Did you ever hear about training in cycles (periodization), taking a deload week, or planning for a training break? If you have, then the take-home message for you was probably this: After pushing yourself hard in the gym for many weeks or months, you need some kind break or lower intensity training cycle for proper recovery. If you keep blasting it in the gym 24-7-365, you’ll be risking overreaching or even full-on overtraining.
However, if you’re a serious lifter or physique athlete, you may not be the type to take time off from lifting. You might have a fear of losing your gains or slipping back if you stop training even for a single week. That leaves a few burning questions:
How do you balance the hard, progressive training necessary to stimulate muscle growth with the recovery needed to reap those gains?
- Is it mandatory to take time off from the gym?
- If so, how long and how often should you do it without losing your gains?
- Could you keep training and simply back off on the weight or intensity (take a deload)?
- If deloading is the answer, what is the best way to do it?
These are important questions, so in this Burn the Fat blog post, I’m going to to answer them in as much detail as I can. This will be like our Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle definitive guide to training breaks and deloads.
What if you don’t want to take deloads or time off from the gym?
First of all, a lot of people, especially serious bodybuilders, don’t like taking time off. They’re gung-ho and motivated to train all year, and they don’t want to leave any results on the table, let alone go backwards. That’s understandable – no one wants to lose what they worked so hard to gain.
The problem is, if you’re always training with high intensity, high volume, and heavy weights, then you accumulate stress and fatigue in your muscle tissue, in your joints, and in your central nervous system.
That puts you at risk of under-recovering and over-training and can hold back your progress more than anything. Even worse, it can lead to injury which can become chronic and then your training is compromised or you may be forced to take extended time off instead of just a short break.
That’s why you have to put some thought into planning your training so you’re properly balancing training stress with recovery. That means you either take breaks from lifting or you train lighter or easier some of the time using periodization and deloads.
Classic warning signs of overtraining
Periodization and training in cycles
Periodization is a complex subject, but a simple definition is that it’s how you change training variables such as weight, reps, sets, exercises, frequency, intensity, and so on over a period of time.
An important part of periodization is training with progressive overload, and trying to lift more weight and do more work as the weeks go by. But if you want to keep training productive and healthy, you also need to plan your training in cycles so you’re not always blasting it hard and heavy.
When you start a new training block, during the initial workouts, you use less weight, less volume, and you might not work so close to failure. Then you train progressively heavier and harder so you’re doing more work by the end of the cycle than you were in the beginning. You reach a point where you might feel like you’re on the edge of overtraining (we call that overreaching), but then you back off to let the fatigue dissipate.
Your training should always have this kind of ebb and flow where it starts easier and then gets harder and builds up to a peak, then it drops back when you start a new cycle, and then you repeat the process.
But even when you have well-designed programs that are periodized and you build up gradually, most athletes and coaches agree that’s not enough and you need some other kind of recovery strategy as well. That usually comes in the form of regular deloads that you might put right in the middle of a training cycle, or even complete breaks from training every so often throughout the year.
The words break and deload sometimes get used interchangeably, but these are definitely two different things. Let’s talk about the complete training break first.
A training break is exactly what it sounds like – you don’t do any lifting, not even easy or light lifting. You might do some kind of light activity like walking, swimming, yoga, mobility exercises and so on, but no intense resistance exercise at all.
Here’s how doing nothing can actually help you: After a certain number of weeks of hard, progressive training, there’s going to come a point where you’ve accumulated so much fatigue that your body starts to feel beat up. At the same time, your mind is usually getting fatigued too and you start to lose focus or feel unmotivated.
This is also very often the same point where you temporarily can no longer improve your performance. You can’t add weight; you can’t even do more reps with the same weight. You’re stuck, and you’ve been stuck for more than one workout, so it’s not just a random bad day because you didn’t eat or sleep well. And the real tip-off that it’s time for a break is when you’re stuck on almost all of your lifts and almost every muscle is feeling fatigued and your whole body feels run down.
At that point, if you decide to be a macho tough guy and keep pushing harder without reducing the built-up fatigue first, which let’s be honest, is a common mentality in fitness communities like CrossFit and bodybuilding, your training will stop being productive. It won’t be fun either.
The main purpose of taking a break is to reduce the fatigue you accumulated from weeks of hard training. If you take a break or a deload, you can recover, avoid overtraining, recharge your motivation, break through progress plateaus, and then you can start up another block of productive training again.
The tricky part is knowing when to give yourself that extra recovery time and for how long. I don’t believe you should overthink this or try to be too scientific. In fact, trusting yourself with an instinctive approach might be the best way to deload, as long as you’ve had enough experience to be tuned into your body.
Deloading is definitely an art and a science, not one of the other, and you’ll hear conflicting opinions, but there are some established guidelines you can follow.
For someone with physique goals, a popular approach is to simply plan to take a week off from lifting 1 or 2 times a year. A week is the most common length, but breaks can be slightly shorter or slightly longer.
