If you train day in and day out, week after week, month after month, so on and so forth you may notice that you will find yourself hitting a serious plateau or even worse, losing strength and decreasing performance. Often times fatigue will mask your true fitness level and prevent you from making progress, even though you train hard each week. It is a mistake that happens to the best of us, myself included.
When this happens what your body is really craving is rest, not more exercise. Taking a week to “deload,” or recover a bit, is a simple training method that allows you to keep making progress without abandoning training all together. It allows your body to recover by muscles totally repairing, returning hormone levels to normal, and your central nervous system to rest. This is an absolutely essential part of strength training as well as conditioning.
In sport, this type of deloading of the muscles and nervous system is known as tapering. When athletes taper, they are aiming for full recovery, which is what allows them to compete at such a high level.
Who Should Deload?
In general, the more advanced of a trainee you are the more important it becomes to deload. If you are just starting out, training only once or twice a week, or working on mastering the basics of the squats, lunges and pushups, chances are you can keep plugging away each week.
Beginners, weekend warriors, and general fitness enthusiasts shouldn’t have to worry as much about this as much because their bodies will recover faster each week. Also, if you tend to take frequent unplanned deloads such as vacations, getting ill, or just skipping weeks of working out you probably don’t need to plan to go light one week.
Conversely, for those who are a little more advanced, ie deadlifting, squatting and benching a bit more weight, it becomes increasingly important to take these deloading periods. This will not only help you continue to make awesome gains but will also prevent you from fatigue and overtraining, both of which will slow progress.
If you plan to compete in a specific event such as a road race, powerlifting meet, or triathlon, this delaod week is imperative. This is when you want to put all of that hard work to use and “see what you got.” Going into the event fatigued will prevent you from competing at the highest level you can and may also wind up getting you injured for trying.
How To Deload Properly
In general, you don’t have to take a full week off from doing anything to deload but you should ‘lighten’ it up a bit. Just learning how to plan ‘light’ weeks or listening to your body and taking weight off the bar some weeks will go a long way towards preventing fatigue & overtraining from killing your progress.
There are multiple ways you can deload your training routine to take out some of the stress that contributes to overtraining. Use one or a combination of these tweaks to recover:
- Decrease the number of sets for each exercise
- Use lighter weight for each exercise
- Decrease the reps
- Increase the rest periods
- Decrease the number of training days/week
- Decrease the time under tension
When I create a training program for a more advanced trainee or lifter I often tinker with the volume of training in a 4 week period. Some weeks I have them go lighter on the weight used, reps and sets, and then heavier on others. This is known as wave loading and would look something like this:
Week 1: medium-high volume (starting new lifts)
Week 2: medium volume (slight recovery from week 1)
Week 3: high volume (challenging week)
Week 4: low volume (deload week)
Week 5 and beyond: repeat the cycle
Some Other Things To Focus On During Deload Week
Just because you are taking a deload doesn’t mean you have a Get Out Of Jail Free Card for training for the week, well, unless you have been training REALLY, REALLY hard. You are the only judge of that!
- Have a fun workout. If you are one of those people who always train by the book and follow a periodized program, find something outside your comfort zone to do. Take a fitness class. Do some yoga. Do exercises you don’t normally train and keep it lighthearted. This is a great way to take it down a notch and have some fun!
- Take a day off from training and get stuff done. Use all the energy you would typically put towards a workout and rearrange your living room, clean out the garage or help a friend do some extra chores. You will burn some calories and get stuff done, win-win!
- Eat, sleep and recover! This is not the time to let your other efforts unwind and perhaps the best thing to help you recover is to, well, recover. Eating better and working on your nutrition plan will go a long way towards helping you succeed in the future! Since your workouts are lighter it is also a great time to focus on recovery activities such as massage, foam rolling or doing some extra stretching. Yoga is always a great option for recovery as well.
Deload & Don’t Burn Yourself Out!
You shouldn’t expect to make constant progress and set personal records (PRs) 365 days a year, especially if you crush heavy workouts every time you train. For intermediate to advanced trainees, taking a planned deload week periodically will help you avoid fatigue and allow you to keep training hard enough to reach your goals.
Great article on a topic I didn’t know much about. Battling fatigue is always a difficult thing. We all have that fear of losing our gains so we keep pushing and get frustrated when we hit the dreaded plateau. I’m going to work some deload weeks into my routine. Thanks for an informational article.
Proper recovery makes all the difference in the world for making gains! Glad you liked it!
I see a sports therapist regularly and this is exactly what he advocates, and I swear by it after learning my lesson. After doing 7 hours of intensive workouts a week over a six month period, I suddenly felt as if I had run into a wall. I had ignored signals from my body telling me to rest, and finally, with aching muscles and joints and EXTREME fatigue, I finally got the message. I cut out everything for a week, spending a good part of that time in hot baths, saying sorry to my poor bod, and feeding it properly. I returned to exercise gradually. I now pay close attention to how my body feels and take the occasional light week. I have made significant improvements in my fitness levels since then.
Recovery is key! 3-4 hours a week of intense strength training should be the minimum effective dose to see GREAT results. More isn’t always better! 🙂
Thanks for this article, very informative!
Glad you loved it!
Thats just what I’m doing this week. Why do people think their muscles will disappear if they miss a day. Maybe their fitness is a compulsion, you can be fit and have a life outside the gym.
Great article. I have tried the Deload week and never thought of it as anything. I took a week off from lifting because I had to move and started a new JOB. I felt the difference when I got back into the gym. My energy was up the roof and felt good exercising. I will try yoga next time I deload.
Great advice Stephen, it is all so intuitive that backing off would be a good idea, but so many people get such tunnel vision and feel they need to push and push, even if the stats are going in the wrong direction 🙂
What would you say your optimal training hours per week should be, for someone looking to build some muscle, get a beach body etc? I definitely think some folks devote too much time/days per week, when they could be getting most of the results from a much more enjoyable schedule, and build in some fun stuff too.
As always, enjoying your articles. Concise, to the point, easy to digest tips.
Credits for Jim Wendler that wrote a whole chapter on that in his book “5/3/1” wouldn’t hert
Have two months of 300 daily 12k kettlebell swings and 10 minutes of HIIT climbing 100 stairs two days a week, feel great, how shall I continue to handle this routine?
If you enjoy basic kettlebell workouts, I recommend checking out Dan John and his blog. He has a lot of basic kettlebell workouts.
Great article. Now I know why my body , muscles, joints are sore. I can’t give it
110% at the gym. I was feeling guilty and decrease confidence because I thought I was
getting weaker. I’ll try to lighten my load and refocus on my nutrition.
great article & very good advice! De-loading without guilt is the key. this concept embodies the best of “listening to one’s body cues”. This not only optimizes
strength and performance but is an ideal way of avoiding injury. Well done.
Hi there, your website is very interesting!
I was wondering if you had any opinions on alternating dieting weeks ( for example, having one deficit week followed by a maintenance week) to keep leptin leptin levels high and prevent caloric adaptation and prevent falling off the wagon.
That way I can have a bigger deficit on those weeks rather than having a moderate one for two weeks in a row…
Thankyou for your feedback!!
@Roger – I gave the topic of calorie cycling / carb cycling to a PHD researcher, and he came back to me saying there is very little, if any research on the subject. I would go with whatever is most manageable for you. At the end of the day, if you keep a sufficient calorie deficit, you will lose body fat.