There comes a point where everyone hits a wall with their workouts. It's that feeling you get when you've been training for weeks or months and each workout is a grind and feels like it just gets tougher. When this time comes, it's crucial to take a deload week. Because without it, you'll likely stop seeing progress through strength or muscle growth or risk injury.
But what is a deload week, how do you implement it, and why is it so important?
In the fitness community, there’s this concept called a deload. It’s a period where you drop the intensity through either reps, weights, duration, or all of the above. The reason they do this is to give their muscles a little bit of a break to flush out the "hit a wall" feeling.
A deload usually is a week off from your normal training plan about every 4-6 weeks but even the 4-6 weeks recommendation is extremely loose since most of the time other factors will play a larger part in dictating when you should take some time off.
A deload is recommended whether you take it every three weeks or every eight weeks because we tear our muscles during our workouts. We make tiny little tears in our muscles and we do this week in and week out. So, when we do this week after week, the muscle may not have the time to fully recover to allow you really push yourself to that 100% effort. What ends up happening towards the tail end of your training cycle is that you feel like you’re giving your workouts 100% but only 70-80% effort is really coming out. That’s definitely one sign you need to take a deload week and we’ll get into the other signs later on.
In the end, the reason for a deload week is to make sure each workout within your training cycle is done at maximum effort and this can only be done if you take a little bit of a break every once in a while. It’s just like work or anything else in life. I can dedicate myself to work for a while but if I don’t take a break and get some perspective around why I’m there, I’m just going to end up burnt out.
There are definite signs everyone goes through that signal it’s time to go into deload.
4 Signs You need a Deload Week
Pay attention to these four signs to better understand when you should take a deload week.
01: You Feel Fatigued & Unmotivated
The first and main one to pay attention to is how you’re feeling. Do you feel fatigued? Are you lacking the motivation to push the workouts as hard as possible? Then that’s probably the best sign you need to take a week off for a deload. I usually get this feeling about 4-5 weeks in when I’ve been doing the same workouts week after week. My form is dialed in, my weights have been maxed out and the last few sets take 100% of my energy, but I just can’t find the push in me to give the workout what it deserves. That’s usually when I re-evaluate my goals for the week and switch to more of a general movement week instead of a maximum-intensity week.
02: Your Mood is Blah
The second sign you may need a deload week is pretty similar to the feeling of fatigue. It’s the general feeling of malaise. You just don’t have the desire to go to the gym, you’re feeling the pressure to do your workouts, combined with the pressure to hit your macros, combined with the pressures life, work, and family bring. I get that there are days when you feel this way and it’s just the way you are as in you just don’t like working out, but I’m more referring to the dread feeling that you’ve just had enough. It's that same feeling when you haven’t taken a vacation from work in a while and each meeting you see on your outlook calendar is like a tiny cut. Our mood dictates so much of what we do so use this as one of the main signals to take it easy on those blah weeks.
Take note: This whole idea of a deload can be used in your nutrition plan as well to make sure you stay aligned with your goals.
03: Your Performance Deteriorates
Much further down the list in terms of importance is performance deterioration. Most people won’t notice this one but it is a signal that could highlight a deload is needed. The reason I say most people won’t notice this is that if you’re in tune with your body you’ll notice fatigue first and that signal will be stronger than the visual sign of performance deterioration. The other reason I say most people won’t notice this one is that we often excuse this signal away. We’ll do a different workout and say the workout was new and that was why your strength or cardio wasn’t as dialed in as it’s been in the past. The big issue with this signal is that it’s hard to quantify much beyond a strict strength-based plan.
04: Time or Duration
The final signal and the one used by more experienced lifters is time or duration. It took me almost four to five years to really figure out my training and deload cycle that worked best for my body. I falsely assume that my tenure in the fitness industry meant that I would thrive with the maximum duration between deloads. So I set up my training plan to be an eight-week plan and then a calm deload week after. I found myself trashed by about week six and hating the idea of going into another workout. Naturally, my next step was to plan out a six-week plan and then do the deload week after. Even though I made it through the six-week plan, I still found that I generally didn’t like nor had any desire to really push myself for weeks five and six. I felt I had the energy, but in combination with the stress from building a business, having a family, and everything else that was going on in my life, I wanted to keep that desire to go to the gym. So, lately, I’ve been doing a three to four week training plan and then committing to a deload week after. This proactive approach keeps me excited to get to the gym, push my weights as much as possible, and then hit my deload week at a reasonable time.
What a Deload Week Looks Like in Practice
The goal with a deload week is to reduce time, intensity, and volume. So a deload week could be doing the same workouts but one less set and fewer reps or it could be skipping the gym for a full week. For some, we'd even recommend opting for a game of basketball instead. Don’t worry, deload weeks won’t kill your gains, In fact, it’ll only help you achieve your gains quicker because you’ll be able to bring the intensity in the weeks your body is ready. Here are a few studies (1, 2) which show the validity behind this idea.
HOW to Incorporate a Deload
For me, the ideal deload week is when you perform the workouts as you usually would but never go above 60-65% of your 1RM. Also, I would like to see you never go above that zone 2 heart rate limit which means in most workouts (even cardio), you can still have a conversation. This is going to be hard for some athletes because they only know one speed... fast. Well, I have good news for you, this method will only make you faster. If you only strength train without cardio, and you’re confused about how to apply the deload concept to your workout, think about it like this... Take a workout with 4 sets of eight reps. Maybe in your deload week you only do three sets of six with a weight you know you could do 10-12 reps with. You shouldn’t be showing that “pain face” on any of your lifts.
If that seems complicated, then think about a deload week like this... Reduce your time, intensity, and volume by about 50 percent. For example, if you normally work out four days a week for one hour and do five sets of eight reps, reduce your time spent in the gym by only going two days and reduce the time spent working out to only 30 minutes. Reduce the intensity by only pushing yourself about half as hard as you normally would. And finally, reduce the volume so that you're only doing three to four sets with lighter weights. It may not feel like much of a workout, but that's the point.
WHEN To Incorporate a Deload
As for when you should take a deload week, it depends on your fitness goals. For many of my clients, I tell them the first week of any new 4-week training plan is their deload week. This way they can feel out the movements, get comfortable with how they set up the whole workout, and how long it’ll take. Then in their first real week, they know how they’re going to attack the workout for maximum effort. Personally, I take the same advice I give to my clients and also like to do group classes like CrossFit but at a slow intentional pace. I love the idea of doing a different style of workouts because that’s kind of the point behind getting fit…to be able to run and jump and do other things we love. Another option is to plan in advance for one every four to six weeks. If timed correctly, you can get ahead of any of the signs mentioned above.
For most people, a week for a deload is all that's needed to get the spirit back into your workouts. As well, it allows your body to grow muscle optimally and prevent injury. If you've never taken one, consider taking one that lasts two weeks. In the end, the main goal is for you to really push your workouts when it’s time. So gauge your effort level and desire and let that guide you on whether you should take a deload week.