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What is a De-Load?

Over the last month or so, during almost every workout I’ve done, I have hit PR’s (personal records) with my lifting meaning I am lifting a weight I have never lifted before, or lifting a weight for more repetitions than I have ever lifted it for.

This is pretty exciting stuff if you’re a weight training nerd like me!  As exciting as that was, my body was starting to feel a little beat up from all the heavy lifting, so last week I decided to de-load (and it was actually planned in my training to take a de-load week last week so it worked out perfectly).

So what is a de-load exactly?  It can actually mean many different things including, but not limited to the following:

1. 4-7 days completely out of the gym.
2. 4-7 days of only foam rolling, mobility, and light cardio.
3. 4-7 days of doing similar workouts but with decreased volume and load (i.e. if I had been doing 4 sets of 4 reps on squats with 205, then I would do 2 sets of 4 squats with 155).
4. Any combination of the above.

Many people have their own idea of what a de-load means and in my opinion, as long as you are giving your body a break, and an opportunity to truly recover, if it works for you…go for it!

Why Should I De-Load?

De-loading regularly allows your body to properly recover and allows you to make progress long-term.  It’s just not possible to go hard and heavy day in and day out and make consistent progress.  As some point, you must give your body a break and allow it to repair itself.

Of course, if your nutrition, sleep, stress management, and supplements are all spot-on 100% of the time, then you might be able to get away with fewer or shorter de-loads.  But seriously… how often does that happen?  How often are we 100% on point with all of the things we need to do outside of the gym, that help us train hard IN the gym?  I know I rarely am and it’s my job!!

You see, the body can only handle so much stress at one time before something gives and your body forces you to slow down either by getting sick or hurt.  De-loading occasionally reduces the amount of stress your body is under and gives it an opportunity to rest and recover.  Think of it like recharging your batteries.  You need “juice” in your batteries in order to function, so occasionally they need to re-charge.  Your body needs regular breaks, whether it’s from a calorie deficit, several weeks of heavy weight training, or a super intense cardio regimen, you must occasionally pull back on the reins a bit to give your body a chance to rest and to continue making long-term progress.

 

If you push yourself hard on a regular basis like my good friend Nia, you need to de-load occasionally.

 

How Often Should You De-Load?

There are definitely differing thoughts and opinions about how often a person should de-load (or if they should do it at all).  Some people like taking planned de-loads; for example every 4, 6, 8, or 10 weeks or more (although personally I think 10 weeks is probably too long to wait if you are really pushing yourself in the gym) while others like go by how they feel or their performance in the gym.  The following are common indicators that it’s time for a de-load:

  1. Experiencing more muscle soreness than normal and/or taking longer for the soreness to subside than normal.
  2. Lack of motivation to lift/train.
  3. Major change in appetite (usually a decrease).
  4. Decrease in leanness despite not changing nutrition program/exercise regimen.
  5. Decrease in overall strength/performance in the gym or in other workouts (keep in mind that 1 bad workout doesn’t mean it’s time for a de-load but several workouts in a row where you are forced to decrease the weight you are using or decrease the number of reps you can do, then it’s probably time).
  6. Bouts of mild depression, fatigue, and or malaise.

Don’t wait until you feel awful to take a de-load. It will only take you longer to recover.

 

While the above list contains many common indicators that it’s time for a de-load, it’s not exhaustive.  And in my opinion, unless you know your body really well, it’s probably best to plan a de-load every 5-8 weeks and not rely on “feeling” or waiting until you are completely destroyed to give yourself a break.  In my experience, if you give yourself a break while you still have a little left in the tank, you will recover much more quickly.  If you wait until it’s too late, it can take several weeks, or longer, until you are full recovered.

 

REMEMBERYou are only as good as your ability to recover! 

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed my post and learned a little something.  I know people have different opinions on de-loading and I would love to read yours below in the comments section!  Thanks for reading!

27 Responses to The Art of the De-Load and Listening to Your Body

  1. Bridgette says:

    Great article! I’ve needed to read this. Sometimes I feel guilty taking it easy or even taking time off from the gym. I need to remember that recovery should also be a scheduled event. I feel so much better!
    Thanks Bridgette

    • molly says:

      Bridgette – You are so welcome! Yes de-loading should be scheduled into your workout regimen just like everything else! No need to feel badly about it… we have been trained to think we are weak or wussy or whatever if we take time off, when in fact, it’s one of the best things you can do for your long-term health!

  2. Danny says:

    Hey Molly,
    Very insightful and concise article. The irony of me reading this amazing piece is that I hurt my lower back yesterday doing a sub-maximum weight (85% of my 1RM) Deadlift. This coming after I did maximum weight (90% of my 1RM) Squats on Monday. Not allowing enough days in between for full recovery (which I’ve done quite frequently in the past), I hurt my lower back as I attempted my first rep of my first set of Deadlifts (405lbs), which I usually do with relative ease for 4-6 reps. I got a rep up but felt a tweak in my low back immediately as I locked out. I had to quit the rest of my workout as a result and have been applying heat and ice to the affected area ever since. My lower back is still severely inflamed :(
    But I agree wholeheartedly with you. De-loading and allowing muscles to fully recover in between workouts is a crucial component of weight training. I play a lot with my de-loading phases. In the past, I’ve de-loaded every three months, but realized that was too long a time to beat my body up before taking a break. I currently de-load every 4 to 8 weeks but considering switching again to every 4 weeks. Either way, we all need to schedule de-load weeks ahead of time to allow our bodies to ‘recharge’, like you so eloquently put it. I usually take my de-load week off and don’t do any lifting at all. But I like your idea of foam rolling, mobility and myofascial work. It’s brilliant! After all, the whole point is to relieve all the weight lifting stress and fatigue off the body.
    I’m a Certified Personal Trainer by profession but also an avid weight training nerd like you (LoL). I design all of my workouts in advance, plan de-load weeks and push myself to the limit in all my workouts. Like you said, sometimes we get too carried away and our obsession for weight lifting gets the best of us.
    But I admire you and your Girls Gone Strong crew on your work ethic and passion for weight lifting. It’s good to see more women weight lifting. It is my hope that you guys can help debunk the myths and misconceptions that a lot of women have about weight training.

