The “bro science” that permeates every corner of the internet and your local globo-gym locker room will often tell you to ‘de-load’ or ‘back off’ on a regular basis – typically every 4, 6, or 12 weeks (these things tend to vary depending on the bro feeding you the information). In any case, for most lifters this is entirely unnecessary.
The truly advanced will either know their bodies well enough to back off when the time is right, or have a de-load scheduled in accordance with their competition or performance goals.
For less advanced individuals (read: the majority of the population) de-load weeks should come less frequently. What I would suggest instead is an ‘inverted week.’ It’s a concept I’ve been seeing more and more lately so I decided to test it out on myself and was pretty pleased with the results.
The premise is to essentially flip the scrip on whatever you are currently doing in the gym. For example, I tend to focus on strength focus, and then increase volume to build muscle later in the workout. For the sake of academics we’ll take a look at my first upper body day of the week.
To ‘flip the script’ I took my typical ‘low-rep, high weight’ bench session and reduced the weight while increasing the volume. This achieved a number of goals; it took a great deal of stress off of my central nervous system, pumped more blood and nutrients into my chest, shoulders, and triceps, allowed me to build a bit more muscle through increased time under tension, and gave me a chance to really groove my bench technique thanks to the increased volume.
So a bench day that normally consisted of a 1-3 rep max followed by 3 sets of 3 to 5 reps, became 3 sets of 8 to 10. The reduced neural fatigue also allowed me to increase the intensity a bit on assistance exercises (after benching I typically perform high rep sets of DB Presses, Flies, Inverted Rows, Pullovers, and Curls).
Increasing the intensity on assistance movements will be entirely up to you, and dependent on how your body feels. If you really do feel the need to back off, then reduce the weight, increase the reps, and ‘focus on the squeeze.’ If, on the other hand, you feel incredibly fresh and ready to conquer the world then feel free to ratchet up the intensity and marvel at the skin splitting pump and increased size gains.
The opposite will also work. Going from a bodybuilding style workout to a strength template (but using the same movements) for a week or two can help to fire up your nervous system, and create some slight strength gains. The nice thing about strength gains for a bodybuilder is that even a slight improvement can create a nice boost in muscle mass (the muscle gets stronger, the lifter goes back to the bodybuilding program, uses a heavier weight thanks to improved strength, creates more microtrauma, and builds more new muscle).
If you must deload – which really doesn’t need to be done that often – then try this on for size. Drop your main lift – squat, bench, dead, etc. down to an absurdly manageable weight (something like 50 to 60 percent of your one rep max) and perform 3 sets of 5. For the rest of the workout perform your typical assistance exercises, but reduce the number of sets while keeping the number of reps constant (3 sets of 10 becomes 2 sets of 15). This allows you to pump up the muscle for a nice recovery boost, without going so hard as to fatigue your body any more than it already is. Feel free to mix things up with some body weight exercises, band work, or other low impact activity – shooting foul shots, playing catch, going for a long relaxing walk – that you might not typically get a chance to perform.