December 19, 2021
What is a deload week? Well, going to the gym is a daily part of our lives. It’s something we take pride in, which means we want to bust our ass on the gym floor. For many of us, the gym is our place of zen; it’s where we go to release all of the pressure brought on by daily life. That’s awesome, and we love it.
However, when lifting is a significant part of your life, you can’t push at 100% all the time. Sometimes you need to chill out and take a deload week to let your body heal and relax. This can sometimes be a hard pill for some lifters to swallow since “they are not wussies.” Well, we want to tell you that a deload week definitely does not make you a wussie, and they can actually make you a more bad-ass, stronger lifter. In fact, if you “never need” a deload week, there’s a good chance you’re not pushing it hard enough in the gym.
But what is a deload week, and how do you program them? That’s what this article is all about. We’re going to break down everything you need to know about a deload week and why you need to start programming them if you’re serious about lifting.
Here's what we will cover:
So what is a deload week? A deload week is simply a week used to help your body completely heal after a few weeks of intense exercise. Quite simply, deload follows the principle of super-compensation. Super compensation follows 3 logical steps of progress.
From here, you then put on a higher weight to stress it even more. In reality, this is where progressive overload comes into play as you’ll;
Stress the muscle → Recover → Have a stronger muscle → Place a greater load on it
Therefore, a deload week is essentially a more extended period for step 2 i.e. a long recovery period. Even when you are allowing proper recovery between training days, fatigue can still build up, which demands a more intense period of time for recovery. The deload week satisfies this by having the athlete schedule a week where they will do their lifts but will use a significantly lower weight. For example, if your last week you performed 5x5 back squats with 350lbs, your deload week would have you perform 5x5 back squats using 175-200lbs.
Other methods will have you strictly perform mobility work or work on some easy gymnastic or calisthenic movements. The basic idea is to keep you moving while not getting anywhere close to taxing your body. In theory, this will allow you to completely heal to optimize your supercompensation period and come back even stronger.
The easiest way to think about a deload week is to pretend it’s a really long period of active recovery.
As mentioned, the purpose is to simply allow a longer period of recovery to allow the muscles and neuromuscular system fully heal. While rest days help to some extent, they don’t allow full recovery. Even if you feel “good”, you probably actually have some issues going on; this is common with neuromuscular fatigue. Therefore, while your weekly rest days slow down the buildup of fatigue, they don’t completely eliminate it. That’s what the deload week does.
This is where some disagreements come into play. Some will say everyone needs to deload while some will say, no-one. Then there’s those in between. We lie somewhere in between. Below we will go over each specific population and address their needs.
The athletic population is one group of people where a deload can definitely benefit their performance. For one, the athletic population’s main concern with lifting is strengthening the muscles and joints to mitigate injury while improving performance. If they are constantly pushing themselves in the gym, they are much more likely to hurt themselves as they are always tired and never fully recovered.
Also, we will assume that this population has been training for some time now, so their progress comes much slower and requires higher levels of stress. Therefore, having some deloads won’t have a massive impact on their performance. Still, a deload work can actually have an added bonus for this group as they have more time for skill training or to identify specific mobility or issues they may have.
Advanced and elite lifters would also do well by including deload weeks in their training. Again, this population has been lifting for at least 3+ years using a progressive overload program. They are past the beginner stages and require greater amounts of stress for smaller gains.
Further, this population is lifting loads relative to their body weight. This damages not just the muscles but also heavily taxes the neuromuscular system. Therefore, these lifters using heavy loads MUST take times of extended rest to allow their bodies to fully recover.
This is what the saying “two steps forward, one step back” means in the world of strength and conditioning. Long gone are the days where you will progressively get stronger every session. Therefore, at this time in your lifting career, you must be comfortable with having periods of time where you’re not lifting much in the gym. However, to be honest, you have probably already learned this lesson if you have reached this lesson.
This group is likely the most nuanced group when trying to answer this question. That’s because there is such a broad spectrum of trainees at this level. Some are more dedicated than others. Therefore the best answer to if they need a deload week is “probably but it depends”.
What does it depend on? Well, the main component is how strict are they with their regime?
What this means is, are they following their plan to the “T” and hitting every session? Or, are they only hitting maybe 75% of their program, and it’s not uncommon for them to go 3 days without hitting the gym? These things matter when considering if someone needs to plan a deload week. If they are strict with their program, they probably do need a planned deload.
However, if they regularly take extended breaks, these naturally act as “deloads”.
Are they on a proper, structured plan?
Once some trainees get to the intermediate page, they may get bored of structured plans and just want to do their own thing. While we always suggest following a structured workout plan, for all intents and purposes, this is fine. It’s hard to get to the intermediate stage, and it’s difficult to suggest you “need” to get stronger for increased health benefits. However, you probably don’t need a deload as you’ll work that in naturally when you start to feel fatigued.
If you are on a structured program and following it consistently, then yes, you’ll probably need a planned deload week.
Are they actually wanting to get stronger?
