Taking a week or two where you cut back on your lifts and only hit a workout with a leisurely 30 – 50% or less volume and level of intensity is something that’s surprisingly difficult to commit to. For those that don’t train, it’s easy to think doing less in the gym would be a good thing.
If however, you’ve been training for a while and go hard in the gym, you’ll appreciate just how difficult it can be to step into the gym and intentionally lift a lot less than you usually would. Hitting PR’s, getting a pump, and feeling like you’ve really trained is engrained in serious gym-goers.
If you’ve landed on this then you’re likely addicted to hitting each session hard and wondering whether you need to take a deload period and what happens if you don’t deload?
If you don’t take a deload week you are more likely to experience an accumulation of fatigue which could be muscular, skeletal (joints, ligaments, and tendons), or through the central nervous system. This can lead to reduced recovery capability, reduced workout intensity, and a lack of motivation.
I’m not going to throw out extreme statements and say that if you don’t take a deload, you’ll lose all your strength and gains. In fact, there’s not much research out there that shows a tremendous upside when it comes to utilizing a deload.
In this article, I’ll therefore cover what is likely to happen if you don’t take a deload and I’ll try to lean it more towards the average gym-goer. Elite level lifters need to deload for performance reasons but most of us are not lifting a max deadlift every few weeks so the impact is noticeably different.
What Happens if You Don’t Deload
Just to get this out there nice and early, I’ve read (in detail) THE book on programming and periodization.
This goes into serious detail on setting a program for peak performance and considering my clients are mostly just wanting to drop a few extra pounds and get lean, I’m not going to claim to be the guru on deload weeks and programming.
I researched this stuff for personal interest and was reading about periodization on T-Nation with some Christian Thibaudeau articles when I was 15! Back then I was lifting weights that wouldn’t even make it into my warm ups now so you can say I’ve got a keen interest in getting the most out of your workouts.
The reason I bring this up is that you shouldn’t be looking into deloads and coming across opinions. For most serious lifters, a deload and programming break is essential for long term progress. The research and top coaches all back it up.
It sucks, but for a few periods during the year or after each training cycle, you will need to take a deload in some form. You can’t push your body to the limit 365 days per day and expect to see exponential progress.
The reverse is actually true and you could end up injured, losing strength, losing muscle mass, becoming fatigued, stressed, have raised levels of cortisol, an inability to recover between training sessions… The list is quite long!
Therefore, you do need to deload once you get to a certain level (most beginners don’t need to deload) and below are some of the issues that can occur if you don’t deload.
** There aren’t any benefits to ignoring a deload as far as I’ve been able to find out. It genuinely does seem that you’ll only face downsides if you try to go too hard, too often, and ignore the recovery periods.
1. Risk Injury
The main reason for taking a deload is to reduce the onset of fatigue and potential injury.
Muscles become fatigued but can usually recover in 72 hours or less. Damage to ligaments, tendons, and joints have a longer period for recovery and once you start to feel your joints aching, it’s a very good indicator that you need to deload or take a complete bread from the gym.
Central Nervous System (CNS) fatigue is the most telling sign of overtraining (and receives the most benefit from a deload) and pushing your body to the limit has a greater impact on the nervous system and ability to recover than what you might think.
When recovery slows down and you are less efficient at recruiting muscle fibers or maintaining mental focus during a set, your risk of injury increases greatly with persistent max effort training. Therefore, failing to include a deload period can greatly increase the risk of injury.
2. You Stop Progressing
A deload can be loosely linked to overtraining. While a deload is programmed to help prevent overtraining, especially in muscle building training phases that focus on high volume and/or frequency, failure to take one can then lead to overtraining eventually.
What this means is that if you bench 225lbs for 3 sets x 8 reps each week and you are slowly adding to this weight over time. Then one week you struggle to lift the weight for the same number of reps. The following week you have the same issue…
This can happen for a number of exercises and it’s at this point when you’ve not hit your lifting potential but rather hit fatigue. Strength athletes follow a specific progression model that does not involve training to failure every session but those looking to make progress in terms of muscle growth will frequently train to failure.
Training to failure not only fatigues the muscle fibers but the CNS that recruits them. Once this is fatigued, you won’t be able to recruit your muscle fibers effectively and you won’t be able to utilize adrenaline to hit the big rep and weight sets.
Once this happens you are very unlikely to continue to make progress in the gym as you can’t recruit or fatigue the muscle fibers enough to stimulate further growth.
3. You’ll Experience Mental Fatigue
Arguably, the best reason for taking a deload week is to ensure you don’t suffer from any mental fatigue from training. Constantly training with high intensity and sub-maximal lifts will not only take its toll on your body but also on your mind.
This is mainly a result of the CNS and getting fired up for big lifts. Most people reading this will be motivated trainers and actively go out of their way to get a workout in, regardless of where they are in the world and access to equipment.
When you hit a wall with mental fatigue though, you can almost instantly lose all motivation to train and this form of burnout is one that is not often considered but it’s the worst outcome from overtraining in my opinion.
Sure, injuries suck, and being too fatigued to train with intensity can be frustrating but when you suddenly lose that passion or motivation to lift, this can be much more difficult to recover from. Deloads are mainly used to manage mental fatigue which is not discussed enough and is one of the key considerations that I’ll cover shortly.
Planning for a deload week is a preventative method used to prevent fatigue and performance issues. Our bodies work in waves and cannot function at 100% capacity every day so pushing each workout to the limit will eventually lead to a breaking point for muscles, CNS, and mentality.
With that said, everyone is a unique individual and can cope with training stimulus differently. Therefore, selecting a deload every 4-6 weeks in a training cycle is an arbitrary number that just seems to have been adopted over the years as an acceptable time frame.
The issue is that most people might not need a deload this frequently. Your individual mindset should determine when you need to deload. Everyone can have a bad training session but people will need a mental break from hard training at different periods of a training cycle.
If a deload is planned for the 4th week but you mentally feel like you could push the boundaries that week, you could be missing out on potential progress and deloading when you simply don’t need to. This is why it’s difficult to optimally plan a deload.
While you can put systems in place to prevent the onset of fatigue or injury, it’s not yet possible to plan this in the most optimal way and most deloads are either done at the wrong period of time or when they are simply not needed.
This is more true for elite athletes though. If you are someone that’s a hobbyist lifter and not competing, it’s better to take the deload every 4 – 6 weeks and accept it might not be the “optimal” time to take it rather than trying to judge it yourself and ending up getting it completely wrong.
When it comes to needing to deload, you also need to consider whether you are really pushing yourself too hard or whether you are just generally tired from everyday life (stress, work, money, social commitments).
There’s a big difference between needing to pull back training volume/intensity inside the gym or taking a break outside of the gym.
For average lifters, John Meadows has a good summary for taking deloads in this video below:
Some form of a deload is a necessity for everyone through the year. You can’t constantly push your body to adapt and grow without ever giving it a break. A deload is different from a week off though and is used to taper down your volume whilst allowing for some recovery and prevention of fatigue.
Failing to take a deload could lead to a host of negative consequences, especially for those training at a higher level. There’s a risk of injury, CNS fatigue, stunted progress in your lifts, and even the loss of all motivation to hit the weights!
An optimal way to deload may not be in existence yet but implementing it in some form throughout the year is much better than the alternative of failing to do so.
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