Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
24 Oct

The Deload Week: What It Is, How to Do it, and Why It Might Help You Get Stronger

Machines are amazing. They can perform at maximum output for months upon months upon years without skipping a beat. And when they do slip up, they can just get the parts replaced or their programming retooled. Humans are not machines. We can’t perform at maximum output for months and even years, only stopping to get a quick tune-up or a replacement part. However, humans are better than machines, with our ability to organically heal our own bodies and recover from injuries and wounds and illnesses, but we require time to do so. It doesn’t happen overnight, though, and in the absence of pharmacological assistance, there are no easy ways around this simple fact of our existence.

People get that, I think. They know that when you slice your finger open cutting a tomato, it’s going to be a few days or a week before it heals and closes up. They know that continuing to use that particular finger without modifying their behavior will probably prolong the healing time. But when it comes to training – to lifting weights, running sprints, doing endurance work – people seem more likely to throw this basic physiological concept out the window, even though exercise-induced muscle damage needs healing time, too. Otherwise, you don’t get the muscle adaptation, the progress, the strength, the fitness. You only get the damage.

That’s why, if you’re training on a consistent basis, you may need a deload week.

Wait – what’s a deload week?

A deload week is a “take it easy” week. It’s a break from training hard and training often, and scheduling a deload week is often how hard-charging athletes and weight lifters (a notorious bunch who never want to take a break) force themselves to recover from their pursuits. Exercise, you see, especially effective, intense, hard exercise, requires that we recover. It’s just like any injury, wound, illness, or stressor faced by our body. We have to recover before we can get stronger. In fact, you don’t get stronger from the act of lifting weights. You get stronger by recovering from the act of lifting weights. 

Many (most) of the best strength coaches include deload weeks in their programming. Though peer-reviewed studies may carry more cachet than anecdotes, I find anecdotes from certain demographics – like people who turn other people into strong, healthy, fit athletes – extremely persuasive. And time and time againthey show that deloads aren’t just about recovering so you can continue where you left off, but that a deload week can actually improve your fitness and/or your strength to levels greater than where it was before the deload. That’s right: you can lift less weight for less reps (or even do nothing) and come back stronger than before and stronger than you’d have been had you never taken the week off. And as shown below, some of the research appears to partly corroborate that idea.

Also, I can vouch for the danger of the opposite viewpoint based on my own experience. When I was racing competitively, I took very few breaks. I’d take a break only if I had to – because of an injury or illness – but never of my own volition. Even then, I’d always get back to training “sooner than possible,” so I never even really fully recovered from the injuries or the illnesses. The result of course was that I never really recovered from my training, either. I was hurting all the time, got sick a lot, and I was probably even selling my performance short by overdoing it and never taking a rest. When you’re in the thick of training competitively, though, you never really think to take a break, because you always feel the other guy’s mileage (or strength gains) breathing down your neck – rightly or wrongly.

Now, before we get to how to incorporate a deload week into your routine, let’s take a look at the research and cover a few important points about deloading:

7 Important Points on Deloading

1. A deload doesn’t have to be an unload. When you deload, you don’t have to cease all activity. You can reduce your weights, sets, and reps. This mode of training is extremely effective, with one study even showing that college athletes (not beginners, mind you) gained more strength on an “autoregulatory progressive resistance training” regimen (where trainees proceed at their own pace, increasing or lowering the resistance according to how they feel) than on a linear progression model (where trainees add resistance in a linear fashion regardless of how they feel). The athletes weren’t stopping training altogether. They were just lowering the resistance when they felt they needed a break, and it worked really well. On your deload, you should remain active. Don’t just lie there on the couch, completely immobile. Continue the walking. Throw in some lighter weight, lower rep sets. Work on joint mobility. Stay active, but don’t push it. Stay fresh. Just don’t do anything that you have to “recover” from.

