The Importance of Deloads in Injury Prevention

I will be bold and say that deloads have become the most underutilized training tool in today’s modern programming. And a key word there is “training tool”, not a punishment as many look to it as, because a deload done right is performance enhancing, not a detriment to progress. For strength purposes, a deload taken at the correct time (after a mesocycle that results in a slight overreach in the final week) should result in a super-compensation of strength, producing improvements upon resumption of training after the planned deload week. And another key word there was “planned”, as many times deloads are just the result of a realization that maybe you have pushed it a bit too far, and the aches and pains, or worse injuries, are starting to pile up. Since this is Pain-Free Powerlifting, rather than taking this blog post in the direction of the effects and benefits of super-compensation during planned deloads, I instead want to look at the health and recovery benefits in regards to injuries. Let me note that a large portion of my knowledge in regards to this subject is due to the e-book “Scientific Principles of Strength Training”, by Mike Israetel, Chad Wesley Smith, and James Hoffmann, and I highly, highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about strength training. (1)

So before looking into the options of how to structure deload weeks, let’s look at the reasoning behind them in regards to injury prevention. When it comes to deloads, there are three things we are looking the recover during this process.

1.) Muscle

2.) Central Nervous System

3.) Ligaments, Tendons, and other tissues

That exact order is also the ranking of what recovers the fastest versus the slowest. In reality, deloads are not all that important for muscle fiber recovery, as the human body is fairly efficient in recovering in this aspect, which is exactly why you may have still been making progress without planned deloads currently. Most deloads, in regards to programming for overreaching and super-compensation, are not planned in regards to the recovery of muscle fibers, but instead for the second item on our list, which is the central nervous system. When you hear the term “fatigue” or “training fatigue” discussed, this is usually in regards to the central nervous system. As we overreach, or push past our maximum recoverable volume, our training fatigue reaches a point where our performance actually decreases. At this point is when a planned deload works perfectly in allowing the central nervous system to properly recover, resulting in super-compensation and a strength/performance increase upon resumption of training. Where things have changed recently though is the realization that a simple taper, where intensity is maintained and volume is reduced, can have very similar effects as a full deload in regards to the same performance benefits. And there is no denying that. We do not “have to” reduce intensity to allow our body to dissipate fatigue, as volume is the main contributor. By simply cutting volume, we can continue with our heavy training and receive similar, if not possibly better short-term results. And honestly, it’s more fun this way. As powerlifters we love to train and lift heavy, so no one likes the easy deload weeks. Any excuse to continue training heavy, especially a reason with valid research and validity behind it, is going to attract the attention of many. But in my opinion, the “taper” we see programmed currently falls short.  Our short term progress may benefit, but there is a possible detriment to our long term health and progression. Without an intensity drop as well, we are then ignoring the final component of recovery, which is ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues, which is the slowest to recover out of the 3 components. This is where I argue that a planned deload is most needed, as we need sufficient time to not only reduce fatigue to allow for a super-compensation effect, but we also need sufficient time to reduce the wear and tear of training. I am confident in stating that overuse injuries will be more likely to occur when tapers are used versus planned deload weeks, and if that means slower short-term progression for the sake of better long-term progression, I will take that any day.

With that being said, let’s take a look at the general how a deload should be structured. When it comes to a mesocycle length, this will be highly independent and based on multiple factors of your training goals, history, and injury resiliency. For the sake of sticking with injury resiliency as our main concern, a general rule will be that the longer a mesocycle is, the higher the likelihood of injury. I do not think any of us would argue that if we trained 1 week on, 1 week deload, we would stay pretty darn healthy, but probably wouldn’t make any progress. Whereas if we went 8-10 weeks straight training, followed by a deload, we may make good progress, but would be putting ourselves at a higher risk for injury. So for a general rule of thumb, I believe most mesocycles should last somewhere between 3-5 weeks, followed by a planned deload. As already stated, whether it’s 3 weeks or 5 is going to be dependent on many individual factors. But if you want to base this solely off of health and injury prevention, for the most part you will be less likely to accumulate overuse injuries with 3 week cycles versus 5. As for how to actually program the deload, below is a general template, with a portion of this information being gathered from the previously stated e-book “Scientific Principles of Strength Training”, along with my own thoughts and principles on how to bring everything together.

Squat, Deadlift, and Bench movements (includes competition lifts and variations):

For this example to keep it simple, lets look at this based on an individual workout, not the week as a whole. Find the average volume and intensity for the training block. If the heaviest day was 80% and the lightest was 70%, use 75% as your working number. If your highest volume day was 4×6 and the lowest volume day was 2×6, use 3×6 as your working sets and reps. From here, reduce volume to somewhere between 50-60% of your current numbers depending on your fatigue levels, and reduce intensity to 75-80% of the current weight. So if your average calculations came to be 3×6 at 360lbs., then your deload workout for that day would be 3×3 or 3×4 at somewhere between 270-290lbs. Below is a table showing another scenario, as would be seen in a training program.

Volume Week 4 Deload Week 5
Exercise Sets Reps Weight Exercise Sets Reps Weight
High Bar Squat 1 8 330 High Bar Squat 1 5 265
High Bar Pause Squat 2 8 275 High Bar Pause Squat 2 5 220

Another way to calculate these numbers that is a bit simpler is to take the sets x reps x weight from the final week of training, and apply the same percentages of 50-60% of the volume and 75-80% intensity. Either way, it will not make a huge difference.

Accessory Work:

Accessory work is a bit easier to program for, as unless you are experiencing a large amount of fatigue or wear and tear, I keep the intensity the same, but do a similar 50-60% volume reduction. If you are experiencing any overuse issues, using brachioradialis tendinopathy as the example, reducing intensity on pulling movements would advised. Below is a table of this example, as would be seen in a training program.

Volume Week 4 Deload Week 5
Exercise Sets Reps Weight Exercise Sets Reps Weight
Chest Supported T-Bar Row 4 8 @ 8.5 RPE Chest Supported T-Bar Row 2 8 @ 8.5 RPE
Facepulls 4 12 @ 9 RPE Facepulls 2 12 @ 9 RPE
Bicep Curl of Choice 4 12 @ 9 RPE Bicep Curl of Choice 2 12 @ 9 RPE

 

1.) Israetel, Mike, Chad Wesley Smith, and James Hoffmann. Scientific Principles of Strength Training. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Juggernaut Training Systems. 30 July 2015. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. .

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