Over the course of the past several weeks I have had a couple of instances in which I thought the exchanges I have had with some of my clients might be instructive for all of us as it relates to our own training.
A few weeks ago, a client of mine was being forced to miss a week of training for business related travel. As is often the case, time and location prevented him from gaining access to a decent barbell-based training facility, and there was really no other choice but to miss an entire week of training.
This particular client is on a “undulating periodization” model which fluctuates between weeks of higher volume and lower intensity and weeks of higher intensity and lower volume. The week he was going to have to miss was scheduled to be a “volume” week. And not just regular volume – lots of sets of 8 across on the main lifts. A real bitch of a workout. (I think deep inside he was probably giddy about missing a week’s worth of 8s!)
The question was this: “When I get back to the gym next week, should I stick to the overall monthly schedule and plan and hit my intensity week, or should I make up the volume week?”
My answer was – “Make up the volume week.”
It’s important to understand that different adaptations detrain faster than others. When we miss time in the gym we detrain (duh!). But what goes first is our conditioning, not our absolute strength. And the ability to complete high loads of volume definitely relies on a conditioning component as well as absolute strength. Localized muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness are very transient adaptations. We can develop them quickly, but we lose them quickly as well. If I allowed my client to go an additional week without completing a volume workout he would have been looking at probably 3+ weeks away from the volume and significant detraining is likely the outcome. And as he lost his ability to complete his volume work with the prescribed workloads, his intensity workouts would start to suffer in the near future as well as he was no longer able to create the stress necessary to drive continuous adaptation. Make no mistake about it, absolute strength detrains as well, but it has a little more “staying power” than strength work that relies on higher rep ranges and lots of sets across. A missed high intensity workout here and there actually won’t hurt you too bad. The exception would be for those who are peaking for competition, but that is for another article.
Deloading For Old Guys
A few days after the previous exchange, I had another conversation with a client who was struggling with the process of how to deload. At issue was the fact that he knew he needed to be deloading about every 3-4 weeks, but seemed not to be able to get the mechanics of the deloading process right.
This particular client is in his late 50s but can still handle some decent loads in the gym. As a consequence he runs the risks of really beating himself up if he doesn’t let off the gas pedal every couple of weeks.
He told me that “every time I deload I feel great when I get back to the gym, but I feel like I always come back weaker! Everything feels heavy, even though my body feels great.”
As I looked over his programming I saw that every time he deloaded (every 4-6 weeks usually) he would drop the frequency of training down from 4 days per week to 2 days per week and train his main lifts with 1 or 2 light sets of 5 reps at around 60% of 1rm.
Now, one of the most important lessons I have learned about training older guys is that they are INTENSITY DEPENDENT. In practice this means that any program designed for an older adult or masters athlete must include training that forces them to fairly regularly work with training loads at or around 90% of 1rm or they will struggle to progressively build strength. Strictly higher volume approaches that often work well with younger lifters do not work as well with masters athletes. Not only do they run the risk of overtraining on a strictly volume based training protocol but they simply don’t progress as predictably as they do when handling heavier loads at lower volumes.
This has MAJOR implications when scheduling deloading weeks for an older lifter. I no longer utilize light sets of five for deloads on older lifters. Instead, I keep intensity high, often using sets of singles and doubles. I still drastically cut volume and most of the time frequency as well.
Keep in mind this is a different scenario than the client we were discussing at the beginning of this article. This is a deload. The client is beat up from training and we MUST cut down volume for a short period of time to let fatigue dissipate from his system. This is not the same thing as an unplanned absence from the gym that forces him to miss scheduled training.
Let’s use a simple example to illustrate the approach that I now favor. Let’s assume that the lifter was using two heavy sets of 3-5 reps for his primary training stimulus over a 6 week training cycle. In the past, when we hit his scheduled deload at the end of his 6 week cycle, I would have probably had him perform 1 or 2 sets of 5 reps with about 10-20% less than his last completed heavy set of 5. So if he ended his training cycle with 350×5, then his deload week might have have been 275-315 for a couple light sets of 5. Now, the intensity is likely to be held steady, but I lower the reps pretty drastically. So if he got 350×5, then I’d probably have him hit 350 for a single.
In addition, I look for other ways to cut volume and frequency in the program while keeping up the weight on the bar.
Remember, this is for deloading a lifter when volume has been relatively high for a number of weeks. Any worries about the loss of conditioning take a back seat to the concerns of potentially overtraining an over 50 athlete. The consequences of that mistake are very difficult to correct.