being the guy who always skips deloads is a pretty bad gamble and in the long run that’s gonna hurt you.

In short, it is best to approach deloading proactively. That is, don’t wait until you are in an early stage of overtraining and only then react.

MEASURING OVERTRAINING USING HRV

If you would like to have a more objective measuring instrument for the need for deloading, use heart rate variability (HRV). If the cumulative training fatigue threatens to become too great, your heartbeats will become more even (while they are usually irregular, contrary to what you might expect). Evenness is not good: your body must be able to adapt very quickly to internal and external stimuli, and therefore not function on autopilot, as it were. Read more about HRV and overtraining here.

CONCLUSION AND ADVICE

By far the safest method is to schedule a full-body deload after each mesocycle and reactive deload when needed. We recommend this especially for advanced users, who train at high intensity and volumes.

But of course you don’t have to deload more than is strictly necessary. If you are an intermediate strength athlete, making good progress and not experiencing abnormal fatigue, then deloading at the end of a mesocycle is probably not necessary. Or maybe just a certain muscle group.

Since full autoregulation requires a lot of experience and expertise, it is nevertheless wise to deload at least once every three mesocycles. In practice, this means that you should never continue training for more than three to six months without deload.

ACTIVE VERSUS PASSIVE RECOVERY

There is no fixed process for deloading. Many ways seem to suffice, as long as you give your body enough chance to recover and (therefore) avoid overload.

The most important choice you make is active or passive recovery. With active recovery you still train lightly or you are physically active in another way. In passive recovery, you keep complete rest (you stay away from the gym), barring some modal physical activity.

Active recovery is often recommended because it increases blood flow, making it easier to get rid of lactate and other ‘waste products’. That would aid recovery. However, the scientific evidence for this theory is shaky. For example, we found a study that does not show any advantage of active versus passive recovery, although it relates to a completely different branch of sport – women’s football.

Another argument for active recovery is that muscle loss occurs less quickly. But that only matters for more prolonged deloads. After all, we already saw that with one or even two weeks of not training, your muscle mass remains intact.

In some cases, we believe it is better to opt for passive recovery, especially with reactive deloads. Because when signs of overtraining appear, it is better to rest completely for a while so that all the systems in your body can recover.

Sometimes you simply cannot train for a while. For example, due to vacation or study. Great to seize the opportunity for a week of complete training rest.

Active or passive recovery also seems to be a personal choice. One responds better to complete rest, the other can best remain active. Feel free to try both methods, or alternate them.

WAYS TO DELOAD

Depending on whether you prefer active or passive recovery, the following forms of deloading are most common.

For the record: we classify all forms of rest and recovery – active and passive – as deloading here. As far as we’re concerned, that’s an umbrella term. Passive recovery (complete rest) is also known as ‘unloading’, as an alternative to deloading. We therefore see unloading as a form of deloading (see point 3).

1. LIGHT TRAINING (LESS VOLUME AND LOWER RPE)

Certainly with planned deloads, it is common in bodybuilding to continue training, but with less volume or at a lower intensity. In the past, usually ‘just’ lower weights were used. However, according to new scientific insights, it seems better not to reduce the weight, but the volume, ie the total number of sets per muscle group per week. After all, volume is the biggest cause of fatigue. Mike Israel about this:

Volume is the predominant cause of fatigue and reducing volume is the predominant way to alleviate fatigue.

You often hear the advice to halve the volume during a deload. In practice, that probably means that you train around your MEV. Which seems reasonable to us for a deload, provided you maintain your training frequency. So do not divide the smaller number of sets over fewer training sessions, because then you will get too much volume per session. So you will have to do 1 or 2 sets less per exercise.

Can your intensity remain unchanged during a deload? In terms of absolute intensity, in principle yes, except you avoid the very low rep ranges for a while. If you’re doing an exercise with sets of around five reps, use a slightly lighter weight (for example, for ten reps) to give your tendons and joints some breathing room. Furthermore, we recommend training with a fairly low RPE, say RPE 5-6 (that means 4 to 6 reps of muscle failure away). After all, the closer you get to muscle failure, the greater the muscle exhaustion, the more you hinder your recovery. Training to muscle failure is completely out of the question during a deload. Even during a regular training you have to be careful with that.

In short, this active way of deloading encompasses:

  • Halve the number of sets per training session;
  • Swap very low rep ranges for slightly higher rep ranges;
  • Reduce the number of reps per set so that you are 4 to 6 reps away from failure.

