How to Use Deloads to Gain Muscle and Strength Faster

How to Use Deloads to Gain Muscle and Strength Faster


Key Takeaways

  1. A deload is a temporary reduction in weekly training stress to give your body and mind a break from hard training.
  2. To deload properly, use the same weights as your hard training but do 30 to 50% fewer sets per week and 2 to 4 fewer reps per set.
  3. If you’re new to weightlifting, deload every 8 to 10 weeks. If you’ve been lifting more than three years, deload every 4 to 6 weeks.

In many ways, building the body of your dreams is just like building anything else worthwhile.

The more you put into it, the more you get out of it . . . to a point.

You’ll have to train hard to get the body you want, but you can’t only rely on your afterburners.

Punish your body with intense workouts week in, week out, without taking breaks or deloads, and your journey will be marred by . . .

  • Regular plateaus
  • Overuse injuries
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lackluster workouts

This is why top level athletes of all stripes—from hockey players to cyclists to powerlifters—include planned periods of rest and recovery in their training.   

In fact, the highest level athletes place tremendous importance on this because the consequences of overlooking it are so severe (chronic underperformance, career-ending injuries, and so on).

When it comes to gaining muscle and strength, one of the best recovery tools at your disposal is the deload.

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely heard of deloads before, but you probably aren’t sure why they’re done, how to do them correctly, or how often to do them.

Poke around online for answers, and you’ll find many conflicting opinions:

  • Some people say deloads are a waste of time, others say you should just take a week off.
  • Some people say you should deload by reducing your weekly sets and how much you lift, others say you should only reduce your number of weekly sets.
  • Some people say you should deload whenever you feel like it, and others say you should plan them in advance.

Who’s right?

The short answer is that if you’re following a well-designed workout routine, deloads are an effective way to prevent injuries, plateaus, and burnout.

That said, they need to be planned and executed correctly or they either fail to adequately boost recovery or simply waste time that could be spent doing just about anything else.

So, by the end of this article, you’ll learn . . .

  • What a deload is
  • Why some people don’t benefit from deloads
  • How often you should deload
  • When you should deload versus just take time off
  • How to do a proper deload
  • And more!

Let’s get to it.

What Is a Deload?

Working on his back muscles

A deload is a temporary reduction in weekly training stress to give your body and mind a break from hard training.

By stress, I mean the general mental and physical strain and fatigue caused by heavy lifting, as well as the microscopic damage to your muscles and joints.

By alleviating these stressors, you can reduce joint and ligament strain and the risk of injury and burnout. Deloading also reduces the demands placed on your muscles, but this isn’t as important.

There are a couple levers you can pull to reduce training stress:

  • Reduce the intensity (load lifted)
  • Reduce the volume (sets or reps performed)

For example, if your training routine consists of five workouts per week of 70 to 80 reps of heavy (75 to 85% of one-rep max) weightlifting, a deload might reduce the intensity to, let’s say, 50 to 60% of one-rep max or the volume to, let’s say, 35 to 40 reps.

Typically, deloads are scheduled after a period of progressively more intense training.

For example, it’s common for strength training programs to increase training intensity and/or volume week after week to promote muscle and strength gain, and then, after three or four weeks of this, call for a week-long deload to allow your body to get ready for another round.

Typically, deloads last a week, although some people use longer or shorter deloads depending on their training plans and goals.

If you’ve been training particularly hard or have gone a long time without deloading, then a full week may be warranted. If you haven’t been training that hard or you deloaded recently, a few days may be enough to get the job done.

Another way to give your body a break is to just take time off resistance training altogether. This works, of course, but if you take too many days off, your technique can rust as well as your desire to get back to heavy lifting.

I generally recommend you deload instead of taking time completely off, but sometimes it makes more sense to take a complete break from lifting weights.

For example, if you’re traveling and will have limited or no access to weights, it’s often better to simply take a break and enjoy yourself than fret about finding time and places to train.

Summary: A deload is a temporary reduction in weekly training stress to give your body and mind a break from heavy lifting. It typically lasts a week and is scheduled ahead of time.

Why Do People Deload?

