Once you get a reasonable amount of mileage behind you in the gym, you’ll know (or will have learnt the hard way) the importance of recovery.
When you first start out you feel you can train everyday and you’re convinced you’ll get there faster if you skip on rest days. Novelty sweeps you away and you push for weeks, even months straight, only to burnout somewhere down the line. Your joints ache, your energy is low, you’re pissed off at your loved ones – and anyone for that matter!
Perhaps you google whether it’s OK to take a rest day just to try and consolidate the guilt you’re feeling at the mere idea of it? You see articles stressing the need for rest days and recovery. Finally the penny drops; you know too much fire without water causes singeing. You know too much light without dark causes burnout. You also know too much wake without sleep causes exhaustion and even death.
Nature is the governor. Life cycles are essential and you need to respect them. You take a rest day and you’re almost relieved yet you still question whether you needed it to begin with?!
Among the articles you read online, some sing the praises of ‘de-loading’ as opposed to complete time off. Deloading makes the case for maintaining activity, just at a lesser volume or intensity than your usual sessions. Some articles tell you it’s best to deload by cutting the weights you use back (intensity reduction) and others tell you reducing the amount of sets and reps (volume reduction) is the way to go……..
So this has gotten more complicated: it’s now a case of do we deload or not deload and if we deload, how do we deload?
This majestically illustrates the wormhole that googling things can send you down. It opens you up to more options than you ever thought possible and sadly, more isn’t always actually more. Information overload leads to paralysis by analysis and this condition is worse than doing something that’s less than optimal for fear of it being ‘less than perfect’.
Action > Contemplation
Trialling whatever you feel/think is right based off your current knowledge is usually better than trying to have all the answers but no anecdotal experience. Think about it, would you take sex advice from a virgin? Even if you receive less than ‘perfect’ results you’re beginning the elimination process that leads you closer to what works for YOU, and ONLY YOU.
Establishment of this simple fact begins our quest to answer the question of what’s the best way to take downtime from fitness. Yes, it’s dependant on your personal situation, circumstances, fitness level, lifestyle, preferences and so many different sub-sectors.
I will break down the differences between complete rest and deloading from the perspectives of both my own experience, the experiences of the hundreds of people I’ve worked one on one with and my theoretical knowledge combined.
Full Rest Days/Weeks
These are just what the name implies, complete rest: no exercise besides your everyday movement. Full rest weeks are often recommended after blocks of straight training. Anywhere from 6 to as much as 16 weeks is the norm. Rest weeks work very well for not only allowing the body a rest but also the brain. You need to remember the brain is just as taxed with serious training as the body and even from an over exposure to the same schedule/routine standpoint.
Personally I’ve had precious little success with full rest weeks or even scheduled rest lasting longer than 3 or 4 days. I find your tolerance to this long a lay off depends on your training experience and general involvement. Those with more experience under their belt (3 years +) usually find it very hard to have a complete layoff. By this point in the game you know the habit is there for life, barring injuries, fatalities and extreme changes in life circumstances.
Exercise is almost like a healthy addiction for you, maybe even a form of therapy or meditation? In addition, when you have this much experience you’re usually strong and quite capable. Where your body is used to X amount of weekly volume and intensity, even a reduction of volume can feel like a rest week in itself, and without the expense of no training at all. From a personal standpoint, having tried both, I advocate deload weeks for the more experienced trainee. Whenever I take too long off my body feels stiff and weak and it feels like I need an hour warm up when I finally return.
You may be different. In speak in terms of average but there’s always people falling outside the standard bell curve.
(The standard bell curve denotes a general ‘law of averages’. Although we can’t and mustn’t put people into boxes; life is full of variety and you need to find out where you fall on the spectrum, from experimentation).
When you’re new to exercise and haven’t quite ingrained the habit to where you simply love it, then full rest weeks can be good for a mental reset/cleanse. Usually by day 5 onwards you start hearing your body telling you to get back to it and by that time you’re driven once again. The exciting thing is, the more this cycle repeats the closer you get to where exercise is just something you do, without even thinking about it.
Deloading 101 (Reduction of volume)
As I write this post I’m currently in the midst of testing a volume deload. The premise is simple, keep your workouts the same but reduce the volume by 40-60% – 50 keeps it even simpler! This approach was made popular by the late strength coach, Charles Poliquin.
(strengthsensei.com) – Charles Poliquin, someone whom all of us in the industry owe a lot to.
The reduction in volume is supposed to allow your body to ‘catch up’, essentially; by having less workload to recover from than it’s otherwise used to. The rationale behind the intensity being the same is to keep a strength stimulus to the body and thus, maintain/increase the current level you’ve worked up to.
My findings –
I’ve always liked heavier, lower volume training anyway so knowing I could still work at a decent intensity but at a lower volume felt like a real holiday! I left each workout feeling like I had quite a bit left in the tank and in all honesty, like I hadn’t done all that much. And I was eager as hell for the next session!
What surprised me the most was the improvements I noticed cognitively. I found I had much more concentration in daily tasks – be it conversations, chores, writing, planning, programming and even the simple ability to digest information and retain it. This has further solidified to me how much neural fatigue can accumulate as well as physical fatigue. And taking it a step further, I found my desire to eat well and practice positive daily habits increased drastically.
