Deload Week for muscle and strength Explained – When and How

When we plan a season we put on the calendar the moments where we will need to be fresher to compete, so training sessions should not be a great stress. Based on this, we periodize an alternation of training blocks that will have a greater impact with others that will help us recover. The discharge week is used in those moments when we come from very demanding training and we need to recover physically and mentally. In addition, it will help us to let our body assimilate the training loads we have done in these stressful weeks and get away from injuries due to an accumulation of stress in the joints.

 

What is a download week or a download phase?

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A week of discharge consists of a period of time in which the training load is reduced to recover from previous periods of physical and psychic stress (Izquierdo et al., 2007). If we find that our performance in strength sessions is declining, we will introduce this strategy to leave a recovery time and allow our body to adapt from the physical and psychic stress that we have accumulated until that moment (Hayden J. Pritchard, Barnes, Stewart, Keogh, & McGuigan, 2018).

Discharge week is an active break that occurs several times a year to prevent overtraining. Thanks to this discharge our body will adapt correctly to the training stimuli that we have been giving in previous weeks. The introduction of weeks with more load and others with less stress is based on the General Adaptation Syndrome  of Seyle that  tells us that before a stressor (strength training) the body first enters a state of general alarm and fatigues and then a process of supercompensation occurs that improves our strength and muscle mass (Selye,  1950).

However, if that stressor generates an accumulation of maximum fatigue and is maintained over time, that positive adaptation that allows us to improve our strength and muscle mass is eliminated, and instead we enter a state of overtraining (Bell, Ruddock, Maden-Wilkinson, & Rogerson, 2020). This stimulus-adaptation process can simulate making popcorn in the microwave. If we put the popcorn in the microwave and give it little time, a few will be cooked, but many others will not. That can be compared to giving a low stimulus that involves some adaptation, but we still have a lot of leeway.

If we go to the opposite extreme, we go over time and the popcorn burns. This scenario simulates overtraining in  which we go over stress, and  instead of positive adaptations in strength and muscle mass we get the opposite. A final scenario, the optimal is to remove the popcorn just when they are practically all cooked and without burning. The best stimulus of all that simulates optimal stress that generates the best adaptations, followed by a discharge to take advantage of those gains. If we do not perform weeks of periodic discharges to “take out and eat the popcorn at its point” we will go over and get negative adaptations or “burned popcorn”.

The week of discharge is also necessary to avoid the appearance of pains and injuries. When we lift heavy loads over and over again our joints can tell us to stop. Ignoring this signal and continuing to train with discomfort can lead to an injury that will stop our training suddenly (Kyle Travis, Mujika, Gentles, Stone, & Bazyler, 2020). What is preferable, invest time in a week of discharge or spend months recovering from an injury?

 

How to perform a discharge to gain strength and muscle mass?

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In subjects with little experience it will be the trainer who marks when the download will arrive, but the experienced subjects have learned over time to self-regulate and know when to perform said discharge.  There are three moments of discharge in  strength training that we must take into account, being fundamental the discharge prior to an important competition, since it will make a difference in the results obtained in that event (Le Meur, Hausswirth, & Mujika, 2012).

Download between training blocks

The arrival of a week of discharge fulfills the following loop: we perform a strenuous mesocycle (set of training weeks); We begin to notice that we lift less weight or move the bar with less speed in basic exercises such as squats, deadlifts, etc.; we carry out a week of downloading; We return to the charge again with another strenuous mesocycle.

Some authors proposed five questions that the athlete must answer before moving on to the next mesocycle or set of training weeks (Helms, Morgan, & Valdez, 2018). When your athlete finishes a mesocycle or block of several weeks of training, ask the following questions. If you answer two or more questions with  a “yes,” enter a download week. If you answer that you do feel more discomfort or pain than normal, even if it is the only “yes”, introduce a week of discharge. That feeling indicates that the risk of injury is rising, and we clearly need to move away from it.

  • Do you feel more discomfort or pain than is normal for you? Possible injury.
  • Has sleep quality worsened? Possible overtraining.
  • Has motivation to train decreased? We need a psychic respite.
  • Has your stress level increased? Life outside the gym also marks the need for discharge r.
  • Do you perform fewer repetitions with the same weight or are you able to move less weight? Stagnation. Need to download to return rested.

