When To Deload? No One Knows.
A deload is a temporary break from your current workout program that comes after a period of overreaching. There are no set rules on what a deload should look like. The most common is to take a week either completely off or to cut your volume and intensity by about half for a week. The idea behind a deload is that it allows your body to completely recover from your previous workouts and will allow you to come back stronger. The question is how often should you be taking these planned breaks from your intense training.
I had actually never heard of a deload until I ran Jim Wendler’s extremely popular 5/3/1 program. In the program, Jim calls for a deload week every fourth week where you cut your loads in half and do zero assistance work. For the previous 5 years, I just worked out as often possible while usually following some program that I got out of the recent Muscle and Fitness magazine. I really never liked the deload week and would usually screw them up by either just skipping the workouts or working out far too hard for it to be considered a deload. Since running the 5/3/1 program it seems like every program I have come across has involved some type of deload or back off week.
I have recently started to question if this was part of the reason to blame for my lack of progress over the last several years. What if I’m never accumulating enough stress because every time I start to feel a little fatigue I take a deload? Have I been just taking deloads as an excuse to avoid hard work? Why have I been working out for 15 years and my hardest week looks like a rest week for most Olympic athletes?
I remember a job that I had in high school involved trimming PVC plastic that was coming out of an injection molding press. The shifts were 12 hours and I worked 48-60 hours a week. Trimming that PVC was brutal on the hands. I had a pair tin snips and a knife but the PVC felt like I was carving a rock. I was 18 years old and in great physical shape when I took the job but after the first day I questioned if I would be able to work again the next day. My hands were so sore and bruised I couldn’t imagine ever being able to do this day in day out. “Hey Boss, can I take a deload day tomorrow instead of working?” The thing was there were 60 year old women that were doing the same work and seemed totally unfazed by the task. How was that possible? These women had adapted over years of practice. Sure enough, the first two weeks sucked. Every day was harder than the last but by the end of my second week, things were getting easier. After a month I didn’t even think about hands anymore as they seemingly now had an unlimited work capacity. Could your whole body not adapt in a similar way as my hands and forearms did?
Well, it is time to find out for myself. I am starting a new program which doesn’t involve any deloads. None. And the workout program is more intense than any I have ever run. Working up to a max single on the Squat and Bench 6 days per week. The theory is yes it will suck but your body will adapt and that is how you get better. Part of the program says to expect some “dark days” where your brain will be screaming at you to skip and take time off but if you can push through you will come out better.
I think I have been selling myself way short on what my body is capable of. When you hear about some of the training programs that elite athletes are using you realize they are doing as much per day as you do per week. Lots of athletes are doing intense physical exercise 2 or 3 times per day, every day. I know steroids muddy the waters a bit but I know at least some of the people are still on the natty train. Besides, the worst thing that could happen to me is I run myself into the dirt, get sick, get some overuse injuries, lose some strength and learn a lot about my body. Best case scenario is that it turns out your body is awesome and can do a whole lot more than what you think it can and I end up putting about 200 pounds on my squat and bench.