Hey everyone! We’re excited that Jason Bosak has authored this blog post for 3DMJ! For those who don’t know, Jason (along with Richard Knapp) was our first 3DMJ client back in January 2010! In 2009 we launched our services by taking applications for free coaching to two sponsored athletes, and Jason was one of them! He’s a great representative of the team, the sport and progressive overload in life! A fantastic bodybuilder, he also pushes himself intellectually, as he’s a coach and a PhD candidate in health and human performance. So without further ado, enjoy this blog on deloading by Jason Bosak, PhD(c), CSCS, USAPL Certified coach!
*for foundational info check out our previous series on deloads by Coach Loomis HERE
It’s day one of your deload and it’s time to go to the gym, but you find yourself not feeling very motivated because what you do during your deload just doesn’t seem that important. Does this sound familiar? Sure, you know you’re allowing fatigue to dissipate without becoming detrained, but beyond that, it can be difficult to find purpose in your training during a deload. Often times, a deload will look like a watered-down version of the mesocycle you just finished. It may even be almost totally unstructured. While this can be beneficial for giving you a mental break to reinvigorate your training, it can sometimes make finding motivation during the actual deload quite challenging. What if, in addition to fatigue-management, we could use deloads to set ourselves up for success in the upcoming mesocycle? I believe we can use the principle of specificity to set up our deload in a manner that will alleviate fatigue, while preparing our body for the stresses to come when we get back to serious training.
The first step in using deloads to set yourself up for success is to know what is coming in the subsequent mesocycle. Consider what your training has been like going into the deload and what it will look like after the deload. What will be different in the next training cycle? Some variables to consider are: volume (number of sets performed for a given muscle group), intensity/rep range (how heavy and difficult is your training?), frequency (how often are you training a given muscle group?), and exercise selection. Look at these variables and figure out which ones will be changing after your deload. By considering the differences between the previous and subsequent training cycles, we can use deloads to prepare our bodies for what is to come, while still allowing fatigue to dissipate.
Typically, volume and intensity have an inverse relationship. In other words, higher volume training generally requires lighter absolute loads or relative intensities (i.e. leaving some reps in the tank). High load/relative intensity training, conversely, doesn’t usually allow for a ton of volume to be accumulated, without fatigue accumulating too quickly. If your training will be changing from a volume focus to an intensity focus, or vice-versa, you can use your deload to prepare your body for this change and set yourself up for success.
First, let’s consider going from an intensity phase to a volume phase. If you were running a linear periodization cycle, maybe you finished your last training block by working up to 2-6 high intensity sets at a 9-10 RPE. If your next cycle has more of a volume focus, maybe you will be starting at 12-15 sets at a 6-7 RPE. Even though the relative intensity will be lower than what you are used to, the sets will be challenging enough that the added volume could be a bit of a shock to the system. Rather than keeping volume very low during your deload, this may be an instance where you actually want to bump up volume a little bit, as lowering volume even more will create an even bigger gap between what you are adapted to and what you will be asking your body to do in the next cycle. If you drop intensity enough, you might be able to actually increase volume (or at the very least not decrease volume) and still allow for plenty of recovery during your deload. An example, in this case, could be to drop intensity to no higher than a 5 RPE for 8-10 sets in the rep range where you will be starting your next training cycle. With this approach, you will be starting to acclimate your body to higher volumes, but no single set will be so challenging that it should hamper your recovery.
If the opposite is true, and you are going from a volume phase to an intensity phase, you could possibly benefit from the inverse of the previous example. An example of a volume phase could be that you started at 12-15 sets for a muscle group and added sets each week to finish the cycle at 18-24 sets, while maintaining a constant 6-8 RPE in the 8-15 rep range. Transitioning from an approach like the one described, to a lower volume/higher intensity approach, will likely result in significantly greater loads being lifted. Perhaps you will be performing some sets of 5 at an 8 RPE, during the early stages of the next mesocycle. If that is the case, that load would be greater than anything you touched in the previous training cycle. As such, it could be a good idea to start acclimating your body to the loads you will be utilizing, in a manner that still allows recovery to occur. A possible example of this could be to use the same weight that you will be using for those sets of 5 at an 8 RPE, and perform a couple of easy doubles at a 5 RPE. This should be easy enough, relative intensity-wise, that you wouldn’t generate much, if any fatigue, while still exposing your body to the types of loads you will be asking it to move. This method would allow you to get a little bit of practice under those heavier loads, improve technique, and increase confidence going into the next cycle.
