If you’re like most people, you undoubtedly spend a lot of time inside the gym concentrating on what you’re doing.
You must workout with a high level of effort, dedication, and intent when trying to increase muscle and strength.
For weeks (perhaps months! ), you smash your workouts day in and day out.
Then, all of a sudden, you reach a stumbling block aka a plateau.
You just can’t seem to get past this one, no matter how hard you try. You give your all in every session, yet it’s in vain.
You’ve tweaked your training regimen to the nth degree, and your nutrition, sleep, and supplementation are all on point.
Even after a few more weeks, you haven’t seen the favorable results you hoped for, and you’re mentally exhausted. What else is there to do?
You presumably already know that sufficient volume is required to trigger physiological responses. Both the body and the neurological system might feel overloaded by this type and amount of exercise.
What if I told you that one of the most effective recovery techniques for breaking past plateaus is to take a week off and spend LESS time in the gym?
What Is A Deload Week?
A deload week is exactly what it says on the tin: a week of deloading. It’s a week to rest, and unwind so you can get back on the “gain train” when the week is done.
In the muscle and strength world. it’s a one-week period of intentional rest or a reduction in total training load, where you shift your focus away from intense progressive workouts and toward recovery factors like rest sleep, and proper nutrition.
Deload weeks can help you refresh both your mind and your body if they are properly planned and executed to achieve your specific fitness goals.
There’s a lot that goes into planning these deload weeks, and the type of deloading you do depends depend on your training goals.
Most people still train during a deload it’s just that the training is modified so that recovery can be leveraged to increase gains over the long term. I actually don’t think enough people leverage recovery effectively. It seems that most bodybuilders are so hung up on the go hard or go home mentality that they forget that the gains actually happen when you go home and rest. This hardcore mindset often results in these long and grueling plateaus especially when trainees mistakenly assume that the best way to break through a plateau is to work even harder when in reality the antidote is to actually work smarter not harder.
Just think about it – in every other sport on the planet, athletes and coaches realize that you need to have periods of rest and lighter training in order to optimize performance over the long haul. Bodybuilding and strength sports shouldn’t be an exception this is because of something called the three compartment fitness fatigue model this model tells us that anytime we train we increase both fitness and fatigue fitness is the good stuff muscle strength etc and fatigue is the bad stuff metabolic waste muscle damage nervous system fatigue and so on.
If fitness and fatigue are both high, performance will suffer. This is why if you max out on Monday and then go back and max out again on tuesday 99 percent of the time you’ll be weaker on Tuesday. Obviously, Monday’s workout didn’t make you somehow lose your gains, it’s just that the fatigue you created is temporarily masking your improvement in fitness. Once that fatigue dissipates, you’ll see the gains you made and can keep pushing forward and this is where the deload comes in.
What Happens When You Deload?
The classic deloading idea is based on a phenomena known as supercompensation. You overwork the body to the point where performance suffers, and then you let it rest. Nutrient and neurotransmitter levels are said to swing back up and end up higher than they would be otherwise, allowing you to perform better.
However, this only applies to glycogen storage, not to the elements that influence lifting performance. As a result, the technique is useful for endurance sports but not so much for lifting.
Glycogen stores aren’t as important in strength training as they are in endurance sports. You won’t achieve the level of glycogen depletion that leads to supercompensation unless your carb levels are really low.
Deloading does not supercompensate neurotransmitter levels, however, it is true that if you’re experiencing fatigue and your performance is slipping, a deload will help.
It has to do with the sensitivity of beta-adrenergic receptors. These are the receptors that interact with adrenaline to cause the nervous system to become stimulated. When they’re turned on, your mental acuity and focus improve, you become more competitive and energetic, and your heart beats faster and faster. Activated receptors also help your muscles to contract stronger and faster, allowing you to execute motions more efficiently.
Cortisol levels rise when you exercise too much or when you combine exercise with everyday stress, and these receptors can downregulate. As a result of this down-regulation, you lose your ability to respond to adrenaline, and your motivation, focus, and performance suffer.
When a deloading week is included in a weight-training program, the beta-adrenergic receptors regain their sensitivity and respond to adrenaline more powerfully once again. Strength, speed, motivation, and focus will all improve as a result of this.
How Do You Deload
When it comes to deloading, the most essential thing to remember is that you need to lower your adrenaline levels, which you can do by lowering your cortisol levels. You can do this by reducing one or more of the five variables listed above. The more acute your weariness, the more variables you must reduce simultaneously.
If you wish to undertake a cautious deload to re-establish correct receptor sensitivity, you only need to reduce one variable — preferably volume, intensity, or psychological stress.
However, if you see a drop in performance and weariness symptoms, you’ll need to reduce two, possibly three variables. And if you’re feeling terrible, have little motivation to exercise, and have a low libido, you’ll need to change three or four, if not all, of your factors.
1. Deloading By Reducing Volume
Either the number of sets or the number of exercises can be reduced. The goal is to reduce the volume by 40-50 percent. You could lower the number of sets per movement from four to two. If you want to cut down on the number of exercises, you can omit the assistance work and focus just on the session’s major lifts. In some circles, this might resonate as periodization.