This may seem silly, BUT similar to above, some trainees aren’t actually interested in getting any stronger once they hit the intermediate stage. Again, that’s perfectly fine if you fall into this category. Not everyone wants to hit a 3x bodyweight deadlift. If you are content with your strength levels, a deload week MAY not be as important. We say “may” because you still need to factor in fatigue and injury. If you don’t care about getting stronger but are still following a structured plan with progressive overload, you still need to deload so as not to produce too much fatigue and get injured or mess up your hormone levels.
However, if you’re fine and doing your own thing, you can probably pass on a deload.
General Pop/Beginner Lifters
If you just started to lift or are “general pop” you likely don’t need to deload. The reason being is you’re not using a heavy enough load to tax your nervous system to the extent that it requires an extended deload.
Further, beginner lifters often still need to improve their gym work ethic. By this we mean lifters need to learn to be consistent in the gym and train with appropriate loads. Doing so takes time, and it’s part of the process. However, until you learn to be consistent with your training and use appropriate intensity, deloads are unneeded.
As mentioned above, a deload week is a more extended period of recovery to allow your body to fully heal and manage your fatigue. As we train, we can build up levels of fatigue in our neuromuscular system. This can have significant effects on your levels of strength, and studies have shown that fatigue can cause major detriments to sport skills. Further, too much fatigue can also cause a decline in our mental health as well as physically make us ill. Therefore, including scheduled deload weeks has many awesome benefits, including:
These are going to be your 3 main benefits of a deload week which should be plenty to demonstrate the need for one IF you qualify for them.
We will first assume that you NEED a deload week to answer this question. By this we mean you fall in one of the categories above that says you need it. While some severe lifter will deload every 4th week, your average lifter can likely deload every 6 weeks. This means train 5 weeks, and then deload. You can experiment with this time frame and see what works best for you and how you feel.
For other trainees, you can likely go much longer until you need a deload. We will discuss this in greater detail below, but plan these into your routine. For example, if you have a family, you can plan on doing deload weeks during the holidays, so you have time to enjoy the festivities. Or, if you travel often, let those little trips be your deload.
At the same time, the best way to know if you need a deload week is how you feel and your performance levels in the gym. Unfortunately, by the time you think a lot of fatigue, you are too late, but if you can catch fatigue early, you can plan on doing a deload week.
The best way to do a deload depends on your circumstances and goals. In other words, there is no “best” way to deload. Surprise surprise (more nuance in strength and conditioning). Therefore, we are going to break down different groups of people and the best way to plan their programs.
Athletes you are training solely for increased athletic performance would do well taking a deload once every 4th week. Now this is assuming these are experienced athletes who:
This does not include those who are playing recreationally for fun (Nothing wrong with that, though!)
For this group, the frequent rest will help ensure they stay free from injury. Plus, they can use the deload week for skill-specific training or lower intense training. This can include training for:
Elite Or Advanced And Even Some Intermediate Lifters
This group is the only group which we can adequately say we definitely need to program a deload week. To know if you fall into this category, you should fall under some guidelines.
If this is you, then you’ll follow the following guidelines
There are a ton of ways to run this deload, but again, the idea is to keep the body moving without taxing the system. Also, your personal needs will dictate how to best spend your deload week. Assess what you need and do that.
Beginner/Intermediate Recreational Lifters And Busy Lifters
Let’s say you are a beginner and take lifting seriously, BUT you have a family, full-time job, and normal responsibilities that come with being a productive member of society. This group could do well from deloads but can work them into their everyday routine. For example, you have a week vacation with the fam coming up, so you can let that be your deload. This is one area that erks us. We hate seeing recreational lifters thinking they need to work out on their vacation…. DON’T work out on your vacation!!!
Well, you can if you need to (especially if you are doing a long vacation and want to stay fit while traveling), but if you don’t travel often and are on vacation for a short time, that makes a perfect deload week. That week at the beach or mountains is optimal timing to relax a little bit and heal. In fact, many of these vacations include suitable deload activities such as hiking, swimming, and cycling.
Still, when you are busy, things always happen. You likely aren’t hitting all of your workouts, resulting in less buildup of fatigue. Plus, you need to consider that even though you’re training with a good work ethic, your loads still aren’t so massive that you’re creating fatigue. Therefore, you likely don’t need to program a specific deload week.
The best word to use for this group is “be mindful”. Be mindful of how your body feels, be mindful of your performance, and be mindful of your mental state. Also, consider the length of time where you have been consistent. If you have been consistent for a few months and notice that you’re feeling a bit fatigued, you could do well by taking some time off. You can do the exact same plan but drop the weight in half, OR you might do well by throwing in some light steady-state conditioning or even work on mobility issues.
The “deload” week is often misunderstood, and either too much or too little is placed on it. The problematic part about definitively saying if you need one rests on the fact that there are so many variables to consider. Regardless, the most critical aspect is to not look at the deload week as you are missing out on training. This time can be an excellent time to finesse any movements, work on any nagging issues, and ultimately be your path to getting stronger.
To summarize everything, here is what you need to know about deload week:
Therefore, don’t be scared of taking a step back from training and also don’t overcomplicate things. Get in the gym, tone down the intensity, move your body, and then crush it next week!
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