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Everyone's taking deload weeks, so here's what they are & how to do them

deload week
What is a deload week? When and how to use themskynesher - Getty Images


A deload week could be just as, if not more important than a rest day. Both give your muscles the chance to recover and initiate hypertrophy (one study found that scheduling regular deload weeks, as opposed to taking them spontaneously, would help you recover and increase muscle mass at a faster rate), your nervous system a break from the stress that comes with training, and your energy levels the chance to replenish, but sometimes your bod needs more than one day off.

Rest days can be an effective way to stave off something called peripheral fatigue, which refers to the fatigue of your limbs and muscles, so says sports scientist Luke Worthington. This materialises as the dreaded DOMS, and you can usually recover within a day or so. Deload weeks, meanwhile, are also good for recovering from fatigue of your nervous system, which typically takes a little longer to bounce back from. If you’re struggling with sleep, lethargy, concentration, or just feeling more mentally stressed than usual, this is you.

Deload weeks are also a proven way to break through training plateaus, with research showing that you're way less likely to come up against plateaus if you plot in regular deload weeks. We know what you’re thinking; how can taking time out from the gym help me progress? Well, contrary to popular belief, a deload week doesn’t mean not doing any exercise at all – it’s about continuing with your routine, without overtraining. Read on for all you need to know.

What is a deload week?

Worthington tells us: ‘A deload week is a planned period of reduced your training stimulus. A deload week is done by reducing one or more of three workout variables:

  • Load (by lowering the amount of weight you lift)

  • Intensity (by taking longer rest breaks within your sets)

  • Volume (by performing fewer sets)

‘Deload weeks are the most commonly discussed as most training programs are designed in weeks, however, it is also possible to have deload months, which many seasonal team sports implement, or even deload years for Olympic sports that work in four yearly cycles.’

6 signs you need a deload week

As mentioned, while rest days certainly have their place, deload weeks are useful for recovering from central nervous system fatigue, as well as peripheral fatigue, which encompasses muscle aches and pains. Central nervous system fatigue can show up as:

  • Lethargy. You will feel more tired than usual, throughout the day and evening.

  • Loss of appetite. You may lose your appetite, no matter how active you are.

  • Inability to concentrate. You may struggle to concentrate. in or outside of work.

  • Sleep issues. You may not fall asleep for an hour or more, and find that you are tossing and turning throughout the night. There are several apps you could use or fitness trackers that will track your sleep, or use a journal to note down any habits if you don’t have access to these.

  • Stress. You may feel especially low in mood, with a lack of desire to do things you would usually find fun.

  • Hitting a training plateau. ‘You may have reached a point where you can’t increase the weight you’re lifting in the gym, or your speed isn’t increasing on your runs,’ says PT and Women’s Health Collective coach Saima Husain. ‘It’s at this point that you should consider a deload week as this means your body has reached its fatigue threshold and will no longer adapt to progress.’

How to do a deload week

As above, the intensity, load or volume of your workouts are the three factors you should consider reducing during a deload week. ‘The most commonly used method is to reduce the number of sets you perform (i.e. the volume of your sessions), resulting in shorter workouts,’ Worthington explains, adding that his celeb clients are big fans of the time they get back in return.

How to structure a deload week

Deload week example: volume

If volume is the variable you decide to reduce, this is how your deload week workout would compare to an original workout.

  • Original workout: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, covering 6-8 exercises

  • Deload week workout: 3 sets of 4-8 reps, covering 6 exercises

Deload week example: load

  • Original workout: 4 sets of 12 deadlifts, lifting 40kg

  • Deload week workout: 4 sets of 12 deadlifts, lifting 20kg

Deload week example: intensity

  • Original workout: 4 sets of 12 deadlifts, resting for 1 minute between sets

  • Deload week workout: 4 sets of 12 deadlifts, resting for 2 minutes between sets

How often should you do a deload week?

‘Most fitness enthusiasts don’t need to worry too much about deload weeks,’ Worthington advises. ‘Things like holidays, work or family commitments mean you will naturally have periods of time where you work out less. This reduction in volume is often enough to bring about the benefits of a deload week.’

If however, like me, you’re the kind of person to smash out workouts week in week out, no matter where you are (empty holiday gyms for the win), Husain recommends implementing a deload week every 4-10 weeks. This is a wide range, we know, but ‘this is based on a number of factors,’ Husain explains, including:

  • The type of training plan you’re on. If, for example, you’re following a half marathon training plan or a triathlon training plan, you probably won’t want a deload week (although you will want to taper your workouts pre-race day). Worthington adds that the use of a structured training plan that has ‘different exercises every 4-6 weeks’ could also eliminate the need for a deload week. ‘When new movements are introduced, it will take you at least the first week to get used to them, which means you’ll naturally use lighter loads, and reduce the intensity and volume of your workouts,' he says.

  • Are you lifting your 1 rep max (1RM)? If the answer is yes, you could probably do with a deload week. If not, you likely have enough in the tank to keep training.

  • The type of training you do. If you only ever do HIIT workouts, your central nervous system will likely be more fatigued, Husain advises. That said, if your workouts only incorporate big compound exercises that require a lot of output from your central nervous system, you’ll also be a good candidate for a deload week.

  • How heavy, regular or irregular your periods are. If your periods are particularly heavy, you may well benefit from taking a deload week during your bleed, since the loss of blood means you may be losing more iron and have less energy. Irregular periods could also be a sign that you need a deload week, as rest will help balance your hormones.

Benefits of a deload week

Is a deload week good for you? You bet it is. It can help you manage both peripheral and central nervous system fatigue, with the following benefits:

  • Reduces DOMS

  • Improves concentration

  • Improves sleep

  • Improves motivation

  • Reduces lethargy

  • Reduces stress. One study proved this to be true by showing that deload weeks can increase your heart rate variability (HRV). A high HRV means your body is responsive to both parasympathetic and sympathetic inputs, your nervous system is balanced, and you are more resilient and able to cope with stress.

  • Breaks through training plateaus

  • Boosts muscle hypertrophy

  • Gives your joints a rest

  • Helps your bones grow stronger. Another study showed this to be true, as participants who implemented deload weeks had reduced sclerostin production, which is a protein that stops bone formation.

Do’s and don’ts during a deload week

Do

  • Stick to the plan. ‘If you’re planning to reduce your volume and you end up feeling more energetic in your workouts, remember that this is the whole point of a deload week,’ Worthington says. ‘Don’t be tempted to push on just because you feel fresher – you’re supposed to feel this way.’

  • Use extra time to work on your mobility. ‘If it’s the volume of your workouts that you reduce, meaning you have extra time, use this to practice your mobility. This will increase your range of motion and could help you lift even heavier post-deload week,’ says Husain.

  • Practice zone 2 training. ‘There are several benefits of zone 2 aerobic training, and a deload week could be your chance to do so, as these workouts are typically less intense than your usual cardio workouts.’

Don’t

  • Overthink it. ‘A misconception in the fitness industry is that we need to avoid overtraining,’ Worthington explains. ‘This is usually something only elite athletes need to worry about as, like I’ve mentioned, deload weeks often occur naturally. That said, something we do need to be aware of is proper recovery. Stay on top of your nutrition, sleep and stress. It is usually only when these factors can’t be controlled (for example, if you are going through a particularly stressful life period) that manipulating your training with a deload week would be essential.’

  • Reduce your sleep. ‘I often hear of clients who end up sleeping less because they don’t feel as tired after reducing the intensity or volume of their workouts,' says Husain. 'They end up staying up later than normal, but this defeats the point of a deload week.’

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