The deload is an important and often overlooked component of any solid strength-training program, yet plenty of lifters have never heard of it, let alone incorporated it into their workout plan.
A deload is a planned break—typically lasting about a week—from your regular training schedule. But instead of taking that time completely off (though that’s an option, too), you reduce your workouts’ volume, frequency, and/or intensity.
“After you’ve been in a training program for quite a long time, assuming the intensity and frequency have been pretty high, a deload week is very much needed,” says Chad Barribeau, C.S.C.S., field support director for D1 Training. “It allows your body to recoup a little bit.”
These scheduled breaks can be hugely beneficial, so if your strength strategy doesn’t involve regular deloads, it’s time to change that. Here’s what you should know about the benefits of including deloads in your program—and how to do it effectively.
The Benefits Of A Deload
You might think having a “go hard or go home” mentality around working out is a requirement for making maximal gains, but that’s actually not the case. In fact, scheduled periods of pumping the breaks do your body good in a number of ways.
1. Greater gains
Taking time to recover after an intense period of training helps you come back stronger when you return to your usual programming. That’s right: Deloads make for greater strength and muscle gains over time.
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Case in point: One 2013 European Journal of Applied Physiology study had one group of young men strength train continuously for six months while another group took planned breaks every six weeks. After those first six weeks, the guys who trained without breaks saw less pronounced increases in muscle and strength. Meanwhile, the guys who incorporated deloads saw significantly greater gains afterward.
2. Reduced risk of injury
Easing up on training for a week may also prevent overuse injuries, notes exercise physiologist Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S. How? By allowing your muscles, bones, and connective tissue to repair fully before ramping back up.
In a study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, researchers took blood samples from elite rowers during intense training weeks and compared them to samples taken during a deload week. Rowers had significantly higher levels of osteoprotegerin (a protein that safeguards against bone loss) and lower levels of sclerostin (a protein that offsets new bone formation) during their deload week.
3. Greater long-term motivation
As much as you might love the gym, including planned breaks and deload weeks can ultimately help you keep up with your routine long-term. In fact, you might be more motivated to slay your workouts in the meantime if you know you have a break coming.
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That said, if you want to stick to your usual schedule, taking a deload over a full-stop break can help you do that. “If you’ve been consistent about working out and have settled into a good routine, we don’t want to stop that,” Barribeau says. Taking a week off could make it tough to regain your momentum—especially if you’ve gotten used to not exercising. So, which route you decide on really depends on your needs and personality.
4. Chance to shift your fitness focus
Moreover, using lighter weights and/or lower training volumes offers a good opportunity to focus on other areas of your training, Barribeau says. One idea: Spend the week honing your exercise technique. This way, when you reload the bar with the heavy weights, you’ll move through your exercises with increased awareness of your form.
How To Deload
To experience the benefits of easing off your workout intensity, a good rule of thumb is to take a deload every six to eight weeks of regular training, Somerset suggests. Ideally, you’ll plan your deload for the week after your training peaks, or the time when your workouts reach maximum intensity for a given training block.
You may also decide to take a deload week whenever you notice a dip in workout performance and/or motivation, Barribeau adds.
Of course, if you need this week to be a full-on break, go for it. But if you want to stay in the rhythm of your routine, a typical deload protocol is for you. Generally, a deload involves reducing training volume by as much as 50 percent, intensity by 10 to 20 percent, and/or frequency by 25 to 33 percent, Somerset says. There are many ways to structure a deload week and bring these numbers to life. Here are a few approaches Barribeau and Somerset suggest:
1. Reduce your sets
Keep your weight the same but complete one or two fewer sets than usual. So, if your program normally calls for three or four sets of an exercise, cut back to between one and three.
2. Lower the weight
In this instance, you won’t change your set and rep scheme. Instead, simply decrease your weight by 50 to 60 percent. So, if you typically squat 200 pounds, drop down to 80 to 100 pounds.
3. Do fewer workouts
If you want to keep your workout variables (think sets, reps, and weight) the same, just perform fewer workouts than usual. Usually do six workouts a week? Cut that down to four.
To ensure that you don’t let your intensity creep too high during a deload week, use the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. The RPE scale runs from 0 to 10, where 0 describes the intensity you feel when sitting still and 10 is how you feel after an all-out workout. Aim for a four to six on the RPE scale, Barribeau suggests.
Note: Depending on how you structure your deload week, the weight, sets, or workouts themselves could feel more intense than an RPE of four or six. After all, if you’re lifting your usual weight, it will likely feel just as heavy as usual. Because you’re doing fewer sets or workouts, though, your overall RPE will be much lower, Barribeau explains. So approach your RPE with more of a bird’s-eye-view perspective.
After the week, you should be feeling mentally and physically refreshed—and ready to ramp your workout intensity right back up.