Although after two or three mesocycles ( about 8 or 12 weeks on average) there are not two or more answers answered with a “yes”, it is recommended that you introduce a week of discharge for that of “prevention is better than cure” (Helms et al., 2018). In any case, if you have instruments of quality measures such as a device that indicates the speed of movement of the bar, and that are reliable, it will be the art of the trainer that indicates when it is necessary to enter the week of discharge.

The better the programming of training, nutrition and rest, the more time can pass between discharge and discharge (Izquierdo et al., 2007). If we rest badly, we eat incorrectly and the training is not well programmed, the weeks of discharge will have to be more frequent to correct those errors. It is because we will recover worse and our body will reach that peak of maximum stress much sooner than it would have done with proper programming, nutrition and rest.

Pre-competition download (tapering)

In pure strength sports such as powerlifting or weightlifting, a reduction in training volume is needed before the day of competition (Grgic & Mikulic, 2017; Kyle Travis et al., 2020; Le Meur et al., 2012; Hayden J. Pritchard, Keogh, & Winwood, 2020; Hayden Joel Pritchard, 2017).  This set-up for that event is known as tapering and consists of continuing to train with great intensity, but drastically reducing the volume. If we do not carry out this download prior to the competition we will be losing a great potential for adaptation in order to show it on the day of the test. We will see how to carry it out in another section.

Download between seasons

Normally sports plans cover a season or year of competition, although they can go much further as a four-year Olympic cycle (Evans, 2019). In some sports such as football and basketball the seasons are clearly defined, however, in strength sports it is usually the athlete who sets his annual goals and establishes his own season. Normally the maximum peak of form will coincide with the key moment of the season such as a world championship.

Anyone who has competed knows that those moments are highly stressful, especially on a psychic level. For that reason, after the end of the season it is advisable to carry out a discharge phase, both to recover from the accumulation of fatigue throughout the year and to get out of that training focus and be able to return with renewed energy at the beginning of the next season.

 

How to perform a discharge to gain strength and muscle mass?

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The discharge can mean a greater or lesser reduction of the workload, it can even be a total discharge where we move completely away from training. To improve strength and muscle mass, which is what we are interested in covering in this article, there are downloads a la carte, ranging from a week with a little reduction in training volume every couple of months, to two weeks of total discharge once a year.

Here there will be many determining factors such as the level of athlete and the main goal. A powerlifter who goes to a competition to lift the maximum possible deadlift, bench press and squat will have to follow different guidelines than a bodybuilder looking to show his best physique in a bodybuilding event (Alves et al., 2020).

In the discharge phases we play with two variables mainly: volume and intensity. One option is to reduce the intensity to give rest to the central nervous system that can be overcrowded if we have many training sessions with high loads or moving at a high speed. Volume is the main variable that usually adapts in the discharge by a decrease in the number of total series or the number of weekly sessions (Kyle Travis et al., 2020).

General guidelines for a block download week

A week of discharge does not mean stop going to the gym, unless that is the pattern that the trainer has set for different reasons such as an excessive increase in psychic stress. In fact, a week of discharge will be very similar to a normal week of training, but with some modifications.

The volume is the variable that generates the most residual fatigue, so it will be the main modification in this week of discharge. Reduce the weekly volume by at least 30%, and can reach up to 70% depending on the volume you have been doing (Hayden J. Pritchard et al., 2018). To avoid getting too complicated when programming, make a third, half or two thirds of the average volume you had been doing the previous weeks.

The intensity must remain high, since it will be responsible for not losing strength and muscle mass, even if the volume is low. In fact, recently research showed that a single strength training session per week and a single set per exercise is the minimum dose that protects our strength and muscle mass if we are beginners in strength. For more advanced athletes the volume increases slightly to two sessions per week and a weekly volume of two to three sets for each muscle group (Spiering, Mujika, Sharp, & Foulis, 2021). Of course, the intensity of these series must be high.

A short reduction of 10% or 20% of the weight lifted is sufficient in this case, although here we must adjust the intensity according to the time of the season in which we are. If we have been using medium loads, we  will hardly decrease the intensity, but if we accumulate a lot of work with loads close to our 1RM, we will have to lower the kilos of the bar a little more (H. Pritchard, Keogh, Barnes, & McGuigan, 2015).

