You want to get bigger.
You want to get leaner.
You want to get stronger.
And you’re willing to work for it. To sweat. To grind. For as long as it takes.
You know it’s not easy, too. You have to give 110% to your training. Every day…week…month…and year.
In many ways, building the body of your dreams is just like building anything else worthwhile.
The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. There are no shortcuts or free lunches. You learn, you hustle, and hustle, and hustle, until…finally…you arrive.
There’s a trap, though.
No matter how badly you want something…no matter how disciplined you are…or how much grit you’ve got…you can’t run the afterburners indefinitely.
If you try to, you’ll hit a wall. Motivation fizzles. Energy dissipates. The daily routine becomes a slog.
When we’re talking work and other pursuits, we call this burnout. When we’re talking fitness, we call it overtraining.
Some people say overtraining is a myth. That it’s just an excuse to be lazy or a symptom of improper diet or inadequate rest.
There’s some truth here.
Skimp on your sleep and you’re going to drag in ass in your workouts. Eat too little and you’re never going to gain the strength and muscle you want.
There’s more to the story, though.
In this article we’ll talk about why, and how to use the deload week to not only help prevent it but how to “supercharge” your workouts and gains.
So let’s get to it.
Table of Contents
A deload week is simply a reduction in weekly training intensity (weight load) and/or volume (sets performed).
For example, if your training routine consists of five workouts per week of 70 to 80 reps of heavy, compound weightlifting, a deload week might cut the volume in half (35 to 40 reps) or dramatically reduce the intensity (work with 50 to 60% of one-rep max instead of 80 to 90%).
Another option is no resistance training whatsoever for the week.
The primary purposes of deloading are fourfold:
A distant fifth would be reducing the demands placed on your muscles, but this isn’t as important as the four points above.
“There’s no such thing as overtraining–only under-recovery.”
You’ve probably heard that one before. And, as I said earlier in this article, it’s only half true.
The basic theory of deloading is based on research on how the body deals with physical stress.
Here’s the simple version:
This adaptation is what allows you to gain muscle and strength, and it’s known as supercompensation.
Here’s how it looks visually:
This is the basic cycle that allows you to build muscle, get stronger, increase speed, agility, and technique, and so forth.
Does deloading actually work though? Is deloading productive or unnecessary?
Well, the answers to those questions depend on several factors.
The type of stimulus you subject your body to will determine the type of supercompensatory response.
In simple terms, weak stimuli produce weak results whereas powerful stimuli can produce powerful results.
Let’s be a bit more specific than that, though.
We can look at the stimulus of training in both quantiative and qualitative terms.
The quantitative aspects would be, primarily, the volume and frequency of your training–how many sets and reps you’re doing for each muscle group each week.
The qualitative aspects would be the intensity (amount of weight lifted), progressive overload (adding weight to the bar over time), and metabolic stress of the workouts.
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.
Many people simply don’t do this though.
Well, deloading has nothing to offer these guys and gals.
If you’re not following a well-programmed training routine that’s built around progressive overload and overreaching, or if you just don’t push yourself hard enough to make it happen, you have no reason to deload.
One of the reasons why some notable fitness folk rail against deloading is, quite factually, many people don’t train hard enough to need it.
That said, if you are following a sensibly designed program and are working hard to improve in your workouts, you can benefit from and should incorporate deload workouts. (In fact, I’d say that a training program that doesn’t necessitate periodic deload weeks is probably sub-optimal or even ineffective.)
I’ve experienced this firsthand…
When I used to do long, high-rep (and relatively low weight) workouts, I would go for 4, 5, 6 months or even longer without taking a deload week and would experience none of the symptoms associated with overtraining.
When I did take a week off or miss workouts, it usually happened due to reasons not related to training at all, like travel or work
Later in my fitness journey, however, I experienced the transformative power of heavy, compound weightlifting, but also quickly realized how much stress this type of training places on the body.
After 8 to 10 weeks of training like this–and sometimes sooner when I was in a calorie deficit–I would notice odd aches and pains (usually in my joints), my energy levels would decline, my workouts would feel abnormally hard and heavy, and my motivation to train would dip.
Fortunately, the solution was simple: a deload week.
Every 8 to 10 weeks I would alternate between a week of complete rest and the deload routine I give later in this article, and eventually I settled on just the deload routine. I found that the deload workouts were necessary for preserving my strength. (Some people, however, can take a week off the weights and come back stronger.)
Now, some people will say deloading isn’t necessary if you just learn to “listen to your body” and program your workouts accordingly.
For example, if you planned on hitting some heavy weights but feel like you need a lighter day, you train lightly. If you planned on a deload style of workout but feel energized and ready for some big numbers, you train hard.
The scientific term for this is “autoregulation” and while it’s a legitimate training methodology, it’s easier said than done.
You need a considerable amount of training experience and familiarity with your body and mind to let your “feelings” dictate your training.
