You cannot train hard every week forever, your body simply cannot take it. You’ll end up fatigued, sore and prone to injury. When you train hard for a long duration of time, you eventually have to take one step back in order to take two steps forward. Training absolutely must be planned around periodic deload or recovery weeks in order to allow the joints, tendons, muscles, and mind to regenerate and come back stronger than before.

To the uninitiated, deloads seem like a waste of time, or an excuse to sit on your butt for a week, watching TV instead of hitting the gym. In fact, a proper deload is critically important to progression in the gym. There’s a lot of confusion on what it means, how it’s supposed to be done and whether it should be done at all.

First off, there are many ways to approach the deload week. Remember, the main idea behind the deload is to give your body a break. That should be the first thing on your mind when constructing your deload plan. If your deload work feels hard or leaves you tired you’re doing it wrong. If you still feel banged up when you get back to normal training loads, then your deload wasn’t effective.

Why should you De-Load:

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  • To allow your joints, tendons, ligaments, and other supporting tissues to repair.
  • To give your central nervous system (CNS) time to recover
  • To give yourself a mental break from the intensity of heavy lifting
  • To reduce the risk of overtraining
  • To reduce the risk of injury
  • To prepare you for greater gains

Experienced lifters know that you can’t go 100% all out in the gym all the time. Your body simply cannot take it, and you can’t keep up that mental intensity forever. Injury is often the result and at best you’ll find yourself “going through the motions” in your workouts. You will stall out in your progression if you don’t give your body a chance to recover.

When to De-Load:

This depends on your experience & intensity level, your age & recovery ability, the program you are following, and many other factors. If you are new to lifting, you may only need to deload once every couple of months, as you lack the ability to overtax your CNS, muscles, and connective tissues as much as a very experienced lifter. If you are older and have a reduced ability to recover from weight training, then you may need to deload as often as every couple of weeks. In general, you need to set your frequency of deloading according to how hard you train and how quickly you recover. I usually stick to having one deload week every 3-8 weeks depending on my current program. Many people prefer to schedule their deload weeks, I prefer to give myself a deload every 3-8 weeks and take it when I feel that I need it.

Signs that a de-load may be in order:

  • You feel tired, persistently fatigued, or have a decreased desire to train
  • Your weight progression is stalling and you can’t seem to increase most lifts
  • You are experiencing aches, sprains, tendinitis, etc.
  • You train regularly

If you train regularly, then you should de-load regularly as well.

How to De-Load:

De-Load Option 1:

The most common method of deloading is just to reduce your poundages. As a guide, all your sets should be performed at around 40-60% of your 1RM. This doesn’t mean you should increase your sets and reps, you want to decrease volume overall. If you were doing 3 sets of 8 reps with 225 on bench press, you should deload with 3 sets of 8 reps with 95 to 135 pounds.

De-Load Option 2:

A less popular option is to keep your weights more or less the same, but greatly reduce your volume. Say for instance your regular training program calls for 5 sets of 5squats with 275 pounds. With a volume deload, you could stick at 275 and hit a couple of singles or doubles, or just go for one set of five reps.

This is one of my favorite ways to deload. It minimizes time in the gym, good for mental recovery and allows you to work on form at weight.

De-Load Option 3:

A more obscure, though equally effective way to deload is to change your exercise selection. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Skip your max effort work (no bench press, no deadlift, no squat)
  • Remove the barbell from you work for a week or two (Dave Tate would advise removing the barbell from workouts for 4-6 weeks following a powerlifting meet)
  • Remove all compound movements from your workout

De-Load Option 4:

Take a week or two off. Time a deload for an out of town vacation or just sit at home play some video games, eat plenty and get a lot of sleep. Who wants to cut their time at the swim up bar for a workout anyway? Mentally a week off might be the most rewarding deload option and it can really turn fatigue into a guttural drive to get back to the weight.

Summary:

The goal of a de-load is to allow you to become stronger, faster, and bigger, by incorporating a planned “active recovery” phase into your normal workout program. If you do it correctly, you should be able to make more gains than you would without de-loading, reduce your risk of injury, and yourself a much needed mental break.