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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 [8], running sprints [9], 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 [10], I find anecdotes from certain demographics – like people who turn other people into strong, healthy, fit athletes – extremely persuasive. And time [11] and time again [12]they show [13] 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 [14], 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 [15]. 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 [16] 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 [17]. 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 [18]. 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 [19] 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 [20], 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 [21], 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 [22]. 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 [23], “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 [24] 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 [25], but many of us have lost that connection [26], 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 [27] 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:

Whatever you choose, it probably won’t hurt – unless you don’t deload at all. I’d suggest conducting an experiment of one [30], tracking your progress [31], and seeing if it works for you [32] 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!