In my previous article, 'How to Change Your Workout Program for Non-Stop Gains', I discuss the 3 principles of program design and 8 training variables to change in your current workout routine to make continual progress. In this article, I’ll be answering the questions the team at M&S most frequently get about changing programs. These include:
- What is a deload week and should you take one between programs?
- Why and how to reassess your goals after finishing your workout program?
- How to choose programs that align with your goals?
- Can I jump right into another program after I finish my current one?
- What program should I do after this one?
If you want to gain muscle and strength, your training needs to adhere to the principle of progressive overload. To keep forcing your body to adapt, your training will, on average, have to get progressively harder.
To build muscle, you need to gradually do more work in the gym to force your body to grow. Adding weight, doing more reps at a given weight, and increasing training volume are some examples of how you can achieve this. This emphasis on progressive overload sounds like a recipe for training 24/7, 365 days of the year. Sadly, lots of people misconstrue progressive overload and become a fully paid up member of #TeamNoDaysOff. This is a mistake that costs them gains.
“The purpose of this deload week is to prepare the body for the increased demand of the next phase or period and to mitigate the risk of overtraining.”
You cannot redline your training forever. The body is an incredible adaptive mechanism, but there are limits to its ability to recover and adapt to training. If you exceed this threshold you will probably plateau, or worse, get injured and regress.
While you need to plan lots of hard training for it to be effective, you also need to train smart. This includes planning some downtime where your efforts in the gym are reduced, or you actually take some time off from training. These lighter periods of training are known as deloads weeks. People often think of deloads as a backward step. Consequently, lots of guys skip them and wonder why they end up burnout, in a training rut, or injured.
Planned properly, deloads are actually a case of one step sideways to take two, or three forwards. In the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning textbook, they state that, “The purpose of this deload week is to prepare the body for the increased demand of the next phase or period and to mitigate the risk of overtraining.”
Deload to Reload
Deloads are critically important to any serious trainee’s progress. Deloads allow for full recovery. With full recovery comes improved performance. It is for this exact reason that elite athletes the world over use deloads year-round. They also taper before major competitions to peak when it matters. Speak to any top-level powerlifter, and I guarantee you they will tell you how they hit PRs right after a deload or taper.
Taking a deload allows your body to reload for another all-out training assault. To further illustrate the benefits of deloads, check out this list of benefits from the Strength and Conditioning Journal:
- Up to 20% increases in strength and power
- Increases in muscle cross-sectional area of 10 to 25%
- Lower levels of stress hormones
- Higher levels of Testosterone
- Better moods during the day and better sleep at night
It’s a pretty compelling case for including deloads in your program. Now I’ve convinced you of their importance the question shifts from, “Do I need to deload?” to “When and how should I deload?”.
The answer to that depends on several factors. Firstly, taking a deload as you transition from one program to the next makes sense. Here are a few more guidelines for you to consider to optimise your use of deloads:
How Often Should You Deload?
An appropriate training program for a beginner is very different from that of an Olympian. This applies to deloads too. The frequency of deloads should be relative to training experience.
Deloading for Beginners
Beginners don’t need to deload as frequently as elite-level advanced lifters. As a beginner, you simply haven’t developed sufficient strength levels to cause enough damage to need one that often.
So, if you are a novice in the gym just keep training hard and aim to add weight to the bar. Once you hit a plateau and can’t add weight for a few sessions in a row, it is probably time to back off take a deload week and then go again. In most cases, this will take at least 12 weeks to happen for a beginner.
Deloading for Intermediates
Intermediates will need to deload more frequently than beginners. On average, something between every 6 to 12 weeks is a good guide. If you are an intermediate following standard hypertrophy protocols, then you are much more likely to overtrain with volume, as opposed to intensity. As such, you need to pay close attention to your total training volume and watch for when progress plateaus or even declines.
Deloading for Advanced Trainees
Advanced trainees need the most frequent deloads. For example, a 3 or 4 on to 1 off frequency often works very well for truly advanced guys.
Note: Most individuals do not fall into the 'advanced' category
For the vast majority of guys, taking a deload every 6-12 weeks is the best bet, and for bodybuilders, the best time to deload is at the end of a very-high-volume phase.