    Keep up the good work :)

    • molly says:

      Danny,

      Thank you so much for all the kind words! I hate to hear that about your back… =(

      Yeah, doing too much too soon without ample recovery time can be a recipe for disaster! Hope you are feeling better!

      And thank you for the kind words about GGS! We really want to change the way women think about strength training! =)

  3. Maria says:

    Very helpful article! Thank you.

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  5. Great post! Thanks for sharing. Wish more people would take note of this. Wish I would have done the same. It’s important to avoid injury.

    • molly says:

      Thank you Pamela! Yes, I used to hate taking time off from the gym… then I realized it was vital for my long-term health and performance. Plus, I never get tired of going to the gym like I might if I never took breaks. In fact, my de-load week makes me super antsy to get back to smashing heavy stuff! =)

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  9. Meg says:

    Hey Molly!

    It’s my first time reading your blog. I found you through Juliet – she shared this post on her FB page Hey Joob.

    I read this post just now and totally needed it. I cannot thank you enough. I am in Barbados with my family right now and the gym is always at the back of my mind. I kind of feel “lazy” just because I am not doing my regular activity (weight lifting 5 times per week) but this post really helped me. Although I wasn’t experiencing any of the symptoms or signs that I needed a deload, this post just gave me some comfort that it is ok to step out of the gym.

    xoxo

    Meg

    • molly says:

      Meg,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Yes, even if you aren’t feeling those symptoms, taking regular breaks is so important. It’s kind of like washing your hands, getting your sleep, and taking your vitamins — those things help prevent you from catching a bad cold. So instead of waiting until you catch the cold and treating it, you are stopping it before it happens.

      Once you start experiencing those symptoms you are already past the point of needing a break. I am glad you are taking one and you should definitely schedule them in. And don’t think you have to be totally sedentary that week. Walk! Ride your bike! Play badminton! Do something fun and restorative and when it’s time to hit the gym again you will be more motivated than ever! =)

      So glad you liked this and thanks again for reading and commenting!

      XOXO!

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  15. Hayley says:

    I think I’m due for a de-load and I’m absolutely going to make these activities a feature of my workout routines from now on. Thanks for writing this it makes sense. I used to just wait til my
    body got sick.

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  17. Janel says:

    This past week has been the first week I’ve not been regular with work outs for months and it’s all because of a cold. Certainly not as bad as it could have been, (I do take my Vitamin C and D3!) but it has made me not want to lift…anything! I’m glad to have the break and I kind of think I needed it. Thanks for the reassurance that it’s all right to pause once and a while!

  18. I’m working on the 5/3/1 programme right now which has a built in deload every 4 weeks which is awesome. Otherwise I honestly don’t think I would schedule a deload period.

  19. Karen Tran says:

    I love the idea of a planned de-load but unfortunately my life tends to de-load for me automatically (usually travel – I stink at working out on the road) at least my life is considerate and gives me 6 – 8 weeks between these events! The de-load week makes me more motivated to get in good work outs since I know I will be getting a break :) Though the first workout after 1 – 2 weeks off is always a doozy even though I try to start of at 75% of my peak of the last workout run – though a sick part of me like the soreness!

    I love your advice and GGS – you guys really keep me motivated (I want your abs). My boyfriend (who taught me to lift heavy) is really happy that I have found a women’s group that is “lifting correctly” and concentrating on form and steady progress.

    Thank you.

  20. Good article, Molly. I would add that “weekend warriors,” who lift light weights don’t know about deloads cuz they don’t need them as much. Also, the lighter volume (sets/reps) & lessened intensity (amount of pounds lifted) in one of your variations was perfect insofar as you addressed the active recovery I had suggested just moments ago -even without having first seen my comment on your GGS Facebook page. Very good!

    Also, I will add that when I got back into serious weightlifting and powerlifting after a long layoff, I had no idea what a “deload” was, but thanks to kind Internet friends such as you, Nia Shanks, Eric Cressey, and others too numerous to mention, I now know that the rest phase is just as important –it is then that you recover & become stronger.
    :-) Healthier is better.

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  22. Bethany Leavitt says:

    Somehow your articles pop up for me right when I need them most…Sadly I am at the point where is is “too late,” and now all 4 major joints are seriously messed up. I strength trained for 4 years and added Crossfit to that regimen for the past 2 years, and I have never even taken a de-load period. The most I ever took was 3 or 4 days and it was always against my will due to academic demands or something. But NOW I am paying the price, and I will probably have to do such a small amount of work for at least a whole month, which means all of the strength, stamina, and muscle mass I’ve worked so hard for (I am NOT naturally muscular OR lean, so I work harder than many people might). HOWEVER, I am trying to remind myself that it is a blessing in disguise…reminding me that my strength or muscle mass is not the way to go about creating a sense of self-worth, or at least not when it is such a large factor in my self-esteem. I know that it is just time to focus on God and not be so “self-reliant” an stubborn. I just wish I didn’t have to lose everything/most of what I’ve built. I which I had realized this and taken it seriously wayyyy sooner. But THANK YOU for always providing such thoughtful, intelligent, and insightful articles.

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