If you follow any sort of strength training or fitness regimen, hopefully you’ve at least heard the term “deload” thrown around at some point. What you may not know though, is what does deload mean, and how does it pertain to your plan and your goals?
Last week was a deload for me, so I thought it was a good opportunity to talk about this part of training. It’s the part of training that’s not glamorous or sexy, and it’s not going to give you any bragging rights. But what it will give you is a refreshed and recovered body, ready to take on your next training session with a vengeance.
What is a deload week?
To put it simply, a deload period is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a time to reduce the loads and stresses that you’re putting your body under, in order to let your muscles, connective tissue, and CNS recover from all of the demands of training. We’ve all heard it before, but it’s true that your muscles don’t necessarily get stronger in the gym, they get stronger during recovery. And unfortunately, a simple day off every once in a while isn’t enough to let that happen. Extended recovery time can happen in a multitude of ways, depending on what your training has been like and how your body is feeling overall. There are a few different ways to go about this:
- Decrease Intensity/Volume: For instance, if you follow an upper/lower split strength training program, you will keep your same lift days intact, but train under much lower load than normal. This generally means decreasing the weights lifted, decreasing sets and reps, and just generally doing less. This is not a time to push your max, and I honestly try to keep loads of the big lifts at around 50-60% of my max during a de-load period. I use this time to really groove my movement patterns, still allowing my body to work through the full range of motion, while placing it under much less stress than normal.
- Cross Train: Depending on what your normal training regimen is, you can use a deload period to allow your body some new movements. If you’re a distance runner, you could spend a few days in the pool or on a bike, still allowing your body to exercise but with little to no high-impact activity. The same can be true for weight lifters. This past week, instead of hitting the weight room, I did a couple of light jogs and some kettle bell work. This felt good to me and kept my body moving, but was much less stressful for my CNS than heavy deadlifts and hip thrusters. You could also spend this time on activities that will nourish and enhance your movement patterns, such as yoga, leaving cardio and the weight room out of the equation entirely.
- Do nothing: I don’t mean “do nothing” as in lay on the couch all week, but there are some times when it’s necessary to take a short break from exercise all together. It can be hard for some people to accept this, but sometimes life just takes a toll on us, and exercise is just another form of stress that’s weighing us down. Taking easy daily walks, meditating, stretching and daily foam rolling are great ways to take care of your body when you really need a true, do-nothing, deload.
When should you take a deload week?
Like many things in the fitness world, this all depends. Many people have them scheduled into their training programs, building a recovery week in after every 4-6 weeks of training. This is a great way to ensure that you’re giving your body the rest and recovery time that it needs to perform at it’s highest level, and is a great way to ensure that you aren’t over-training. People who train at a much higher intensity will need to do this more often, while people who train at a lower intensity can generally get away with going longer in between (6-12 weeks, depending on your training style).
If you don’t have a program written out for you though, how do you know when you your body needs a little bit of a break? You could just write it on a calendar and schedule them yourself, but you could also just do a little listening to your body. If you’ve been training for 4 weeks straight (or more), and you start to notice any of the following, a deload might be in order for your health.
- Unusual fatigue* - If you find yourself unusually tired all the time, not being able to make it through workouts, or just feeling generally run down, it may be time for a break.
- Persistent soreness: Yes, when you first begin a workout program, you will probably be sore at first. But contrary to what some believe, you should not be sore all the time from your workouts, and you certainly shouldn’t have lingering soreness for days after a routine or lighter session. Last week, my legs were sore all week, despite keeping my lifting numbers relatively low. This told me that I needed a break, even though I didn’t have a deload scheduled!
- Injury – I hope this one is obvious, but if you’re battling an injury that won’t improve, please take some time off. There can be a fine line between training hard and training too hard, and an injury can tip you over that line pretty quickly.
Does it have to be a full week?
The short answer here is no. If you train at a high intensity 4+ days per week, I would recommend a full week of recovery time. But if you train at a lower intensity, or only work out 2-3 days per week in general, you could probably get away with 3-5 days off instead of a full week.
This can also take some tweaking at different times too; just because you took 3 days off a month ago and felt great, you still might need a whole week this time around. Please listen to the things your body tells you, you are the only one who lives there. I can tell you that you need 3 days of deload, but if you get to day 3 and your legs are telling you that you need at least one more day, than that’s what you need to do.
Hopefully this helped some of you figure out how to work a deload period into your training program, if you don’t already include it on a regular basis. As I mentioned, after feeling overly sore and tired lately, I spent last week just doing a couple of easy jogs, some kettle bell work, and just walking a lot on a regular basis. My legs feel refreshed, my overall energy level is back up, and I can’t wait to get back into the weight room for my deadlift day tomorrow.
*Please also be aware that unusual fatigue and persistent soreness/pain can be indicative of something other than too much training. If you’re concerned about your health and things don’t improve with some time away from the weight room, please see your physician for a check up. Know your body!