Plateaus -- the phase in life (be in training, career, personal development) when you’re “stuck.”
Common advice during these times (especially in regard to workout plateaus) is to typically do more, go harder, change exercises, and/or eat more.
But, would it surprise you to learn that sometimes the way to shatter a plateau is by actually taking your foot off the gas pedal and doing less?
You might think we’ve gone off the rails, but trust us, one of the best recovery tools in your arsenal that you’re probably not making the most of deload weeks.
Today, we’ve got your complete guide to deload weeks -- what they are, why you should do them, when to take one, and how to implement them into your current training program.
Let’s start at the top.
What Are Deload Weeks?
Simply put, a deload week is simply a week of training in which you take a planned or intentional break from your typical training.
Now, don’t mistake a deload for a complete week off from training.
A deload is just that -- a reduction of total training load for a period of seven days.
They can take many different forms, but they all accomplish the same goal -- decreasing how much stress you’re imposing on your body mentally and physically.
Seeing as deloads are intentional (for the most part), it stands to reason that some amount of planning goes into how you structure your deload and when you take it.
But, before we answer those questions, let’s first discuss what benefits are to be obtained from taking a deload week.
Why Should I Use Deload Weeks?
Intense exercise is a stress to the body, affecting it mentally, physically, and emotionally.
After several weeks of grinding, stress accumulates so much so that you’re exhausted on all fronts.
Deloads allow the body time to recover physically, repairing damaged muscles, tendons, and ligaments that have taken a beating the past few weeks. Since your body isn’t constantly striving to outdo its previous best in the gym and/or recover in time for the next hard training session, the full brunt of its repair mechanisms is devoted to making you stronger and more resilient.
So much so, that when you come off of your deload and start back in on your next heavy block of training, you’ll actually find that you are now stronger -- able to push more weight for more reps and ultimately do more work in your training sessions.
Appropriately timed deloads also help reduce the potential for strains, sprains, and overuse injuries. Remember, hard training exacts a toll on muscles, joints, and the connective tissue. Continuing to push hard day after day without ever taking a break never allows these systems to fully recover, which will at some point lead to a failure -- injury, tear, sprain, etc.
Deloads allow these vital structures to fully recover and set your body up for the next cycle of intense workouts.
Additionally, as we mentioned, weeks of hard training also leave you feeling exhausted mentally and emotionally. There are only so many heavy squat, deadlift, and interval training sessions you can psych yourself up for before you start to burn out and lose motivation to push yourself hard in training.
Deload weeks provide a welcome reprieve from the daily grind and enable you to unburden a stressed central nervous system. During this time, you train with a bit less intensity, meaning you don’t have to get yourself “amped up” for each workout.
After a few days of taking it easy, you’ll feel recharged, refreshed, and reinvigorated such that you’re actually looking forward to the more intense training sessions to come.
How to Take a Deload Week
There are three main ways in which you can take a deload week. You can choose to use just one of the following methods or a combination of two or three of them depending on your training preferences.
Reduce Weight (Intensity)
By far, the most commonly used deload method is to cut back on the intensity of your workouts. In this instance, intensity refers to how much weight you are lifting relative to your 1-rep max on an exercise, not how “hard” you are pushing yourself in your workouts.
Everyone takes a slightly different approach to how much weight they remove from their lifts, but generally speaking, most people use about half of the weight they typically use for their main lifts.
For instance, if you’re used to benching 185 pounds for 3 sets of 10 in your training, for a deload involving reduced intensity, you would bench ~95 pounds for 3 sets of 10.
This type of deload is exactly what it sounds like -- you decrease the amounts of sets and/or reps you perform during the week.
For example, if your typical leg workout looks something like this:
- Squats: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Romanian Deadlifts: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Leg Press: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Leg Curls: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Seated Calf Raises: 3 sets x 15 reps
Your deload week might look something like this:
- Squats: 3 sets x 5 reps
- Romanian Deadlifts: 2 sets x 8 reps
- Leg Press: 2 sets x 12 reps
- Leg Curls: 1 sets x 12 reps
- Seated Calf Raises: 3 sets x 15 reps
As you can see, we either decreased the number of sets or reps for each exercise of the workout. The lone exception is calf raises.
By and large, reducing intensity and/or volume during deload weeks is geared towards reducing the amount of work you do on compound exercises (bench, squat, deadlift), as they are the most taxing to the body and mind.
Isolation exercises (curls, kickbacks, calf raises, lateral raises, etc.) are not very taxing, and as such can be held at the same volume and intensity, or they can be reduced, depending on your preference.
Change Exercise Selection
The final way to implement a deload is to really shake things up and change up how you exercise for the week.
Instead of hitting the weights and interval training classes, you’ll perform a mix of bodyweight workouts, yoga/mobility sessions, and other active recovery methods (hiking, walking, etc.).
This type of deload is best suited for the weekend warrior and casual fitness enthusiast, not the competitive powerlifter or physique athlete who needs to maintain movement proficiency and/or poundages.
Now that you’ve got a grasp on how to take a deload week, let’s discuss a few scenarios when you should schedule your deload week.
When Should I Take a Deload Week?
Deloads can either be planned or reactive.
Planned Deload Weeks
Planned deloads are those that you actually pencil into your training schedule.
Common pre-planned deload protocols are “3 on/ 1 off” or “6 on/1off”.
Essentially, this means for every three or six weeks of training, you take one deload week.
This method of deloading may be good for those who have a hard time “tapping the breaks” with their training. These are also the same individuals who struggle to take rest days during regular weeks of training, fyi.
However, by scheduling the deload week ahead of time, you know you can really go all out your final week of training before the deload as you know you have seven days ahead of you to recover.
One limitation of the planned deload is that you may not actually need it when it’s scheduled. But, there’s really no long-term downside to this as it just helps to improve recovery and recharge you mentally.
Reactive Deload Weeks
Reactive deloads are taken in response to decrements in performance and/or sprains or injury.
Here, you would keep charging hard in your training and when you start to either see:
- Your performance decreases in the same workout for two consecutive sessions, or
- You suffer a sprain, strain, or injury, or
- You just feel burnt out
Then, you take a week to deload.
This form of deloading is likely best reserved for the experienced lifter who understands their body and listens to its biofeedback.
At the same time, there are those people who will try to push through any prolonged drop offs in performance and/or injuries and try to do more or go heavier. If this is you, then you’re likely best served by planning your deloads (and making sure to take them).
What Happens After I Deload?
You get back to your normal training, of course!
Following a deload, you should be recharged mentally and physically and ready to tackle some hard and heavy workouts.
You can swap up your exercise selection or order, or keep it the same while trying to increase the amount of weight lifted or reps completed compared to your previous training blocks.
You could also try a new training program or entirely new fitness modality (powerlifting vs bodybuilding vs crossfit vs Olympic lifting).
Really, it’s up to you and what your personal performance, fitness, and physique goals are.
Deload weeks are an intentional reduction in training that allow you to recover both mentally and physically. And, deloads also help serve as a way to reduce the chance of injury, overuse, and burn out.
Deloads can be performed several different ways (reduced volume or poundage, or different exercise modalities), and how you choose to deload is based on fitness goals and personal preference.
Finally, deloads can either be planned or reactive. If you are good about listening to your body and tracking your performance in the gym, reactive deloads are a good way to go. If you’re a novice and/or aren’t too good about listening to your body, planned deloads are a better option.
Either way, make sure to implement deload weeks into your training. They help you to grow stronger, become more resilient to injury, and rekindle your love of training hard!