A deload is a training phase that purposely reduces the volume and/or intensity of your workouts in order to offset fatigue. The goal of a deload is to maintain your level of strength, recover from any prior training stress, and prepare the body for future training. In my role as a powerlifting coach, I structure deload phases intermittently throughout the calendar year for my athletes when they’re showing signs of fatigue.
The 7 signs of needing to deload are:
In this article, I’ll discuss these signs in more detail so you can easily recognize when you need to deload.
When Should You Deload: 7 Signs
The following is a list of tell-tale signs that you might need a deload. However, it’s important to recognize that just because you experience one of these signs, that you don’t automatically assume you need a deload.
For example, one of the signs is that you lack the motivation to train. If you experience low motivation on one day, it’s not necessarily outside of the normal training process. This is because motivation is something that ebbs and flows over time, and you can certainly experience bouts of low motivation — It’s not normal to always be highly motivated to walk into the gym.
So how can you tell when you experience these signs whether they’re part of the normal training process or if they’re indicating that you need a deload?
Here are 3 things to ask:
- How severe is the sign that you’re experiencing? For example are you experience a little lack of motivation or does it feel completely unbearable where you can’t even think about training?
- How long has the sign lasted for? For example, do you experience a lack of motivation once a month or have you not felt motivated for several weeks or months at a time?
- Are you experiencing more than one sign? Having a lack of motivation could be caused by an excess of training fatigue, which would warrant a deload, but there are also other factors that could lead to a lack of motivation. It’s tough to conclude the source of your lack of motivation; however, if you feel a lack of motivation and you’re experiencing one or more of the other signs in the following list, then it could mean that a deload should be programmed.
Let’s now talk about the 7 signs that you might need a deload.Workouts are beginning to feel unusually hard
There are certain baselines for how workouts are “supposed” to feel.
For example, if you’ve been powerlifting long enough you know what a 5X5 @ 75% should feel like. This is because you would have repeated this sort of workout over multiple training cycles. Whether the protocol is 5X5, or something else, you generally start to develop a keen sense for how difficult or easy something should feel in the gym.
You might need a deload when these seemingly ‘everyday’ protocols that are meant to be easy or moderate begin to feel heavy and hard.You lack the motivation to train
A lack of motivation can be characterized in many ways.
- Trouble concentrating and generally a lack of focus while in the gym
- A loss or disdain for activities that formerly were pleasurable
- A lack of appetite, and potential weight loss or gain
- Feelings of restlessness, irritability, impatience, or having a lack of energy
A lack of motivation is sometimes connected with sign #1 where easy/moderate workouts begin to feel much harder than normal. In this case, lacking motivation might show itself by having thoughts of self-doubt or a lack of self-esteem as well.
Having a deload when you lack motivation can reinvigorate your passion for lifting. It’s a good feeling when you “can’t wait to get to the gym to train”, and sometimes a deload can achieve that.
What you want to avoid is thinking you need a deload because you lacked the motivation to go to the gym on one specific workout because you’re being ‘lazy’ versus a deeper sense of despair. So be mindful of where your lack of motivation is truly stemming from.You’re always sore
If you’re always feeling sore it might be a sign that you need a deload.
Of course, soreness is a byproduct of hard training, and you shouldn’t expect to be completely sore-free. Normal muscle soreness can start 6-8 hours post-exercise and last 1-2 days.
What you’re analyzing with muscle soreness as it relates to your level of fatigue is the severity and longevity of the soreness.
For example, If you’re so sore that you can’t sit down or it’s especially tender to the touch, and that sensation doesn’t go away throughout the training week, then you’re most certainly not recovering adequately.
You’re starting to feel aches and pains that you didn’t have previously
During the course of your training, you will experience aches and pains, and similar to the previous sign regarding muscle soreness, there is a normal amount of aches and pains that you can expect.