2. Deloading By Reducing Intensity
This is the process of lowering your RPE for your work sets. It’s easy to understand: Simply reduce the number of reps you did for each set from your previous workout while keeping the weight the same. If you did four sets of six reps on the bench press with 200 pounds during your last session, you’d now do four sets of three to four reps with 200 pounds.
3. Deloading By Reducing Psychological Stress/Intensity
The most common sort of deload is this. You reduce the training weight while keeping the set and rep count the same. A reduction of 15-20% is typical, but if you’re experiencing aches and pains, you may require a larger reduction. For instance, you may move from four sets of six reps at 200 pounds to four sets of six at 170 pounds.
4. Deloading By Reducing Neural Demands
Change from more difficult, time-consuming workouts to easier ones that target the same muscle regions. Squats to machine hack squats, cleans to power cleans, bench presses to machine chest presses, and so on.
5. Deloading By Reducing The Density
This is the mildest type of deloading, and it’s usually employed in CrossFit workouts. Simply lengthen the rest periods between sets. Decreasing density also entails avoiding any circuit or exercise combinations. It’s best if your heart rate doesn’t rise too much during your workout.
More Benefits Of Deload Weeks
While the major benefit of deloading is to restore beta-adrenergic receptor sensitivity, there are other advantages as well:
Stronger Immune System
Cortisol, if left unregulated, can weaken the immune system and make you more susceptible to illness. Furthermore, the immune system is required for muscle healing. You can boost your capacity to repair and develop muscle by enhancing it.
Increases Muscle Glycogen Stores
While this isn’t as critical for lifters as it is for endurance athletes, it can still help with hypertrophy training strength and performance. The effect on strength, on the other hand, is due to muscle volumization: a fuller muscle can produce passive joint stability (particularly at the shoulder joint), which increases strength.
If you lift heavy weights on a regular basis, you may acquire aches and pains that range from mild annoyances to debilitating to the point of needing to change workouts. During a deload, lowering the amount of weight you utilize can help you heal.
The Testosterone (or Estrogen) To Cortisol Ratio Improves
The mother hormone that produces cortisol, testosterone, and estrogen is the same (pregnenolone). Cortisol overproduction can drop pregnenolone levels, which can lead to lower testosterone or estrogen levels, therefore reducing cortisol via a deload can assist restore sex hormone production.
Improves Mental Health/State
It’s easy to lose motivation when you’re always training hard, taking short rest intervals, and pursuing results. You may lose interest in your workouts after a while, but appreciating what you do is essential for motivation to last. A deload might provide a welcome mental break while allowing you to stay motivated.
How Often Should You Deload?
Okay, so how often should you deload? Well there are two main approaches to this depending on who you ask. Some coaches prefer to schedule deloads proactively usually once every four to eight weeks. Generally speaking, the more advanced you are, the more often you’ll want to deload because you need to train harder to make progress. It’s because you’ll generate more fatigue than someone who’s less advanced. Other coaches prefer to schedule deloads reactively meaning you’ll only deload when you feel like you actually need one. This is more of an auto regulated approach where if you feel like you’re making great progress and your motivation is high, what’s the point of potentially slowing that down just because you’re supposed to deload, while I do get the reasoning behind this, for me the biggest downside of the reactive approach is that even if you have great lifters intuition it’s actually really hard to tell when you need to deload.
Not all soft tissues and tendons are well innervated with nerves, which means you could be accumulating joint stress without even realizing it. Everything’s going great and then all of a sudden you tweak something unexpectedly so, I do generally prefer to schedule deloads proactively ahead of time unless I’m dealing with a very mature lifter who knows their body extremely well.
With all that said, there are some lifters who probably don’t need to worry about deloads at all. First, early beginners in your first year of training – you shouldn’t be generating enough fatigue to really need a formal deload. As a beginner you can make amazing progress by just learning proper technique and figuring out what it actually means to train hard. Once you get to the late beginner to early intermediate stage, usually that’s after one or two years of lifting including a deload makes a lot more sense.
The other exception would be what I’m going to call lazy lifters and this is a pretty broad category of people who are also not generating enough fatigue to warrant a deload. You’re already deloading every week so you don’t need another one in this case regardless of your training age. Focus on getting more diligent with your training first then start planning deloads once you lock in the proper planning.
With those exceptions aside, once you hit the intermediate stage – deloads can be one of the single best strategies for busting plateaus and driving progress forward.
Simply think of your d-load week as a light week where you stay a few reps further from failure and do one less set per exercise that should do the trick to flatten fatigue without having to think too hard about it. It’s smart to not think of your deload as an excuse to sandbag your workouts, rather think of it as an opportunity to focus your attention on technique and mind-muscle connection.
Some coaches have actually started calling their deload weeks technique weeks so people know that they’re not a step backwards, just a temporary shift in focus. the lighter loads will help you refine your setup and execution and the reduction in volume will help you really hone in on the sets that you are doing by actively stretching and squeezing the target muscle
Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant.
He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves.
Rahul has a master’s degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.