Deload weeks are a common tactic used within powerlifting where we reduce the volume and/or intensity to help manage and dissipate fatigue. This also gives a gap to help resensitize to training before a new training block where-in a new set of stimuli are presented.
But how often should we deload to maximize training to the fullest? Powerlifters should deload every 6-12 weeks either when fatigue has surpassed our ability to recover, or when we’ve reached a peak performance without the ability to continue our progression. Beginner powerlifters need to deload less often compared with advanced powerlifters who need to deload more often.
Let’s discuss other reasons that may affect how often you should deload.
5 Factors That Determine How Often You Should Deload As A Powerlifter
The goal of a deload is to offset fatigue.
We should program a deload based on the following 5 factors:
- When training has no longer stimulated continued progression
- When fatigue has surpassed our ability to recover adequately between sessions
- When an injury arises or as a preventative tool to prevent injury
- When our life schedule requires changes or adjustments in training
- When we have a planned competition
Once you’ve understood these factors, you can decide the optimal timing and length of your deload.
1. When Training Has No Longer Stimulated Continued Progression
As we proceed week to week, stress is induced by the training stimulus that is presented. As we adapt to that stress, the goal is that we get stronger.
But at a certain point, either we will stop responding to that stimulus, or fatigue has accumulated to the point that it masks our strength and we are unable to recover between sessions.
This lends itself to us having a certain time each training block that we tend to peak our performance.
In my experience, this tends to be anywhere between 3-12 weeks for the majority of powerlifters.
For beginner powerlifters, they tend to be able to train more weeks before peaking their performance – upwards of 12 weeks. For more advanced powerlifters, they might peak their performance between 3-4 weeks before needing a deload.
And that progress isn’t always linear within a training block. We might see ups and downs week to week, but over time we gather enough data to be able to have a general idea that for example, in week 4 our strength tends to peak.
In this scenario, we are looking at the point in which we have induced the needed stress, we have adapted to that stress, and have yielded the full benefits from it. In this example, we would then typically plan for 5-week training blocks, with the 5th week being a deload.
What you will typically see after that point is not some dramatic strength loss, but more so you will see a plateau in strength. Your performance the following week will mimic the same estimated 1RM as the previous week. But then if you proceed another week past that, usually that is when we finally start to see a performance regression.
Our goal is over time is to accumulate enough data to have an understanding of when this time to peak occurs and then plan our deload accordingly.
Taking a deload when your sick could be beneficial. Read my article on Powerlifting With A Cold: Should You Do It?
2. When Fatigue Has Surpassed Our Ability To Recover Adequately Between Sessions
While in a perfect world we would always train, respond, peak, and then deload, fatigue plays a big role in our training.
Unless you are living like a professional powerlifter and your whole life is structured around working out, training fatigue fluctuates not only from training stress, but life stress as well.
Our ability to recover through sleep and nutrition isn’t always 100% either. So because of this, what people most often see is not only a specific time their strength peaks, but that also coinciding with when fatigue starts to surpass our ability to recover between sessions.
Fatigue is a good thing too. Fatigue is a result of training stress, and we must induce enough training stress to progressively overload our bodies to respond with a positive adaptation.
So as fatigue accumulates it starts to mask our strength. And this goes hand in hand with why we tend to peak at a certain point each training block.
With that said though, since we are not perfect creatures and life variables are present, we very well may see fatigue fluctuations block to block that do not fit the perfect mold of what I mentioned prior with our time to peak.
Therefore, we may reactively deload based on seeing different trends in training based on fatigue. If we notice fatigue has crept up earlier in a block than normal and we can no longer recover, we may need to deload earlier than planned.
Or maybe even the opposite happens, and life stressors and variables that were present before are gone, so within this training block, you actually can continue training past your normal time to peak due to improved recovery.
While structured deloads are a great way to organize training, it is also important to be reactive as well based on the fatigue patterns we see. Especially when we do not have a set timeline based on competition, be attentive to your body’s response and be reactive with how you deload when you can.
Deloading can be considered a form of General Physical Preparedness (GPP), which I explain more in my article covering the benefits of GPP Workouts.
3. When An Injury Arises Or As A Preventative Tool To Prevent Injury
Some powerlifters just tend to be a bit more injury-prone than others. While there are many variables as to why that is, and I’d definitely recommend addressing those first, for some people it may be wise to side on the conservative end of things and deload prematurely at times as a preventative measure.
There is the general theory that we have a level of maximum recoverable volume (MRV) or workload. It is the idea of having a specific ‘volume of training’ where up to that point we can recover, but beyond it, we cannot.
In the aforementioned points, we are pushing close to that to optimize the training effect from each block. But if we know for a particular lifter that they are very susceptible to injury as they inch closer to their MRV, we may be more conservative and deload sooner to prevent pushing that line.