This approach gives you the potential benefits of active recovery, plus you don’t have to say goodbye to your favorite place, the gym. It probably feels a bit strange to have to train at half power. Then keep in mind that training less hard from time to time is much needed for lasting progress.

2. OPPOSITE TRAINING

Instead of training lighter, you can also train differently for active recovery: opposite training.

Contrast week
The so-called contrast week is in fact an alternative to deloading, and an option if you are in doubt whether deloading is necessary. During a contrast week you train in a completely different way than usual. Not necessarily lighter, but it is a way to resensitize.

If recovery is your priority, we do not recommend the contrast week. Because although it is a form of active recovery for your muscles, it offers little or no recovery options for other parts of your musculoskeletal system, such as joints, tendons and bones.

The most obvious contrast that you can make as a bodybuilder is a week of purely strength training instead of muscle growth. That means higher weights and lower reps. For strength, aim for 2 to 5 reps. We advise against doing other exercises during a contrast week. Doing a ‘new’ exercise often leads to muscle soreness and that can hinder your recovery. During a contrast week, for example, limit yourself to the big compound exercises that you always do: chest presses, shoulder presses, rowing and squats.

A strength-oriented contrast week is not the same as a complete strength cycle. This normally lasts several weeks and is therefore a complete mesocycle.

Doing a different strength-oriented sport
You can also abandon your training schedule and still continue to do strength-oriented sport. Think sprinting, jumping, Strongman training, or body weight training, such as calisthenics. Limit yourself to light workouts to avoid too much overload.

3. COMPLETE REST

We already saw that you can also opt for passive recovery, or complete rest from strength training. We do advise you to keep moving during such a rest period. So do some light cardio, such as walking.

We believe that no strength training for a week to two weeks is the only way to restore all systems in your body. That’s not something you should necessarily do after every mesocycle, but definitely once or twice a year.

Not doing strength training for a while is also good for resensitization. In this context one also speaks of detrainingunloading or strategic deconditioning. But we already saw that when you have reached a training plateau, one week of detraining is probably not enough to become (more) sensitive to training stimuli again.

OUR PREFERENCE

We prefer complete rest as the deload method, because you can be sure that your body can recover from fatigue in muscles, tendons and joints.

NUTRITION DURING DELOAD

A common mistake among bodybuilders is that they cut their calories severely during a deload week. And that while nutrition also makes an important contribution to recovery.

If you bulk, it is not illogical to reduce your calorie intake during a deload. After all, you train much less voluminously and/or intensively, or you don’t even train at all. That means you burn fewer calories.

However, the energy consumption of strength training should not be exaggerated. In addition, you are in a period of recovery and supercompensation. You could just nullify the effects of deloading by using a calorie deficit. Therefore, after a bulking cycle, it is usually advised to either eat on maintenance or maintain a small calorie surplus .

To add some wise words from Mike Israetel:

Don’t worry too much about muscle loss on your deloads, but by all means eat enough food to not lose weight during them, so that you can reduce the fatigue you need to get another month or two of productive training after. You know… the whole point of a deload to begin with.

Are you cutting? Then you have to temporarily give up your energy deficit during a deload. So you go back to your maintenance level at that moment. ‘From that moment’, because, due to metabolic adaptation, that can be lower than when you started your cut.

IN SUMMARY

1.    Deloading in bodybuilding is a period of (relative) rest, usually at the end of a mesocycle (planned), but sometimes also when you feel you are ready (unplanned).

2.    Beginner and intermediate bodybuilders take a deload at least every three mesocycles, advanced in principle after every mesocycle. Typically, a deload lasts one microcycle (usually a week).

3.    The main purpose of a deload is recovery from fatigue that you build up over a longer period of time through strength training. This fatigue is mainly local: in muscles, joints, tendons and bones. The central nervous system remains relatively untouched during strength training. By deloading you prevent overtraining and injuries, and you avoid plateaus. And once you recover, you may come back stronger.

4.    A deload is also a way to resensitize your body (make it sensitive again to training stimuli), although you have to deload for at least a week (preferably longer).

5.    In addition, a deload acts as a mental break.

6.    There are several ways to deload and one is not necessarily better than the other. If recovery is your priority, it’s best to take complete training rest. With a regular deload between two mesocycles, it is common to continue training, but with fewer sets and reps, and a lower RPE.

7.    Recovery requires sufficient nutrients: make sure you eat during a deload around maintenance or somewhat above that.

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