Does your body need a break today or are you just feeling a little overwhelmed by recent events? Is that physical or mental fatigue? Are you more amped up than your body for today’s workout?
There’s no question that autoregulation has its uses.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend it to someone still working on building their foundation of muscle and strength (the first 2 to 3 years of training) because it just adds an unnecessary layer of complexity and opens the door to all kinds of mistakes and setbacks.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
Like dietary formulas, there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to how often you should plan deload weeks.
Some people’s metabolisms are faster or slower than research predicts and some people’s bodies can take more or less of a beating before needing a break than others’.
That said, dietary formulas give good “middle ground” starting points and we can do the same for deloading.
My recommendation is to plan a deload week every 8 to 10 weeks of heavy, intense training.
If you’re in a calorie deficit, reduce this to once every 6 to 8 weeks (and yes, you should continue training heavy when in a calorie deficit).
Age and training history are factors too.
One of the major (but only) shifts that occurs with training in your 40s and beyond is you need to give more attention to recovery. You can train just as hard as the boys and girls in their 20s, but you probably can’t recovery as quickly.
Training history’s relationship to deloading isn’t what you probably think.
I’ve found that people new to weightlifting need to deload less frequently than veteran weightlifters.
In fact, in some cases, people new to lifting haven’t felt the need for a break in 6, 8, even 10 months. And that’s fine.
My explanation for this is simple: as you progress in your training, your workouts get harder and harder, both in absolute weight moved and willingness and confidence to push yourself to your limits.
This puts more and more stress on your body, which creates the need for deloading.
Now, if you’re new to weightlifting, you can just plan in the deload week and stick to it regardless of how you feel.
This ensures you don’t accidentally slip into a state of overtraining by being stubborn and refusing to cut back (been there done that).
As you learn more about how your body responds to training, though, you can get a bit looser with your deload timing. You’ll begin to recognize the need for a deload–progress has stalled, body is achy, decreased motivation to train, workouts feel much harder than they should, etc.–and can respond accordingly.
For instance, my current training program involves quite a bit of very heavy weightlifting and every 4 to 5 weeks I feel the symptoms creeping in. Once this happens, I give myself one more all-out week and then deload.
As you know, you can make your workouts easier by doing one of two things: less reps or less weight.
For example, you deload volume by sticking with your normal weights but reducing the amount of reps in your workouts by about 50%. And you deload intensity to handling weights 40 to 50% lighter than you’re used to without making any major changes to total weekly reps.
Some people say deloading volume is better than intensity and vice versa. I’m in the middle (I think both can work fine), but lean toward deloading intensity for the experienced weightlifter.
After working with thousands of people, the general feedback I’ve gotten is people feel fresher after the deload week when reducing intensity rather than volume.
So, here’s exactly how I and thousands of other people do our deload weeks (I like a Mon, Weds, Fri or a Weds, Thurs, Fri schedule):
3 x Military Press @ 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM
3 x Incline Bench Press @ same
3 x Close-Grip Bench Press @ same
3 x Deadlift @ 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM
3 x Barbell Row @ same
3 x One-Arm Dumbbell Row @ same
3 x Squat @ 8 to 10 reps with 50% of 1RM
3 x Front Squat @ same
3 x Leg Press @ same
It’s simple and it works.
As I said earlier, some people respond really well to no resistance training whatsoever for a week but some don’t (and I’m one of the latter).
This is one of those things you’ll have to just try and see how your body responds.
Try a deload week and make notes about how you feel coming back to your program and how that first week back goes, and next time around do the same with a rest week.
Pick whichever seems to suit your body best.
(Oh and in case you’re wondering, no, you won’t lose muscle by taking a week off the weights. I takes several weeks of inactivity before any muscle loss will occur.)
That said, remember the goal of the week is to significantly decrease the amount of stress on your joints, ligaments, muscles, and central nervous system.
As you can imagine, doing too much high-intensity type of cardio won’t help with that.
So do as much walking and light physical activity as you’d like but keep the HIIT type of stuff to an hour or so for the week and you should be fine.
How you should eat while deloading depends on what you’re doing with your body.
You’re not going to lose muscle or experience any other negative side effects.
As the goal of “clean bulking” is to maximize muscle growth, there’s no reason to mess with this by going into a deficit on your deload week (you’re not going to lose enough fat to really make a difference so you might as well continue building muscle).
If you’re just sick of eating a bunch of food (and trust me, I know how that can be), it’s fine to set your intake at TDEE for the deload week and enjoy the gastrointestinal and psychological break.
A deload week is an important component of long-term progress and results. It prevents injury, overtraining, and general fatigue and burnout.
If you’re not deloading currently, it probably means your workout routine is sub-optimal or you’re battling with issues related to overtraining without even realizing it.
Use the advice in this article to incorporate deload weeks into your routine (or change to a routine that actually needs them), and you’ll do and feel even better on your fitness journey.