What you’re getting yourself into:
2000 words, 7-15 minute read time
1) There is not any scientific literature (that I was able to find) with the aim of examining fatigue recovery following reduction of training volume in the form of a “deload”; however, knowing what we do know about the systems involved in weight training, we can make some strong arguments for some form of easier training.
2) Despite deloads really only being an art form, there are still some things I would advise against. Firstly, not taking deload weeks at all will inevitably end with you getting injured. Taking deload weeks too often will stunt how quickly you progress, and lastly, doing a week of training that is way too easy is not going to do you any favors either.
3) Deload weeks should feature a fairly significant reduction in volume, as that seems to be a bigger driver of fatigue than intensity. Additionally, there should be some reduction in intensity (if for no other reason than to just be safe).
Why #TeamNoDaysOff is Killing Your Gains
No days off. Embrace the suck. Train insane or remain the same. Do whatever it takes. We’ve all heard at least one of these phrases thrown around by someone boasting his work ethic, but here is the deal – if you’re not taking days off, I can promise you you’re not “training insane.” If you’re able to “do whatever it takes,” there’s no “suck” to be embraced. Progress in the gym takes extremely hard work and hard work requires some days off, and over time, it requires a whole week of easy work too. Enter your soon-to-be new best friend: the deload.
What’s the Point?
Presently, there isn’t much scientific literature about deload weeks, specifically. There are papers about periodization and active recovery and from those, we are able to purpose some ideas for deloading. However, the deload is still very much an art form and by no means is it a science. Before we get into how to deload, let’s define what the goal of deloading is.
Simply put, recovery is the goal of a deload week. But what exactly does recovery look like, and what systems are we targeting? Well, when you are no longer “recovered,” you cannot produce overloading training. Basically, when you can’t do at least the same reps, sets, and weights as the week before, you are not recovered and probably need to deload.
The first system we are targeting is obviously your muscles. Your muscles, however, recover the fastest of all of the systems and rarely need more than 72 hours to recover. So why take an entire deload week then? Other systems take longer to recover than the muscles. Soft tissue injuries, for example, often have an acute inflammatory response in the first 72 hours; however, maximum collagen synthesis (our measurement of repair for soft tissue injuries) isn’t seen until 3 weeks, and collagen synthesis remains elevated for 6 weeks up to 6 months after an exercise-induced injury.¹ Central nervous system and psychological fatigue are a bit more difficult to measure, but if you’ve ever gone through a really hard training block, you’ve probably felt the effects of just not wanting to train. That feeling can often last several weeks. This is why collegiate athletes, aside from having to adhere to the NCAA’s rules, often get an entire month off sometime within the calendar year following their season.
After reading all of that, you may think that just a week may not even be enough. My suggestion is that you probably do want to take an extended amount of time off (2-4 weeks in a row) at least once per year. Generally speaking, though, no amount of time off is going to be enough to completely recover, and if you do take 6 months off, it is going to cost you a great amount of the fitness improvements you’ve made. So a week off is a good bet to recover any muscle damage and shake off some nervous system and psychological fatigue, but also maintain the fitness you gained during your last mesocycle. Now that we understand why deload weeks are important, let’s first establish an understanding how how NOT to take them.
Deload Week Mistakes
There are three main camps of mistakes that people make when taking a deload week: 1) they don’t utilize deload weeks at all, 2) they take one and didn’t need one, 3) and they go about them all wrong.
What’s wrong with not using deload weeks?
“Nick, how am I going to make progress taking time off?” First of all, a deload is NOT time off, but we’ll cover that later. If you’re not using deload weeks and you’re training sufficiently hard, you are guaranteed that one of two things will happen. The most likely outcome is that you’ll get hurt. Heavy weights and lots of sets and reps over weeks of training beat you up. Your body is trying to adapt, but at a certain point, it just can’t. You end up with muscle damage that isn’t fully repaired; soft tissue damage to your tendons, ligaments, and joints; and psychological fatigue as well.
The other option with not taking deload weeks is that you accumulate too much fatigue and instead of continuing to push and getting hurt, you are forced to pull back some. Instead of taking an intentionally easier week, you keep trying to train hard, but you can’t. You make no progress because you’re just not capable of producing an overloading stimulus. You stagnate for weeks and months on end.
What’s wrong with taking a deload week and not needing one?
“Isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?” Well, to an extent, yes it is. Here’s the thing though: if you don’t need a deload week yet, then you are wasting valuable time that you could have been doing hard training, which is what you need to grow and get stronger. Let’s do some quick math. Theoretically, you deload every 4th week even though you didn’t need to deload until every 6th week. Even in just a single year, this means you missed out on 5 weeks of hard training. Sure, 5 weeks of training won’t make a huge difference in your gains, but imagine 5 weeks every year for years. In a decade of lifting, this could mean that you missed out on a whole YEAR of gains. That will make a difference.