2. You’re not going to lose your muscle and all your progress. Research shows that it takes around three weeks of inactivity for the first signs of muscular atrophy to emerge. Strength losses can and do occur in less than three weeks, but this is almost entirely neural, and no loss in fat-free mass is observed. As for your progress being disrupted, a recent study compared a continuous fifteen week resistance training cycle to a periodized fifteen week cycle. In the latter group, trainees lifted for six weeks, took three weeks off, then lifted for six more weeks; the former group lifted for fifteen weeks straight. Researchers examined the effect of both types of periodization on muscle hypertrophy, strength (1 RM), and overall muscular adaptations. They found that a three week deloading cycle did not impair muscle adaptation. Muscle size and one rep max progressed equally in both groups, even though the deloading group spent three weeks doing absolutely nothing. And, as Dr. Andro explains, the deloading group actually got a (not statistically significant) bigger boost upon resuming training – so the deload may even make you stronger than had you never taken it!

3. You might even enjoy (limited) “newbie gains” all over again. It’s well-known that in untrained individuals, merely doing anything (bicep curls, P90x, barbell work, machines) will give good results, but that those results begin to taper off if the training quality is poor. People talk about maximizing one’s newbie gains so that you don’t squander the fleeting window of neuromuscular adaptation. Well, the same research group that compared continuous training to periodic training with three weeks off expanded their scope in a more recent study. Trainees either trained for 24 weeks straight or in a “six weeks on, three weeks off, six weeks on, three weeks off, six weeks on” fashion. The second group showed a tiny bit of atrophy during the rest periods but more than made up for it with the response of their muscles upon resuming training. According to the study’s author, “the effects of retraining after short-term cessation on muscle growth are comparable with those observed during the early phase of training.” Now, a week of deloading isn’t the same as three weeks of deloading, but the point is that ceasing training can pay off.

4. Make your deload deliberate; time off because of an injury or illness doesn’t count. You want to deload on your own terms. If something comes up, like a vacation, by all means you can count that as a deload because you won’t be heaping much additional physiological stress on your body. But if you’ve come down with the flu or pulled a hamstring and have to rest, that’s not really a deload. Your body is recovering from the illness and trying to overcome the issues associated with that.

5. You can’t always “go by how you feel.” Listening to your body is important, but many of us have lost that connection, had it disturbed by overzealous training, or forgotten how to interpet the body’s messages. Sticking to a deload schedule regardless of how you (think you) feel can pay dividends.

6. Your joints will thank you. Remember that connective tissue takes longer to adapt and heal than muscle tissue. Your muscles might recover perfectly well from your normal schedule of training, but your cartilage, your tendons, and your ligaments run on a different schedule entirely.

7. Older guys and gals need it more than the youngsters. Getting old can be quite graceful, but if you try to push yourself like you’re still young, you will pay. Take the deload week.

How to Do It

Deloads are pretty simple, but they’re not always easy to actually integrate. People just can’t seem to shake the feeling that they’re slacking off (believe me; I know the feeling). Here are a few options:

  • Take a week off. Don’t even go near the gym. Don’t lift a weight or focus on “cardio.” Walk, cycle, hike, swim, or play. Keep it light. Get a massage. Try yoga.
  • Reduce your load and volume and maintain the movements. Instead of doing 3×5 squats at 80% of your 1 rep max, try 2×5 at 50% of your 1 rep max. The weights will feel easy, they’ll move fast, and you won’t need to recover from it, but you’ll keep your joints moving and the movements fresh in your mind. Also, you won’t kill yourself from lack of lifting.
  • Try a deload every six weeks or so. Most serious coaches recommend three or four weeks on, one week off to their intermediate and advanced trainees. These are people competing in strength sports and pushing serious weight, so you may not have to deload quite so often.

Whatever you choose, it probably won’t hurt – unless you don’t deload at all. I’d suggest conducting an experiment of one, tracking your progress, and seeing if it works for you personally.

Let me know your thoughts, folks. Have you ever included deloads in your programming? If so, how did they impact your training?

Thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

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  1. Great article Mark. I read the same thing a week or two ago on a much smaller blog and found it interesting but then forgot to actually try it. I always end up trying things out after being exposed to them twice. Same for intermittent fasting and now I do it 3 to 4 times a week.