Using the principle of specificity to adjust frequency to match the upcoming training cycle is a pretty straight-forward process, but I think it is an important variable to consider. Transitioning to a higher frequency approach can be a useful way to spread out volume and manage fatigue. Many lifters will notice a decrease in soreness and fatigue by transitioning to a higher frequency approach, as per-session volume declines. In my experience, though, the process isn’t always quite as smooth as we would like. Some lifters may feel worse, at first, when attempting to increase training frequency. This could be due to the shorter recovery times, or possibly due to the total amount of musculature worked in a single session, as higher frequencies make it necessary to train multiple muscle groups in a given day or training session. Conversely, decreasing per-muscle training frequency will necessitate a per-session increase in training volume. If your body is adapted to lower session volumes and higher frequencies, the change could initially be a bit of a shock to the system. In these cases, there could be a noticeable increase in soreness after higher-volume training sessions, at first. The human body is very adaptable, though, and the repeated bout effect can do amazing things. So, why not start this process early, during your deload, by matching training frequency to that of the upcoming training cycle? Within this frequency, you will want to adhere to the volume/intensity recommendations discussed earlier. For example, if your next training cycle begins with a 4x per week frequency, for a given muscle group, with 12 total sets at a 6-8 RPE, your deload could look like 2 sets at a 5 RPE, 4-times during the week. This would put you in the neighborhood of your starting volume, at the frequency you will be training, with a low enough relative intensity to allow for recovery to still occur.
So which exercises should you perform during your deload? A case could be made for using minimally fatiguing exercises, that do not cause systemic fatigue. I think, though, that a strong case could be made to focus on exercises that will be new to the next mesocycle. A new exercise is any exercise that you did not perform during your previous training cycle. Exercises like curl and lateral raise variations are not what I am talking about, though. Those are very low-skill exercises that don’t take much effort to find your groove with. Exercises like squat, deadlift, press and row variations, though, will involve a moderate to high skill component. For example, you could be substituting back squats for front squats in the upcoming mesocycle, and you will be training quadriceps with a 4x per week frequency, with the rest of your quadriceps work being machine hack squats, leg extensions and leg presses, with each exercise being performed on separate days. It might seem like it could be a good idea to mimic that routine during your deload, but perhaps it would be a better idea to perform front squats 4 times during your deload. The other exercises have a very low skill component, so why not spend your time practicing and mastering your front squat technique with lighter loads and less relative intensity? By doing so, your front squats will probably feel significantly better when you get into your next cycle and start pushing them a bit more.
If you aren’t swapping any high skill exercises for a given muscle group, though, what should you focus on during your deload? In this case, I think a deload provides a great opportunity to sure up technique for lifts that either don’t feel quite right or are more important to you than others. The deload provides a good opportunity to practice technique-based work for such movements. For back squats for instance, you could work on stability out of the hole by performing accentuated-eccentric beltless pause squats. We all get busy with our training and often don’t find the time to add in this sort of work outside of what is programmed, so a deload is a good opportunity to focus on this type of technique work. It is important, though, to adjust loads to be able to work at an appropriate deload RPE in the desired rep-range. If performing sets of 5 at a 5 RPE on pause squats, I would not simply use my 10 RM for traditional back squats, as the RPE would end up being too high for what we want during a deload. Until you start to figure out what types of loads you should be using on technique-based variations, it is better to undershoot than overshoot the workload. Be conservative and don’t be afraid to cut a set short of the desired rep-range if you hit your target RPE. Remember, recovery and fatigue management still has to be the top priority during a deload!
Another exercise selection factor to consider during a deload, is the mind-muscle connection. During your training cycle, the primary focus tends to be performance and progressive overload. Sometimes we can focus on performance to the point that, even if our technique seems solid, we can lose touch with the mind-muscle connection. If you’ve found this to be the case with any specific movements, use your deload as a chance to lighten the load and work on reestablishing that mind-muscle connection. Research suggests there is probably some benefit, from a hypertrophy standpoint, to concentrating on the muscles you are trying to target with a given movement. Having a strong mind-muscle connection is a skill. Like any skill, it requires practice to improve or even maintain your level of proficiency.
Using the principle of specificity to give more direction and meaning to your deload training can be a great way to keep motivation levels high. Even so, I’ve found that the decreased physical activity during a deload can actually contribute to me feeling a bit more lethargic. We don’t want to simply replace our regular training with other forms of exercise in order to stay active. At the same time, finding ways to stay active, without fatiguing yourself, can be helpful for keeping you healthy and feeling good during your deload. A deload is a good time to get out and go for a walk/hike/swim, shoot around with a basketball, or get in a round of golf. Most of us lift because we love it, and it is natural to feel a bit off when we don’t have the same amount of time at the gym. Throwing in some fun activities can be a great tool for helping us to stay motivated. Try giving your deload purpose by using it to prepare yourself for your upcoming training cycle by considering volume/intensity, frequency, and exercise selection. In conjunction with adding in some enjoyable activities, it can be a great tool for staying motivated, and getting a bit more out of your deload. None of the examples I’ve given are absolutes, though. Pay attention to your body and listen to the feedback it is giving you. In doing so, you can determine if what you are doing is working for you and your recovery needs. Be flexible during this time, and don’t be afraid to change the plan if the situation calls for it.
PhD Student in Health and Human Performance
MS Applied Exercise Science
BS Physical Education & Health
USAPL Certified Coach
2010 3DMJ Sponsored Bodybuilder