Starting Conjugate: Deloading
One of the most important aspects of training is fatigue management. Truthfully, you could argue that fatigue management is the most critical aspect of any training program. How fatigue levels are managed will dictate the level of intensity, volume, and frequency an athlete can train at, ultimately deciding the progress made each year. If the athlete has to regularly deload, this will lead to many less-than-optimal training days accumulated yearly.
It's simple math; the more successful training days performed at proper intensity and volume an athlete can complete each year, the more progress made and athletic ability unlocked. If the athlete wants to reach true athletic potential, it is necessary to follow a program that appropriately manages fatigue levels to allow the athlete to remain in a trainable state year-round.
Additionally, the regular use of deloads interrupts an athlete's ability to acclimate to the typical demands of a training program. Ideally, the programming initially meets the athlete at their current level and intelligently raises their level of strength and conditioning to provide the athlete with the fitness and durability necessary to maintain a regular schedule of effective high-intensity exercise.
However, this is not to say that using a deload is always uncalled for. In strength sports, it is common for an athlete to take a 3-7 day period of rest post-competition, follow up with a deload week, and then jump back into their regular training program. Some strength athletes can rest just a few days and return to full training capacity. It all depends on the athlete.
Another valuable use of a deload is to use it as intended, to get a leg up on recovery when excessive fatigue negatively affects training quality. Negative training quality could mean reduced PR frequency during max effort, reduced barbell velocity during dynamic effort, or joint/tissue pain that persists and affects movement quality.
In any of these cases, a deload should always be considered to provide an athlete with the additional recovery time needed to return to a level allowing full-capacity training. When strategically implemented, deload weeks help keep an athlete in a trainable state and positively affect the total number of successful training sessions per year.
However, a reasonable amount of deload weeks is 1-5 per year. A deload week should not be part of your regular training plan.
Fortunately, there are a few programming strategies an athlete can implement to avoid excessive deloading while remaining in a trainable state capable of executing high-intensity and high-volume workouts. Here are a few solutions we use at Westside Barbell to avoid deloading:
Manipulate Max Effort Rep Ranges
Training at high intensity regularly is a demanding task. However, provided training intensity is regulated correctly, an athlete should have no issue training at max effort levels of intensity weekly. However, excessive fatigue can affect any athlete regardless of training method or style.
If the athlete notices max effort PR lifts are few and far between, it may be a good idea to begin changing the reps performed during the top max effort set. The use of three and five-rep sets will provide training at worthwhile levels of intensity (85-95%), which means large motor unit recruitment is still possible.
This will allow the training to still contribute to the improvement of absolute strength while providing a reduction in intensity that can help to reduce accumulated fatigue. We can take it a step further by choosing to leave a set in the tank, which will reduce the workout's total intensity and training volume.
Minor adjustments like this can help reduce excessive fatigue while providing the athlete with valuable training at adequate intensity levels.
Reduce Accessory Exercise Training Volume
Just as a reduction in training intensity can positively affect excessive fatigue levels, a reduction in overall training volume can also give an athlete a chance to quickly return to training at full capacity when fatigue becomes an issue. Out of the two options, the reduction in accessory exercise volume can be the most reasonable choice to make.
One of the reasons the Conjugate Method is incredibly effective is the ability of max effort and dynamic effort training days to target and improve specific strengths that lead to improved barbell lifts and athletic capabilities. If we begin to mess with our main exercises, we limit the most effective aspects of the Conjugate Method.
The main exercises of each training day will lead to improvements in absolute strength and speed-strength. Of course, there are a multitude of additional training benefits associated with our main movements, but these are the primary benefits. Our accessory training intends to target weak muscle groups, build muscle mass, and improve the overall physical composition of the athlete.
There is a reason we use terms such as main or primary exercise. The main exercise represents the overall focus of the training day. Accessory training is work performed to raise the athlete's strength and fitness to perform at a higher level while performing these main exercises.
If you have to reduce one or the other, reduce the training that is considered a secondary focus.
Reduce Training Frequency
This option is considered the final option when the other two options fail to work. Commonly, athletes reach this stage when recovery is disrupted due to sport or work demands. This means the current mix of exercise programming and sports practice has begun to interact negatively, or the athlete's work schedule has substantially reduced meaningful recovery time.
In this case, the athlete can benefit from reducing the overall training frequency from four to three days per week. Typically, we will do this by keeping both lower body training days in the programming and alternating our max and dynamic effort upper training week to week. We may also add repeated effort bench work using set and rep ranges such as 5 x 5 into the weekly rotation of main upper exercises.
By doing this, we provide the athlete with an additional day to focus on recovery while providing adequate exposure to sufficient levels of volume and intensity throughout the training week. It is a much better option to reduce training frequency to provide the athlete with the ability to consistently train at adequate levels of volume and intensity than it would be to have to deload regularly due to less-than-optimal recovery.
Smart Programming = Fewer Deloads
As mentioned above, the need for a true deload from average training intensity and volume is only called for in some instances. Using it as a standard tool in an athlete's programming would render the deload a limiting factor to their overall success. Unless the athlete has just competed in a contest or is injured or overcoming injury, there should not be a need to reduce training intensity and volume regularly.
As a coach, you want to provide each athlete with as many effective training days as possible each year. By doing so, you increase the rate at which the athlete improves. If you constantly have to reduce the training intensity and volume to keep your athletes in a trainable state, you are likely misunderstanding and misapplying a portion of the methods.
It is reasonable to expect to regularly make minor adjustments to an athlete's training plan to keep them able to train at full capacity. The abovementioned strategies represent ways a coach can help an athlete return to full-capacity training without rendering the programming substantially less effective. Often, these minor adjustments can quickly make a significant impact.
If you are a coach or athlete needing help understanding or implementing our training methods, check out the Westside Barbell website, where we regularly post articles discussing Conjugate Method training and programming strategies. Also, follow us on social media, where we post informative strength and conditioning content for all sports daily.