The important thing is that in the discharge phase we move away from muscle failure. That is, the important thing this week is that the loads are high, but perform a smaller number of series and move away from muscle failure in them. In this way we will stimulate our muscle groups with great quality, but that will not be accompanied by fatigue. The perfect combination for a week of downloading.  If we have devices that measure the speed of the lift we can perfectly adjust the loss of speed so that fatigue is minimal in the discharge. The bar will lose speed as we perform repetitions. We will program the series so that this loss of speed is minimal, so we will be moving high loads, but with negligible fatigue.

 

 

Tapping or tuning: the most studied download phase due to its importance

Tapping is the progressive reduction of the training load over a period that can range from seven days prior to competition to several weeks (H. Pritchard et al., 2015). The objective of this “download week” is to optimize the sports performance that we have been working on in the blocks prior to this phase (Hayden J. Pritchard et al., 2020). The scientific literature has shown strength gains from 3% to 6%, which depending on the level of training can mean many extra kilos on the bar on the  day of the competition (Le Meur et al., 2012).

The guidelines are very similar to those we have given in the previous section, greatly reducing the volume and maintaining the intensity (Kyle Travis et al., 2020). The authors recommend a progressive reduction of the volume from 50% to 90% of the stage prior to this phase. This reduction in volume comes mainly by eliminating accessory exercises and focusing on the movements of the competition. The intensity remains high until the last week of the competition, using high loads such as 85% of 1RM (Hayden Joel Pritchard, 2017). The last sessions before stopping training do decrease the intensity using 60% – 70% of the 1RM. We will cease training when there are two to five days left until the competition (Grgic & Mikulic, 2017).

Peak week for a bodybuilding competition

In bodybuilding peak week is known as the week before the competition where all the work is already done and we seek only to achieve the best physical appearance. This week the important thing is not training, but loading our muscles with carbohydrates the days before the event. If the competition is on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday workouts will be focused on depleting stored glycogen stores, especially in the muscle (Alves et al., 2020). We will perform “pumping” work with low loads and many repetitions, but only a few series for each muscle group.

From Thursday to the championship, the ideal is not to perform any training and increase the consumption of carbohydrates to about 8 – 12 grams per kilo of weight and day (Moraes et al., 2019). There are different carbohydrate loading protocols that are accompanied by one form of training or another, but the intensity and volume are always limited to a minimum and it is simply sought to stimulate the muscle to deplete its glycogen reserves when there are about 6 days left to the competition to stop training completely the three days before getting on the stage and expose a more favorable physique (Barakat et al.,  2022).

Download in the transition between seasons

There are two less used download options throughout the season, but they are usually recommended at the end of a full season or when we reach excessive levels of physical or psychic stress. One of them is to stop completely and take a passive break where physical activity is not performed. The other option is to take an active break where scheduled strength training is not performed, but other activities such as cycling or swimming. In both cases we leave aside the monotony and strength training to reset body and mind and face the next season with guarantees.

 

Conclusions

The unloading week, or discharge phase since it can last more than a week, is the decrease in the training load that occurs between blocks of work, when we are going to compete or in the transition to the next season. The objective of this decrease in volume and intensity is to assimilate the loads that we have been doing in the previous weeks and avoid sustained stress over time that can lead to overtraining.

These weeks of discharge seek to create a super compensation that allows us to lift more weight in the competition or show a better physique on the bodybuilding stage, in addition to preventing injuries due to continued stress on the joints. There are different ways to perform the week of discharge, but in all of them we drastically decrease the volume and some intensity, as required.

Joaquin Vico Plaza

References

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Barakat, C., Escalante, G., Stevenson, S. W., Bradshaw, J. T., Barsuhn, A., Tinsley, G. M., & Walters, J. (2022). Can Bodybuilding Peak Week Manipulations Favorably Affect Muscle Size, Subcutaneous Thickness, and Related Body Composition Variables? A Case Study. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 10(7). https://doi.org/10.3390/sports10070106

Bell, L., Ruddock, A., Maden-Wilkinson, T., & Rogerson, D. (2020). Overreaching and overtraining in strength sports and resistance training: A scoping review. Journal of Sports Sciences, 38(16). https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2020.1763077

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