Hitting the weights can get a little too black and white sometimes. Either you’re training hard, balls to the wall, or you’re away from the gym resting to let the muscles recover and regenerate. For the most part, this works, but there’s one key element missing here: the gray area in between, when you’re at the gym training but you’re not exactly going all out. Basically, you’re taking it easy on your muscles.
Are you being lazy? Absolutely not. You’re being smart. You’re deloading, the same thing the strongest lifters in the world do on a regular basis to get even stronger.
“Deloading is basically just a means of giving the body a minor break so that it can repair itself,” says Brandon Smitley, an EliteFTS-sponsored competitive powerlifter who holds the fourth highest squat (501 pounds) and total (1,306 pounds) of all time at 132 pounds raw. “You can’t run your car at 6,000 to 7,000 RPMs forever. You eventually need to slow down or you’re going to blow your engine. That’s how you have to look at training. You have to ramp it up during certain times, but you also need to scale back down to allow for recovery.
“For powerlifters or anyone looking to get as strong as possible in the gym, deloading is great for the sheer fact that it lets you handle heavier weights over a long period. It’s also better on the joints and provides a nice mental break every now and then. For bodybuilders, deloading often produces a nice effect where the muscles get a boost in growth.”
HOW OFTEN TO DELOAD: Scaling back every month or so is a good rule of thumb, but this depends on the individual. Those who require more recovery from heavy lifting may need to deload every fourth week, while guys who don’t tend to break down as quickly can probably get away with deloading every seventh or eighth week. “If you’re a regular gym-goer, you’re going to have to find out what works best for your body,” Smitley says. “Experience level will also determine the deload. If you have a beginner, deloading every fourth week is almost a waste because they’re so new to weight training that the body will continue to adapt to anything. But if you get someone who’s been in the game for a long time, he’s probably going to deload every fourth week as a norm.
HOW LONG TO DELOAD: Just as once a month (give or take) is a good rule of thumb for frequency, one week seems to be the deloading sweet spot. “Strength and powerliftingwise, one week is definitely the norm,” Smitley says. “As for bodybuilders, they often take two or three weeks and drop their volume. So, for example, the first three or four weeks of a macrocycle might be moderate volume, then the next six to eight weeks would be high volume in the peak of their training, and then after that, you’d have two to three weeks of low volume.”
HOW TO DELOAD: In the strength community, deloading is typically a matter of cutting training load (weight used) on exercises and/or overall volume. In other words, you’re still going to the gym the same number of days that week; you’re just doing considerably less work while you’re there. Regarding weight, if you’d normally leave one rep “in the tank” on heavy days, Smitley recommends leaving three to four in the tank while deloading. As for cutting volume, you can simply take the number of sets you’d normally do and divide that in half.
“Another approach is to drop all accessory exercises and do only the big lifts,” Smitley says. “So basically, go to the gym, warm up, work up to a heavy triple [three reps] and walk out. Or you can do the exact opposite. If you’re training lower body and you normally squat, nix your squatting but keep your accessory work the same as normal. Or you can do both — you do squats but maybe decrease the weight to something light and work on form, and then drop all assistance movements in half in terms of sets. So if you normally do four sets each of leg presses, leg extensions and leg curls, you’d do two.”