All Things Deload Pt. 1

deload education fatigue performance recovery strength training training Aug 18, 2023
Women doing bench press with spotters

What is a Deload?

Prior to beginning a discussion, it is important to define the terms in which you will be speaking. The term discussion is used because there is no right, or wrong, nor black, or white. Training is as much art as it is science. Application of principles is individual and goal specific and dependant on an multitude of variables. Our goal in strength training should be to control for as many of these variables as we can while mitigating the risk presented by those variables that remain outside of our control.

It can be assumed that in order to get stronger, we must accumulate stress. The response of the body to any stress is to reinforce the system and compensate for the stress. This is called an adaptation. According to the “Principle of Overload,” this stress must increase in magnitude over time to elicit further adaptation. In this model, for adaptation to occur, the stress must be recovered from. The time from stress, to response, to adaptation is highlighted by the “Stress Response Adaptation” (SRA) curve. This curve describes the “Delayed Transformation” effect of a training stimulus. The higher the magnitude of the stimulus, the longer the SRA curve will be, and the longer the duration of the delayed transformation in most cases. 

So, according to the above, to get stronger we need repetitive stimulus, each time in increasing magnitude, which in turn takes an increasingly longer amount of time to recover from. Eventually, we reach what has been coined the “Maximal Recoverable Volume” (MRV) by Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. Mike Hoffman and Dr. Melissa Davis. They wrote extensively about this concept in their book “Recovering from Training.” Essentially, it is at MRV where the rate of accumulation of fatigue/ stress will match the rate of decay. As you can see, once this point is exceeded, no more progress can be made. We can only benefit from what we can recover from. Whether the fatigue accumulated is neurological, or peripheral is a matter of debate, but the evidence is quite poor that neurological fatigue exists. In any case, the signs of fatigue accumulation can be seen across varied systems within the body. The more an athlete attempts to push training above MRV, the higher the likelihood of “overtraining.”

The term “Deload” is widely-used in strength sports and its application is equally as variable. For the sake of this discussion, the term deload shall denote ANY decrease in volume and/or intensity implemented systematically to decay fatigue. This definition is broad and you will see why later.

Why do we deload?

As mentioned above, the deload is implemented systematically to decay fatigue. It does so by providing a sub threshold stimulus, usually over the course of 7 days, to promote restoration and decay some of the fatigue we have accumulated in the previous mesocycle. Over time, we become better able to tolerate fatigue accumulation and the SRA curve becomes smaller for the same relative stimulus. For example, if you squat once per week and the most squatting volume you could recover from was 30,000lbs, you will be able to increase the total volume tolerated in each subsequent mesocycle – assuming you are able to decay enough fatigue to do so. This is how we get stronger – we get better at accumulating volume and pushing that stimulus threshold higher. 



Let’s compare two athletes who both perform a workout of 75% for 25 total repetitions:

  • Athlete A – 1RM squat 800lbs would perform 600lbs for 25 repetitions and 15,000lbs of volume
  • Athlete B – 1RM squat 500lbs would perform 360lbs for 25 repetitions and 9,000lbs of volume.

Athlete A must be able to accumulate and decay 7,000 more pounds of volume than Athlete B to recover from this training session.


The caveat to this adaptation process is that enough fatigue must be decayed so we can begin to accumulate fatigue again. The more fatigue we accumulate, or the longer we spend closer to, or at MRV, it can be assumed that it would take longer to decay. The argument could also be made that the better we are at accumulating fatigue, the better we would become at decaying it because stronger athletes accumulate more fatigue. Anecdotally, bigger, stronger and more muscular athletes tend to take longer to recover from heavy training, but they are also more proficient in accumulating fatigue. Yes, there are ways to improve the rate of fatigue decay and those will be discussed later. In any case, the rate of fatigue accumulation and rate of fatigue decay are important variables as they are the determinants of MRV. 

MRV can be greatly affected by lifestyle variables. Things like sleep, diet and miscellaneous stressors all affect an athlete’s MRV. Absolute intensity of the training session also influences MRV – 10,000lbs accumulated in 600lbs loads increments is different than 800lbs load increments. For the sake of discussion, training will not be considered as a variable affecting MRV as training intensity should be accommodated for in total training volume (assuming you’re following an intelligent plan). We will assume training is a constant. Since training is controlled and sleep and diet remain largely in the control of the athlete, miscellaneous stressors seem to be the most important variable to MRV fluctuations.

Miscellaneous stress is the variable that has the potential to throw a wrench into the other aspects of fatigue decay and greatly affect MRV. It affects both the accumulation of stress and the fatigue decay sides of the MRV equation. Simply relying on MRV as an indicator for deload timing is flawed in this regard. Should the athlete be put in a position where MRV is lowered by uncontrolled miscellaneous stressors, but training is not adjusted, they can be put in a situation where their fatigue cannot be decayed at the appropriate rate. This can cause the athlete to “overreach” at an inappropriate time. If this continues, “overtraining” is a possibility. These two concepts are beyond the scope of this article, but they can be generally described as periods where training has surpassed MRV (overreached) and when this time is extended to a point that body systems begin to be effected (overtraining).

It is very important to note that when training close to MRV, the most adaptation can be produced because the stimulus threshold is the highest. This means that the more time we can have an athlete training at MRV, the faster they will get stronger. Training at the highest threshold also poses the most risks. When stress is highest, our risk of injury is highest and our risk of overreaching is highest. “When you fly too close to the sun, you risk getting burned.”  We do not need to be pushing MRV to get stronger, but it just won’t happen as fast. MRV will still increase over time if the stimulus threshold continues to be overloaded.

We are constantly decaying fatigue. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to train day to day and week to week. As mentioned earlier, the rate of fatigue accumulation simply continues to rise as the threshold of stimulus rises, while the rate of decay remains relatively (aside from lifestyle variables) constant. If implemented properly, the deload allows us to provide our bodies with a week, or longer in some cases, to decrease the rate of fatigue accumulation and allow the rate of decay to catch up to a point where we can resume accumulating fatigue – consider it a recovery focused week. The manner in which a deload is implemented, the timing of it and the duration of it is influenced by a multitude of factors.  The objective of this series will be to educate you on the training process and how to appropriately implement a deload into your plans.


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