Do you remember the last time you dialed back your workouts? Not because you had to, but because you decided to? If the answer is no, you’re overdue for a deload week.
In a deload week — or, more simply, a deload — you purposely back off on your training a bit to allow body and mind — muscles, joints, nervous system, mood, motivation — to recoup from the accumulated stress of hard, consistent training.
Deloading is a technique long used by elite athletes, before and after competition, to help prevent injury, boost performance, increase motivation, and improve long-term results.
What works for them can work for you, too. Here’s what you can expect from a deload — and the best ways to work one into your program.
What Is a Deload Week?
A deload is a period of reduced workout intensity and/or volume that allows your body to catch up with the ever-mounting stress you’ve placed on it over a sustained workout regimen.
This might confound common wisdom, which generally holds that exercise makes us stronger, leaner, and more muscular. But that’s not the whole story.
What brings about those beneficial changes is an appropriate balance between exercise and recovery.
Consider: If exercise alone brought about greater fitness, you could work out round-the-clock and make even greater progress. But you can’t. In fact, if you tried, you’d quickly find your performance and results going backward.
To be effective, even a great workout — the kind that leaves you feeling like you can take on the world — requires rest, food, and recovery in the hours and days that follow.
Why Are Deload Weeks Important?
If you’re following a well-designed program — one that pushes you a little bit more with each successive workout and gives you time to recover from each one — your next workout will come right when you’ve recovered sufficiently from your last session.
At that point, you’ll stress your body with another tough workout, recover from that session, and continue the work-recovery cycle, getting steadily fitter as you go.
Sadly, you can’t continue this cycle forever: if you could, anyone who worked out consistently would be able to run a four-minute mile and bench press a school bus after a few short months.
At some point, your ability to perform more work will exceed your ability to recover, and you’ll hit a plateau; try as you might, you can’t lift any heavier, run any faster, or do any more reps.
When this happens, many serious exercisers, frustrated at their lack of progress, double down on their workouts, adding more sets, exercises, or sessions per week in an effort to reignite progress.
But that’s a huge mistake, and a quick recipe for injury and burnout. What you really need is a recovery period: a week or more of milder activity that allows your body to bounce back so you can return fresher, stronger, and ready to make progress again.
Hence, the deload. You can still work out, but those workouts will be far less intense than they’d normally be. It works best when you’ve been exercising consistently, increasing your workload steadily over time, as you do in a three-week BODi block.
As explained above, it’s not “downtime” exactly. But if you do it right, a deload week will result in exceptional improvements in strength, muscle, and fitness.
That’s why we call them “UP” — or “unconditional progress” — weeks: They help ensure that you keep reaching ever-higher peaks of fitness over time.
How to Deload
Deloading isn’t a license to let your fitness program go off the rails. Instead, try one of these three strategies:
1. Reduce intensity
“Intensity” is often used as a vague term for how hard you’re working, but to trainers it refers to how much weight you are lifting as a percentage of your maximum.
So in a regular strength session, if you can squat 100 pounds with maximal effort, and your workout calls for four sets of six reps at 80 percent of your max, you’d work with an 80-pound bar.
But during a deload, you’d reduce the weight you use in each exercise by about 50 percent, still performing the same number of sets and reps you’d normally do.
So, in a deload week for a program that included the exercise in the previous example, you’d perform four sets of six reps of squats using 40 pounds.
Though it’s slightly harder to calculate, you can do something similar with any type of workout, reducing speed in a running workout or reducing the resistance in an indoor cycling workout.
Reducing intensity allows you to practice good form on key movements, get some blood flowing into your muscles and joints, and burn some calories.
Like other forms of deloading, your muscles get a chance to recover and rebound while you get a chance to motivate yourself again to lift heavy.
2. Reduce volume
“Volume” refers to the number of “working” sets and reps you perform of each exercise. A working set, as opposed to a warm-up set, is one intended to challenge the muscles to, or close to, their maximum capacity.
In a reduced-volume deload, you cut the number of work sets by about half, while still using the same weight you used the previous week in each exercise.
So if, in the final week of your most recent BODi block, you performed four sets of six reps of squats with 100 pounds, you’d do two sets of six reps in your deload week, again using 100 pounds.
This method works well for intermediates who have yet to approach their full potential for strength. However, advanced gym-goers, who might use 300 pounds or more on some exercises, should opt for a reduced-intensity deload.
300 pounds is considerably harder on your joints and connective tissue than, say, 100 pounds — even for someone whose muscles are strong enough to handle the heavier load.
Of course, you can also reduce both intensity and volume: Cut the weights by half and the work sets by half. That’s the easiest option, and if you’re feeling particularly beat up or burned out, it might be the best one for you.
3. Change your activity
Another deload option is to forgo the gym and change activities altogether. On days when you’d ordinarily lift weights, instead swim, hike, play tennis, jog, hit the heavy bag, cycle, or attend a dance or cycling class.
Easier is better than super-intense. Remember, the watchword for the week is recovery, and you won’t get much of that if you spend five days in a cycling class with an instructor who thinks she’s coaching riders for the Tour de France.
Changing activities is a great way to enjoy the fitness you’ve built over weeks and months of training, and a great way to discover activities you might otherwise have skipped due to time constraints.
You might even discover a passion for a new activity that you want to fold into your exercise program. And that’s a very good thing: For health, longevity, injury prevention, and fitness, diversifying your activities is always a good idea.
Benefits of a Deload Week
The benefits of a deload week may seem obvious, but if you’re a dedicated exerciser, they’re essential to ongoing progress.
Gives your body and mind a break
Let’s say you’re 90 percent recovered two days after a hard session, and you hit the gym for your next workout.
You probably won’t notice much difference in your performance, but if you keep at it, you could easily accumulate a recovery deficit of 50 percent after a week. That can quickly add up to some pretty serious fatigue.
Deloading helps end that cycle, allowing you to recharge fully, so that you can continue to progress and improve without fatiguing or incurring injury.
Can help you refocus your goals
Perhaps the most important benefit of deloading is that is helps you take a macro-view of your workout program. Instead of thinking only of today’s workout, deloading helps you see each session as a small part of an overarching plan that lasts many months or years.
In this way, you can start to see beyond short-term goals like “lose 10 pounds by summer” and instead consider goals with much broader horizons:
Overhaul my health in a year.
Complete a 12-mile obstacle race in 18 months.
Add 100 pounds to my deadlift in two years.
When you’re looking at the broader picture, ambitious goals like these become attainable.
When to Deload
Deloading works best for intermediate and advanced lifters who have just completed a three- to six- week period of consistent, progressive workouts.
Beginners don’t need to deload. In general, novices don’t tax their bodies hard enough to warrant regular week-long breaks, and should focus instead on learning perfect form and building consistency.
If your workouts have been sporadic, and have not stressed your body enough to stimulate gains in strength and muscle size, then a one-week deload won’t stimulate additional growth; it will simply be a week of missed workouts.
But if you’ve been working hard and following a progressive program that has you lifting more weight for more repetitions over time, then your deload week will yield results. You’ll get more by doing less!