How a De-load Week Can Propel You Through a Plateau

In functional fitness, intensity is king. Not that moderate, labored breathing kind of intensity. We’re talking muscle burning, lungs on fire, roll on the floor kind of intensity. From the first time we step in a box we are programmed to give 100% everyday. That is what produces results, that is what keeps us coming back.
But what about the days when you have trouble keeping up? Even though you feel like you’re giving 100%, your body only gives you 80%? Everyone who regularly works out will experience soreness and fatigue, but do you really know when to take a step back and lower the intensity for the sake of continued progress?

Overtraining can halt progress faster than Chris Spealler’s Fran time. If you go too hard for too long you will inevitably reach a point when your development slows, stops, or even goes backwards. Defined as excessive frequency, volume, or intensity, overtraining can lead to extreme fatigue, illness and injury. You begin to negatively affect the physiological processes in your body that normally aid in recovery. Glycogen levels decrease, which inhibits the body’s ability to repair muscles. Blood pressure and heart rate may increase, forcing your heart to work harder, even when you are resting. Your immune system weakens and common illnesses turn into fierce battles, leaving you laid up on the couch for a week. Even your hormonal concentrations can be altered (increases in muscle inhibiting hormones and decreases in hormones essential for muscle growth).

To avoid reaching the point of overtraining look for the classic signs that signal the need for a reduction in intensity. They include:

  • Decreased coordination
  • Decreased performance
  • Prolonged illness
  • Decreased desire to train
  • Soreness lasting longer than usual
  • Feeling lethargic even after adequate sleep

If you are experiencing a number of these symptoms it is necessary to alter your routine to allow your body to recover. The constant strain of heavy weights and pedal to the metal workouts is difficult for the human body to handle. Continuing to workout with the same frequency and volume will lead you away from your goals and force you to take multiple days of absolute rest. This is where de-loading comes in.

overtrainingFor many athletes, the idea of taking a week off is unimaginable. De-loading is a way to increase your performance by decreasing intensity, still allowing you to work towards your goals. During a de-load week you still participate in WOD’s but your focus is not on heavy weights and fast times. You will continue to stimulate muscles but will avoid tearing muscle fibers. Your load should be reduced to no more than 50% of your 1rm while focusing on proper technique and complete range of motion. This period is an opportunity to work on mobility, rest an existing injury, and dial in on other methods of recovery. Some people prefer to go by how their body feels. Your body is capable of amazing things and the feedback it gives you on a daily basis should give you an idea of how hard to train. Pushing beyond your perceived limits is the best way to get better. However, listening to your body and giving it appropriate rest is vital for long-term health.

If you prefer stick to a planned timetable, periodically scheduling a de-load week can give your workouts more purpose and keep you mentally focused on your goals. If you don’t want to risk overtraining you can schedule in de-load weeks with this easy format. If you are just starting your routine you should go for at about 8 weeks before taking a de-load week. Return to normal intensity for 7 weeks, followed by another de-load week. 6 weeks, de-load. 5 weeks, de-load. Continue with this pattern until you hit 3 weeks. This takes you to about one year of consistent exercise. At this point your gains are harder to come by, but with proper scheduling of volume and intensity you can steer clear of long plateaus. The longer you have been training, the harder it is for your body to adapt to similar stimulus. If you have been going hard for a year, you’ll have to turn up the intensity but allow for more frequent recovery. A good rule for experienced athletes is 3-6 weeks on, one week de-load. A number of factors including age, genetics, experience, and typical workout intensity should be considered when deciding when and how often to de-load. There are always exceptions to the rule and if you are one of the genetically gifted athletes out there who lives by the mantra “no rest days,” you are among the few. For the rest of us mortal beings, proper rest and recovery is essential to long term growth and sustainability. You should always live on the edge, but once in a while you should take a step back and enjoy the view.

De-loading details:

  • Reduce volume and intensity
  • No loads at greater than 50% 1rm
  • Focus of technique and range of motion
  • Workouts should feel relatively easy
  • Get adequate sleep (7-8 hours/night)
  • Concentrate on proper nutrition
  • Spend extra time warming up and cooling down
  • Stretch and foam roll
  • Get a massage or take an ice bath
  • Do not add additional workouts outside of the gym
  • Be smart and include your own de-load week if your box’s programming does not

By: Will Huntington

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