    To make progress in lifting you need to change things up every so often. I just finished a post on my blog about changing from heavy weight lifting to a push up routine for a week and made incredible strength gains. The benefit of the push up routine is it stimulates your capillaries to grow and increases blood flow to your muscles.

    Wayne wrote on October 24th, 2012
  2. Great ideas. I’m getting better at listening to my body as I age. I always feel great after taking a week off from my workouts and then come back with lots of good energy..

    Nocona wrote on October 24th, 2012
  3. I’ve accidentally incldued deloads into my workout – life built up, got in the way and I wound up not working out for a week. Not like an injury or the flu, just being busy and not finding the time…or just feeling tired and burnt out and giving myself a break.

    I’ve found that after a week of not working out (assuming it follows a good solid month of faithful workouts), I actually come back stronger than I was before the deload. I can do more reps, go faster, feel less strain. I was really surprised the first time it happened. Any more than a week, though, and I come back wimpier than I was, and have to build back up. It’s not the end of the world, but a week is definitely the sweet spot for me.

    I’d make an effort to integrate them deliberately…but at the moment, the “accidental deloads” are happening a bit too often for my taste, so I’ll hold off. 😉 It’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind once my schedule restabilizes, though!

    Alix wrote on October 24th, 2012
  4. Even for those of us with lighter workout schedules, taking some time off occasionally from works wonders.

    Alison Golden wrote on October 24th, 2012
  5. Being advised to take a week off now and again is better than telling me hot fudge sundaes are now primal. I needed to hear this – thanks, Mark!

    Kris wrote on October 24th, 2012
  6. Totally agree Mark. Great post as usual.

    I’m a little confused though. You mean we have 2 options, to unload altogether OR lift lighter weights? Which one is better then? If you meant to say unload, why even bother lifting weights? Hmm..

    CarC wrote on October 24th, 2012
    • All great stuff mark! As a personal trainer this is something that’s hard for many clients to understand. Particularly if they’re seeing gains and enjoying exercising. I think it’s important for people not to make the mistake and think deload=unfocused week to go nuts.

      Deloading doesn’t mean extra nights at the bar or a time to splurge on junk food. I coach a deload week as a time to up the refocus on nutrition and lifestyle factors. Almost like a prep week; find new recipes, stock up on healthy food, evaluate sleep/work habits…ect.

      Focusing on food and lifestyle improvements during a deload week helps clients continue to work towards something and avoid feeling like they’re taking a step back.

      luke depron wrote on October 24th, 2012
      • I really like this approach!

        Alix wrote on October 24th, 2012
      • That’s an awesome way of approaching a deload week. We could all use some time to just focus on nutrition, prepping, etc instead of worrying about what we’re going to do at the gym the next day.

        AshlysGonePrimal wrote on October 24th, 2012
      • “Deloading doesn’t mean extra nights at the bar or a time to splurge on junk food. I coach a deload week as a time to up the refocus on nutrition and lifestyle factors. Almost like a prep week; find new recipes, stock up on healthy food, evaluate sleep/work habits…ect.”

        I just did this last week, mostly because I was too busy during my grad school interviews to squeeze in more than one workout, so I focused on my eating instead. I’m definitely lifting more this week, although I’m extremely tired… My muscles are sore but not to the point that I can’t walk or anything. I actually think that has to do with (1) reduced light levels [thanks, Alaska] and (2) waking up cold and trying to ride my bike to work each morning [again, thanks Alaska]. On the plus side, I don’t lift on the weekends, and Saturday is just around the corner!

        Charlayna wrote on October 25th, 2012
      • I love that idea. I’ve always used deload weeks for focussing on flexibility but this’ll add another dimension.

        John wrote on November 13th, 2012
    • I think which is better depends a little on the individual.

      I’ve done both and I really prefer to keep lifting but doing it with much less weight/volume. For me, I’m too much of a creature of habit. My form feels wonky if I take a week or more off without doing anything and I feel a little bit like I’m re-learning the lifts for the first week or so back. Going light lets me keep working on improving my form without stressing my body the way I normally do when I train.