While in the short term that may slow progress due, the overarching goal is long term, pain-free and consistent training. In the end, consistent training for these types of lifters will supersede trying to consistently push that barrier of MRV.
Within this same realm, another reason why a powerlifter might deload is if an injury occurs. If something happens that is going to be of risk to further worsen if we continue training, we can instead deload to reduce intensity and volume to allow for recovery.
This obviously is not something we wish for, but being smart rather than sorry by deloading at these times will be better in the long term for our progress and health.
Taking a deload was one of the strategies mentioned in my article on Will Powerlifting Destroy Your Body?
4. When Our Life Schedule Requires Changes Or Adjustments In Training
If you are like 99% of the people, you’ve probably got a job, school, relationships, etc. that require your time.
Maybe you are an accountant and it’s the end of the fiscal year and you foresee an 80 hour workweek incoming. Maybe you are going on vacation with the family. Or maybe you are a college student and final exams are coming up. It is definitely a smart idea to adapt your deload schedule based on these demands.
Rather than try to push through training when you know you just cannot dedicate the focus, time, and recovery, it would serve most people better to deload in these circumstances.
This is just another form of reactive deloads, but rather than being based on fatigue, it is more a preemptive measure knowing that training conditions will not be optimal during certain times of the year.
Or in the sense of vacation, that is just a time to prioritize and enjoy your friends and family. I love powerlifting, but we need to enjoy ourselves as well.
Deloads can be a great tool to allow a lifter not to stress about feeling like they are “missing out” by not training as hard through these periods, but rather turn it into a positive that it lines up well with a structured reduction in volume and intensity.
During a deload, you might want to do some extra conditioning. Read my other article on how to combine powerlifting and running.
5. When We Have A Planned Competition
Let’s return to the example that we peak each block o week 4. So, as we head into a powerlifting competition we can have a better idea how to optimally time our training.
If we peak week 4 and then deload week 5, and we would like to plan 3 training blocks leading into a competition, this would optimally be 15 weeks of training.
We would definitely want to know this information before planning to compete. But, if we don’t, the best plan of action is to make a formulated guess.
If most lifters tend to peak between weeks 3-6, that means on average most lifters tend to respond best to 4-5 weeks of training followed by a deload, with the 3 and 6 week options being more so the outliers. So that would be my recommended starting point for most.
Lastly, let’s say we are 18 weeks out from a competition and respond best to the 5-week block structure. We know that planning 15 weeks of training is optimal to line up with our response to training. What I would have a lifter do in this instance is do a quick 3 week block, with the 3rd week being a deload. But since we only accumulated stress from 2 weeks of training prior, we can limit the amount we deload a bit from the normal amount, i.e. not reducing volume/intensity as much as a ‘normal deload’.
With this layout, it then gets us on track to make sure those final 15 weeks follow a more planned and predictable structure leading into competition.
Variables Within A Deload Week
Let’s have a quick discussion on the variables within a deload week that you can adjust to offset fatigue.
When programming a deload week, we are typically manipulating one or all three of the variables below:
- Exercise Selection
Intensity, volume, and exercise selection all lend themselves to producing stress, adaptations, and fatigue within our training based on how we program each.
When we deload, we are manipulating those variables to allow our bodies to recover, but not detrain. Our goal is to come back around into week 1 of the next training block feeling fresh and recovered, but still strong.
As a powerlifting coach, my job is to find the right balance of adjustments to these 3 variables to make sure we accomplish that task.
But, we also need to make sure that we are deloading at the right time. If we deload too early or too late, that starts to change the effect the deload has on our recovery and strength.
So we must do our best to time this correctly using the five factors discussed above.
Deload weeks are a great tool within powerlifting to help manage fatigue and create predictable structure within our training.
The frequency at which we should deload can be based on multiple things, with that optimally being based on performance trends we see and how we peak within individual training blocks.
But since we are humans, training will not always be perfectly consistent and predictable, so based on factors of fatigue, life events, injury, or competition, we can be more reactive with how we deload to help set up our training to better suit our recovery or life schedule.
Hopefully, this gave you a better idea of how often should powerlifters deload, and be able to implement these principles within your own training to optimize your strength gains!
Interested in learning more about off season programming? Check out my other article on the Complete Guide To Off Season Powerlifting Programs.
About The Author
Steve Denovi has 10+ years of experience working with clientele from all walks of life and currently specializes in working with powerlifters and their pursuit of strength. He has his MBA in Marketing but found himself after college following his passion within the fitness industry. Steve now coaches athletes all across the USA and takes a special interest in helping to mentor new coaches and providing content to help educate the strength community.