A Better Deload Week for Rowing

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My rowing programs always have a deload week every 4-12 weeks. Being natural pain-addicts and work-a-holics, most rowers resist this.

Hey, I get it. I love lifting. Sometimes I have trouble falling asleep the night before a workout I’m really excited about. My dad bought me a used bench and concrete weight set when I was 12 and I’ve been lifting in some way ever since. I still deload every 6-10 weeks.

I don’t always feel like I need the rest at the time, butt I always feel better starting the next block of the program after the deload. Previously, when I’ve tried the “rest when you’re dead” method, I’ve always found myself burned out or injured after about 12-14 weeks.

This doesn’t make for sexy hashtags, but if it’s a simple matter of taking a half-step back during the deload week in order to take three steps forward during the following training block and train with better energy, less risk of injury, and renewed focus, then those 5-8 reduced load training weeks are well worth it over a 52-week annual training plan.

Most programs just block out a week out of the gym for the deload week. Rest and time away from training is fine and a necessary part of any program. If you enjoy lifting or time out of the gym causes you more stress than it’s worth, we can design the deload week to still achieve the same goal of rest and recovery while still getting after it in the gym.

Why Deload?

The purpose of the deload is to reduce the training load to promote nervous system and muscular system recovery from training. Loss of enthusiasm to train, achy joints, trouble sleeping, fatigue, elevated heart-rate, increased risk of injury, diminished performance, irritability, and even mild depression are all consequences of over-training that we seek to avoid by scheduling regular periods of reduced training load. By the time you feel these symptoms, you are already over-trained, so it’s crucial that these weeks are planned in advance.

The Week Off

This reduces the training load 100%. For masters rowers needing extra recovery, athletes who don’t enjoy lifting, athletes who are traveling the week before a competition, or if the deload week falls during stressful times of the year, this is a totally fine option.

For example, I’ve figured out to program deloads during final exams and during holidays to allow my athletes extra time to study, decrease stress in general, and not worry about how to train with limited equipment while at home or traveling for the holidays. They always come back rested and raring to go and appreciative of the extra time.

The Intensity Deload

In an intensity deload, you keep your sets and reps close to the same as your normal training while reducing the intensity of your training loads. Most athletes will define intensity either as percentage of 1-rep maximum (1RM) or the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of your training loads. Basically, you do the same workout but you take about half of the weight off of the bar. Here is an example of an intensity deload session:

  • A. Front Squat: 5 sets of 5 at 60%, rest 90s
  • B. DB Overhead Press: 5 sets of 5 at 60%, rest 90s
  • C1. Bodyweight Single-Leg Squat: 3 x 10
  • C2. Inverted Bodyweight Row: 3 x 10
  • C3. Bodyweight Pushup: 3 x 10, rest 60s
  • D1. Facepull: 4 x 12
  • D2. Pallof Press: 4 x 12 each side

Ordinarily, our 5×5 weight would be more like 80%, so we’ve reduced the intensity of the main work sets. We also reduced the intensity of the assistance work by performing the exercises with bodyweight only, adding no additional load. This is typically what I do for my rowers’ training. Spending a week on lighter exercises still performing a decent amount of volume allows the central nervous system (CNS) to recover, as higher intensities are more stressful to the CNS, while still allowing the athletes to lift, promote muscular growth and work capacity, and focus on technique at lighter weights.

The Volume Deload

In a volume deload, you keep the intensity high and the volume low. When I interned with the fast-twitchy jumpers and throwers at my university’s track and field team, deloads were typically volume deloads. Athletes would work up to a weight around 90% of their 1RM on one or two exercises, and that would be that for the session. If the coach desired, an athlete might test a 1RM during a volume deload as well. It’s important during a volume deload that you keep volume as low as possible. Work up safely and effectively to your 1RM, taking no more than 10-15% jumps in weight past your warm-up weights. After this, however, perform little to no assistance work to keep volume low. Because 1RM’s are relatively unimportant in rowing and introduce an extra injury risk, I typically do not use this strategy with my rowers. However, it is a viable option if volume tends to beat you up but you tolerate intensity well. The hypothetical athlete doing the workout below has a front squat max of 200lbs and a strict overhead press max of 125lbs.

  • A. Front Squat: 45×5, 95×5, 115×3, 135×1, 165×1, 185×1
  • B. Strict Overhead Press: 45×5, 75×5, 95×3, 105×1, 115×1

The Change-Up Deload

A final way is to change exercise selection to pick new exercises that still accomplish one of the above goals. This is typically what I do in my own training. You have to be careful with this, because novel exercises can often cause greater levels of muscular soreness, which we generally want to minimize during a deload week. If you can keep your athletes from going crazy on new exercise variations, this is a very effective way to still make progress during the deload week by focusing on different variations of exercises.

The majority of my own lower body training is bilateral with heavy loads. Back squats, front squats, deadlifts, deadlift variations, and glute-ham raises comprise the majority of my lower body training. To partially offset this, I do much more unilateral work and loaded carries on my lower body deload sessions.

  • A1. Front-Foot-Elevated-Split-Squat: 3 x 10
  • A2. Hip Airplanes: 3 x 10
  • A3. Pendulum Hip Extension: 3 x 10, rest 60s
  • B1. Step-Up: 3 x 10
  • B2. 1-arm-1-leg Romanian deadlift: 3 x 10
  • B3. Renegade Row: 3 x 10, rest 60s
  • C. Circuit of Sled Drag, Farmer’s Walk, Sandbag Carry: light loading for 3-4 rounds of 50 feet, rest 2 mins

Again, you have to be careful to keep the the intensity low and not get carried away with the new movements. This can be a very effective deload for rowers as a way to still get some muscular stimulus, reduce intensity for nervous system recovery, and develop some athletic qualities that rowing training often neglects.

If your athletes are like mine and the biggest challenge of the deload is in convincing the athlete that rest is worthwhile, try changing things up and allow them to train in a way that still accomplishes the goal of the deload. I often don’t overtly label deload weeks in my rowers’ programs. I simply utilize one of the deload strategies listed above and write the workout into the program just like any other. For myself as well as many of my athletes, we just don’t like not being in the gym for a week! These deload strategies allow the athlete to continue to train, doing so in a way that allows for sufficient rest and recovery for the next block of training and supports the overall goals of the strength training program.

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