Hard Training Isn’t Necessarily Smart Training
You need to work hard to get results, but you also need the discipline and intelligence to know when to push and when to back off. At the end of a really productive high-volume training block, you should be feeling the effects and struggling to recover from your training. You have to impose a stimulus that disrupts the body and causes adaptation. This also imposes fatigue. Train hard AND smart, not just hard. If you persist in blindly training the same way without some variety or occasional deloads, then your training is not smart!
At the point of deloading, you should be close to, or even above, your maximal recoverable volume. If gaining muscle mass is your primary focus rather than gym performance then, one indicator is when performance actually drops. So, keep pushing until you notice a decline in performance.
Note: Strength athletes who care most about performance on the field or platform might want to deload before performance suffers.
When you get weaker, you almost certainly need a deload. If you push your training volume hard enough that your lifts start suffering, it could indicate you’re starting to overreach.
From a bodybuilding perspective, overreaching is fine as long as it doesn’t become overtraining. Overreaching is a short-term situation that can be recovered from much quicker. It’s like dipping your toe in the water of overtraining. Overtraining feels like you’ve been treading water in the deep end forever. Genuine overtraining takes months to recover from.
To manage this situation, you should shut things down as you begin to overreach. Take a deload and you will recover fast and be back making progress ASAP.
How to Deload
If strength is your primary goal, then I would generally suggest you deload via volume and not intensity. So, rather than reducing the load on the bar, you would significantly reduce the number of sets you do (I often also drop a rep or two). This allows you to maintain the skill of lifting close to max weights, but the reduction in volume allows you to recover. For example, if you were doing 5x5 with 300lbs in the final week before a deload, you might do 2x3 with 300lbs in your deload.
For hypertrophy goals, I suggest you deload via both volume and intensity. A template I use with a lot of my clients following an upper/lower split 4x per week is to deload in the following manner:
- Mon (Upper) – Reduce sets by 40-60%
- Tues (Lower) – Reduce sets by 40-60%
- Wed – OFF
- Thurs (Upper) – Reduce sets by 40-60% AND weight by 20-40%
- Fri (Lower) – Reduce sets by 40-60% AND weight by 20-40%
- Sat – OFF
- Sun – OFF
Doing this is an excellent way to aid your recovery and lay the foundations of long-term progress. Simply, rest, recover and prepare the body for the next block of hard training.
It makes sense to re-assess your goals at the end of a workout program. Each block of training you do is a powerful learning lesson. In a perfect world, every program would be extremely productive. Sadly, we all know that perfect doesn’t really exist and that sometimes, some programs aren’t quite as productive as others. Evaluating a workout program will give you vital clues about how to make the next one maximally effective.
The first thing you need is to be really clear on your goals. What do you want to achieve? Just as important as knowing what you want to achieve is defining what failure is. Once you’ve defined failure you can logically and unemotionally assess how effective your training has been. Did you meet or exceed your expectations? If not, why not?
Be honest with yourself. It’s tempting to blame the program, but first, ask yourself if you did your part. Did you put in the required effort every session, did you follow the plan exactly, did you follow your diet the vast majority of the time, did you focus on sleep and recovery? If not, the problem probably isn’t the plan, but your execution of it.
The next thing to look at is, did you get out what you wanted from the program?
If you achieved everything you wanted to then, that’s awesome and you can move to setting your next goal.
If you came up short in some way you need to decide if you want to keep working towards the original goal, take a strategic break with the intention of re-attempting the original goal, or if you want to shift focus to a new goal.
If you missed the target ask yourself two questions:
- Was I moving in the right direction and I would have hit my goal with more time?
- Did I do everything in my power but didn’t seem to be making much progress?
If the answer to question 1 was ‘yes’, you might simply need more time. A deload week to allow your mind and body some recovery might be all you need before pushing ahead towards the goal again.
If, however, you honestly did everything within your power and saw unsatisfactory results, then taking a different approach is probably the best bet. After all, doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome is the definition of madness.
Once you are clear on your goals, it is key that your next program matches those goals. This is the principle of specificity. For optimal results, your training must be specific to the results you hope to achieve.
If increased muscle mass is your primary goal, choosing a powerlifting meet prep cycle program is not the best approach. Likewise, if you want to set PRs on your squat, bench, and deadlift, an arm specialization program is not the best approach for you.
I hope I’ve made a strong argument for the use of deloads and the fact that the natural time to take one is at the end of a workout program. So, in short, my answer to this question would be, no you shouldn’t jump right into the next program.