The basic theory of deloading is based on research on how the body deals with physical stress.

Scientists are still debating the best way to describe this process, but here’s the gist:

  1. Provide a stressor (exercise)
  2. Remove stressor (rest and recovery)
  3. Adapt to deal with next stressor better

In other words, you stress the body in some way, you allow it to recover, and it becomes even better at dealing with that stressor in the future.

The third step—adaptation—is technically referred to as supercompensation, and it’s what allows you to build muscle, gain strength, increase speed, agility, and coordination, and so forth.

Here’s how this process looks visually:

#44 BLS Supercompensation

Like maintaining good sleep hygiene and managing energy balance properly, deloading is a tool that falls under #2 above (rest and recovery) and its purpose is to help with #3 (supercompensation).

This cycle repeats over the short and long term, between workouts as well as over weeks and months of training.

For example, after a workout your muscles are fatigued and slightly damaged, and if provided with enough calories, protein, sleep, and rest, they’ll recover and be ready for another beating a few days later.

If that’s the case, however, why do we need to deload? Wouldn’t your body’s ability to repair itself keep pace with the stress and damage caused by your workouts?

Not quite.

Different parts of the body heal faster than others. Your central nervous system recovers from a heavy workout within a matter of hours, and your muscles are repaired within a few days.

Some tissues in the body take much longer to heal, though, like tendons, ligaments, and bones.

If you’re lifting heavy weights regularly, these tissues suffer small microfractures and tears, and if not allowed to heal, this damage can eventually lead to strains or injuries.

By deloading regularly, you give your body a chance to clean up the various types of residual stress that accumulate over weeks of hard training. Think of it as an insurance policy of sorts against injury and overtraining.

Another reason people deload is it allows you to have more productive workouts.

If you’ve been training hard for weeks or months without a break, you aren’t performing at peak capacity. Eventually, you reach a point where you’re only recovering enough to repeat the same workouts over and over (plateau).

This is why deloading is one of the best ways to prevent and even break through muscle and strength gain plateaus. The extra rest and recovery will allow you to start training blocks fresh and powerful and capable of lifting more weight and doing more volume.

Simply put, you’ll do much better with a month or two of hard training followed by a deload and another month or two of hard training than two to four months of continuous max-effort work.

Summary: The primary reasons people deload are to enhance recovery, reduce the risk of injury, and increase their motivation and ability to train hard.

Why Many People Won’t Benefit From Deload Workouts

The amount of rest and recovery the body requires depends on the severity of the stress you subject it to.

Something significant, like several weeks or months of heavy lifting with progressive overload, should be followed by extra rest and recovery, like a deload.

Something much lighter, however, like much of the lackadaisical, barely-break-a-sweat workouts we see many people doing, doesn’t require special periods of additional recuperation.

This is why some notable fitness folk rail against deloading—quite factually, many people don’t train hard enough to need it.

They just show up and go through the motions, they don’t track their lifts and strive to beat previous workouts, and they don’t manage their diets properly to support their fitness goals.

Deloading has nothing to offer these guys and gals.

The key to improving body composition and performance over time is regularly pushing your body slightly beyond its limits and then backing off.

If you’re not following a well-designed training routine that revolves around progressive overload, or if you just don’t push yourself hard enough in the gym to make progress, you have no reason to deload.

That said, if you’re following such a program and are working hard to improve your numbers, you can benefit from and should incorporate deloads.

In fact, I’d say that a training program that doesn’t include or necessitate periodic deloads is probably suboptimal best or ineffective at worst.

Summary: You won’t benefit from deloads if you aren’t following a well-designed, challenging workout routine that forces you to get stronger over time. If you are, however, you will benefit from deloads.

Why I Started Deloading

Years ago, I used to do long, high-rep (and relatively low weight) workouts four to six days per week for months on end without experiencing any injuries or symptoms associated with overtraining to speak of.

When I did take a week off or miss workouts, it usually happened for reasons not related to training at all, like travel, sickness, or work.

And for reference, here’s what I had to show for many years of this:

bigger-and-stronger-shoulders-mike-matthews

Later in my fitness journey, however, I experienced the transformative power of heavy, compound weightlifting, but also quickly realized how much stress this type of training places on the body.