      And I miss being in the gym with my training partners and friends and watching their progress.

      Mel wrote on October 26th, 2012
  7. Great article! I have become accustomed to “cutback” weeks with running training, which is the same thing as a “deload” week. 3 weeks hard, 1 week easy (reduced mileage by 25% and reduced intensity, just a few sprints here and there).

    NJ Paleo wrote on October 24th, 2012
  8. Just finished proving this n=1. Had to be out of town and didn’t lift for a week. Came back stronger.

    skeedaddy wrote on October 24th, 2012
  9. just came off a rest week – will hit another one 1st week of Dec.

    lockard wrote on October 24th, 2012
  10. It’s tough to do sometimes, but I’ve seen a lot of benefit from just taking a week off once in a while!

    Burn wrote on October 24th, 2012
  11. I just did my first deload week last week in about 6 months. You know what? I felt worse, and my strength did not improve. I train Mon – Fri, and these past three days (including today) were just rough. And last week, on my off week, I felt off. No thanks for me!

    Adam wrote on October 24th, 2012
  12. I do mine every three months and plan on having it November 4-11. I’ll play soccer, basketball, maybe throw some jump rope and sprints in. I won’t go near a weight. The best part of the deload week is the aches and pains you live with heal and go away. Great article.

    Brian wrote on October 24th, 2012
  13. I wonder how many people really train hard enough to ‘deload’. Many think they train heavy and intensely, but they don’t.

    kishore wrote on October 24th, 2012
  14. Mark, the only quibble I have with your article, is that Yoga can actually be pretty brutal. (But then I guess biking can be if you do it down a mountain, and walking can be too if you do it up a mountain.)

    SentWest wrote on October 24th, 2012
    • SentWest,

      I completely agree! I just got into Bikram Yoga about a month ago, and I incorporate this into my toughest training weeks.

      If anyone would like to use yoga to deload and recover, Hatha Yoga or Regenerative classes would be best during the rest phase.

      I just have to force myself to rest and not feel guilty about it (the hardest challenge of them all.)

      Nicole F wrote on October 24th, 2012
  15. This reminds me of an old joke in strength circles:
    Q: What is the typical “tough guy” cycle?
    A: Heavy. Heavier. Even heavier. Injury. Light.

    Jamin wrote on October 24th, 2012
  16. This also works even if you are doing something less obviously physical, like playing a musical instrument. I am always surprised that I have improved so much after a holiday away, when I haven’t touched a note.

    Jenny W wrote on October 24th, 2012
  17. Great article on deloading, however, I have read around the blogosphere the differences between men and women in “rest” need, with the main argument being that women recover faster and therefore can train with greater tenacity and less rest. Is this accurate? And how would a woman incorporate the resting principles into a workout routine?

    Liv wrote on October 24th, 2012
  18. I beg to differ. I’m a looove machine.

    Joy Beer wrote on October 24th, 2012
  19. I tend to see very fast results (excellent genetics for that apparently) so I do three weeks on, one off. Seems to work extremely well.

    nionvox wrote on October 24th, 2012
  20. Mark,

    Wouldn’t it be better to track progress closely and use those results as our guide whether to deload or not?

    Oliver wrote on October 24th, 2012
  21. I find that travel weeks for work are great for deloading. I walkand stretch, maybe visit the hotel sauna or whirlpool, go to bed early. (I only travel occasionally for work)

    Molly wrote on October 24th, 2012
  22. I recently found this also works for flexibility. Yoga is my main form of intentional exercising. In the past, I would practice every day. One day, while praying, God told me, “rest on the sabbath”. So I did and it felt incredible! I was able to come back to my practice on Monday with a renewed sense of excitement instead of forcing myself to get started every day. Then I found Mark’s Daily Apple and learned how your body needs rest days to recover from exercise. I’ve been meditating on that idea for a while. Another blog I read from a recovering anorexic (like myself) challenged me to just take a break from intense exercise in general and see how it felt. So, I took a 3 week break after a year of exercising every day after the birth of my child with only 1 rest day per week for the last 6 months. I remained active by walking around town and staying on my feet for my work as a stay at home mom and doing occasional stretching, yoga and tumbling. After 3 weeks, I just felt ready to pick my yoga practice back up. When I did, my improved flexibility and strength were amazing. I could go much deeper in the poses I was doing and I could hold them for longer. This article certainly gives me more to think about. Thanks for all you do leading people to healthier lives, Mark.