If this hasn’t sold it to you enough, at the start of each workout I felt stronger than normal too – and this is simply because I had more in the tank than usual. Suffice to say I’ll be employing this approach as my main recovery strategy every so many weeks (most likely 4-6).
A real world example of how one might delaod with intensity is as follows………
– A1) Pull ups – 4 x 6-8 with 5 kg added
– A2) Dips – 4 x 6-8 with 12.5 kg added
– B1) Inverted Rows – 3 x 8-12
– B2) Ring Pushups – 3 x 8-12
Volume reduced, intensity maintained version:
– A1) Pull ups – 2 x 6-8 with 5 kg added
– A2) Dips – 2 x 6-8 with 12.5 kg added
– B1) Inverted Rows – 1-2 x 8-12
– B2) Ring Push ups – 1-2 x 8-12
*Note: the difficulty/complexity of the moves don’t change, only the overall volume is reduced.
Deloading with intensity
Another recovery strategy is to reduce the intensity of your workouts while sustaining the volume. Simply put, this is where you lighten the loads by 20-50% in the case of weightlifting exercises or reduce the complexity/leverage of the moves in the case of bodyweight/calisthenics exercises.
Depending on your training style and preferences, this will either appeal to you or feel like a prison sentence. To me it is definitely the latter. Maybe it’s an ego thing but I just can’t summon up the same drive to hammer out a ton of volume on easy exercises. All I’d be thinking about is how I’m missing out on working at my optimum level. This isn’t to say there’s zero benefit to this approach.
Keeping the volume higher will not only keep you feeling more pumped up, which kind of still appeals to the ego, but it will also promote more blood flow which is a key component to recovery.
I think your natural gravitation towards either strength/power or endurance/workload will play into this a lot. In other words: do you excel at things like jumping, sprinting, heavy lifting or are you better at endurance events – running, swimming and anything requiring you to sustain energy output for 1-1.5 minutes plus?
Let’s show you a real world example of what an intensity reduced deload might look like……
A1) Back Squat – 5 x 4-6 (100kg/220 lbs)
A2) Static Lunge – 5 x 8-10 (10kg Dumbbells)
B1) Romanian Deadlift – 3 x 8-10 (70 kg/155lbs)
B2) Kettlebell Swing – 3 x 15-20 (32 kg)
Intensity reduced, volume maintained example:
A1) Back Squat – 5 x 4-6 (50-80kg)
A2) Static Lunge – 5 x 8-10 (5-7.5kg Dumbbells)
B1) Romanian Deadlift – 3 x 8-10 (35-55kg)
B2) Kettlebell Swing – 3 x 15-20 (16-26kg)
So, what’s best?
There are many routes to Rome and we are all individuals despite how institutionalised modern life makes us feel. The only true way to determine what’s ‘best’ is to experiment. Give each approach a fair trial and pay attention to how your body responds. Remember, don’t just assess physically, observe the entire spectrum. Below is a list of areas that will be affected by your deload approach, good or bad…….
- How you sleep
- Your energy levels
- Your stress threshold (Does the mere existence of people piss you off?)
- Your appetite
- Your sex drive
- Your ability to concentrate
- The level of soreness and/or tightness across your body
- How easy you find it to go back to your usual routine
The correct approach will have the greatest positive impact on these areas overall. Each section we’ve looked at has pretty reasonable guidelines as to what type of person will benefit from what type of approach. Before we draw a conclusion to this post I’d like to answer one likely question still on your mind……..
How often do you need to do this?
Some people will throw out arbitrary numbers here but as we’ve seen, individuality is the key factor in the right choices in regards to this topic. Therefore, the answer really comes down to what you need most.
The longer you have been training without a deload, generally the longer you will need to spend in a deload phase. Barring extreme cases I struggle to see a need to extend a deload phase longer than a week though.
Also, the harder (heavier) you’ve been training, generally the more frequent the deload will need to be. If you’re someone who can deadlift 2.5 times their bodyweight or more, you’ll need to deload sooner than someone struggling with 1.5 times their bodyweight. In the case of the advanced lifter this deload may be every 3rd or 4th week. BUT, they may only schedule a day or 2 at a lower volume/intensity as opposed to a full week.
Returning to simplicity, an inverse relationship best describes this:
More work means more recovery. Less work means less recovery. Once again, there are sensible ‘rules’ to this. 7 days of flat out training straight doesn’t allow you a couple of weeks off. If you’re consistent for a good 6-12 months, following a program, you’ll know when it’s time for some down time. Try all 3 approaches before you tell anyone one doesn’t work. By the time you’ve tried all 3 recovery approaches, you’ll have notched up some decent mileage and will know your body better and thus, be better qualified to speak from experience.
You’ll have a solid understanding of what it really means to ‘listen to your body’, instead of this phrase being used by lazy people as a get out of jail card.
If you have any comments or questions on this hotly debated topic, I’d love to hear them! Leave them down below or for any coaching inquiries email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.