In a fitness world where men scream and go crazy about creatine (your grandma knows it as a steroid because it’s powder and it’s white) and mammoth biceps, a deload refers to a week taken off training or a short period, usually a week, of reduced training volume, load and/or intensity to allow for mitigation of fatigue that added up over weeks of hard training. 

Based on the fitness fatigue model, both fitness (muscle, strength, et-fugging-cetera) and fatigue (muscle damage, nervous system fatigue, etc.) go up with each workout: 

And that’s where a deload week comes in. It allows your body to get rid of fatigue and its symptoms such as poor sleep and achy joints so you can keep pushing hard in the gym and make gains so that this girl (or boy) you like would finally go all well that’s a sexy sparkly bicep right there and ask you out on a date.

Now, there are two ways you can program deloads into your training (and that’s what I was wrong about in some of my previous articles):

The 1st way: Proactive deloads

You pre-plan a deload week in advance every 4 to 8 weeks: 

The 2nd way: Reactive deloads

You wait for signs of fatigue to build up and have a deload when you feel that you actually need one (you’re no longer making progress and dread going to the gym, have poor sleep and/or achy joints, etc.):

The former—having deloads at fixed intervals—was something I used to recommend to my clients and implement into my own training. I switched to a more autoregulated/flexible approach quite a while ago as it made more sense to keep training and making progress until I felt I needed to flush fatigue. 

And a recent study by Schoenfeld and colleagues (not yet peer-reviewed) made me double down on reactive deloads as they found that deloading reactively may be better. Here’s what they did: 

50 male and female volunteers with at least one year of resistance training experience were assigned to 1 of 2 groups: The deload group that took a 1-week off training at the midpoint (the 5th week) of a 9-week resistance training program | the traditional training group trained consistently throughout the 9-week study period.

The researchers found that taking a deload week did not affect lower body hypertrophy. They concluded: 

“These findings suggest that 1 week of detraining does not attenuate the hypertrophic adaptations seen in the first half of a 9-week training block but also does not enhance results over time. The findings are generally consistent with the body of literature, which suggests little to no differences in longitudinal muscle growth when relatively short periods of detraining are utilized.”

Practical applications

The main finding of this study was that pre-programming deloads every several weeks is probably unnecessary and you may be better off deloading reactively based on your perceived fatigue state. If you feel like you’re making progress and you feel fine, what’s the point of taking a deload after four weeks? Most people don’t train hard enough to generate much fatigue anyway.

The catch with reactive deloads is that you need to be experienced enough to identify when a deload is actually needed.

Pre-programming deloads ahead of time is fine too. It’s just unlikely that you will get extra benefits in terms of muscle growth. However, some people find it more of a psychological tool—it may be easier to push yourself hard in the gym when you know you’re going to have a deload in four weeks.

Here’s another thing—and I probably should have started the article with it but since it’s my article, fugg it, I’m telling you this now so buckle up and deal with it—if you’re an early beginner lifter, you probably don’t need deloads at all. During the first year of training, you’re probably not going to cause enough fatigue to need a deload.

All told, don’t worry about deloads if you’re a novice trainee. Learn to train with proper intensity (0-5 reps in reserve), master proper technique, do that consistently for 1-2 years, and only then think about including deloads into your training.

If you’re an intermediate or even advanced lifter and you have been diligent with your training for a couple of years, include deloads into your training! You’re not a biological unicorn. You do accumulate fatigue. And you do need to mitigate it to drive progress forward. I prefer reactive deloads but there’s a place for both. Or even a combination of the two.

P.S. If you don’t want to deal with programming your workouts, jump on board for the Train With Me program. It’s a 3, 6, or 12-month progressive strength training 1:1 online coaching in which I’ll teach you how to train with a proper technique, volume, and proximity to failure so that you can enjoy your time in the gym without the need to figure it out all for yourself. Click the link in my bio to sign up.

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Originally published by me on Medium on June 21, 2023

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