When building strength is the goal, periodizing your program seems simple enough. First, you systematically work up to a peak load over a number of workouts, and then you cut back on the volume for a week as a deload to prepare (and repair) before changing things up.
This is easy enough to do when you feel great. But what about when you feel lousy and the routine on your training log feels like a tall order? Many lifters respond to this situation by dropping the weight, upping the volume, and doing what amounts to a different workout entirely. Then, they'll return to the heavy weights next time around.
I would argue this is the exact wrong thing to do, and I'm not alone. "Don't drop down only to go back up again" is a philosophy advocated by successful coaches like Charlie Francis, Al Vermeil, and Charles Poliquin, to name a few. A better choice, is to "deset" rather than deload when a reduction in workload is required for one reason or another.
In other words, treat your hard days like a deload. Here are four cases where it makes sense to cut back on volume, and how to program it in.
1. You Just Aren't In The Mood
There'll be times when you walk into the gym and the last thing you want to do is lift really heavy weights for lots of reps. I'm talking mentally, not physically. Your body is more or less ready to go, but your mind is screaming, "No!" What do you do?
You need to be receptive to these signals. Mood is an important factor that should not be overlooked; it can determine the quality of a workout as much as any other variable. Plus, there's always the possibility that your mood is sour because your body isn't as up to the task as you think it is!
Well, you still need to work to make a living, right? On this day, however, you'll work less! Punch the clock, put in just enough time to get the job done, and then go home early. Keep the intensity up (i.e., use the same loads you were planning to use for that workout), but reduce the volume by doing fewer sets. Even just one set with your working weight will be enough to maintain strength during this period—seriously!
In other words, don't skimp on the quality of work. Cut back on quantity.
2. One Particular Set Almost Kills You
You may have the best program design in the world with all the parameters tightly regulated, your session plan in place, and your workout written down on paper, but it's what you actually do in the gym that counts, not what you plan to do.
In other words, you should have a plan in place, but you need to know when to call an audible. Here's an example.
Last workout, you performed 5 sets of 5 reps with 315 pounds on the back squat. Over the years, you've learned that slow and steady wins the race, so the next workout, you plan to do 5 sets of 5 with 320 pounds. That's just a tiny 2.5-pound plate per side. Simple enough, right?
So you get to the gym and do your first set of 5 reps, no problem. After giving yourself a sufficient amount of rest, you go to do your second set. Again, you knock out 5 reps. This set took a bit of effort, but it was doable. After a few minutes of rest, you go to do your third set. You manage 5 reps again, but the last one was tough, to say the least. It went up slow, and your legs were shaking the whole way. You rack the bar, fuel up with some branched-chain amino acids, and take an extra minute of rest this time.
You get under the bar to do your fourth set, and just unracking it feels like lifting a house. You know this set is going to be a bitch! You step back, get yourself set, and start your descent. You reach the bottom and go to explode out of the hole, and although the intent to move fast is there, the actual speed is more like molasses. But you make it to the top...somehow.
So you regroup, put yourself in that "Platz" state of mind, and go for another one. This time, it takes every ounce of muscle you've got to get that sucker up. You know better than to try to attempt another one, so you decide to rack it before you get stapled to the ground.
The decision you make at this point will determine whether you go forward or backward in your training. If you decide to push on and do a fifth set with a lighter weight, the damage you do to your recovery ability will outweigh strength stimulus you receive. In other words, there's every chance you'll come back weaker the next workout.
If, however, you listen to the message your body is giving you, terminate that exercise and move on to the next one—even though your training program states that you should do one more set—you'll make progress and come back stronger the next workout.
Training is all about progression and coming back stronger, not doing sets and reps just for the sake of doing them. It's about having an intelligent plan, and then carrying that plan out in an intelligent manner. So be smart!
3. You Hear First-Set Alarm Bells
Let's back up for a second. Using the same scenario as above, what should you do if you only accomplish 2 reps on the first set instead of the 5 reps that you were planning to do? The answer is simple: Go home!
You're not ready to train yet. You'll need at least an extra day to recover. Don't move on to the next exercise. That would be a mistake. Just pack up your stuff and leave the gym.
Nobody wants to hear this—which is why so many people ignore the warning signs, often at their own peril. But today, instead of working out, you need to "work in." You'd probably be better off taking a nap than trying to strain under a heavy bar at this point.
To facilitate the recovery process, incorporate some restoration methods like contrast showers, salt baths, stretching, electronic muscle stimulation, and massage. Do one or more of those methods, and get plenty of sleep, but don't train. You'll come back stronger the following day.
4. You Fail The Neck Test
Under periods of high stress or sickness, the same rule applies—that is, reduce the volume of training, not the intensity—unless the answer is to skip training altogether.
Here's a great analogy I picked up years ago from fellow strength and conditioning coach Alwyn Cosgrove. He wrote, "Your body can't differentiate between stressors. Stress is like water from hundreds of taps flowing into a bathtub. Financial stress, relationships, health, and training stress are all different taps. When all the other taps are flowing full-blast, turn down the training tap a little bit so your tub doesn't overflow."
And how do you turn the training tap down a bit? By doing fewer sets!
When sickness occurs, I'll permit training if the symptoms are felt above the neck (e.g., a runny nose, stuffiness, sneezing, a sore throat, and/or a headache). In this case, use the same loads that you were planning to use, but reduce the number of sets. Again using the example above, squat with 320 pounds, but only do 2 or 3 sets of 5 reps, and don't grind through a bunch of brutal reps.
However, if any symptoms are felt below the neck (e.g., chest congestion, bronchial infection, fever, intense coughing, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or extreme body ache), skip training for that day. Just go home and get better.
This Is How the Strong Get That Way
When it comes to strength training, the old adage is true: "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." But following an ideal plan all the time just isn't in the cards. This becomes truer the stronger you get—and the heavier the weights you're moving.
Maintain quality, cut from quantity. It's a simple rule, but one that many of us have to learn the hard way. This year, take it seriously and watch your progress explode!