You might find that your knees are always feeling a bit achy and stiff when you first walk into the gym, but after a solid warm-up that pain goes away. If this is something that you always experience, and it’s somewhat expected then it’s nothing to worry about.
What you’re analyzing with aches and pains is two-fold:
- Are any of your aches and pains getting worse? For example, are your achy and stiff knees actually getting worse over time in terms of the level of pain? And, are the ways you were previously managing the aches and pains not working anymore (i.e. the warm-up routine you were doing)?
- Are you experiencing any new aches and pains that you haven’t previously? For example, are you all of a sudden experiencing a bit of shoulder pain that sort of lingers for several days after a workout?
Getting aches and pains alone isn’t a sign that you need a deload since it might mean that you need to overall the complete structure of your program. For example, perhaps you know that front squats make your knees feel achy, and so you need to substitute it for either high bar squats or safety bar squats.
Again, this is an important reminder to think about the root cause of your aches and pains to determine whether it’s because you need a deload or whether it’s something else.
You’re lacking quality sleep and are always tired
Sleep is considered a vital part of an athlete’s physical and mental recovery.
However, it’s been shown that athletes who are exposed to heavy training stimulus over a long period of time can report difficulties falling asleep, restlessness during sleep, and ‘heavy legs’ during sleep. The exact cause of why this happens is still unknown, but the inability to get quality sleep means your body produces fewer recovery hormones and instead produces stress hormones like cortisol.
For powerlifters, this means we need to manage our heavy training sessions carefully.
We want to make sure that we’re not ‘maxing out’ all of the time, and when we do max out that it’s part of a well-planned training program. This not only means planning how frequently we max out but also understanding that a max deadlift might take more time to recover compared with a max bench.
You’re getting sick more frequently
When you’re not recovering from your workouts it means that the stress coming into your system isn’t being flushed out at the same rate as your recovery mechanisms.
It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about physical or emotional stress, any type of stress is interpreted by the body in the same way.
If your stress levels stay elevated for a significant period of time then your immune system can be compromised. This is also, in part, due to the fact that your sleep becomes compromised when you’re lifting heavy. Studies have shown that if you’re not sleeping well it can lead to a higher prevalence of upper respiratory tract infections.
You might hear of powerlifters getting sick 1-2 weeks before their competition. This is because they are undergoing their most intense training, but have likely over-trained and pushed their recovery beyond tolerable limits.
When you get sick, this means you should enter a deload phase or not train at all.
You’ve pushed your training beyond your normal capabilities
Throughout the calendar year, you will obviously plan bouts of hard training weeks.
The purpose of these hard training weeks might be to push your capabilities further than you have previously. For example, handling more volume for higher intensities across several weeks of training.
These weeks of training are usually referred to as an ‘over-reaching’ phase where the intention is to purposely push your recovery. You might even plan not to recover in the short-term.
The idea of not recovering in the short-term is fueled by the theory of super-compensation.
This theory states that a period of high training stress followed by a brief recovery period can allow the body to perform far greater than its prior baseline. This requires the ‘high training stress’ phase to be at a level that purposely lacks recovery and is very challenging. Then, once the body enters the short recovery period, the body adapts and surpasses initial levels of strength.
The risk of entering these over-reaching phases is spending far too long under stress that you can’t recover from. Therefore, you should only plan over-reaching phases for 1-3 weeks, which would then be followed by a deload in order to allow the body to recover. Once you return to normal training after the deload, you should be at a higher level of fitness than you were before.
If you are experiencing any of the signs of fatigue previously discussed, and you know you’re in an over-reaching phase of training, there’s a good chance that you’re burnt out and need to deload.
Recognizing when you need to deload requires you to be honest with yourself. As athletes, we don’t like to ‘take it easy’, and we always want to be pushing ourselves. But if we push ourselves too much, for too long, our strength will fail to increase in the long-term. Recognize that deloads are part of a well-planned training cycle, and they usually allow us to push past plateaus in strength and feel health year-round.