I also understand that the excitement to begin a new program can be quite intoxicating and that harnessing that motivation to train and build momentum is a vital component to successful training. Under these circumstances, taking a deload can be quite hard to do. That’s why I often call the first week of a new program an “intro” week.
The word "intro" doesn’t have the negative connotations of time off or being easy, but the training in a week is quite similar to a deload.
The new program will include changes to training variables. Often this means some new exercises and different rep schemes. I take the opportunity to have my clients lift lighter than normal and stay further from failure in an intro week. This allows them to develop expertise or re-groove some new lifts, get a novel training stimulus, refresh them psychologically, and minimize fatigue. Sounds a lot like a deload week, right? The great thing is, I never get any resistance from clients to these “easy” intro weeks because they see them as being a positive progressive step. In reality, I’ve got the major benefits of a deload and kept them happy. It’s a win, win!
The answer to that question has two parts. Your next program should align with both:
- Being specific to your next goal
- Different enough from your past training to avoid adaptive resistance
Whatever program you do next, it must be specific to your next goal. Don’t follow a new program because your favorite influencer recommends it or because you want to do the same as your buddy. Pick a plan that will most effectively move you towards your goal. If you are motivated to achieve a goal and your training aligns with this goal you will also be motivated to put in the hard work required to get the most out of your program.
In my article, ‘How to Change Your Workout Program for Non-Stop Gains’, I outline that your program needs to change from time to time to avoid you falling victim to adaptive resistance.
Adaptive resistance is a training-related form of diminishing returns. The more you do something the more the body adapts and the less you get from it. In essence, every program works, but none work forever. Consequently, you need to manipulate the key variables of training to keep forcing the body to make the adaptations you desire. The key variables available to you are:
- Rep ranges
- Set per exercise
- Relative intensity
- Exercise selection
- Rest periods
- Exercise order
- Exercise tempo
Your new program should include a change to at least one of these. Generally, I like making the least change that causes significant progress. If you’ve been training in a similar fashion for a long time, however, you might need to make a more dramatic change.
The longer you’ve been taxing the same energy system, mechanism of hypertrophy, or strength quality the more you need to make a big change to kick-start new progress.
For example, when programming a client’s workouts in a 16-week bulking phase, I will make some relatively small adjustments to these variables every 4 weeks or so. While their training in week 16 looks quite different to how it started in week 1, it is still targeting the same goal and challenging the same underlying physiological mechanisms. As a result, a bigger change is needed to facilitate continued progress.
In the above example, they will have gradually increased their training volume in what could be described as a “bodybuilding” style and most likely finished with a phase focusing on metabolic stress techniques. Perhaps they still want more muscle mass, but after 16 weeks, their body will likely be quite resistant to this style of training. Continuing to do more of the same won’t yield good results. Instead, they would be better served by pursuing a complimentary goal that is different enough from their previous training to allow those pathways to be refreshed. Done properly, this can “re-sensitize” them to the benefits of high-volume, hypertrophy style training. Often a low-volume, strength-focused block of training is just what is needed.
Low volume, lower rep, lower frequency, heavy strength training allows them to reduce their overall workload which in turn reduces fatigue. Perhaps they switch from following a body-part split, training 6 x week, with a wide variety of exercises and intensity techniques to a full-body routine, training 3 x week, only doing a few compound lifts per session. Since they do less work in a new rep-range but have plenty of recoveries, they can make impressive strength gains. This keeps motivation high. Even better, the training is sufficiently different that the adaptive resistance to their bodybuilding training diminishes. This means that when they switch back to bodybuilding training, they will get better results than if they had kept plugging away trying to do the same thing.
Your training will have to change from time to time. For optimal results, you will need to deload occasionally too. Think your deloads are for wimps? You probably train like one. The changes to your program should reflect past results and future goals. Make all of your training decision with your goals and the principles of specificity and adaptive resistance in mind. Talking of the mind, it is a powerful thing, and you want to harness it to get the best results possible. Use “hacks” or “tricks” such as calling week one of a new program an intro week rather than a deload to keep motivation and enthusiasm to train high. By doing so, you will get both the physiological and psychological benefits that allow you to make long-term progress.
In my next article on program design, I’ll map out exactly how I think you should structure successive phases of training to build the most muscle possible.