How do you deload incorrectly?
A lot of people make the mistake of cutting out all of their volume and intensity for a deload week. I’ve seen folks squat 3 sets of 3 reps with 60% during a deload week and that was about it. What this person doesn’t understand is that recovery (the goal of a deload week) is an adaptation just like your gains. Adaptation requires a sufficient stimulus, which in terms of weight training means that it needs to be at least kind of hard. 60% is a weight most people can do for 15 reps. What adaptation is doing 3 reps in a set going to stimulate? The answer is none.
How to Deload Properly
Finally, we are ready to deload. We know what our goal is, why we are choosing to have a full week of relatively easy training, and how not to do it. As I said before, deloading is art more than science (for now), so these are just my recommendations from listening to and reading from experts in the field, reading through research, classes I’ve taken on physiology and periodization, and my experience coaching clients.
There needs to be a fairly significant decrease in training volume as repeated bouts of muscular contractions during high-intensity exercise is generally agreed as being the cause of most peripheral/local fatigue. There is probably also some merit to reducing the intensity of exercises as central fatigue is more associated with training at or nearly at one-repetition maximum loads.² This is what science says is the association between volume, intensity, and fatigue.
Now for the actual art of deloading. How much do you decrease volume and intensity? The easiest possible way to deload is to simply do one fewer set per exercise for a whole week. So if your normal leg day is 4 sets of squats, 4 sets of deadlift, 3 sets of lunges, and 3 sets of leg curls, you would simply do 3 sets of squats, 3 sets of deadlift, 2 sets of lunge, and 2 sets of leg curls. As for the intensity, I would recommended working with whatever weights you used in week 1 of a mesocycle. Those are just the basics and this method works well for isolation movements. Generally you don’t need to reduce the load you’re using for a biceps curl, but you probably still want to reduce the volume to allow for recovery.
A more precise recommendation, especially for compound lifts, is to do roughly 2/3 of the average training volume for the mesocycle and 90% of the average intensity. So let’s say in week 1 you did 8 sets of squats and in week 4 you did 16 sets of squats. The average of that is 12 sets and 2/3 of that is 8 sets. If in week 1 you used 60% intensity and in week 4 you used 70%, the average of that is 65% and 90% of that is roughly 57.5%. You could also decrease the volume paying attention to repetitions. Let’s say your average volume is 5×5, which is 25 reps. Two-thirds of 25 is roughly 16, so instead of a 5×5, you could do 4×4 for your deload week with 90% of your average intensity.
One last consideration, and this is some really highly-nuanced stuff, is the structure of the actual mesocycle. Earlier we established that muscular fatigue can be recovered in 72 hours or less, so the early part of the deload week, you are actually recovering; however, after those first couple of sessions, you are probably recovered and can do training that will get you ready for your next mesocycle. In practice, let’s say you do 2 lower body and 2 upper body sessions in your deload week. Your first of each may use extremely reduced volumes, maybe as little as 50% of your average volume but intensity will still be the average weight you handled. Then in the later sessions of the week, after you’ve already started the recovery process, you can increase volumes to 75% of what you’ll be handling in the following mesocycle, but slightly reduce the intensity. You can think of this second half of the week almost as Week 0 of the next mesocycle.
For right now, there isn’t research specifically looking at reduced periods of training volume to potentiate future training. We generally can agree that light days, active recovery, deload weeks, and possibly even longer periods of easier training can be useful. Our goal with these tools is to reduce fatigue in 4 primary systems: muscular, soft-tissue, central nervous system, and psychological. Some of these systems take longer than others and realistically, we will never be able to recover completely at the expense of our fitness. So we recover as much as we can while still maintaining our fitness and then going back to hard training to improve it more.
Deload weeks should be taken to potentiate further overloading training and if they’re not, you will almost definitely get injured. Taking deload weeks too often may be the “safest” option, but it will stall how quickly you progress. Weeks of training that are not at all challenging are probably pointless and you may as well not go to the gym at all. Instead, decrease volume by 25-35% and reduce intensity by 10% for a week and you will set yourself for another month or two of productive training.
- Perry, J.D. (1992). Exercise, injury and chronic inflammatory lesions. British Medical Bulletin, 48-3, 668-682. Retrieved from https://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.libproxy.temple.edu/pubmed/1450891
- Zając, A., Chalimoniuk, M., Maszczyk, A., Gołaś, A., & Lngfort, J. (2015). Central and peripheral fatigue during resistance exercise – a critical review. Journal of Human Kinetics, 49, 159-169. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2015-0118.