The Power of De-Load
A de-load is a period of time during which one takes things easier in the gym. It is a period of time, typically a week, in which you significantly reduce the amount of weight and volume that you train at. It can be as simple as changing the training stimuli or taking time completely off.
However, it does not mean absolutely no training, although sometimes that is exactly what is needed. It all depends on what stimulus that we’re trying to take a break from. Accordingly, we may have to change one or several variables of our workouts. And, it is more than just decreasing the variables such as the number of sets or perceived effort.
Intelligently utilizing de-loads is valuable. It is great for speeding up one’s ability to make progress and avoid plateaus. De-load allows the body to catch up. It provides the body a break from workouts so that the body can recover faster and better. Muscles can recover more quickly than connective tissue. Simultaneously, it also allows the mind some rest time.
There are innumerable benefits of de-load. Some of the most valuable and impactful ones are discussed below.
A specific type of training elicits a specific response from the body, it works like a trigger, a stimuli that results in an adaptation by the body.
With manipulation of workout variables, we create a certain biological state in the body. This manipulation stimulates specific processes within the body and each of these stimuli contributes to one or more of our overall goals of fat loss, recomposition, muscle gain, or strength increase.
We use this stimuli to our advantage for creating desirable changes in our body. As for example, increased muscle mass, more efficient nervous system, improved endurance and stamina are all adaptations to the stimulus we create by manipulation of workout variables in our training.
However, subjecting our body to the same stimulus for too long decreases the rate at which the body adapts over time. A de-load gives the body a break from that stimulus. The body is desensitized to that stress. It does not mean that the body will lose adaptations, but in reality when you reintroduce the stimulus then the body starts responding again almost as quickly as when you first began.
Exercise can reduce inflammation and also increase it. Increased inflammation due to exercise is a good thing or a bad thing depends upon the context. When acute inflammation is a part of healing response from the body, it is a good thing. When excess or chronic inflammation slows down body’s ability to recover, build muscle, and lose body fat, it is a bad thing.
To get anything tangible out of a workout regimen, some degree of inflammation is necessary. Body becomes stronger via inflammatory response to the stress by rebuilding and refortifying its tissues to deal with future demands. This is good and part of the adaptation process resulting in increased stamina, increased strength, and improved work capacity. Initially there may only be some soreness (a.k.a. DOMS) for a day or two after training. But eventually the stress may get to a point higher than the body can recover from and the positive benefits may begin to deplete and less desirable symptoms may begin to manifest.
Remember that acute inflammation (good, healthy, necessary) is characterized by an inflammatory response that resolves quickly, or as soon as the offending factor is removed. Inflammation becomes chronic when the stress is not removed like when you keep doing heavy deadlifts every single day. Any type of exercise – besides walking – has the potential to become chronic and induce a state of chronic inflammation.
Therefore, taking a break from a training stimuli allows the body to bring down cellular inflammation resulting in several potential health marker improvements including faster recovery, increased glucose sensitivity, decreased subcutaneous water, improved pumps during training, and better quality sleep.
After de-load, the body is able to reap much more of the beneficial adaptations with the same stimuli.
Improved Detoxification and Removal of Cellular Waste
To improve the overall well-being, body eliminate toxins and this is called detoxification. Body has a well-equipped natural detox system comprising of lungs, liver, intestines and kidneys. However, when a certain type of training demands a large supply of body’s resources to run some recovery processes then these organs may be forced to work less efficiently.
These recovery processes will naturally be prioritized by the body for survival. This may result in other processes to run less frequently or at a slower rate. Over time this may prove to be detrimental to the body, both on the cellular and the systemic level.
De-load allows the body to utilize its available micronutrients and to run essential processes such as natural detoxification (no juice cleanses over here) and also removing cellular waste.
Nervous System Recovery
The nervous system controls everything we do, including breathing, walking, thinking, and feeling.
The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system is made up of nerves that branch off from the spinal cord and extend to all parts of the body. The peripheral nervous system is made up of the Somatic and the Autonomic nervous systems. One of three divisions of the autonomic nervous system is parasympathetic nervous system called the “rest and digest” system, which conserves energy by slowing the heart rate, increasing intestinal and gland activity, and relaxing sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. The sympathetic nervous system is also a part of the autonomic nervous system. It activates what is often termed the “fight or flight” response during any potential danger.
Engaging in regular physical activity has been shown to have a beneficial effect on the nervous system. However, strength training may cause adaptive changes within it. Resistance training results in a shift from parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) state to sympathetic (“fight or flight”) state. Sympathetic state is a stressed state and in this state the body is in the survival mode. The hormones like cortisol and catecholamines are elevated and systems like digestion are halted. We don’t want to be in the stressed sympathetic state for a longer duration.
We want our nervous system to return to relaxed parasympathetic state as soon as the training is over or as quickly as possible. However, high intensity resistance training without adequate rest can result in the body never truly getting into a fully relaxed parasympathetic state inhibiting recovery of the nervous system. De-loads give the nervous system a chance to fully recover from all the previous stress of hard training.
Mental health plays a direct role in overall well-being and it can make or break the long term consistency in strength training. Mental recovery and ‘recharge’ during de-load allows one to approach training fresh.
Time with family, friends or other activities during de-load can do wonders to improve mental health and well being. Decrease in mental stress can have profound effects on how the body looks and how you feel.
Is de-load needed by a beginner? What should a Beginner Do? As a beginner, one should not need time off unless injured and should be at the gym busting through workouts. Beginners will see the most gain by utilizing a formal training program that incorporates auto-regulation.
This doesn’t mean that the first week of coaching should have stressful training but the workouts should be designed to be minimally stressful from a biological perspective.
Before creating a certain stimulus or significantly adjusting nutrition, it is important to see how the body handles nutrients, sleep, digestion and recovery with minimal outside stress.
This gives a better idea of what to prioritize for the individual to maximize recoverability and how to design a program for their goals.
Plain and simple, de-load is a short planned period of recovery. You take your training slightly lighter, maybe workout a little less, and generally just ease things back. A typical de-load will last a week.
It could be simply changing the training stimuli or taking time completely off. The benefits will vary based on what bodily systems or processes are given a break.
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Abhinav Malhotra is an award-winning personal trainer, coach and sports nutritionist in Dubai, UAE. He also offers online services to clients around the world. A personal trainer par excellence, Abhi has worked with the world’s leading fitness chains, supplement brands and founded his own fitness academy in India. He has achieved successes for many clients from all backgrounds and has trained the Indian Army Rugby Team. He is the first International Kettlebell Sport athlete from India.