The Art of the Deload

Editor’s note: Every month I write a column for Muscle & Fitness magazine called “Born Fit.” In it, I answer real questions asked by real people on Twitter. This post focuses on deloads, “off weeks,” and how to schedule your rest. Because magazines have limited space (and I like to write too much), sometimes my responses need to be condensed. These are my unedited answers to those questions. If you want to potentially be featured in the magazine tweet at me and ask a question using the hashtag #BornFit. -AB

How often do you suggest a rest or deload week if regularly lifting?

We grow when we lift. We grow when we recover. But when you’re not lifting, sometimes it feels like you’re not growing at all. This is the dilemma you face, and why so many people just can’t figure out when to back off. That’s why deloads exist: you don’t have to stop training completely, but the lighter week helps you reduce plateaus and injuries without freaking out over missing the gym.

The higher your training age (more advanced lifters) the more frequent you need to deload.

A deload can work in many ways. You can try adjusting any of the following variables:

Sets: Do fewer sets per exercise, so instead of 3 sets per exercise do 2.

Reps: Do less reps at the same weight; so instead of 10 reps do 6 per exercise at the same weight.

Weight: Use about 60% of the weight, but maintain same reps and sets.

Unlike what some might suggest, there’s no golden rule. Your needs can be broken down into three primary categories: recovery, your style of training, how many years you’ve been part of the iron game. Use this simple approach to schedule your training sessions and you’ll keep growing and improving year-round.

Designing Off Weeks From Training

The main question was about lifting heavy, but we don’t all crush huge weights, and this factor plays a big role in how much rest you need. When recovering from a recent hamstring tear, I set a goal of doing rack deadlifts with 500 pounds. That was my point of recovery and pulling from the floor. But that type of load meant I was doing a deload once every 3 to weeks. The results? Just 14 weeks post injury I hit 500 pounds.

My journey needed more rest because of the heavy weight and higher training frequency. Bodybuilding-style workouts (like splitting up into chest, back, and leg day) that have higher volume can require less of a need for deloads.

That’s because the lower frequency (per muscle group) and load (less overall weight) doesn’t result in as much stress on your joints, assuming that you’re doing the exercises correctly. The heavier you go and the harder you hit it, the more you need to quit it. (At least for the occasional week.)

If you’re using heavy weights (think 3-6 rep maxes) on a daily basis, here’s a sample deload.

Week 1: Don’t take any sets to failure. Push towards technical failure but leave a rep or 2 in the tank.

Week 2: Push to technical failure (form and tempo still perfect), but not muscular failure.

Week 3: Deload, backing off one of the variables listed above.

Week 4: Push towards a PR and failure on last set. Then repeat the process the following week. Weights should keep going up.

Assess your Recovery

You want to train your best every day. But sometimes, your body just won’t “peak” no matter how many preworkouts you pump into your body. Apps like BioForce HRV do a great job of telling you how hard you should be pushing during your workout, or you can do it the old school way.

Old School Recovery Assessment

Step 1: Take your resting heart rate every morning for a week and determine your average before starting a new program.

Step 2: Start testing your heart rate after your program begins. Measure for one week.

Step 3: If you’re resting heart rate is jumping up, typically by 10 beats per minute or more, you need more recovery (take off an additional 1 to 2 days) or schedule a deload using the plan above..

Pro Tip: Consider Your Training Age

If you’re a beginner stop worrying about overtraining. Because the total weight you can use in training is less, the likelihood of needing an entire week for a deload is reduced. Instead, simply focus on training 3 to 4 day per week, pushing yourself as hard as you can. Having 3 or 4 days of rest will be more than enough for recovery, even though your muscle will probably feel very sore.

The higher your training age (more advanced lifters) the more frequent you need to deload.

New lifters can sometimes go 12 weeks (or more) without needing a deload. But if you’ve been lifting for more than 5 years, it’s wise to schedule a deload every 4 to 8 weeks, depending on how you feel.

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