You’ve heard of boosting your calorie intake, or refeeding, to hit your training goals harder at the gym, but deload week is when you give your muscles a bit of a break instead of your diet.
While that might seem counterproductive to your strength-training goals, it can actually improve your performance.
What is deload week?
It’s when you decrease how much you’re training and/or the amount of weight you’re moving when doing strength-training exercises.
A period of deloading can help your muscles to recover if you’ve been pushing them too hard lately.
If you’re going through a plateau at the gym, a deload week is a solid way to get you over the bump and back to building muscle.
Whether you’re getting over a plateau or wanting to help your muscles recover from the strain of overtraining, a deload week done regularly is really healthy for your muscles, from a scientific viewpoint.
Your Deload Week Can Reboot Your Fitness Goals
There’s no doubt that you’ll benefit from having a less strenuous training program for a few days during deload week.
Don’t believe that?
A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that both non-athletes and athletes can reach their fitness goals much faster after taking a break, compared to when they first began working out.
A break helps your muscles to recover after a strenuous training routine, so they can perform at their peak. You might think, “But I recover quickly after a training session?”
It’s not that simple.
Understanding How Your Body Recovers After Exercise
You might wonder why you even need a deload week.
After all, if you help your tired muscles recover after an intense workout, such as by eating well, getting enough rest, and giving them enough protein to increase their mass, they’ll recover on their own, right?
Although that’s true, other parts of your body that are involved in your strenuous workouts don’t recover as quickly as muscles do, which tends to be over the course of a few days.
Your bones, tendons, and ligaments take much longer to heal, and if you’re regularly weightlifting, you’re causing tears in them that can lead to strains and even injuries at a later stage if you never give them a break.
Besides for the importance of body recovery, it’s also important to consider the reaction to stress that your body undergoes when you’re involved in regular and strenuous exercise, which further reveals why a deload week is so important.
Stages Of Stress During Exercise
Basically, there are three stages of how your body deals with the stress you put it under when you exercise regularly.
The first one is when your body starts a new workout routine and it’s forced to adapt to the stress of the new experience.
It does this by boosting blood flow and oxygen to your muscles, and you might experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) about a day or so after doing that workout.
As you continue exercising regularly, you reach stage two of muscle stress.
By now, your body is increasing its ability to deal with the stress you’re inflicting on it through training hard.
This is the stage you love best because you’re increasing your gains as well as your body’s overall strength.
Your body is recruiting muscle fibers to deal with the stress, and you reap the payoff of this process. But this stage can’t last forever.
Stage three is when your body starts to feel pinned down by all the stress.
You feel exhausted, whether emotionally or physically. You might have pain in your body or feel strain in your muscles.
When you hit this stage, it’s the perfect time to have a deload week because you’re observing signs that your body needs a break and by giving it what it wants, you’re helping it to get back on track and continue working for you.
Misconceptions About Deload Week
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what deloading is really about, so it’s important to get to the bottom of them and see how you can gain from deloading.
FYI, a deload week isn’t about kicking up your feet and chilling hard!
Deload Vs. Rest Days: What’s The Difference?
A deload week is about much more than just resting. It actually prepares your body for an increased demand that will be placed on it.
That means, after a deload week, you should feel rejuvenated and ready to hit the gym hard, while your muscles will be raring to go after having had a bit of a break.
A period of deloading can even help you gain more strength.
A study that was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that athletes achieved greater strength when they did training routines that concentrated on them increasing or lowering resistance according to how they felt rather than by training in such a way that they increased the resistance and intensity of their training in a progressive fashion.
When taking a deload week, you’re actually not avoiding exercise and eating unhealthily. You’re not kicking your feet up and avoiding the gym.
You’ll continue to do a bit of exercise and strength training, and maintain the same amount of calories you eat daily, but just without the same strenuous level of exercise.
But Won’t I Lose Muscle Gains?
One of the fears that may stop some people from taking a deload week is that they’re going to lose their muscles if they stop training.
It’s a valid fear. Heck, you wouldn’t want all that effort you’ve put in over the last few months or years to go to waste.
However, a week of rest won’t do any damage at all when it comes to your muscles.
It takes up to four weeks of no exercise before you will start noticing a decrease in your strength, as pointed out by research that was published in Sports Medicine journal.
