Taking it easy for more progress
Whenever someone tells me about how shit their training has been lately in spite of them 'doing everything right', the first question I always ask is: when was the last time you had time off? Because more than often the solution is not found in better training, but simply in bringing workload down to once again match recoverability. They need a deload.
"Many exercise guru's loved to claim that overtraining didn't exist."
15 years ago many exercise guru’s loved to claim that overtraining didn’t exist. The general idea was that if you were dragging ass while putting in anything less than 6 sessions a week, you were just out of shape. Or you weren't eating enough. That was 15 years ago, however. When weight training was a niche, when you still had to find a computer in order to send an email, and when social media was a silly thing for kids. Enter 2019, the era of 24/7 connectedness and compulsive self improvement. The era in which most people alternate between states of either disrupted sleep or total sensory overload. If exceeding your capacity to recover didn’t exist before, then now it sure as hell does. Because an already highly taxed, stressed and under-slept body needs very little to reach its limit. Especially when throwing a brutal gym routine on top of it.
Important to realize is that even though training is a nurturing and positive thing in the long haul, every session itself is a stressor that eats into your body’s recovery capacity; just like a poor night’s sleep or heated argument with a colleague will. If you train hard enough - or recover poorly enough - you will find your limits, and your body will let you know. Have you ever had that feeling of complete dread when just thinking about training? Strange little pains in your knees and elbows? Progress stalling? Add poor sleep quality, general fatigue, and loss of appetite to that list of possible symptoms, too. When consistently increasing your workload there is bound to be a factor of cumulative fatigue, even when you are taking plenty of rest in your weekly planning. And sleeping in on the weekends can only hold that off for so long before you start spinning your wheels (or even worse: feeling like shit).
Usually what you need is a periodical deload, a phase in which you back off from the intense stuff in order to give your body time to fully recover. This is standard practice among professional athletes, yet weekend warriors often ignore it altogether. A common excuse to stay in the gym is therefore that the body will decondition when taking time off. Which, from a pure performance perspective, is valid. Staying in motion is biologically speaking always better than staying still. But there's a difference between staying in motion and continuing to slave away at a punishing gym routine.
"Periodically taking two weeks off has even been said to reset your anabolic signaling."
Far too often, good intentions to take it easy end up in full blown training anyway. Should you worry about losing your gains during downtime, allow me to calm your fears: while your nervous system might lose some of its preparedness to perform after ten or so days of not training, it can take up to a month before true muscle wasting occurs. And periodically taking two weeks off of training has even been said to reset your anabolic signaling. So don't sweat it. Pun intended.
The question then is: when do you go for a deload, and how to go about it? As for timing: if you're experiencing one or more of earlier mentioned symptoms and you've been pushing your training for a few months, you're a candidate for a deload. Some need it every few weeks, others only once every few months. This is something you have to figure out for yourself, because there are just too many factors at play (like your life outside of the gym). Then, regarding the deload itself: scale your workouts. They should keep you moving, but be really easy to complete. A way to go about this is to reduce all weights by 50%. Or just leaving out all compound lifts (like squats and pull ups) and only performing the isolation exercises. Doing this for a week or so should be enough to make you feel fresh and ready to get back to the heavy stuff.
Well, here it is. A piece of advice that tells you to do less in order to achieve more. I like those kinds of advice, especially when they work. I do however recognize that for some it can be hard to honour such advice. If you're among this crowd, then please take this to heart: if you find that you even have the slightest tendency to train too hard during your deloads, do yourself a favor: skip the gym altogether and go for a walk instead. Play some games with your buddies. You'll need your sanity if you plan to keep doing this long enough to get to the levels that you aspire.