The Deload Week and Why YOU Should Use It
Today’s guest post comes from Jeff Barnett, and it’s on the importance of deload weeks which is something I feel is relevant to EVERY person reading this post who trains on a consistent basis.
Recently at my facility, I’ve been getting a lot of questions from my athletes regarding deload weeks. Specifically, what is a deload week and how they can incorporate it into their training?
A deload week is simply a week spent recovering from exercise. Rest is not just a break from going to the gym. It’s an absolutely essential part of training! We are all familiar with rest days. Why not extend the concept further to a rest week? After all, your body has no respect for how long you think it should take to recover.
Only reality matters: how long does your body actually need for recovery? Consistent training eventually builds a deficit that cannot be repaid in a single rest day. A deload week is a chance for your body to recover from that deficit. The deload week allows your body to catch up – to repair connective tissue and restore testosterone/cortisol ratios. Muscle can recover more quickly than connective tissue. A deload week keeps tendons and ligaments healthy. If you chronically develop tendonitis, then scheduled deload weeks are definitely part of the solution.
Here’s the disconnect: You don’t get stronger by exercising!
You get stronger by recovering from exercise. This simple concept forms the basis of exercise physiology. Hans Selye first described it in 1936. Countless professionals like Zatsiorsky, Rippetoe, and Kilgore have expanded it further. The basic theory goes like this:
1. Provide a stimulus to an organism (exercise)
2. Remove the stimulus (rest)
3. The organism adapts to better handle the stimulus (Next time you can deadlift 375 lbs instead of 370 lbs). This is called supercompensation.
We all recognize the importance of Step #1. We all recognize the fun of Step #3. But Step #2 often goes neglected, even though it’s equally critical.
What happens when you neglect Step #2 and you never remove the stimulus (you continue to exercise constantly)? Seyle actually studied that too. The organism dies. Now everyone will stop exercising before they die, but the point is that a never-ending stimulus (unceasing exercise) doesn’t make you better. It makes you worse. It digs your body into a hole that keeps getting deeper. This is overtraining.
I first read about deload weeks from Jim Wendler in his short and violent book, 5/3/1. His program advocates training at precise percentages in four-week cycles. The first three weeks of each cycle are heavy and the last week is a deload week.
Note from TG: We use a similar approach at Cressey Performance as well, albeit we modify training stress a bit differently.
Week 1 – High Volume
Week 2 – Medium Volume
Week 3 – VERY High Volume
Week 4 – Deload/eat lots of dead animal flesh
The deload week uses three sets of five reps for each exercise at 40-60% of 1RM – very few reps and very light loads. The intent is to preserve the neuromuscular pathways of lifting without actually breaking down muscle (the usual intent of strength training).
Top CrossFit competitor Blair Morrison also uses deload weeks. Morrison trains 1-on/1-off for 3 weeks and then takes a week of recovery. His training days include up to three workouts. Morrison says, “I can go really hard in all those workouts because I know I have the next day as a rest day.”
How can you incorporate a deload week into your training? Simple. Every few weeks of training, take a week off. I have adopted the 3/1 ratio that Wendler and Morrison prescribe, and I recommend it. You still take your normal rest days during your training weeks, but when your training weeks are over, take a full week of dedicated recovery.
Schedule your deload week in advance, and stick to it. And when it arrives, remember that allowing your body to recover is more important than the fun of jumping into another workout. You are not wussing out—you are making yourself stronger!
Now, some caveats.
First, I don’t suggest complete rest for the whole week. I suggest a couple active recovery workouts, a couple thorough mobility sessions, and yes, some straight-up rest. Active recovery means you are working, but not at an intensity that is breaking down muscle or challenging you metabolically. One of my favorite recovery WODs is rowing 2000 meters on the Concept 2.
Rowing is low impact and involves almost your entire body. I can also precisely monitor my pace to ensure I keep the intensity low. Jim Wendler’s prescription is also excellent. Three sets of five reps of back squat and shoulder press at 50% 1RM with 2-3 minutes rest between sets is also a great recovery workout.
You could also use Yoga (at low intensity), lacrosse ball and foam roller work, joint mobility work, and deep tissue massage as recovery tools during your deload week. Of a seven day week, you want 3-4 complete rest days and 3-4 recovery and mobility sessions. Have a plan for your deload week, but listen to your body. That’s what the deload week is all about.
Note from TG: HERE is a post I did a while back on active recovery that may provide some ideas of what to do.
Next, a deload week is not an excuse to derail your nutrition. On the contrary, sticking to your nutrition plan is even more important during your deload week. Keeping your normal gym schedule while just performing recovery and mobility workouts can help keep your routine intact. Routine helps most athletes stick to their nutrition plan. Your body is repairing itself. You need to provide it all the quality fuel it needs to complete the repairs, along with plenty of sleep every night. Recovery is not just the absence of training; it is a critical part of the training process!
Why should you consider working deload weeks into your training schedule? You will become stronger, faster. You’ll suffer fewer chronic injuries. You’ll be less prone to burning out. You’ll be an overall better athlete. Try it.
“A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents” – 1936 article by Hans Selye from The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences
Kraemer, William J.; Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training, Second Edition.
Rippetoe, Mark (2009), Practical Programming for Strength Training
Wendler, Jim (19 August 2011), 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength