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The Potential Progress Boost When Scaling Back on Training with Strategy

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  • Post last modified:September 25, 2023

If you have goals related to strength, lifting objects up and putting them down is a crucial part of your plan. However, depending on the specific strength goal you have, allocating time to refrain from lifting may be advantageous.

In fact, many well-designed strength programs include entire weeks dedicated to reducing or even completely avoiding lifting. These weeks, known as deload weeks, are intentionally incorporated breaks in your routine to enhance fitness and performance, according to certified strength and conditioning coach Sharon Gam, Ph.D, C.S.C.S. Although deload weeks are most commonly used in strength sports, Gam states that they can benefit individuals engaged in any form of intense training, including aerobic sports like running, strength sports like Olympic lifting, or field, ice, and court sports.

In this article, you will learn more about the specifics of a deload week, its advantages, and when and how to implement one.

What Does a Deload Week Entail?

At its essence, a deload week serves as a recovery week. Strength and conditioning coach Reda Elmardi, R.D., C.S.C.S., founder of The Gym Goat, explains that it is a week during which you take a break from your regular training program or reduce the volume and intensity of your usual workouts to allow your body to recover. To clarify, training volume refers to the extent of your exercise regimen, including the number of repetitions, sets, and distance covered, while training intensity refers to the level of exertion during exercise.

In practice, a deload week is not significantly different from taking a vacation from the gym, as mentioned by exercise physiologist Pete McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., C.P.T., who hosts the All About Fitness podcast. However, the two concepts have distinct definitions. While vacations from fitness are often sporadic and taken to avoid scheduling conflicts, deload weeks are strategically planned breaks from your usual training volume aimed at maximizing progress, minimizing the risk of injury, and maintaining focus. While the average individual might randomly take a week off from the gym, an Olympian would deliberately incorporate a deload week into their training routine.

Why Engage in a Deload Week?

To fully understand why someone with ambitious fitness goals would opt for deload weeks, it is important to comprehend the mechanisms through which the body becomes stronger, improves, and becomes faster. Ready?

During exercise, you create tiny tears in your muscle fibers, which, when repaired, result in fibers that are even stronger than before, explains Gam. Essentially, exercise involves deliberately subjecting your body to stress, which it then adapts to and overcomes, leading to improvement. Gam notes that when you are new to exercise, a relatively small amount of stress is sufficient to prompt your body to adapt and become fitter and stronger. Unfortunately, individuals with more experience do not enjoy the same rapid progress.

Experienced individuals and athletes must exert significant effort on their bodies to continue making progress,” states Gam. In fact, many have to employ a technique called functional overreaching — which entails pushing the body to the limit where it can barely recover from fatigue and muscle damage. “Finding the right balance between working hard enough to improve and going too far is challenging,” adds Gam. This is where training programs and planned recovery periods come into play.

Individuals at this level typically adhere to comprehensive training programs that are carefully designed months in advance to help them go from point A (the present) to point B (their specific goals), explains Gam. These programs are far from random and allow athletes to recover after reaching their limits.

To be straightforward, individuals who are not overreaching — either because they do not need to or because their goals do not require it — simply do not require (or benefit from) a deload week in the same way as those who are (and need to be) overreaching.

The Advantages of Taking a Deload Week

If you go to the gym regularly, you have probably heard that rest days are absolutely necessary. (If not, read this article about the significance of rest and recovery.) Well, the concept behind deload weeks is that they provide the same benefits as rest days, but to a much greater extent.

Since deload weeks allow your muscles ample time to repair from the strain you’ve placed on them, “one way to perceive deload weeks is as a measure for preventing injuries,” says Elmardi. For individuals who train at high levels, a single rest day (or two) may simply not be sufficient for recovery and injury prevention.

However, deload weeks are not only about safety, but also about progress. “There are numerous stories of people achieving personal bests after taking a short break from their training,” says Gam. In fact, there is even research supporting this notion.

A study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology compared the results of two groups engaging in high intensity resistance training three days a week. One group trained continuously for 24 weeks, while the other group alternated between six weeks of training followed by three weeks of rest before training again.

The result after six months? Both groups had gained similar amounts of muscle and strength, but the deload group achieved that with 25 percent fewer training sessions(!). The researchers noted that after each break in training, muscle size and strength increased rapidly, allowing the deload group to catch up to the group that was training consistently, explains Gam.

While most exercisers take deload weeks for the physical benefits, there are also mental advantages to taking time off from the usual training schedule. One of these benefits is that it actually gives you the opportunity to miss the gym, according to Elmardi.

By extracting you from your customary practice, you are reminded of the preciousness of having the opportunity to engage in physical activity on a daily basis, which can rekindle your enthusiasm for exercising. “Allowing yourself some downtime can foster a renewed motivation upon returning to the fitness center, making it easier to exert that extra effort,” proclaims Elmardi.

There really aren’t any disadvantages to taking a rest week. Some athletes are concerned that they will become less physically fit during their rest week, but that’s not the case. “A rest week is scheduled after four to six weeks of intense training and allows you to actually enjoy the benefits of your hard work,” says McCall. “You won’t become less fit after taking five to seven days off. You need to take around seven to 10 days off before you start losing fitness.”

How to Take a Rest Week

If you’re someone who can benefit from a rest week, chances are you’re already working with a coach who can plan the recovery periods for you. But if you’re wondering what that usually looks like, here’s what you should know.

How Often to Take a Rest Week

“There aren’t clear guidelines for how often to have a rest week or exactly what to do during a rest week,” says Gam. Some athletes have a rest week once every four to eight weeks, while others have one only once or twice per year, says McCall.

That being said, sometimes a coach will advise an athlete to have a rest week if they aren’t making progress at a reasonable rate. “If you’ve been consistently working out for months and haven’t seen any change in your body shape or strength levels, then your body might need the recovery of a rest week,” says Elmardi.

An athlete may also have a rest week (or weeks) if they are experiencing symptoms of overtraining syndrome, such as changes in their menstrual cycle, absence of periods (amenorrhea), unexplained weight gain, headaches, lack of motivation, mood changes, and severe muscle soreness, says Elmardi.

How to Exercise During a Rest Week

The workout schedule during a rest week will vary from athlete to athlete. Some athletes will still go to the gym, but instead of focusing on lifting heavy weights, doing high volume, and intense workouts, they will prioritize the quality of their movement, form, and mobility. “Generally, during a rest week, you don’t completely stop working out, but just take it easy during your workouts,” says Gam. “Some coaches recommend reducing training volume by 50 percent and lowering intensity by about five to 10 percent.”

However, some athletes might need a break both mentally and emotionally, and they won’t set foot in their training space for a few days. These athletes might spend their rest weeks using their fitness to enjoy life activities such as hiking, road cycling, or walking in nature. They might also take a local yoga class with their best friend or go for recovery runs with their dog. “What you do during a rest week is more of an art than a science,” says Gam.

The Bottom Line On Rest Weeks

For individuals with serious goals, regularly scheduled rest weeks can be beneficial both physiologically and emotionally.

But you don’t have to be a competitive CrossFit athlete, marathoner, medaled lifter, or triathlete to require a week of rest and recuperation — whether you label that week a ‘deload week’ or not.

“Even a lot of everyday exercisers put too much pressure on themselves to become muscular at the gym every day,” as McCall describes. “But occasionally there are days and weeks when we are swamped at work or experiencing relationship break-ups when they would actually gain from abstaining from additional stress on their body.” In other words, regardless of who you are, don’t underestimate the advantages of a few days off.