How Adding a Deload Week to Your Workout Routine Can Boost Your Progress

While they may seem counterintuitive at first, deload weeks may be a useful tool for maximizing your progress while avoiding injury.

Woman Lifting Heavy Weight
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If you have strength goals, lifting things up and putting them down is part of the plan. But depending on your specific strength goal, designating time to not lift may be beneficial.

Indeed, many well-programmed strength programs have full weeks devoted to scaling back on or even completely avoiding lifting. Known as deload weeks, these intentionally programmed breaks in your routine are designed to increase fitness and performance, says certified strength and conditioning coach Sharon Gam, Ph.D, C.S.C.S. While deload weeks are most common in strength sports, "they are something people doing any kind of hard training could benefit from, including aerobic sports like running, strength sports like Olympic lifting, or field, ice, and court sports," says Gam.

Here, learn more about what exactly a deload week entails, their benefits, and when and how to take one.

What Is a Deload Week?

At its most basic, a deload week is a recovery week. "It's a week when you take time off your usual training program — or reduce your usual training volume or intensity — to allow your body to recover," says strength and conditioning coach Reda Elmardi, R.D., C.S.C.S., founder of The Gym Goat. Refresher: Training volume refers to how much you're exercising (think: number of reps, sets, and miles) while training intensity refers to how hard you're exercising.

In practice, a deload week doesn't look that different from taking time off the gym for vacation, according to exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., host of the All About Fitness podcast. But by definition, the two are quite different. While breaks from fitness for vacations are typically random and taken to avoid scheduling chaos, deload weeks are intentionally programmed breaks from your usual volume that you take to maximize your gains, minimize your injury risk, and keep your head in the game. While a random week away from the gym is something the average Joe might take, a deload week is what an Olympian would take.

Why Someone Might Take a Deload Week

To understand exactly why someone with serious goals might take gym deload weeks, you need to understand the mechanisms through which your body gets stronger, better, faster, etc. Ready?

When you exercise, you are shearing tiny little tears into your muscle fibers, which once repaired, leave those fibers even stronger than they were before, explains Gam. Essentially, exercise is designed to intentionally place stress on your body, which then levels up and adapts to the stress, she explains. "When you're just starting out with exercise, it doesn't take that much stress to prompt your body to adapt and get fitter and stronger," she says. People with more experience aren't that lucky.

"Advanced exercisers and athletes have to push their body pretty hard to keep making gains," says Gam. Actually, many have to use a protocol known as functional overreaching — which involves taking the body right up to the point where it can barely recover from fatigue and muscle damage, she explains. "It's tricky to strike the balance between working hard enough to get better, and going overboard," says Gam. That's where programs and programmed deloads come into play.

People at this level typically follow comprehensive training programs, written out months in advance that are designed to get them from point A (now) to point B (their specific goals), explains Gam. Far from random, these programs make athletes better by allowing them to recover after a bout of overreaching.

To be blunt, someone who isn't overreaching — either because they do not need to to make progress or because they do not have goals that require it — just isn't going to need (or benefit from!) a deload week the way someone who is (and needs to be) overreaching would.

The Benefits of Taking a Deload Week

If you frequent the gym, you've probably heard that rest days are absolutely essential. (If not, read this piece about the importance of a rest and recovery). Well, the idea behind deload weeks is that they essentially provide the same benefit of a rest day — but to a much greater degree.

Since deload weeks give your muscles some real time to repair from the work you've put them through, "one way to think about deload weeks is as injury prevention," says Elmardi. For people training at high levels, a single rest day (or two) may simply not be adequate for recovery and injury prevention, he explains.

But deload works aren't just about safety, they're also about progress. "There are plenty of stories of people hitting personal bests after taking a short break from their training," says Gam. In fact, there's even some research to back it up.

One study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology compared the results of two groups doing high intensity resistance training three days per week. One group trained every week for 24 weeks, and the other group did cycles of training for six weeks at a time, followed by three weeks off before training again.

The result after six months? Both groups had gained about the same amount of muscle and strength, but the deload group accomplished that with 25 percent less training sessions(!). The researchers noted that after each break in training, muscle size and strength increased rapidly and allowed the deload group to catch up to the group that was training more consistently, explains Gam.

While most exercisers take deload weeks for the physical benefits, there are also mental benefits of taking time off from usual training schedule. One of those benefits of taking a deload week is that it actually gives you a chance to miss the gym, according to Elmardi. By getting you out of your routine, you're reminded what a gift it is to get to move your body every day, which can reignite your desire to work out. "Taking time off can help people return to the gym more motivated than they were before, so that pushing just a little bit harder at the gym becomes easier," says Elmardi.

There really aren't any downsides to taking a deload week. Some athletes are worried that they're going to get less fit during their deload week, but such is not the case. "A deload week is programmed after four to six weeks of really hard training and gives you a chance to actually reap the benefits of that hard work," says McCall. "You're not going to be less fit after taking five to seven days off. You have to take somewhere between seven and 10 days off to start losing fitness."

How to Take a Deload Week

If you're someone who can benefit from a deload, chances are you're already working with a coach who can program the recovery periods for you. But if you're wondering what that usually looks like, here's what you should know.

How Often to Take a Deload Week

"There aren't clear guidelines for how often to deload or exactly what to do during a deload," says Gam. Some athletes take one once every four to eight weeks, others take one just once or twice per year, says McCall.

That said, sometimes a coach will tell an athlete to take a deload week if they aren't making gains at a rate that makes sense. "If you've been working out consistently for months and haven't seen any change in your body shape or lift numbers, then your body might need the recovery of a deload week," says Elmardi.

An athlete may also take a deload week (or weeks, plural) if they are experiencing symptoms of overtraining syndrome, such as menstrual changes, period loss (amenorrhea), unexplained weight gain, headaches, lack of motivation, mood changes, and severe soreness, says Elmardi.

How to Work Out During a Deload Week

The schedule on a deload week will vary athlete to athlete. Some athletes will continue to go into the gym, but instead of prioritizing weight, volume, and intensity, will focus on movement quality, form, and mobility. "Typically, during a deload, you don't stop working out altogether, but instead just take it easy during your workouts," says Gam. "Some coaches recommend a 50 percent reduction in training volume and about a five to 10 percent reduction in intensity."

However, some athletes mentally and emotionally need the relief accompanied with not stepping foot in their training space for a few days. These athletes might spend their deload weeks using their fitness to enjoy their life (e.g. by hiking, road riding, or nature walking). These athletes might also use this time to take a local yoga class with their bestie or go on recovery runs with their pup. "What you do on a deload week is more of an art than a science," says Gam.

The Bottom Line On Deload Weeks

For people with serious goals, regularly programmed deload weeks can be beneficial physiologically and emotionally. But you don't have to be a competitive CrossFit athlete, marathoner, medaled lifter, or triathlete to need a week of rest and recovery — whether you dub that week a 'deload week' or not.

"Even a lot of everyday exercisers put too much pressure on themselves to get jacked up at the gym every day," as McCall puts it. "But sometimes there are days and weeks when we are slammed at work or going through break-ups when they would actually benefit from not putting another stressor on their body." In other words, no matter who you are, don't sleep on the benefits of a few days off.

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