Deload Week: How It Makes The Best Of Fatigue
To further understand what happens to your body during deload week, we need to look at fatigue.
No one wants to hit a level of extreme fatigue.
When you’re lifting weights and can’t do the usual reps that you usually sail through, you feel like your body’s giving up on you. It’s a horrible feeling.
Deloading Uses Fatigue In A Positive Way
Having a deload week every now and then can help you to turn exercise fatigue into a benefit for your workout.
Here’s a scientific explanation for why.
Basically, your muscles use glycogen to give you the energy you need to train your body.
But, week after week of intense training uses up those glycogen stores, which is why you might feel a decrease in performance.
While some fatigue is good – you want to feel tired after a good workout – you should avoid accumulating fatigue as this can lead to reduced endurance but also less muscle growth than what you’re hoping to achieve.
You also have to consider your hormones.
Training too much reduces your testosterone levels, while your stress hormone or cortisol levels increase.
Elevated cortisol levels is a villain for your muscles because it means that your muscles get broken down (catabolism), instead of building up (anabolism).
By taking a break, you can restore that precious glycogen and keep your cortisol hormone down, putting you in the position to bring more power to your next training session.
Who Really Needs To Deload Regularly
While a deload week can be beneficial if you’re a beginner who’s been working out a little too hard and you’re showing signs of that strain, a deload week is mainly important for advanced trainers who regularly do things like deadlift, squat, and bench high quantities of weight.
For these people, taking regular deload weeks will prevent fatigue as a result of overtraining.
If you’re that person, a good time to schedule a deload week is on the fourth week of every month.
Having this schedule in place helps you focus on muscle recovery, instead of allowing your fatigue and exhaustion to become serious before you take some time off.
That said, some people go for longer periods before they feel they need a deload week.
When you choose to have a deload week is up to you, but the most important thing is to focus on what you feel your body needs.
It’s important to be able to read the signs from your body that you need to step away from the weights for a few days.
Signs You’re Ready For A Deload Week
While you should aim to have a deload week regularly, there are times when your body’s screaming at you to take a few days off your intensive workouts.
If these things are happening to you, then it’s time to deload. Listen to your body!
Your joints are killing you
If your joints are sore and they just won’t let up enough to make you work through your training sessions, that’s a clear sign that you need to take a step back and allow them to heal.
By doing some beneficial stretching exercises and decreasing the amount of work you’re doing at the gym, you’ll stop hurting them so they won’t get seriously injured and keep you out of the game for longer.
In this way, think of a deload week as a preventative measure!
You’re Losing Strength
If you used to be able to power through your weight-lifting program without a hassle but now you can’t get to those last reps and your muscles feel exhausted, then you need to deload and take a bit of a break, even if your instinct is to power through.
That won’t get you anywhere.
Lifting weights doesn’t just put pressure on your muscles – it puts pressure on your central nervous system, which can tire you out over time if you’re never giving your body a chance to recover.
Central nervous system fatigue is triggered by muscle damage.
Although some research has claimed that this fatigue can be repaired in a few hours, there are studies such as one published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise journal that are worth bearing in mind.
This study focuses on the damage caused by high-volume strength training, jumping, and sprinting workouts, and points to how central nervous fatigue takes a few days to heal.
You’ve Just Had An Intensive Workout Or Event
Maybe you’ve been training intensively to prepare for an event, and now it’s over.
Your muscles are shot and you feel psychologically spent. Yup, it’s time to have a deload week so you can reboot your entire system and get back on track.
Remember that taking a step away from the barbell can be good mentally and psychologically, too.
If you don’t have the motivation, you’ll never be able to turn that into power and endurance during your gym session.
How Should You Lighten Your Load At The Gym?
While there’s no hard and fast rule as to how to deload, lightening your load every now and then will help you go the distance instead of burn out.
You can do this in various ways, such as by lifting slightly lighter weights, decreasing the number of reps or sets you do per exercise, taking longer breaks, and even having fewer days of training at the gym.
However, a pro tip is to avoid doing all of these things at once as that can set you back. For instance, if you’re cutting down on your intensity and volume, then this is too much.
