Learning how to deload regularly is an important habit for any lifter. You see, success in the gym rests upon three major pillars.
Once your nutrition and training are in check, there is one tiny little thing left: recovery.
Today, we are going to discuss how to deload and why it is crucial for best results. We'll also go over recovery weeks and how to pick the right option for yourself.
Why is Taking a Week off From The Gym Important?
Although taking a week off from the gym might sound nuts, it’s an important element of long-term progress.
Lifting weights puts a lot of stress on your nervous system, muscles, joints, and connective tissues. Over time, that stress builds up and your performance starts to decline. You start feeling achy, weak, de-motivated to lift, and so on.
But we don’t want that. We want to hammer at the weights without all these negative symptoms of overtraining. Enter: the recovery week. The purpose of a recovery week is to give you time off the gym to recover physically and mentally. Once the week is about over, you will be itching to get back and crush your workouts.
And the funny thing?
You’ll most likely feel rested, motivated, and even stronger than before. And I know the skeptical part of your brain is like,“Yeah, like not training is going to make me stronger.” But think about it:
If you haven’t taken time off the gym lately, you’re likely starting to feel overtrained. And piling on more stress on top won’t make you jump over the fence and feel better.
Of course, there are individuals who won’t benefit from a recovery week. Then again, they aren’t getting much from the training they are doing, either.
Those are the individuals who give priority to going out on Friday night over lifting; to sleeping in over having that morning cardio session; to socializing with their bros instead of training; to eating junk over whole foods that nourish the body; to.. you get it.
Those are the people who don’t feel tired or accomplished after a workout. And they look exactly the same as last year. They don’t need a recovery week. They don’t even need recovery days.
But not you. You’re determined and hungry for progress; you push yourself hard every workout; you follow a decent training program that delivers results. You most definitely need to be taking a week off from working out every once in a while.
How Often Should I Be Taking a Week Off From the Gym?
Much like other aspects of training, recovery is also individual. But there are certain guidelines you can follow to ease the process of figuring stuff out for yourself.
Recovery needs depend on different factors such as:
- How old you are
- What type of work you do
- How hard you train
- What your work capacity is
- How you eat
Based on all these factors, there are 3 main ways to schedule recovery weeks:
Option #1: Predetermined training breaks
Those are the scheduled breaks you have. For example, I used to follow the Beyond 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler. It calls for a deload week (which we’ll cover below) every 7th week.
Most decent strength programs out there have some sort of recovery week scheduled. They are there to help you manage fatigue and feel motivated to lift year-round.
The idea is, decide how long you will train and schedule a recovery week every so often.
Option #2: When you start feeling tired
The second scenario is based on feel. You start feeling tired, so you take a recovery week.
Symptoms of overtraining could include body aches, loss of sleep, lack of motivation, and weakness when training. There are others, but you get the idea. Once the symptoms start piling on top of each other, there’s no doubt - you need rest.
For some, it could take three or four full months of training before the symptoms begin to surface. For others, it might be after the second month.
My two caveats with this option are:
1. Most people don’t have the experience to tell if they need to back off for a while. This kind of intuition comes with time and being able to tell a bad workout from a state of overtraining is important.
2. Recovery weeks should serve as a preventive action. Use them to avoid overtraining, rather than recover after the fact. Think of it this way:
A recovery week should help steer you away from crashing into overtraining. Being in that state is not beneficial and it can affect other aspects of your life.
Option #3: Unexpected life events & vacations
Sometimes, life tends to creep up on us and our plans. Did you plan that 405 squat for Monday? Too bad, man. That stomach virus making its way in your body right now doesn’t care.
When life happens and you’re unable to get to the gym (read: unable, not unwilling), treat it as recovery time and don’t beat yourself up.
Other times, you might have to skip the gym for something more pleasurable. Like a trip to Fiji.
I often get asked whether taking a break from lifting during a vacation is alright. My answer is yes. If there’s no gym where you are, you haven’t taken time off recently, and you want to have a good time and take a break from the iron, by all means, do it.
But, if there is a gym near you, and you’re itching to go hit some weights, don’t let the fact that you’re on a vacation stop you.
