If you follow a workout plan to build muscle you’ll be familiar with progressive overload, an approach in which one training variable gradually increases in difficulty with every workout. You’ll also know all about the importance of recovering properly on rest days, which is actually when muscle growth happens.
So far, so straightforward, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you just keep increasing the difficulty of your workouts forevermore. But including a deload week, when you intentionally make your regular workouts less challenging, can be beneficial for some experienced gym-goers.
So how does deloading work? And is it something you should incorporate into your training? To help, we asked Reid Stafford, personal trainer at Ultimate Performance, to talk us through the finer points of deloading.
What is deloading?
Deloading doesn’t mean taking a week off. “A deload is a planned reduction in exercise, usually the amount of work or intensity someone is doing, or a combination of both,” says Stafford.
It usually follows a period of training in which you’re trying to make progress each week, pushing your body harder. “The idea is you would push hard for a block of training for eight to 12 weeks and then take a deload week to give your body a chance to recover,” says Stafford.
What are the benefits of deloading?
Rest and recovery is good for the body, particularly when building muscle. “If you’re pushing your body to its strength limits, your joints and your nervous system will probably need a bit of a break. The idea of a deloading break is to allow your body to recover, so when you go into your next training block you can improve even more,” Stafford says.
If you keep pushing your body hard with no time to recover, you could end up placing too much stress on your body and overtraining.
Who should try a deload break?
Not everyone needs to deload. It’s most beneficial for people who train consistently without skipping sessions. “Before you deload, you’ve got to load,” says Stafford. “You’ve got to make sure that your training is intense enough and long enough to warrant a deload.”
Stafford recommends a deload week for people who are training more than four times a week and with more than two years of gym experience. Beginners might not benefit as much from a deload week, because often they’re still learning the technique of certain lifts and therefore keeping the loads fairly light.
If you often skip sessions in favor of sleeping late, or take a week off here and there anyway, you probably don’t need to deload. But if you’re consistently following a progressive overload training plan that involves training more days per week than you rest, deloading could be a good idea.
How do you deload?
Stafford recommends making just one change to what you normally do, because you still want to engage your muscles.
“You can reduce the intensity,” says Stafford, “which means you’re probably going to reduce the weight. For example, if you usually bench press 60kg for 10 reps, decrease the load by at least 10%. Some people deload by up to as much as 50% and still make progress over time.”
Alternatively, you can do fewer reps, but don’t be tempted to increase the weight.
Those are the two main ways people deload, but there are alternatives. You can change the frequency of training if that’s more practical for you, or you can change exercises, especially if the movements in your usual program aren’t particularly joint-friendly. For example, Stafford recommends using the chest press machine instead of bench pressing, or opting for dumbbell exercises instead of barbell lifts.
How long should you deload for?
Most deload periods last a week and Stafford recommends 10-14 days as a maximum deload period. “This can depend on how your training program is split because some programs are written on a 10-day rotation,” he says.
A good rule of thumb is deloading for the usual length of your training rotation, whether that’s one or two weeks, or somewhere in between.
Is deloading the same thing as taking a week off to rest?
Deloading isn’t the same thing as resting, because the exercises you do will still stimulate your muscles, without pushing them to their limits. “Deloading still allows you to maintain some work that will contribute to muscle-building,” Stafford says.
Stafford does suggest making practical choices around deloading, though. For example, if you're going on holiday to a hotel with a gym, program this week as your deload week, so limited equipment doesn’t get in the way of your usual program.
Should you change how you eat while deloading?
Deload periods are short, so there's no need to make any major adjustments to your diet. But Stafford says that if you have been eating surplus calories in order to gain muscle, it’s probably a good idea to eat fewer calories and aim to maintain your current weight while deloading.
“You wouldn’t want to suddenly go zero carb or anything like that because that’s going to impact your ability to recover,” says Stafford, adding that it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients during a deload week, including protein.
Try to avoid treating this week as a “cheat” period just because you’re not training as hard as usual.
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Alice Porter is a journalist who covers health, fitness and wellbeing, among other topics, for titles including Stylist, Fit & Well, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Grazia, VICE and Refinery29. When she’s not writing about these topics, you can probably find her at her local CrossFit box.