You want to choose one instead of both so that your body will spring back into action after deload week much faster and get back into your regular routine without feeling like the weights are too difficult to lift all of a sudden.
If, however, you really want to cut back on both intensity and volume, consider cutting your volume by half and your intensity by a bit less, such as 10 percent.
This will still ensure that you stay on track with your training program.
Can You Do Cardio During A Deload Week?
Since you’re still working out, just at a slower or gentler pace, cardio can be great to do during a period of deloading.
However, avoid anything too strenuous, such as HIIT cardio, as you want to recover.
Lighter, or low-impact, cardio, such as cycling, Pilates, and rock climbing, will still give you a workout but without the strain which you want to avoid during deload week.
Doing different types of activities that force you to spend more time exercising outside will also benefit you mentally so you can return to the gym refreshed and with your head in the game.
How To Eat During A Deload Week
You now know how to tweak your workouts during a deload week properly, but what about your diet? Should this change at all during a deloading period?
It’s important not to fall into the trap of decreasing your calorie consumption when you’re deloading.
You might think you don’t need all those calories because you’re not benching, but muscles need food to recover.
If you’re cutting down on what you eat, then your body can’t heal.
Focus on maintaining the same amount of protein you usually consume when you train, and fuel up with carbs so that you will have the energy you need at the gym when you get back into the swing of things in a few days’ time.
Remember, carbs are important because they help your body restore its muscle glycogen and build lean muscle mass.
Of course, eating carbs during deload week doesn’t mean reaching for pizza and ice cream.
Healthy carbs will give you better fuel so reach for complex carbs, such as whole grains and beans, that will provide enough energy for your body as well as fuel your brain and central nervous system.
The Lowdown On Supplements During Deloading
You might be wondering if you need your trusty gym supplements while you’re having a deload week.
Well, it depends on what you’re currently taking. If you’re taking supplements that improve your performance, such as Beta Alanine (a supplement that increases exercise capacity), you don’t need to continue taking these because you’re not training very intensely for a few days.
The same goes for supplements like creatine. Taking it before or after a workout helps to improve your strength gains.
If you’re not using it up during exercise, then it’s going to exit your body with your urine, so it’s pointless to take it.
Removing it from your diet during your deload week won’t do any damage to your creatine stores– it takes about two weeks for your muscles to start losing the creatine you’ve been taking.
However, when it comes to vitamins you shouldn’t stop taking them as they form part of your general health and wellbeing.
Why Some People Won’t Benefit From Deload Week
There are some people who won’t really get the most out of deload week.
For example, beginners who aren’t really feeling that they overtrain might not always feel that a deload week is useful for them.
If they’re easily influenced to stop exercising, a deload week might make them throw their fitness goals on the backburner.
People who have the wrong idea about what a deloading session is really about can also lose out.
In addition, there are also people who take the deloading schedule too strictly.
For example, they would rather listen to what their coach says than focus on what their bodies need.
This can mean that they could take a deload week when they don’t really need it, which means they won’t benefit it from it.
The Lowdown On Cybernetic Periodization
Arnold Schwarzenegger talks about cybernetic periodization on his website.
What this term basically means is that you take into account how your body feels on the day that you’re working out, and you tweak your exercise according to this.
Doing this is a skill that any serious athlete and weightlifter should master because it makes all the difference in whether or not you’re successful.
It’s important to pay attention to your body and know when a deload week is right for you.
It might take some experience and practice to create the most beneficial deload week for yourself, but it’s worth it.
A deload week can help you deal with the negative effects of fatigue from overtraining your muscles.
However, it’s important to stay active during this week while also ensuring that your diet is in line with your fitness goals.
There’s a point to all this deloading: you want to head back to the gym after deload week feeling motivated, not sluggish or like your week was a waste of time.
What’s the difference between deload week and a taper?
They’re similar, because they both make use of less training.
A deload week is a period of recovery before you go back to your regular training schedule, while a taper is a period of recovery before a big event or competition so that you can prepare your muscles and boost your performance.
What should you do if you still feel a decrease in performance after deloading?
This could mean you need something more permanent, such as changes to how often you strength train and how much volume you make use of during your gym sessions.
Tweaking your fitness routine helps you find the right amount and intensity of exercise for your fitness level so you don’t overdo it.