Even among professional athletes, nobody works out at 100% effort every single week. There are times to rest and recover, often for a week or more, and you and I can apply this principle to our routines, as well.
What is a deload?
There’s a lot of disagreement on this! For some people, a deload is a complete break from training, like a holiday. You take the whole week off, and that’s all there is to it.
For others, a deload is lower in intensity than your usual work. You may be doing just as many sets and reps, but the weights aren’t as heavy. On the flip side, a deload may reduce volume, so that you do fewer reps and sets, but the weights may be just as heavy as usual.
Which type of deload to use will depend on the type of work you’ve been doing up to this point, the reason for the deload, and your (or your coach’s) training philosophy.
When should I take a deload?
There are several ways strength athletes (and recreational lifters like you and me) can use a deload. Here are the main ones:
- To prepare for a competition. To do your best, you’ll need to reduce fatigue without getting rusty. Peaking usually involves a reduction in volume (fewer reps and sets) while keeping the weights heavy.
- To introduce new lifts or goals. You’re more likely to get sore if you’re doing something new and intense, so introducing new exercises or new types of training often makes sense during a week of lighter training (in this context, that’s sometimes called a “pivot week.”)
- To recover after a tough training block. Some programs will have a deload week built in; others times, you may choose to take an extra week after a program finishes and before you start the next one.
- As part of a long-term plan to manage fatigue. Even if your training wasn’t particularly tough, you may want to sprinkle in occasional deload weeks just to be sure you’re not getting unnecessarily fatigued.
- In response to perceived stress. Some programs don’t include planned deload weeks, and it’s up to the lifter to decide when they need a break.
How do I know if I’m doing it right?
If you’re working with a coach, ask them about their big-picture plans for you. The deloads (or lack thereof) should be part of the puzzle, and have a reason for being programmed the way they are.
If you’re running programs that you’ve found on the Internet or in books, take a moment to think about how each of them approaches deloads. Some may include deloads, and some may not. If you’re programming for yourself, you can take inspiration from other programs that are out there, but you should also use some common sense and ask yourself how you are feeling.
Deloads are a common tool for fatigue management, but they aren’t the only tool. Your program may adjust volume from week to week, for example, in a way that keeps you feeling fresh. If that’s the case, you may not need a deload at all. Even if you’re preparing for a competition, a deload is a very common way to reduce fatigue and ensure a good performance, but that doesn’t mean you always need to deload before a competition. (It’s common to “train through” a competition that is low priority, for example.)
A deload is really just a training tool, so make sure you’re matching your choices about deloads to what your body needs.