Once you’ve been training for a while you experience what every lifter realizes at some point.
The dreaded plateau.
When you first start training you will make gains from week to week. If your deadlift starts at 135 lbs you will find that you will jump to 155 then 185 and 255 in no time.
Obviously this doesn’t carry on forever or we’d all be setting world records after only a year of training.
So is there anything we can do to prolong our gains? Is there a way to off-set wear and tear injuries associated with training? And is there a way to feel ‘up for training’?
Yes, there is. And it involves unloading your training.
What exactly is unloading? Well you can think of it as pre-planned reductions in training volume or intensity or load or all three. We’ve all heard the expression ‘you grow when you rest’. Unloading gives you a brief respite, or rest, from training that allows you to come back stronger.
So when should you unload? Does everyone need to unoad?
Let’s start with the second question first. Not everyone needs to unload. For example, if I go for one hour walks at a caual pace and if have been doing so for the past year I should be able to handle this physical demand fairly easily. The same goes for any other training or physical activity I’ve been at for a while and is not physically taxing.
On the other hand once I’ve been training for at least six months with some level of intensity I’m probably due for a break. But if I’m just a newbie the intensity and tempo of my lifts isn’t at a high enough level to justify easing up momentarily.
But let’s assume you are someone who has been training for a few years with regular frequency (3-4 days per week) and intensity. You would benefit from an unload week.
How often do you plan for an unload? Well again this relates to the frequency and intensity of training. If you are putting in frequent training sessions at intensities close to your 1 rep max you will need more frequent unloads than someone going less frequently and using loads much lighter than their 1 rep max.
As a general rule however unloads can be scheduled every 3-5 weeks. We like to use the fourth week as an unload which works well for a monthly style of programming. Some months will have 5 weeks but all will have 4.
Now the next obvious question is how much do you unload? Well there are a variety of opinions on this ranging from 10-50%. Again a more seasoned lifter can benefit from a greater reduction whereas a novice lifter won’t need as much.
In terms of what to unload there are 3 aspects to consider. You can reduce the intensity, the volume and the load. Let’s take a look at all three.
The intensity refers to the weight of the dumbbell, barbell or whatever type of resistance you’re working with. For example, if you normally use the 100 lbs dumbbells but drop down to the 90 lbs for your unload week. This would be a reduction in intensity of 10%.
The volume refers to the reps times the sets. If you normally do 5 sets of 5 reps (volume = 25) and reduce this to 5 sets of 3 (volume = 15) this would result in a drop in volume of 40 percent.
And the load considers both the volume and weight being lifted. So if I did 5 sets of 5 reps with a 20 lbs dumbbell the load would be 500. 5 sets of 3 reps with a 15 lbs dumbbell would result in a load of 225 or a reduction of 55%.
So besides considering the experience of the lifter it is almost important to know what someone is referring to when talk about unloading. Do they mean intensity, volume or load?
The last thing to mention if your energy intake. What do you do calorie-wise during an unload week? Well if the goal is hypertrophy based such as a lineman in football trying to put on size the calories should be maintained. Combined with the lower physical output during the unload and the extra rest the athlete should be well positioned to come out of this week bigger and stronger.
For other individuals that are looking to lean up they would be wise to reduce their caloric intake slightly when the outputs are less.
Whatever your goal make sure you include planned unload weeks. No two people are the same. Some will be benefit more from reductions in intensity and others from less volume. Personally I prefer to cut the volume and keep the intensity high. I can feel the benefit of fewer reps and sets but psychologically I still like to know I moved heavy weight during my training session.