Are deload weeks just a myth?
Or do they provide genuine benefit to your workouts and allow you to grow bigger and stronger?
Deload weeks are just another name for a planned recovery. Basically you take your training lighter to allow your body to recover from the strains that you have subjected it to from training hard.
Deloading may seem counter productive. You’re training hard to get bigger, stronger and leaner.
Why would you take time away from the thing that you are striving for?
To put it simply your body can’t operate on all cylinders, indefinitely. No matter how determined you are to push through the barriers you will eventually hit a plateau or suffer the signs of overtraining.
Working out is pretty simple and requires key things for your to grow achieve your goals.
- You need to work your ass off in the gym.
- You need your diet and nutrition to be on point
- You need to get proper sleep/rest between workouts
Even if you are hitting all of these areas perfectly your body still will naturally need a break at some point.
In this article we will break down how to perform a successful deload week and when you should work it into your schedule to prevent overtraining.
If you have been training hard for a long period of time you may notice some niggling pains, your strength may be hitting a plateau or worse decreasing. This is a result of a build up of fatigue in your body, which can hold you back from your true fitness potential.
Think about it this way.
Any professional sport isn’t played year round.
They all have planned rest periods where the athletes completely recover their bodies before building them back stronger, faster and more powerful the next season.
The same is true in your personal strength training and workout program.
It’s called a deload week.
A deload week allows your body to recover by:
- Muscles totally repairing,
- Returning hormone levels to normal, and
- Allowing your central nervous system to rest
Deloading is an absolutely essential part of strength training as well as conditioning.
The fitness level of a person can be broken down into four stages:
- Initial Fitness. This is the level of fitness you start at before you walk into the gym.
- Fitness During Training.
- Supercompensation. (Your body adapting to the stress of the workout to get stronger.)
This can be explained visually be this graph:
The graph highlights how your level of performance is effected in each state of training.
During training your strength declines to it’s lowest point as you are breaking down your muscles and causing fatigue.
After your workout is finished your performance ability gradually returns to its initial starting point through recovery.
Because the human body is adaptable it feels the need to adjust itself to a higher level of fitness to anticipate the next training session.
This is the period of supercompensation.
That is the cycle that you body follows to allow you to grow stronger and build muscle.
Performing a deload week is another form of recovery and helps your body to grow stronger through supercompensation.
Should You Deload?
It should be said that deloading isn’t essential for everybody that works out.
If you have only just started working out, only work out a couple of times per week, or are just a general fitness enthusiast but aren’t putting yourself through intense training multiple times per week then deloading isn’t just unnecessary in fact it can be counterproductive.
The key to improving body composition and performance over long periods of time is regularly pushing your body slightly beyond its limits–technically known as overreaching–and then backing off.
The majority of people in the gym or pursuing other fitness activities simply aren’t pushing their bodies this hard.
It’s the same reason that the majority of people in the gym that workout frequently over the space of a year don’t improve their strength or aesthetics.
They aren’t tracking their results and continually improving to make improvements week in and week out.
If you are more experienced and performing lifts like deadlifts, squats and bench press with heavy weights then it becomes more important to work a deload week into your training schedule.
If you fall into that category deloading for a week will help you to continue to make strength gains and also prevent you from fatigue and overtraining which can lead to injuries and slow your training down.
Types of Deload Routines
Deloading basically involves reducing the intensity of your workouts for a period of time.
There are four common ways to reduce the intensity of your workouts.
- Reduce weight
- Decrease number of reps
- Perform a single lift deload
- Take a week off
1. Reducing the Weight
The most common form of a deload is to reduce the weight you’re lifting.
Generally you should reduce your weight to 40-60% of your 1 rep max. Calculate your 1rm
This doesn’t mean that you pump out a ton of reps either. Keep the reps and sets low as well as the weight.
This will reduce the intensity of your workouts and allow your body the time it needs to fully recover.
2. Decreasing the Reps (Volume Deload)
Another option (although less popular) is to keep the weight the same but to reduce the amount of volume.
So if you normally do 5 sets of 5 reps on bench press @ 200 lbs.
You would continue to do 200 lbs but do 5 sets of 1-2 reps or just do one set of 5 reps.
T-nation recommends doing a volume deload if you are training for strength as you can continue to stay in touch with the heavy loads while reducing the intensity on your body.
3. Single Lift Deload
What do you do if your squat is suffering but all of your other lifts are improving nicely?
A single lift deload is the answer for you.
If one of your lifts has plateaued or you are noticing some of the signs of overtraining but all of your other main lifts are increasing it’s time for a single lift deload.
You don’t want to slow your progress on your main lifts if they are progressing perfectly fine by deloading everything.
So just perform a deload on the exercise that is troubling you and then continue on making the gains!
Taking The Week Off (Rest Week)
This is pretty self explanatory.
Basically you don’t go to the gym or do whatever training you were doing for a week.
This form of deloading gives your body the best rest and recovery chances.
Some people respond really well to taking a week off from the gym. They come back fresh and sometimes can even lift more with the extra recovery when they return.
However a lot of people also experience setbacks from this long away from the gym. You might experience the extreme DOMS like when you first started working out and your strength could decrease.
This is just something that you will need to test to see what works best for yourself.
And no, you won’t lose muscle by taking a week away from the gym. It takes several weeks of inactivity before you start to experience muscle loss.
How Often to Deload
There’s no exact science to planning a deload week and what works for somebody might not necessarily work for you.
The speed of your metabolism can have an effect on your bodies recovery and some people’s body’s can just take more stress than others.
If you have only been training for a year or so then it probably isn’t necessary for you to even start deloading yet.
When you first start training you experience the greatest strength improvements you will ever see.
As you progress to heavier weights over time you will create more stress on your body. This is when you need to start implementing a deload week into your training.
Always listen to your body if you are feeling some of these signs of overtraining then you might want to use a deload week.
If you are more experienced, a good middle ground is every 8-10 weeks of heavy intense training.
As you get older it becomes more important to look after your body and recover correctly. You can still train as hard as you used to but your recovery times will be much longer. If this is you then your deload weeks will need to be much more frequent. Some programs even recommend a deload after 3 weeks of hard training.
Obviously if you are following a program that calls for you to deload on a certain week, then you should deload when you are told and not at your own choice.
Deload Week Diet
Should your diet change during a deload week?
If you are dieting to lose fat, then you can maintain your calorie deficit while deloading.
If you’re dieting to gain muscle, then continue your slight calorie surplus.
But I’m not exercising, so won’t I put on weight because I’m burning fewer calories?
Let’s consider all the sides to the argument of restricting your calories on a deload.
Firstly will cutting calories help with your recovery (the primary role of the deload)?
The simple answer is, no.
As to whether you will put on fat during this week I will refer to this diagram of the metabolic pyramid from Revive Stronger.
You can see that the thermic effect of activity is only a small part of our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
Your Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis and Basal Metabolic Rate play a much larger effect on the amount of calories you burn.
So a week of lowered workload will not effect your body fat much at all.
If you are really concerned about gaining fat you can adjust your your total calories down to your TDEE however this is generally unnecessary.
Working a deload week into your training program is essential for long term progress and gains. Deloading prevents overtraining, fatigue and can help you break through plateaus.
If you are not deloading in your current training program it means one of two things.
- Your training program isn’t requiring you to push yourself hard enough to make serious strength and fitness gains.
- You are already dealing with symptoms of overtraining without knowing it. In which case a deload week will do you wonders.
Use the steps in this article to work a deload week into your training program to make sure you can continue training hard without getting burned out or injured.