The Method I Prefer
I used to follow the option of a scheduled de-load week when I followed the Beyond 5/3/1 program and it worked well. I still use this method today.
Most, if not all decent strength programs out there have a scheduled period of taking it easy. This, in and of itself, should tell you how important recovery is. But you might be thinking, “Well I don’t need to take an easy week after only six weeks of lifting!”
I hear you. But, again, think of such a week as a preventive mechanism in your training to help you stay energized and motivated year-round.
But Wait, Won’t I Lose My Gains If I Don’t Lift For a Week?
As a quick side note, Dr. Mike Zourdos wrote an article on the exact same topic MASS (Monthly Applications in Strength Sports):
Strength and Size Are Resistant to Decline Following 2 Weeks of Detraining
MASS is a research review for strength/physique athletes and coaches.
Eric Helms, Greg Nuckols and Dr. Mike Zourdos are doing an excellent job at reviewing the current literature and putting out the monthly issues.
You can get access to that article and many more articles, videos, audios, and PDFs.
You can read my full review of MASS here.
This is the most common concern people have with taking a week off from working out and I get it.
When I was first introduced to the concept of “not lifting,” I was skeptical. I thought if I took a week off from training, my gains would evaporate, and I would need at least two to three weeks of solid training to get back to where I left off.
Boy, was I wrong.
I read enough materials to convince myself that a week off was what I needed. (At that point, I was pretty overtrained, too.) So, I took a week off, feeling like a slob the entire time. Once I came back, I was thunderstruck.
I had forgotten what it feels like to feel energized and motivated to lift. I crushed all my personal records and I felt stronger on each accessory exercise. And I felt good after my workout, instead of the usual boiled turd.
Ever since then, I’ve taken my recovery weeks without worrying that I’d lose my gains. I always get impatient to return and see what I can do after each break.
If you still feel skeptical about this whole recovery week thing, I get it - I was too. If you’re not on board not to lift for an entire seven-day period, you can take two-three days and see how it affects you. Then, after some weeks, take a whole week off.
I’ll admit, I know folks who feel a bit weaker after a recovery week. But, that could be due to not treating a recovery week well. You should focus on getting quality sleep and keep your nutrition in check. Just because it’s time off the gym, doesn’t mean it’s time to forget it all.
Yet, it could also be due to factors not in your control. You may find yourself weaker after a recovery week despite keeping everything in check. For you, there's another option I mentioned above – deloading.
How to Deload And Is It Right For Me?
A deload week:
“The week where you’re supposed to go light. You enter the gym, do some warm-up and feel the most energetic you’ve ever felt in your entire life. Too bad you can’t do anything with it, though!”
But in all seriousness. I’m joking because this has happened to me once or twice before.
A deload week, unlike the recovery week, is one where you don’t take time off the gym. Instead, you keep training but you keep your workouts light and unchallenging.
There are three main ways to plan out your deload week:
- Reduce training sets and reps for each workout.
- Reduce training intensity for each workout.
- Reduce both for each workout.
Deloading Your Training Sets and Reps
With this method, your goal is to maintain the weights you lift and instead cut the number of sets and reps you do in half. For example:
- If you normally do 4 sets with 225 pounds on the bench for 5 reps, now you would do 2 sets with 225 for 3 reps
- If you normally do a total of 14 working sets for your chest, now you would do 7
Cut back your repetitions a bit for each set to further reduce volume, and don’t take sets to failure.
Deloading Your Training Intensity
When deloading intensity, your goal is to maintain the number of sets you do in favor of lifting less weight. You can go as light half of what you usually lift. For example:
- If you squat 4 sets with 315 pounds for 5 reps, now you would squat 4 sets with 160-170 pounds for 5 reps
- If you usually deadlift 375 pounds for 3 reps on each set, now you would do 185 for 3 reps
Deloading Intensity and Sets
With this option, you reduce the weight you lift and the number of sets you do by about 50 percent. For example:
- If you deadlift 4 sets with 385 pounds for 5 reps each, now you would deadlift 2 sets with 180-200 pounds
- Barbell curls with 90 pounds for 4 sets – 45 pounds for 2 sets
A quick note on the sets, reps, and weight I used as an example:
I realize that your sets likely aren’t static as the examples above and that’s okay. I presented the examples in a simplified way to make things easier to understand. It doesn’t matter how you usually train that much. Don’t overthink your deload workouts too much.