After 8 to 10 weeks of training like this—and sometimes sooner when I was in a calorie deficit—I would notice odd aches and pains (usually in my joints), my energy levels would decline, my workouts would feel abnormally hard and heavy, and my motivation to train would sag.

Fortunately, the solution was simple: a deload.

Every 8 to 10 weeks, I would either deload or rest for a week and by the end of it, feel reinvigorated. Eventually, I settled on deloading exclusively mostly because I enjoy my routine.

Here’s what I looked like after a few years of this approach to training:

 

(As you can see, I also learned how to diet along the way, too.)

Now, some people will say deloading isn’t necessary if you just learn to “listen to your body” and program your workouts accordingly.

For example, if you planned on hitting some heavy weights but feel like you need a lighter day, you train lightly. If you planned on a deload style of workout but feel energized and ready for some big numbers, you train hard.

The scientific term for this is “autoregulation,” and while it’s a legitimate training methodology, it’s easier said than done.

You need a considerable amount of training experience and familiarity with your body and mind to let your feelings dictate your training.

People who successfully autoregulate their training don’t do it willy nilly, either. One for one, they use evidence-based principles, benchmarks, and rules to dictate what they do on any given day.

As you can imagine, this can become quite complex and nuanced, and if you haven’t spent a lot of time studying the topic or don’t have a knowledgeable coach to help you, it becomes downright unworkable.

So, while there’s no question that autoregulation has its uses and can work extremely well for experienced lifters stretching toward the ceiling of their genetic potential, it doesn’t work well for people relatively new to weightlifting.

If you’ve been training properly for three years or less (beginner to intermediate phase), don’t worry about autoregulating your deloads. Instead, just follow a well-designed workout routine that includes regular deloads, and do them regardless of how you feel.

If you want to learn more about successfully autoregulating your workouts, check out Mike Tuchscherer’s Reactive Training Manual.

Summary: Deloading allowed me to recover from and adapt to much more demanding, productive training, which played a major role in my personal transformation.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

How Often You Should Deload

There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to how often you should plan deloads because some people’s bodies can take more abuse than others’.

Moreover, the ideal frequency of deloads will depend on . . .

  1. How strong you are. Stronger people tend to need more frequent deloads to recover from their heavier (more difficult) training.
  2. How long you’ve been training. Newbies tend to need fewer deloads as they aren’t strong enough to beat up their bodies to the degree more experienced lifters can.
  3. How durable your joints, tendons, and ligaments are. Joint, tendon, and ligament pains are a reliable indicator of the need for a deload.

That said, here are some effective rules of thumb:

  • If you’re new to lifting weights, plan a deload week after every 8 to 10 weeks of heavy, intense weightlifting. If you’re in a calorie deficit, reduce this to every 6 to 8 weeks (and yes, you should continue training heavy when in a calorie deficit).
  • If you’ve been lifting weights for 1 to 3 years, plan a deload week after every 6 to 8 weeks of heavy, intense weightlifting. Reduce this to every 4 to 6 weeks if you’re in a calorie deficit.
  • If you’ve been lifting weights for 3 to 6 years or more, plan a deload week after every 4 to 6 weeks of heavy, intense weightlifting. Use the same deload frequency if you’re in a calorie deficit.
  • I don’t recommend you do more than 12 weeks of hard training without deloading at least once. In my experience, there’s very little benefit of training longer than this without a break and the risk of significant downsides increases sharply.
  • If you never feel the need to deload, your workout routine is probably too easy.

If you’re new to deloading, I recommend you plan a deload week in advance and stick to it regardless of how you feel. This ensures you don’t accidentally increase your risk of injury or overtraining by stubbornly refusing to let off the gas (been there, done that).

As you learn more about how your body responds to training, you can get a bit looser with your deload timing. You’ll begin to recognize the need for a deload—progress has stalled, body is achy, decreased motivation to train, workouts feel much harder than they should, etc.—and can respond accordingly.