    Austin wrote on October 24th, 2012
  23. A deload week seems like an ideal opportunity to work on 2-3 exercises for which you need to improve your form, or new exercises you’ve been eager to try.

    Work slower, with less weight and plenty of rest between sets so you can really focus on the quality of movement. It seems like this would really benefit you in the long run, as you could then carry this over to when you return to heavier lifting.

    In the next week or two, I think I’ll be taking a break to focus on Turkish get-ups.

    Fritzy wrote on October 24th, 2012
  24. A little different, but a week off for other types of sports training is helpful and necessary. I do table tennis one-on-one training with a coach twice a week. Whenever I take a week or two off, when I get back I do much better. My brain and body need time to form the neural pathways, the muscle memory, etc. So that my strokes come automatically and not from concentrating so hard.

    From learning this first-hand, now when I have been through a strenuous mental or emotional time, like going through a remodel, or having family members visit me for a week, I know that I need a down-time week or so to renew and refresh and reboot myself.

    PureHapa wrote on October 24th, 2012
  25. I’ve noticed people saying things like, “I’ll take a week off from Nov.4th-11th…what if you are feeling like working out even harder that week. How bout taking a week off when you feel tired and are forcing yourself to do a workout just because you are supposed to do a workout that day!

    Nocona wrote on October 24th, 2012
  26. Your articles always seem to come at a time when I need them most. This is something I really need to learn to incorporate in my routines. I recently started Crossfit maybe a month ago and while I love the workouts, they can be pretty intense at times especially since I’m still learning a lot of the moves and techniques. I’m now taking an unintentional deload (I know, defeats the purpose). Was a tad overzealous on my weight for KB swings in last night’s WOD, form got sloppy and now I’m paying for it. Won’t be making that mistake again!

    AshlysGonePrimal wrote on October 24th, 2012
  27. I prefer deload days. I really don’t want to take a whole week off strenuous exercise.. though I don’t train overly fanatically so I doubt I’d need that much time off.
    Yesterday and today were deload days for me. Yesterday I basically sat around on the computer all day and did some rock power-lifts and deadlifts at night. It was brief but intense and left me satisfyingly sore and tired but not overly so.
    Today I spent probably at least four hours walking through forest and did a little walking/balancing on fallen trees and climbed some trees, as well as swinging hanging from a branch and in a dip position on a fallen tree that split into a Y shape (an idea I got from the Ninja Turtles movie).
    When I used to lift weights all the time my deload days would usually consist of some jogging and tree climbing, sometimes with sprints… which I really ought to do more of. I’ve been slacking on cardio lately. Can’t help it at the moment – during a cold swim when my nerves were overwhelmed I clumsily slammed my foot down on a rock and cut the bottom so I think it may be best to let that heal before getting back to running.

    Animanarchy wrote on October 24th, 2012
    • Another way I used to deload when I owned a bike/longboard was decrease the frequency of my workouts and spend a lot more time out and about, rolling around, just going wherever. Sometimes the deload was intentional and sometimes I was just doing what I wanted and using my bike or longboard was just a more convenient way to get around. During these times I’d often lean out a bit from the cardio. If I noticed muscle mass or strength decreases I’d get back to the weights.

      Animanarchy wrote on October 24th, 2012
  28. i am going to do option 2. i have noticed that this past weak that i have a lot of fatigue and strength loss whilst trying to cut down on bodyfat. i think if i just do 15-20 lbs off max weight.

    however this could also be because i have to go under a carb reload since i have been eating about 60 carbs a day for the past 2.5 weeks.

