The deload revisited in kettlebell training

I remember during my powerlifting phase in 2013-2014 how tough it was to keep pushing the envelope with squat and deadlift weight. The thing about progression training is that every exercise moves up in weight with every session. Although it was an incremental increase, as my strength advanced it became more difficult. Going from 180lb to 185lb, happy days. From 320lb to 325lb, not so happy. The thought of adding more weight after barely managing to do the current day’s squat sets was psychologically almost unbearable.

As I started to max out near the end of the 5×5 stage, before switching to 3×5, there were days when I had to drag myself to the gym. I would pack up my gym bag, put on my shoes, and just stand there in front of my door, hand on the knob, not wanting to go outside. It was just so rough. Then I would make it to the gym, do my warmups, and before I knew it I was grinding out more squats. It was absolutely thrilling to see myself get stronger than I thought possible, and it was harrowing on the days between training sessions.

Well, the built in mechanism that makes a good progression training bearable and realistic is the deload. The deload is an intentional drop in weight after a few unsuccessful attempts to hit all the reps and sets at the current load. If you tried three sessions in a row to squat 300lb, and managed to do 5, 4, 4, 3, 2, for example, on the third training session, you would deload the next session by 20% or 240lb. The whole attempt could look something like this on paper:

  • Day 1 290lb: 5, 5, 5, 5, 5
  • Day 2 300lb: 4, 3, 3, 2, 2 – first attempt
  • Day 3 300lb: 5, 4, 4, 4, 3 – second attempt
  • Day 4 300lb: 5, 5, 5, 3, 3 – third attempt failed, time to deload
  • Day 5 240lb: 5, 5, 5, 5, 5
  • Day 6 245lb: 5, 5, 5, 5, 5

This lifter is maxed out and not able to hit 5 sets of 5 reps at 300lb. Typically, it’s standard to try three attempts before deloading 20%. The lifter can then take a sort of break, having easier sessions at lighter weight for a while. What usually happens is that the lifter will once again build up to 300lb. A 20% deload gives about two weeks if every session is completely successfully. Eight sessions, three per week, comes to about two weeks and a few days.

This time around, the lifter finds 300lb. to be much easier. Sometimes it takes just one session to nail 5×5. Sometimes it takes two or three.

I’m finding in kettlebell training that, although I’m using exactly the same weight day after day, it can get more difficult to do swings sometimes. Factors like sleep, stress, and food can affect my training.

My first approach to dealing with decreases in strength was to power through it. I would do all the swings anyway, assuming that if I was giving it my all, and the kettlebell was coming up to chest height, I must be putting out maximum force. I started to develop some knots and fatigued muscles from doing this.

“The least productive, most exhausting and injury-producing form of resistance training is a high-rep semi-grind… Cuban coach Alfonso Duran used to tell young weightlifter Geoff Neupert to stop his sets before his reps slowed down.” (Kettlebell Simple and Sinister).

I decided to try stopping my sets before my swings slowed down. I also did two handed swings when I felt tired. Yesterday I still felt a bit tired from the week of sleep irregularity. So I did a mix of two handed and one handed swings, and stopped a few sets before I reached ten swings.

This seemed to help save my shoulders from overwork. I didn’t have to rest as long, and the best part is that every swing I did came out strong. I think I will continue this policy of stopping sets before slow down, as a form of deloading. So here are some of the deload options for kettlebell training:

  • Use a lighter weight
  • Use two hands instead of one (if you are already doing one-handed swings regularly)
  • Stop sets before swing slows down

My plan is to use these deload options when I don’t have full strength, until I do feel that I can do one handed swings with full force for all 100 reps.

Better to do just the best possible movements than to do extra inferior movements. This can probably be applied to any area of life.

Live powerfully,

Steve


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