- A deload is an intentional break from training, usually with the stated goal of reducing accumulated fatigue, avoiding injury risk, and enhancing results.
- People tend to either love deloads (to the point of taking them too often) or hate deloads (to the point of avoiding them entirely), but of course the answer should be somewhere in between.
- Learning how to take deloads intuitively is an important skill that's hard to master.
Deloading is an important skill that many lifters completely fail to master.
A deload is defined as a break from training, typically one week in duration. The very classic belief is that you have to deload regularly in order to prevent “overtraining” and injury, and to maximize your results. By taking some time off, you can maximize your recovery, which may help you perform better in training and get more out of your training sessions.
Let’s get the science out of the way first.
Deloads work. A deload can help “re-prime” your muscles to adaptation, meaning that you get better results from your subsequent training. For this reason, it’s not even recovery/rest that matters so much as simply… not training.
Deloads cause minimal disruption to your results. Typically, it takes 2-4 weeks of complete cessation of training to start seeing any serious loss of muscle or strength. While you may find yourself a bit weaker when you return to the gym, this typically returns within a few sessions as your body gets used to training again. It always takes less time to rebuild muscle and strength than to build it the first time, so the small loss of a week’s training is generally not a huge setback. Even a small amount of training is wonderful for maintaining results, so even just 1-2 workouts on your deload week are probably enough to completely prevent any long term strength or muscle loss. In short, you're definitely not going to lose anything - and in the long term you're going to gain more from the deload than you'd lose.
A strategic deload would obviously be a net positive. One of the big problems that happens with diets and exercise plans is that we have a single binge, or a single bad week of training, and we let that derail us, turning it into a much bigger problem as we spiral out of control. However, a single binge, or a single bad week of training, is not much of a detriment on its own. The real threat that they pose is their ability to potentially cause larger derailments of our training. So by strategically deloading (or yes, deloading on our diet), we can make a plan to return and prevent ourselves from getting thrown off by a single bad week. In short, deloads are one of the most powerful tools we have to help work around plateaus or upsets in our training, aside from enhancing our results.
What is the philosophy on deloading?
There are two major camps that a lot of people tend to fall into: either you never deload, or you always deload.
The always deloaders believe that you HAVE to deload for one week out of every 3-4, or else your bones will snap in half and all your gains will vanish. This is the very “traditional” deloading philosophy.
The never deloaders believe that deloads are a waste of time, and that you need to train through the pain, work harder, never take breaks, etc.
There is, of course, plenty of middle ground between the two. Many coaches advocate deloads that are less frequent, or that are based on your level of training and ability. Beginner lifters who are training less heavily, and who are probably also less consistent with actually getting in their training sessions, probably don’t need to deload as often as consistent lifters who are training very heavily, for example.
What is the best way to deload?
Just like there are many different philosophies on deloading, there are also many different ways you can deload. Some people advocate just taking the entirety of the week off, with zero training whatsoever. Some people advocate “active rest” with all the same exercises but the weight lightened across the board. Others advocate cutting accessory exercises and focusing on primary barbell lifts at a similar volume to normal training.
While there is no one “best” way to deload, I prefer a very simple method involving just two workouts:
Day 1 - Upper Body - 3 challenging sets each for bench press, overhead press, and rows.
Day 2 - Lower Body - 3 challenging sets each for squat, deadlift/hip hinge.
And you can add a bit of light cardio or other accessory work if you feel like it, but it’s not necessary. This is more than enough to serve as a very easy deload. If you want to make it even easier, you can just make your sets on each of the exercises a bit purposefully easy - you don’t need your sets to be hard to get the benefit of maintenance that these workouts provide.
Another option (if on a linear periodization style) is simply to deload on individual lifts as they struggle. If you’re having trouble with a particular lift and it’s starting to stagnate, you just drop some weight and then build back up to the same weight over the next 2-3 weeks.
At the same time, it’s really not that important. There’s no magical deload formula, and it matters more that you are deloading than that you’re doing it in any particular way.
What do I recommend?
When it comes to linear periodization, deloading is liberally recommended as a way to overcome some of the inherent problems in linear periodization. If you’re stalling, you simply deload and then continue. However, this is a problem because the root issue is not always about recovery - you’ll probably hit a wall sooner or later anyway as your results slow down, no matter how many deloads you take. Deloads won't fix everything, especially if your training plan isn't a good one.
When training with linear periodization in the past, I’ve frequently used deloads like that - deloading whenever I start to seriously hit a wall in my training - to great success.
This type of deload can be a problem with more complex, longer term, more planned out training cycles lasting several months or more. If your program is very carefully structured, a deload may throw a wrench in things right when it’s most likely to ruin everything.
However, the need for a deload can also be partially eliminated simply by carefully structuring your plan. If you plan it so that your intensity increases every week for 4 weeks and then drops down in the 5th week before building back up, this functions as a kind of deload anyway in that you’re dropping intensity and training with lighter work again. If you’re really struggling on a given month you may still need to take a deload (inserted between every 4th/5th week) but you should find that you don’t need them as often as on a strictly linear program. You’ll also want to be careful NOT to insert deloads where they might be a problem - for example, if you’ve had a weird week 3, it probably makes more sense to finish the higher intensity week 4 before deloading so that you’re not ruining the intensity changes in that month, which would probably mean you should restart the entire month.
Another strategy I use is simply to make every 4th week lower in volume while keeping intensity on the main lifts high - whether by doing a kind of max test or cutting out accessories - which functions as a kind of “easy week” that may alleviate the need to deload regularly.
However, I think that you should always be prepared to do a full deload if you’re completely hitting a wall, or if a nagging pain begins to pop up, even if you’re on a carefully structured program and you’ve done everything else to try and eliminate the need for deloads.
So, if you hit a wall where you're failing to increase volume from week to week on a lift and feeling like crap while you're doing it, it's definitely time to take a break - even if your plan would say otherwise.
More experience, more deloads.
The more that I’ve trained, and the more that I’ve worked with clients, the more I’ve come to appreciate the importance of the deload. When I was young and never had to worry about injury, I trained constantly and laughed at deloads. Now that I’m older and deal with more of it (and work with a lot more older clients), I’ve come to realize how stupid that was. More and more I’ve found the value in them, and they’re an excellent antidote for the chronic over-worker.
Lots of people, myself included, are over-achievers who want the best and think that this means that they should always continue to push. The reality is that this is a quick recipe for disaster, and we always have to balance our will to do more with our ability to recover and tolerate that stress. Deloads function as an excellent tool to enhance our results by forcing us to take the kind of break that we desperately need (but don’t always want).
There aren’t (and can’t be) any hard and fast rules for when to deload. You need to be flexible and ready to take deloads when you need them, and figuring out when you need them is an intuitive skill that you’ll need to learn and practice, and which will definitely take time. The same can be said about practicing any skill or learning anything new.
But - you probably should take more of them if you're an overachiever, and fewer if you're a bit on the less consistent side.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
Enjoy this post? Share the gains!
- Habit For Self-Improvement
- Sleep Is The Fountain Of Youth
- Detraining, Retraining, And Not Sitting On Your Ass
- Why A Binge Can't Possibly Ruin Your Results
- What Are Diet Breaks? And How To Use Them
- Training VS Maintenance
- Intermediate Periodization - The Linear Periodization Trap
- Linear Periodization Done Right
- Advanced Periodization - Phase Potentiation
- I Don't Think We Should Glorify Hard Work
- Periodization For Beginners
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