How to Implement Reactive Deloads

Ever wonder how to cause less fatigue and add deloads into each week’s workout plan?

Here’s the dream. You go to the gym. You lift weights. You sleep and recover. Then, your muscles get bigger and you lift bigger weights. Rinse and repeat forever until you look like a Greek statue on steroids.

Unfortunately, getting stronger linearly forever like this is not possible. It appear this way when you first start lifting, but as you inch towards your genetic ceiling, things get tricky.

You realize, you’re building significantly less muscle as you advance in your training career. You’re forced to train a bit harder and because of the loads you’re lifting, fatigue is accumulating on your body.

Adding 5-10 lbs to the bar every week is now an impossible fantasy.

This is where hardcore lifters often learn about deloads where you reduce training variables so fatigue can dissipate. However, the common practice of deloading is pre-planned and usually requires a week of not making progress for the whole body.

This works well in powerlifting where deloading is often popularized, but many people who are primarily training for size would do better with reactive deloads.

Instead of a preplanned deload week for your entire body, reactive deloads are autoregulated deloads that only require you to reduce training variables for the body parts necessary.

This allows you to maximize on progressive overload and only deload when you need it. Here’s how to do it.

When is a Deload Necessary?

To reactively deload properly, you need to know when it’s time to deload. This means you need objective metrics, not subjective feelings.

Sometimes, people get sore, have a poor’s night of sleep, or simply feel unmotivated where they think a deload is warranted. However, the human body is a beautiful adaptable machine. It can adapt in ways you don’t realize it’s doing. This is why, you could feel like utter piss, but still be recovered.

Because being recovered for your workouts objectively means your performance is returned to baseline. So if you could bench 185 for 3 sets of 8 this week just like you did last week, your bench press is fully recovered. If you can perform even better, then you’ve recovered and your body has adapted to do more. Brownie points.

So before identifying the need for a deload, you need to be tracking your perforamnces consistently. This is basic 101 type of stuff that still gets ignored by dudes going to the gym for decades. Without tracking, your performance, you might be deloading when you don’t have to. For example, soreness doesn’t necessarily mean deload. If you take an unnecessary deload, you wasted a week that could’ve netted you more gains.

Alternatively, without tracking your performance, you might be missing out on deloads you should’ve taken. Remember how I said, you can feel like piss but be recovered? Well the opposite is also true. You can be unrecovered but feel great.

You might feel fresh and the weights might be moving well, but without tracking your performance, some people don’t realize their performance keeps dropping as they’re body is collecting fatigue faster than this country is collecting inflation.

So once you’re tracking your performance, you’ll know it’s time to do a reactive deload when you do your first set and your performance drops. This is a clear sign for a reactive deload which I’ll show you how to do in just a sec.

But let’s say you match your performance on set 1, but barely made it out alive to do so. Chances are, your performance will drop on set 2 as well, so you might as well do a reactive deload. There’s no point in risking it for the biscuit and digging yourself a deeper recovery hole.

How to Implement Reactive Deloads

Once you’ve determined it’s time for a reactive deload, you will turn all subsequent sets for that exercise into speed work. This means you drop the load significantly. It doesn’t matter by how much, but 50% is a good rule of thumb. This allows you to accelerate the movement on the concentric at a fast tempo.

Eccentric tempo should still be controlled to maintain technique. Rep target should be much lower as well to minimize fatigue. To keep it simple, I have all of my clients aim for 5 or 6 reps for all reactive deload sets.

The speed work allows you to reach high levels of muscle activation while allowing neuromuscular fatigue to drop along with relieving stress on the joints and connective tissue.

These sets should feel super easy. It’s tempting to add more weight or do more reps, but that’s defeating the purpose. You’re adding unnecessary fatigue when you should be clearing fatigue.

It’s also so easy that it’s tempting to skip the set altogether. However, speed work allows you to train the movement keeping it fresh in your nervous system and can boost your performance in that lift later on which is always great when you return to training that movement hard.

After you’ve deloaded that movement, you have the option to do a reactive deload for all other movements in your training week that directly involves that muscle.

This will be based more on feel. If you initially had a small drop in performance, just deloading that movement should suffice. However, if you had a bigger drop in performance and overall, feel pretty beat up, deloading from all relevant movements for the week is wiser.

Nonetheless, you don’t deload from all exercises. For example, if deloaded from Romanian Deadlifts, you can still keep progressing your biceps curls and lateral raises because those muscles/movements are still recovering. Push them hard and don’t let weeks of growth slip by where they don’t have to.

Time to Reactive Deload

So let’s say last week you did hack squats for 3 sets of 12, 11, and 10 with 200 lbs. This week, you’re expected to do better and possibly even max out the rep range to get 3 sets of 12 with 200 lbs. However, your first set sucked. You only got 9 reps instead of 12. The remaining 2 sets are now reactive deloads where you’ll do sets of 5 with 100 lbs.

Next week, you’re likely to hit 3 sets 12 with 200 lbs and then you can keep pushing the weight or reps up from there.

That’s essentially what training comes down to. You train hard and push your performance up. When you can’t train hard, you dump fatigue strategically as if you’re breaking up with a deadbeat girlfriend. Then once the baggage is gone, you keep moving on up.

Rinse and repeat and you can get more strong and muscular than ever before. This alone simplifies your training as well and destroys the need for complex periodization models.

Calvin Huynh is a trainer, online coach, writer, and joyful ruler behind AwesomeFitnessScience.com. His content has reached various top sites and he has worked with a variety of clients ranging from top CEOs, hardcore lifters, everyday desk workers, and stay at home moms. When he’s not working, he spends his time going to church, dreaming of unicorns, and eating whole pints of ice cream on a comfortable couch somewhere in Southern California.