For instance, my current training program involves quite a bit of heavy weightlifting and my sleep is hit and miss (kids aren’t conducive to good sleep hygiene, apparently), and so every 4 to 5 weeks, I feel the need for a deload building. Once this happens, I give myself one more all-out week and then deload.

Summary: I recommend you deload every 4 to 10 weeks, depending on how long you’ve been lifting weights and how hard you’re training. As a general rule, people with more weightlifting experience who are training intensely need more frequent deloads than people newer to lifting or training more comfortably.

How to Deload Properly

is-deload-week-necessary

To deload properly, you have to understand its primary goal and what to change in your training to accomplish that goal.

The primary goal of a deload is to reduce systemic and local (joints, tendons, and ligaments) fatigue and stress while maintaining your ability to skillfully handle heavy weights.

While there’s very little direct research on this topic, most evidence and in-the-trenches learning shows that volume is the primary driver of fatigue, not intensity.

That is, the number of hard sets you perform each week beats you up more than the amount of weight you lift in those sets.

The first part of an effective deload, then, is doing fewer sets than you usually do.

Based on my experience working with thousands of people and conversations with high-level coaches, researchers, and athletes, a 30 to 50% reduction of weekly volume seems to be ideal for most.

That is, when deloading, you want to do about one third to one half of the sets you’d normally do in your hard training.

When it comes to intensity, many people recommend you reduce your weights to about 40 to 50% of your one-rep max during your deload. This is what I used to do, but I’ve since switched to what I believe is a better approach.

Now, I don’t reduce the weights at all and just use the loads I’d normally lift in my hard training. In other words, I only deload volume, not intensity.

Why the change?

Well, a major downside to deloading intensity is when you get back to normal training, heavy weights feel awkward and your performance suffers. The first week back, then, is a bit of a wash.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much—a few heavy sets per week—to maintain technical proficiency with heavy weights, even if those sets aren’t as difficult as they’d normally be.

That brings me to a major caveat when deloading with heavy weights: you must avoid training to failure.

The reason for this is simple: taking a set to the point of muscular failure causes disproportionately more fatigue than submaximal training, and therefore, it shouldn’t be done when deloading.

An easy way to ensure you’re not pushing your body too hard when deloading is to shave off 2 to 4 reps per set from however many reps per set you did in your previous hard training. Personally, I split the difference and take 3 reps off of my sets.

So, for instance, if I deadlifted 405 pounds for 3 sets of 6 reps in my last session of hard training, when deloading, I would do 2 sets of 3 reps (a 33% reduction in volume and 3 fewer reps per set).

So, to summarize, a well programmed deload will involve:

  • Doing 30 to 50% fewer sets than your normal workouts
  • Using the same weight as your normal workouts
  • Doing 2 to 4 fewer reps per set than your normal workouts.

By reducing the number of sets, you reduce your overall fatigue, by using the same heavy weights, you maintain your technical proficiency, and by doing fewer reps per set, you ensure you don’t come close to failure.

So, here’s exactly how I deload (and exactly what I recommend in my programs for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger):

Workout 1

Deload Push

Barbell Bench Press

Warm-up and 2 sets of 3 reps with last hard-set weight

Incline Barbell Bench Press

2 sets of 3 reps with last hard-set weight

Dumbbell Bench Press

2 sets of 3 reps with last hard-set weight

Workout 2

Deload Pull

Barbell Deadlift

Warm-up and 2 sets of 3 reps with last hard-set weight

Barbell Row

2 sets of 3 reps with last hard-set weight

Lat Pulldown (Wide-Grip)

2 sets of 3 reps with last hard-set weight

Workout 3

Deload Legs

Barbell Squat

Warm-up and 2 sets of 3 reps with last hard-set weight

Leg Press

2 sets of 3 reps with last hard-set weight

Lying Leg Curl

2 sets of 3 reps with last hard-set weight

Make sure you put at least one day in between each of these workouts. I like to do them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Summary: To deload properly, use the same weights as your hard training but do 30 to 50% fewer sets per week and 2 to 4 fewer reps per set.

