Thank God It's Deload Week

Even though I got a full eight hours of sleep, I felt exhausted as I walked into the gym. As I descended into the lower level of our training facility, every step felt like a nightmare. My muscles ache, my joints hurt, and I'm starting to wonder why my half-hour foam rolling session from last night had absolutely no effect on my overall soreness. Before I reach the bottom of the staircase, I already convince myself that it's time to double up on fish oil pills. Because I'm following the same program that I write for my athletes, I have to assume they don't feel much better than I do.

When I get to the bottom of the steps, I can see that some of them have already begun their warm up. Immediately, I can tell they don’t have their normal “pop.” I remind one athlete to take his shoes off and another one to brace his core as he performs body weight squats. Even though they don’t say anything, the expressions on their faces clearly show that they're tired of hearing my voice. All I can think is, “Thank God tomorrow starts our deload week.”

What is a deload week?

For those of you who don’t know, a deload week is a one-week period within your training program where you reduce the volume and/or load of your training movements. At our facility, we schedule a deload every fourth week.

Why every four weeks? Four weeks wasn't just some arbitrary number that I picked out of thin air. It actually was the result of watching how my athletes performed over the past eight years. For the first three weeks of a cycle, they progressed nicely. The weight got heavier, the reps got higher, and their form continued to improve. On the fourth week, all that came to a screeching halt. I began to notice guys miss on weights that they had moved easily a few weeks ago and perform less reps on body weight movements. To make matters worse, guys tried to skip certain exercises or miss training sessions altogether.

Around the same time I was making these observations, I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar at DeFranco’s Gym that was hosted by Joe DeFranco, Jim Wendler, and Date Tate. It was there that Dave first introduced me to the concept of a deload. He explained that powerlifters often cut back on training the week before a meet in order to prevent them from being fatigued and worn out during competition. Immediately, I knew that I had to make a change in my programming. If a deload week helped these monsters perform better, why wouldn’t it work for us? When I got home, I began to develop, not only a new program, but an entirely new philosophy behind how we train.

In the old philosophy, we worked in 16-week blocks of continual progressive overload, where the goal was to increase the weight and/or reps on all lifts each and every week. In the new philosophy, I planned to break the sixteen-week block into four, four-week mini-cycles with a deload week scheduled for every fourth week. The scheduled deload weeks would keep us fresh throughout the entire sixteen-week period and enable us to perform better throughout the entire training block.

The results: physical

As you probably can imagine, incorporating deloads into our program had huge results.

The table below shows the average of the personal records (PRs) for all our athletes both before and after we made the program change. Any doubt that I had about not training heavy all the time was completely eliminated.

Please note, high school and college athletes will never be removed of this doubt—even after helping them make huge gains. It will be a constant battle to convince them that taking a deload week will actually make them stronger. Some will even try to perform extra sessions on their own, so you need to keep an eye out for this.

Table 1: Average athlete's PR before and after deload
Movement PR before deload PR after deload Percentage increase
Bench press 275 305 11%
Deadlift 325 370 14%
Squat 375 420 12%
Pull-ups 13 21 61%

The results: mental

I personally believe that the mental benefits of the deload week far outweigh the physical benefits. When my athletes come into the gym, I want them acting like a “bunch of crazed dogs.” If they're tired, sore, and physically broken down, this can’t happen.

Not only do I want them energized while in the gym, but I want them even more amped-up to come back. I want them sitting in their bed at night thinking, “I can’t wait to get to the gym tomorrow. I wish it was tomorrow already. If I don’t move some big weight soon, I'm going to pop out of my skin.”

Fortunately, adding the deload week into our program has done just that. It's not uncommon for me to get a text message from an athlete stating, “We’ve been resting too long. I need to kill it tomorrow. You’d better have something sick for us.”

Before the deload, it was a struggle just to get these kids to consistently show up. I spent more time trying to find out why they missed training sessions than I did actually training them. At one point, it was so bad that I actually threw half our members out for missing too many lifts. I'm very happy to say that this hasn't happened one timesince implementing the deload week. Not only do these guys want to come, but they get visibly upset if “life” events (like their sister’s college graduation or dad’s surprise birthday party) prevent them from making a regularly scheduled session.


The results: coach/athlete relationship

In addition to the physical and mental benefits that the deload provides, I also believe it helps sustain the coach/athlete relationship. While I love being a coach and I love the athletes I train, we absolutely need a break from each other every few weeks. There are only so many times they can hear my voice before they tune me out or punch me in the face. At the same time, there are only so many times I can tell the same kid to squat deeper or to brace tighter before I explode.

In order to create these mini-break periods, we cut our training frequency from four times per week to twice a week during our deload weeks. While this doesn't seem like a significant change, those extra two days of not seeing each other goes a long way. In addition, those extra two days away from them gives me more time to analyze the current status of our training program and make adjustments as needed. It's only when I break away from the grind that I can make my best attempts at continuous improvement. Tim Ferriss might refer to this as my mini-retirement.

Wrap up

Whether you're a coach or someone in training, you need to schedule routine deload weeks into your training program. Even if you hate taking time off, you need to or you'll burn out.

Here are some tips to help you schedule and organize your deload week:

  • Make a deload week a regular part of your program design, not something you do when your body breaks down.
  • Eliminate max effort compound movements like the bench, squat, and deadlift.
  • Eliminate any form of intense conditioning.
  • Reduce training volume and frequency
  • If reducing volume and frequency make you feel lazy, increase your volume of soft tissue work, mobility drills, and stabilization exercises.
  • If you still feel lazy, use extra light weight (less than 35 percent of your PR) to work on improving technique for your core lifts.