If you’re like most people, you probably spend a lot of time focusing on what you are doing inside of the gym.
You smash your workouts day in and day out for weeks on end (maybe even months!).
Then, all of a sudden, you hit a plateau.
No matter how hard you try, you just can’t break through this one. You give 110% each and every session, but to no avail. You’ve made every minor tweak to your workout program that you can and your nutrition, sleep, and supplementation are all on point.
Still, after a few more weeks, you haven’t seen the positive changes you were hoping for and now you’re mentally drained. What is there left to do?
What if I told you one of the biggest recovery tools that could help you blast through those plateaus, was in fact to take a week and actually spend LESS time in the gym?
I’m talking about deload weeks and if you’ve spent the last 30 seconds nodding your head to the scenario above, they’re exactly what you need to break through your most recent plateau.
What is a Deload week?
A deload week is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a week to deload, relax, unwind, and give your body that extra little recovery it needs so you can re-board the “gain train” once the week is up.
They are planned breaks, or a lessening of your total training volume for a one-week period.
When planned appropriately and executed to meet your individual fitness goals, they can help you recharge both your mind and your body.
A lot goes into planning these deload weeks and the type of/how you deload will be dependent on what exactly you are trying to accomplish with your workouts.
How Do You Deload?
Generally speaking, three different forms of deloading exist and the type of deload you ultimately choose will have a lot to do with your short and long term goals.
The three different types of deloading include:
1. Reducing the Load/Intensity Used
For this type of deload week, you will keep the volume you use the same, but you will only use 40-60% of your 1 rep max. A lot of times, this leads to the trainee using about half of the weight they would normally use during their sets.
This form of deloading is best suited for those who are not competing, but are still looking to maintain a higher level of performance after their deload is completed.
2. Reducing the Volume Used
For this type of deload week, you will keep the weight you use for each exercise the same, BUT you will cut out half of the sets you would normally perform in a given training session.
This form of deloading is best suited for competitive athletes or someone nearing a competition to keep their performance high after their deload week is completed.
3. Change the Form of Exercise You Perform
As someone more concerned about general health these days, this form of deloading is my personal favourite.
For this type of deload week, you will completely change up the form of exercise you choose to do, be it swapping out weight training for a lower intensity bodyweight circuit, mobility focused workouts, swimming, or going on lengthy hikes throughout the week.
As mentioned, this type of deloading is perfect for the recreational lifter or athlete who is not competing or worried about higher levels of performance at the moment.
Now that we understand the 3 forms of how to deload, let’s look more into why you or your coach should include periodical deload weeks into your workout programs to maximise your gains.
Why Should You Deload?
The ideology behind why you should deload is it can help prevent injuries from overtraining by giving your joints, tendons, and ligaments a breather from heavy or high volume training that it couldn’t otherwise get from your planned rest days during your program.
Aside from a physical standpoint, a planned week away from lifting heavy weights can do a lot for a lifter’s mental health as well. Many lifters don’t realise exactly how strenuous weight training can be on the central nervous system.
So, if you’re the type who prepares for their training sessions by downing 2-3 scoops of pre-workout and blasting heavy metal for the duration of their 45-120min training session, you’ll likely benefit from dialling down the intensity for a week.
Finally, deloading makes a lot of sense if you think about it through the lens of the 3 stages of stress:
Stage 1: Alarm Reaction
The alarm reaction to stress is the initial reaction to a stressor (such as lifting weights). This is the point where the body is forced to adapt to the stress you’re inflicting on your body by increasing blood flow and oxygen to your muscles.
If you’re relatively new to a stimulus, you may even experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMs) 24-72 hours after completing the activity.
Stage 2: Resistance Development
In stage 2 of the stages of stress, your body increases its functional capacity to deal with a stressor. This is the stage every trainee looks forward to because your body makes adaptations (aka gains!).
Depending on the form of training you are participating in, these adaptations could be increased capability to recruit muscle fibers (strength output), or something more along the lines of an increase in cross-sectional area (muscular growth).
All things are fine and dandy up to this point. It’s in stage three where injury can occur.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
In the final stage of stress, exhaustion may occur due to prolonged or intolerable amounts of stress being placed on the body. This can lead to injuries such as muscle strains, joint pain, stress fractures, and emotional fatigue.
However, if you’ve planned your workout programs appropriately, you will be able to avoid this stage by taking a deload week prior to reaching the point of exhaustion in your training.
WHEN SHOULD YOU DELOAD?
When you deload or how frequently you deload will depend on several factors including training style, training level, your goals, and age.
With that said, there are a couple schools of thought on the frequency in which a trainee should deload.
3 Weeks on/1 Week off
The 3 weeks on, 1 week off deload schedule is where you give everything you’ve got for each training session over the course of 3 weeks, then dial it back 1 week and deload.
This style of deloading is great for in-season performance athletes, trainees who simply can’t hold anything back once they get started in the gym, and even the older lifter who may need those additional recovery days to perform to the best of their abilities during training sessions.
Every 6-8 Weeks
The 6-8 week crowd consists of those who choose to deload every 6-8 weeks. This is probably the more diverse group of lifters as it can include performance athletes, some competitive lifters, advanced lifters, and a lot of your recreational lifters.
Slight anecdote - Obviously, the form of deload you decide to use during this week will depend on your goals, but for recreational lifters, this set up is perfect for those who enjoy traveling as you can spend that week hiking around new areas, jogging on the beach, skiing in the mountains, etc.
Every 12-16 Weeks
You’re probably seeing the trend here. Those who fall into this category will deload every 12-16 weeks.
This group will mostly include competitive bodybuilders prepping for a show (a lot of their preps for big competitions will be in the 12 week range) or intermediate lifters.
0-3 Times Per Year
There is a small group of people who believe that if your training is programmed professionally, your diet and nutrition is as good as it can be, and you’re getting plenty of sleep each night, you’ll never have to take a rest week.
I’m not of that camp. I think to lead the healthiest life possible, finding time away from the gym will lead to better quality gains and gym longevity.
Regardless, there are certain populations who do benefit from minimal deloads over the course of a year. They mostly include those who are brand new to training and have been training for less than a year.
The reason being is that they are so new to the gym, they may not be placing enough stress onto their body to warrant a full deload week at a time.
What Should You Do After Your Deload Week?
Return to the weights, of course.
In all seriousness, it depends on what your goals are. If you’re working with a trainer who writes your programming, you probably already have a good idea about what is coming next.
If you do your own programming, I think it is important to ask yourself the following three questions during your deload week:
Are my goals still the same?
Am I still making progress with my current workout program?
Am I enjoying the workout program I’m doing?
If you answered yes to all three of those questions, return to using the same workout you were doing before your deload week. If you answered no to any of the questions, it may be time to switch things up.
Final Word on Deload Weeks
Deloading is a smart tool for you to utilise. It keeps you injury free both physically and mentally.
A solid deload week is a planned portion of a longer workout schedule.
The three main ways you can deload are by reducing volume, intensity, or completely changing up your routine. How frequently you will deload depends on your ultimate goals, training style, training level, and age.
After you’ve completed your deload week, prepare to hit the weights full force to keep the gains coming.
References: Clark, Micheal, Brian G. Sutton, and Scott Lucett. NASM essentials of personal fitness training. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2016. Print.