Choose a weight light enough and do the sets.
How Often Should I Deload?
The answer to this question is individual and I’m afraid I can’t give an answer that will fit everyone. There are questions you need to answer, like:
- How many days a week do you lift?
- How much effort do you put into your workouts? (Pushing for progress or kind of cruising?)
- What is your day job like, if you have one? (Physical labor or desk job?)
- What is your current goal? (Build muscle or lose fat?)
- How many hours a night do you sleep? (Are you getting your recommended eight?)
- How old are you? (A 22-year old dude could cope with fewer deloads compared to a 44-year old one.)
These are all questions that can help you determine how often you need to take a deload week. What I recommend is to deload every six to ten weeks. Experiment with the frequency of your deload and see which works best for you.
Treat your deload week as a preventive mechanism to steer clear from overtraining.
The Proper Mindset for a Deload Week
I’d like to address this issue because many people feel that a deload isn’t doing them any good. The problem is, they can't see the benefit in training with less effort.
“I’m lifting the bare minimum of my ability!”
“I feel like I’m going through the motion.”
“Why don’t I take a recovery week? This is useless.”
If you feel this way towards your deload weeks, I’d like to help you change your perspective.
First off, don’t think of a deload workout as useless because you’re lifting less weight. Think of it like a reset point. Also, consider the fact that after each of these reset points, you’ll be better than you were before.
Second, focus on proper form and explosiveness. Also, address any nagging pains you might have had in the past, but never got around to fixing. It could be that your left shoulder feels kind of uncomfortable. Or one of your hips. It doesn’t matter. Do extra long warm-ups, focus on mobility work, and perform your compound lifts with mindfulness.
Finally, on the accessory lifts. Instead of yawning because you’re lifting baby weights, focus on each individual repetition. Are you lifting the weights properly? Are you feeling the right muscles activate? Maybe your form is a little off and you never noticed until now. Fix that.
What’s the bottom line?
Many people approach their deload weeks negatively and feel miserable until they are over. I urge you to shift your mindset and focus on the positive things your deload can bring. Instead of thinking about what you can't do, focus on what you can improve.
Once you do that, you can reap the benefits from the deload and get back into your normal training, feeling stronger and more determined.
How About Nutrition During a Deload/Week Off?
Since nutrition is such a critical element of proper recovery, you should pay as much attention to it as you would during any other week. Your body is in a state of rebuilding and nourishing itself, and it’s your duty to supply it with the building blocks it needs.
When Building Muscle and Increasing Strength
During that period, you’d already be in a caloric surplus. And you need to maintain that surplus even during your deload or recovery week.
Since your body is working to recover and grow stronger, you cannot cut the energy supply short. Also, because of that, it’s not uncommon for you to build some muscle mass during the recovery week and come back stronger.
When Losing Fat
This is a tricky subject, so I’ll try to look at it as objectively as I can to help you make a good decision.
But what happens when you don’t lift heavy for a week and instead take a deload or recovery week, and keep that caloric deficit? That’s right - you’re likely to lose more muscle mass than if you were to keep training heavy.
I couldn’t find any studies that looked into the issue and this is more of a speculation.Until we have research, my advice would be to raise your calories to maintenance level until your recovery/deload week is over.
That way, you can supply your body with more energy to repair itself and also make sure you don’t lose any muscle mass. You won’t lose any fat during that short period but you will spare your muscle mass.
Once you finish your deload or recovery week, go back to a deficit and resume your fat loss.
Can I Do Cardio During a Deload/Week off?
If you feel like you must do something to keep your sanity, go for it. But keep in mind that the goal of the deload/recovery week is to reduce the stress on your body. You should avoid high impact cardio such as running and HIIT.
Aside from that, non-impact cardio like a stationary recumbent bike or a walk in the park can do some good for your recovery.
Back to You
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