Won’t You Lose Your Gains During a Deload?

deload-week-bodybuilding

Many people have convinced themselves that any break from their typical weightlifting routine will result in immediate and significant muscle and strength loss, but that’s simply not the case.

You can stop lifting weights for up to six weeks before strength starts to really decline, a month before you start losing muscle, and quite a lot longer than that before your physique takes a noticeable nosedive.

This is assuming you aren’t in a calorie deficit, mind you, in which case you can start losing muscle and strength sooner and faster.

Also, remember that during a proper deload you’re still lifting heavy weights—just not as much or as intensely as you usually do.

So, my point is this: If you follow the advice in this article, there’s more or less a zero percent chance you’ll lose muscle or strength during a deload.

What’s more, you’ll probably make better strength and muscle gains over time for all of the reasons we’ve covered so far.

Summary: Deload properly and you not only won’t lose muscle or strength, you’ll get bigger and stronger faster over time.

Should You Just Take a Week Off Instead?

Maybe.

To find out, try a deload week and write down how you feel coming back to your hard training and how the first week goes. The next time around, do the same with a rest week (i.e., a week off).

Going forward, pick whichever seems to best suit your body.

It’s also helpful to plan your deloads or rest weeks to coincide with trips, holidays, vacations, or any other upcoming disruptions to your routine. This way, you don’t accidentally rest more than necessary to keep making progress.

Can You Do Cardio On Your Deload Week?

Sure.

That said, remember the goal is to significantly decrease the amount of stress on your joints, ligaments, nervous system, and muscles. As you can imagine, doing too much high-intensity cardio won’t help with that.

So do as much walking and light physical activity as you’d like, but limit HIIT and similar activities to an hour or so for the week and you should be fine.

Summary: Stick mostly to low-intensity forms of cardio during your deload.

How to Eat During a Deload

How you should eat while deloading depends on what you’re doing with your body.

If you’re dieting to lose fat, you can maintain your calorie deficit while deloading, unless you feel the need for a diet break, in which case you can increase your intake to your approximate total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

If you’re lean bulking, you can maintain your calorie surplus or reduce it to your approximate TDEE if you’d like a break from all the food.

As the goal of lean bulking is to maximize muscle growth, I don’t recommend going into a calorie deficit on your deload week. You’re not going to lose enough fat to really make a difference so you might as well keep your body’s muscle-building machinery firing on all cylinders.

Summary: When dieting to lose fat, you can either stay in a calorie deficit during your deload your raise your calories to your TDEE if you’d like a break. When lean bulking, you can maintain your calorie surplus or lower your calories to your TDEE to enjoy eating a bit less food for a week.

The Bottom Line on How to Deload

A deload is a temporary reduction in weekly training stress to give your body and mind a break from hard training.

The two primary reasons people deload are to reduce their risk of injuries and reinvigorate their motivation and ability to train hard.

Many people won’t benefit from deloads because they don’t train hard enough to warrant additional rest.

I should know because I was once one of these people. Until I started doing a lot of heavy, compound weightlifting, I had no need for deloading.

Assuming you’re training sufficiently hard enough, I recommend you deload every 4 to 10 weeks, depending on how long you’ve been lifting weights.

As a general rule, people with more weightlifting experience need to deload more frequently than people with less, mostly because they’re lifting heavier weights and doing more volume.

To deload properly, use the same weights as your hard training but do 30 to 50% fewer sets per week and 2 to 4 fewer reps per set.

Despite what many people think, you won’t lose any muscle or strength during a deload. Ironically, if incorporated correctly into a well-designed workout routine, deloading will help increase muscle and strength gain over time.

If you want to take a week off from weightlifting entirely instead of deloading, that’s fine, too. See how your body responds and compare the results to a deload. Going forward, do whatever works best for you.

You can do cardio during a deload, but stick mostly to low intensity forms like walking.

As for your diet, you can maintain a calorie deficit if you’re cutting or increase intake to your approximate total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) if you’d like a break from calorie restriction.

Similarly, you can maintain a calorie surplus if you’re lean bulking or reduce your intake to your approximate TDEE if you’d like a break from all the food.

If you liked this article, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like to hang out online! 🙂

What’s your take on the deload week? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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