To get stronger, you need to consistently lift more weight, right? Yep! That's the principle behind progressive overload. However, if you're really going hard in the weight room and feeling like you're struggling to keep pace, you might actually need to lift less weight — just for a short bit.
Not to be confused with a rest week, a deload week entails temporarily reducing either the load (weight) you're lifting and/or your overall training volume (total weight/sets/reps), according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
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Can it work for you? Here's how to tell, as well as how to implement it into your workout routine.
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Why You Should Try a Deload Week
Deloading can also be seen as a form of active recovery for athletes and gym goers who are consistently pushing themselves to the max in every session, Di Stefano. But rather than taking time completely off, you continue to work out without pushing yourself so hard.
Deload weeks give your central nervous system (the part of your brain and spinal cord responsible for controlling movement) a much-needed break, says Mathew Forzaglia, certified personal trainer and founder of Forzag Fitness on the NEOU App. Strength training isn't just taxing on your muscles and joints but your nervous system, too, and consistently overloading each week can lead to burnout.
"Deloading not only helps prevent burnout, giving the mind a break from being all about the gym, but it allows us to avoid plateaus, which can be very mentally frustrating — not making any progress after putting in hard work," Forzaglia says.
But why deload instead of taking a recovery week? Deloading enables you to come back to strength training even harder, Forzaglia says. When you take time off completely, you usually need to ease back into training. With a deload, however, your body is actively recovering, making it a good strategy for breaking through a plateau.
Strategic deloading can also be used to boost performance in the long run. After testing jump performance on a small group of track and field athletes, researchers found that taper weeks (a type of deload) played a big role in predicting changes in the athletes' jumps, according to an October 2019 study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.
Is Your Body Ready for a Deload?
You don't necessarily need to be a high-level athlete to schedule a few days (or a week) of deloading, though. Temporarily cutting back your training volume can be beneficial if you're going through a period of high stress or poor sleep, Di Stefano says.
Some other signs your body is in need of a deload include:
- Stalled progress
- Poor sleep
- Intolerance to hot or cold temperature
- Excessive muscle soreness
- Stiff joints
- Recurring injury
- Loss of libido
- Loss of motivation
- Frequent illness or infection
Knowing whether you need a deload or total rest week requires listening to your body — there are no hard and fast rules. But you should typically deload every four to six weeks, Forzaglia says, but you should take rest days once or twice a week.
However, in some cases, you may not need a deload phase at all. If you're following a well-rounded program, your body is getting the TLC it needs, Di Stefano says. What makes a well-rounded program? It should vary in exercises, weight and reps day-to-day and include proper recovery.
"If people change the focus, rep range, intensity and volume every three to four weeks and they do weekly mobility drills, it's likely they won't need to deload," Di Stefano says.
How to Plan Your Deload Week
Especially hard-training athletes and competitors can benefit from a scheduled week or two of deloading once every nine to 12 weeks or so, following a challenging training cycle, Di Stefano says.
If you want to begin a deload phase, reduce the load, volume and/or rate of exercise you perform between 50 to 70 percent, according to NASM. For instance, if you typically perform a deadlift with 135 pounds, bring the weight of the lift down to 67.5 pounds.
Then, depending on how much you lower the weight, you can also lower your sets and reps, Forzaglia says. "Do sets of 1 or 2 with single, double or triple reps — or sometimes even 5 reps, but remember the point is to back off and focus on improving performance, recovery and injury prevention."
Another method Forzaglia likes during a deload is ditching the barbell completely. Switch to dumbbells and perform your regular lifts at a 10 to 15 percent less than you'd usually do, sticking to 10 reps.
Additionally, take time after or before each workout to prioritize foam rolling and mobility work. And don't forget that your nutrition is key, too, Forzaglia says. Fueling properly during this week will have you primed and ready for the following week of hard work.
"Remember, we are pulling back the stress on the body so we can prepared for the next hard training block so we want to focus on everything we need to do in order to get ready," Forzaglia says. "All the things we know we should be doing but don't spend enough time on before or after training."
Read more: 4 Signs You're Ready to Lift Heavier Weights