It’s easy to focus on the “work” part of a strength-training routine and too little on the “rest” component. Rest is an important part of the muscle-building equation. You challenge and stress your muscle fibers through working your muscles against resistance and then allow them to repair. During the rest between sessions, microtears in muscle fibers, created by lifting, repair, and the fibers become thicker. Over time, this can lead to substantial muscle growth.
In an effort to make gains, it’s tempting to push yourself hard all the time, but, sometimes, a deload week is just what your body needs to come back stronger. It’s a way to lighten up your training without taking a complete break.
What is Deloading?
Deloading is another term for giving your muscles a rest. However, it’s not a complete rest, where you stop training for a time, but a reduction in the stress you place on your muscles. It’s based on the concept of supercompensation. When you train, you apply stress to your muscles by forcing them to work harder than they’re accustomed to. This creates muscle fatigue and neurological or brain fatigue. During the rest or recovery phase between workouts, your muscles recover. The idea behind the deload is to give your muscles a longer break where you still train but with less intensity. In response, your muscles enter a phase called supercompensation where they bounce back to a higher level of performance.
How to Do a Deload
During a deload, you lighten up on the intensity of your strength-training workouts by reducing the resistance and/or volume of your training. By making this change, you give your muscles and your nervous system a rest without being sedentary. The advantage of a deload is it gives your muscles a break without taking a complete respite from training. If you’ve ever taken a week or two off, you know it can be hard to get back in the swing of things. With a deload, you don’t stop but lighten up.
What’s the ideal deload length? Most fitness trainers recommend a week of deloading. A week is enough time for your muscles to rest and recover without losing any of the strength you already built. A good strategy for deloading is to reduce the resistance you use to about 70% of what you typically lift and cut your volume by about half. Doing this gives you a physical and mental break from heavier training.
Physically, lightening up on resistance and volume for a week can help you avoid plateaus by changing the stimulus on your muscles. Mentally, it rests your brain so you can return to lifting heavier with renewed vigor and motivation. When you train heavy, it can cause your central nervous system to fatigue and that affects your training performance. A deloading week allows full recovery.
How Do You Know if You Need a Deloading Week?
Some people plan a deload into their training schedule. For example, some people take one every 6 to 8 weeks. Others take one when they feel like their motivation is dwindling or they aren’t performing as well as they were.
Some other signs that you could benefit from a deloading week include:
- Excessive muscle soreness
- Joint stiffness
- Poor sleep
- Recurring injuries
- Sets feel harder than they usually do
- Frequent colds or infections
- Feeling excessively down, irritable, or anxious
The reason frequent colds are a sign that you need a deload is prolonged or intense training without enough rest elevates the stress hormone cortisol and that suppresses your immune system. Elevated cortisol can also cause sleep problems and mood changes. Plus, it can lead to bone loss and problems with blood sugar control. It’s best to keep your training balanced to keep cortisol in check.
How often you take a deload week should depend on how hard you train. If you often train using heavy resistance to build strength, you might take a deload week every 4-6 weeks. Watch for signs that suggest your body could use rest. But remember, you’re not taking a complete rest, you’re still training but just giving your muscles a lighter workout.
Deloading is a way to keep your muscles moving without stopping your training. It can be hard to ramp back up your training if you take a complete break from exercise. A deload week gives you the benefits of lightening up without interrupting your training completely. The goal is to come back rested, stronger, and more motivated. The downside to planning a deload week into your training schedule doesn’t factor in how you feel on a daily basis. You might feel fatigued and lack motivation but your deload week is two weeks away. That’s why some people don’t schedule one but take a week when they have signs that their body and mind need a rest.
Another tip: don’t force your body to train so hard that you need frequent deload weeks. If your strength training program is balanced, you shouldn’t feel exhausted or lack motivation often. If you do, you may need to modify your training routine to be less exhausting. Make sure you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep per night, managing stress, and eating a healthy diet that contains enough calories and nutrients. The goal is to not get so exhausted that you need a deload week more often than every six weeks of so.
The Bottom Line
You need progressive overload to keep getting stronger and increasing muscle size, but it must be balanced with rest. A deload week every few months might be just what your body needs to break out of a plateau and help you get your mojo back. Don’t be afraid to lighten up sometimes. You might discover that you come back stronger!
- Souza, R.W.A, Aguiar, A.F., Vechetti-Junior, I.J, Piedade, W.P., Campos, G.E.R., & Dal-Pai-Silva, M. (2014). Resistance Training with excessive training load and insufficient recovery alters skeletal muscle mass-related protein expression. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(8), 2338-2345.
- com. “Enhanced Recovery Benefits of Deloading for Athletes”
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