    Dr3w N3m3r wrote on October 24th, 2012
  29. I stumbled on to this phenomenon a couple of weeks ago. We moved into into a new house so for a couple of weeks I was off of my routine with only one long walk and hauling of many boxes. When I went back to the gym for a slow burn workout I was able to increase above my previous max weights on almost every machine. I like the concept and will incorporate it.

    Chas in Mass wrote on October 24th, 2012
  30. I have been doing this for a year or two: taking one week off every 6 weeks. Recently I switched to every 5 weeks. At the end of the rest week I am itching to go back to my usual routine. I spend the week doing stretches and during that week I keep the once a week yoga, pilates and zumba sessions. Agree with Mark that is even more important for the not so young (I am 60).

    WildGrok wrote on October 24th, 2012
  31. I’ve found that while this is physiologically true, that I tend to have a better week, psychologically, when I’m working out (less stress, more calm and productive).

    When I don’t work out it seems hard to get up and at ’em.

    Anyone feel similarly, or have a suggestion for this situation?

    Joe wrote on October 24th, 2012
    • I’m in that boat, too. A very brief mellow run in the fresh air sometimes is enough to balance those needs for me.

      Danielle Thalman wrote on October 24th, 2012
  32. I’ve practiced the de-load week (every 8 weeks) since I was in highschool. Sometimes I don’t even touch the weights and just go for a walk, kayak etc., but I’ve always noticed that my body feels fresher (and my mind) after the de-load.
    I’ve done the same with my clients, and although it’s hard to pull them away from the heavy stuff for a whole week, it always pays off and they come back refreshed and even hungrier to smash personal bests

    Isaac Warbrick wrote on October 24th, 2012
  33. Amazing, just as I was thinking of taking a week off next week.
    Mark has read my mind once again!

    Bennett wrote on October 24th, 2012
  34. This is a great article; I myself play Division I college soccer and during the off season we have done some pretty heavy lifting. We always go hard for about 4 or 5 weeks then have this “deload week” with less weight and reps and follow this week with our “max” sessions. The results are all positive; lifting more than we even thought we could. I fully believe in this deload week and beleive it has many benefits!!

    Katie wrote on October 24th, 2012
  35. Wendler’s 5/3/1 FTW. Hitting the gym for a deload session requires ego-check PR, but it’s more than worth it in the long run. Thank you, Jim!

    66 wrote on October 24th, 2012
    • Amen.

      James wrote on October 24th, 2012
  36. The advice to “deload” for a week is consistent with the recommendation made by Doug McDuff, M.D., and John Little in their book, “Body by Science.” (Mark had a review of the book – which is where I found it initially – on December 14, 2011.) At its most basic, “BbS” recommends a “Big Five” workout (Overhead Press, Chest Press, Seated Row, Lateral Pulldown, and Leg Press) once a week, with each exercise being a 1 set of repetitions to positive failure, and no more than 90 seconds of slow repetitions. Then, rest for a week, and return; repeating the pattern for eight weeks (give or take), and then switching to a different set of exercises, using a “Big Three” (3 of the “Big Five”) and some more specialized sets, again, all done one time to positive failure. I am at week two of my own n=1 experiment, and I am very pleased with the results. I will say I am glad to see that the deloading approach allows the use of lighter weights on other days! I’ll get more out of my gym membership that way.

    Thanks, Mark, as always, for the good advice!

    EvilJuan wrote on October 24th, 2012
  37. I know this is popular right now, but I have wondered about this. You don’t get deload days in boot camp, but you get really strong really quick. Many workers don’t get deload days, dock workers, asian laborers, etc. I see, here in Asia, people working incredibly hard, 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, same activities every day and they are lean and strong and healthy. Deload? No way, got to make money…so deload perhaps for performance athletes, or spoiled westerners, but in the third world, deload is a luxury. I wonder if our primal ancestors would say “Oh Grok, no hunting today, it’s my deload day…”

    krusomkit wrote on October 24th, 2012

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