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Deload Workout: How to Do It Like a Pro

Drop the weight, drop the ego. That’s the basic principle of deloading.

That ego may come from a good place. Maybe you’ve got the conviction to achieve whatever fitness goals you have. Maybe you enjoy working out hard and could not imagine a world where you would lower the weight.

The egotist mindset has a short lifespan. Eventually, you’ll wonder why you can’t increase the weight anymore. Perhaps you can’t do as many reps as you did 2 weeks ago. Maybe you’re getting exhausted more quickly. Worst of all, your joints start to hurt, your form suffers, and so do your gains. 

This isn’t an exaggeration. I’ve seen these symptoms in people I have trained with and even myself in the early days of my journey. I’ve been training for 5 years now and have my own deloading protocol to keep myself at the top of my game. Here’s what you need to know.

What’s a Deload

Deloading is a strategy used to give the body adequate recovery to bring it back to optimal performance. It’s used by bodybuilders, weightlifters, powerlifters, cross-fitters and regular gym-goers.

It’s typically done by reducing the volume (i.e. total number of repetitions in a workout) or reducing the weight significantly. Leading to reduced stress on the body and mind, hence the term De-Load.

In this article, you’ll find out why you need a deload strategy, when to deload and how.

Why You Need to Deload

Medical Disclaimer: Always make sure to consult a fitness professional to understand how to add deloading to your training regimen safely. This information is not to be taken as medical advice

If you’re experiencing any of the following or a combination, you likely need to deload:

  • A significant drop in performance 
  • Sore joints
  • Feeling exhausted more often
  • Mental stress and/or depression
  • Poor-sleep quality
  • Not enjoying your workouts as much as you used to.

Without getting too sciency, these drops in performance refer to either non-functional overreaching or overtraining syndrome. The main difference between the 2 is that overtraining syndrome requires a lot more rest and recovery, going up to several months.

Relax

In most cases, if you’re taking a couple of rest days a week and experiencing these symptoms, you likely have non-functional overreaching, which can easily be treated with a deload week.

But deloading doesn’t just end with recovery.

When appropriate periods of recovery are provided, a “supercompensation” effect may occur with the athlete exhibiting an enhanced performance compared with baseline levels.

Personal note:

 I have experienced this “supercompensation” effect many times after deloads. I thought at first that not going all out or even missing the gym would make me weaker. That is what most people would think. But almost every time I gave my body the extended recovery it needed, I got stronger, and the science backs it up.

This shouldn’t be used as an excuse to train less, rather it emphasises the benefits of appropriate rest.

How to Deload

Whether you want to relieve your symptoms or get the benefit of supercompensation (or both), we’re getting into the meat of things.

The base principle of a deload is to reduce stress on the body. This includes the stress on your nervous system when you lift really heavy weight or when you push yourself to squeeze out another 2 or 3 reps for hypertrophy. Stress on the mind is often overlooked when compared to stress on your muscles, but a lack of motivation, quality of sleep and exhaustion can keep you from breaking plateaus.

When You Deload You Have 3 Options.

  1. Reduce the weight
  2. Reduce the volume
  3. Don’t train at all

Reduce The Weight

This is for those that lift more on the heavier side. The high weight is likely paired with a low rep range – below 8 reps. 

  • Reduce the weight by 25-50%
  • Same rep range as normal training
  • The same number of sets
  • Same exercises of choice.

How much you reduce the weight could depend on how bad your symptoms are or how much you want to focus on recovery.

Reduce The Volume

 For those that focus on hypertrophy, and go for that high rep range of 8-15 reps.

The high rep range is paired with moderate weight, with most of the stress coming from time under tension and squeezing your muscles during the movement.

There are 2 ways to reduce volume, first, by reducing the number of repetitions in each set and second, by reducing the total number of sets.

  1.  Reduce the number of repetitions in each set
  • Reduce total reps per set by 25-50%.
  • For example, If you normally do 12 reps a set, this would be 8 reps a set during your deload week (-25%).
  • The same number of sets
  • Same exercises of choice
  1. Reduce the total number of sets
  • Reduce total sets by 25-50%
  • For example, if you work chest 8 sets per workout, this would be 6 sets during your deload week (-25%)
  • Same rep range as normal training
  • You may choose to either do fewer sets of an exercise or cut out an exercise.

Don’t Train At All

This may be a controversial one, but I add this to your options because I’ve done it and find it to have its pros and cons.

Why not to train

  • Your body gets the most recovery it could ever get in a week
  • Contrary to popular belief, you won’t lose muscle or strength by not training for just a week.
  • More beneficial if your symptoms of overtraining are significant.

The negatives

  • You may find it difficult to become consistent again. This depends on person to person.
  • There is the mental barrier of “thinking” you lost your strength by not training for a week, which would affect your subsequent workouts.
  • If you’re more on the bodybuilding side, your muscles will ache noticeably your first week back in the gym. These are called DOMS, and they’re normal.

When to Deload

So where do I put this week of deloading? Every 4 weeks or 5 weeks, or 6? It’s commonly considered in the fitness community to have this deload every 4-5 weeks, which means 4 weeks of training and then a deload week, or 5 weeks of training, then a deload week.

The whole point of implementing this into your routine or program is to prevent symptoms of non-functional overreaching or overtraining syndrome from developing in addition to the benefit of the supercompensation effect.

Your tolerance as an individual may come into play when deciding how often and when to deload. Tolerance is also affected by your experience level. More experienced lifters in the 4-5 years could take deloads every 5-6 weeks, while a beginner lifter may deload every 4 weeks.

It’s important to test out different timings for your deloads and what type of deload you should do because not everyone works out for the same reason, and nor do they have the same tolerance levels.

Advice from a Gym Bro

I find it very hard not to go all out in the gym. Lifting heavy, feeling the burn and repping to failure makes me feel alive. I’m not a masochist. I just like knowing and reaffirming that I’m putting in the work and I’ll get the results that I want. You can already imagine my face when I heard about deloading.

The first time I ever deloaded was by accident. I just didn’t go to the gym that week. Busy with other stuff, I thought I’d be weaker when I got back.

That didn’t stop me from going all out on my first day back (the pain was immense the next day). I didn’t lose my strength. To my surprise, I was able to do more reps. Considering I bench press 40kg (~90 lbs) dumbbells for reps, even 1 or 2 more reps is a significant improvement.

This is not to say that every deload week will have the same positive effect, but It’s better to have one once in a while to give the body the recovery that it needs.

Recovery isn’t weak. It’s necessary.

Get to Work

Now you know the what, why, when and how of deloading. All you need to do is incorporate it into your routine or program and get to work.

References

  1. Meeusen R, Duclos M, Foster C, Fry A, Gleeson M, Nieman D, Raglin J, Rietjens G, Steinacker J, Urhausen A; European College of Sport Science; American College of Sports Medicine. Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Jan;45(1):186-205. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318279a10a. PMID: 23247672.

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