It’s no secret that consistent training and sticking with it over the long haul is the key to getting stronger and more defined. Still, resistance training places significant stress on your body, especially if you do high-intensity training. That’s why some fitness experts advocate deloading as a way to recover and, hopefully, come back stronger and more focused.
What is Deloading?
A deload is another name for a period of planned rest and recovery. Unlike a rest day of training, deloads typically last more than a day, usually about a week, and unlike a rest day, deloading usually involves a reduction in training intensity, frequency, or volume rather than a week of complete rest. Simply put, you’re giving your body a much-deserved break while still staying active.
The idea of deloading stems from a theory called the super compensation theory. According to this concept, training consists of three phases. The first phase is the training period where you apply stress to the muscle. When you traumatize a muscle through intense training, you break down muscle fibers and the muscle has to repair and rebuild. If you were to repeatedly stress your muscles without giving them time to completely repair, the stress becomes cumulative, leading to an over-trained state. Chronic training without adequate recovery can lead to elevated cortisol, which triggers muscle breakdown, and loss of your hard-earned gains. Plus, cortisol promotes fat redistribution a.k.a gains in tummy fat.
Not only do muscles need time to recover, but they also need proper nutrition. Plus, your body as a whole needs rest. That’s why the second phase of super compensation, recovery, is so important. If you’re lifting properly, you’re already giving the muscle groups you worked 48 hours or more to recover, but longer periods of recovery can sometimes be beneficial, depending on how intensely you’re training.
The third phase of the super compensation theory is called super compensation, and it means exactly what it sounds like – performing at a higher level. Have you ever taken a few days off from training and discovered you were stronger when you returned? That’s what super compensation is all about. By taking a break from training, your body “rebounds” and you come back stronger and more capable than ever. A deload gives your body a chance to rest and recover so you can hit the weights with renewed vigor and, hopefully, go on to make further gains.
Deloading not only gives your body and the muscles you’ve been working a chance to rest, it gives you a mental break from training. When you train hard day after day, mental fatigue can set in. A period of deloading can jumpstart your motivation and drive. When you’re mentally drained and working out feels stale, the worst thing you can do is try to push through your workouts just to say you did it. Training should always be purposeful, and deloading helps you gain a fresh perspective.
Ways to Deload
If you’re truly exhausted or aren’t feeling well, a few days or even a week of complete recovery time, without any exercise, might be in order. Deloading is a type of planned REDUCTION in your workouts rather than time off. You can deload in several ways. The most common is to reduce the amount of weight you’re lifting during the deload period. If you’ve been doing a strength or hypertrophy workout, reduce the resistance to where you’re lifting only around 50% of your one-rep max. Rather than increasing the number of reps, as you would when working muscle endurance, keep the reps AND resistance low. Remember, the point is to lighten up.
The second most common way to deload is to reduce training volume. If you normally do three sets at a given intensity, do only a single set of each exercise. You could also decrease the number of reps for each set or reduce the frequency of your workouts by training only once or twice during a deload week. The key is to give your muscles and mind a noticeable break from what they’re accustomed to, so you can come back refreshed.
Another option during a deload week is to focus more of your workout time on stretches, light bodyweight exercises or yoga moves. By doing this, you’ll stay active but still give your muscles recovery time. During your deload week, concentrate on nourishing your body and getting enough sleep. Eating healthy is important when you’re changing the way you exercise – you don’t want your entire focus and routine to fall apart.
How Often Should You Deload?
Some people purposely schedule a deload into their long-term training strategy, taking a week to recover every month, three months or every six months. How often you deload should depend on how intensely you train, how frequently, and factors like your age. If you’re over the age of 40, your body needs more recovery time and may benefit from more frequent deloads. The same goes if you focus mostly on high resistance, low rep training.
Although deload weeks can be planned into your routine, you might decide to take an unplanned one if you’re feeling mentally or physically drained, aren’t performing as well, as usual, have chronic muscle soreness or problems recovering from your workouts. These are all signs your body needs a more sustained period of recovery. If you go through an unusually intense period of training, for example, if you’re competing in an athletic event, you might deload the week after the event.
After a Deload
After you’ve given your body a week of recovery, you’re ready to get back into the swing of things with rested muscles and renewed motivation. You should feel at the top of your game and ready to tackle the weights again. The strange thing about deload weeks is they can actually make you stronger mentally and physically. Take advantage of them!
Kraemer, William J.; Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training, Second Edition.
Stack. “Deloading: The Secret to Better Workout Recovery” October 14, 2014.
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