In sports where there’s a season, after the very last game or event, it’s not unusual for an athlete to take off considerably more than a week. Some people like 2-week breaks, but going much longer than that increases the risk of losing some of the strength and muscle you worked so hard to gain. If you go too long without training you also start to lose some of your habit momentum.
A logical time to take a break would be at the end of a long, intense, heavy or high-volume training block (or what we call an overreaching phase). If you’re a competitive athlete, you might take a break after a competition. Some people schedule a break for when they’re going on vacation, then they can totally relax.
Some physique athletes take off even more than once or twice a year. They have a standard practice of taking a week off from training after a specific amount of time, for example their personal rule might be, “I always take a week off after every 3 or 4 months of training.”
One reason people pre-plan breaks this way is because they see it as a preventive measure. They don’t want to wait until they get hurt or feel overtrained to take a rest, they hope that taking planned breaks will prevent that from happening in the first place.
But you don’t have to take breaks that often. In fact, breaks can be considered optional if you have some other kind of recovery strategy in place, like periodizing your training and using deloads instead.
The other approach is when you don’t plan breaks in advance, you listen to your body and only take time off when you’re seeing definite symptoms of overtraining or feeling high levels of fatigue in your whole body. The scientific name for this is “autoregulation” – it’s the instinctive approach.
If you feel great, you keep training. If there’s a drop in your performance and you feel beat down, you’re dreading going to the gym, or you’re feeling aches and pains flare up, you take the break.
The truth about training breaks and muscle loss
A lot of people won’t take breaks because they’re afraid of losing muscle. But if you feel like you’re sliding back during a short 1-week break without training, it’s always more mental than physical. You might look a little smaller after a week, but it’s probably only muscle glycogen dropping.
Obviously at some point after you stop lifting, you do start losing strength and muscle. This is called the “detraining” effect, and when muscles lose size, it’s called atrophy. But if you look at the research on detraining, atrophy, and strength loss, you’ll see that you won’t lose anything with only 1 week off and maybe not even after 2 weeks.
A study from Baylor University had subjects train for 4 weeks on, 2 weeks off, and then another 4 weeks on and 2 weeks off. They were interested in testing the detraining effect of 2 week layoffs as well as the effect of protein during the process. Even though the lifters took a 2-week break twice, neither group – the higher protein or normal protein group – had lost lean body mass after the entire 12 weeks.
Atrophy starts happening at a significant rate after 2 or 3 weeks of total rest. But even then, if you get right back to consistent training, it usually balances out over the long term, so there’s no net muscle loss because you regain as much or more than you lost.
This was shown in a 2011 study, where one group of lifters took a 3-week break in the middle of a 15-week training program and a second group lifted straight through. The group that detrained lost a small amount of muscle during the break, but when they restarted the training, they gained back the muscle at an accelerated rate, and in the end, there was very little difference in the strength or muscle mass between the groups.
Those fast muscle gains after detraining come partially from muscle memory, which means you can regain muscle you had before much more quickly and easily than you can build new muscle. What happens is, when you build muscle, the fibers increase in size, but also the nuclei of the muscle cells multiply in number to support increased protein synthesis. When you stop training, the fibers decrease in size, but you don’t lose the myonuclei, and that’s one reason why a detrained muscle can grow back to its previous size so quickly.
We also know that after a break from lifting, when you come back, your muscles are more susceptible to damage, and we’re not talking about injury or severe damage – we’re talking about micro-damage in muscle fibers. The latest science suggests that the main driver of hypertrophy is mechanical tension overload, but muscle damage has been identified as a possible secondary mechanism of muscle growth because the inflammation activates satellite cells which increases potential for future gains in muscle.
Another way some people explain better gains after a recovery period is that taking a short time off allows your muscles to become sensitive to the training stimulus again. After a long, hard training block, your body adapts to the same stimulus you’ve been repeating for weeks. Your muscle gains slow down, it gets very hard to add more pounds to the bar, and eventually you reach a plateau.
One plateau-breaking strategy when your body has gotten used to the same training stress is to change your workout and the novelty effect of a new workout may stimulate progress again. But the other more counter-intuitive plateau-breaking strategy is to take a break or a deload. Even though your body adapted to the point of your progress stalling, after a rest, your muscles “re-sensitize” to the training stimulus. This way, you respond to the next program or block of training much better than if you kept pounding away with high intensity.
Some people have seen the science on this and they claim that intentionally inserting a lot of breaks into your training schedule on purpose might actually increase muscle growth. But that’s not how you should interpret this research.
It’s clear that occasional short breaks won’t set you back, but the evidence doesn’t show that taking more breaks gives you a bigger net gain. Even though you may see faster muscle growth when you re-start after time off, it levels off quickly to the normal rate, and since you don’t achieve any growth when you’re not training, the net effect is breaking even.
You should think of training breaks as a way to manage physical and mental fatigue so you optimize recovery and avoid burnout. If you stay fresh and injury-free, then from that perspective, we can say that taking time off does help you make better gains over the long run. Just remember that recovery is a huge piece of the puzzle, but you don’t get bigger and stronger by not training, and there are other ways to manage fatigue and promote recovery.
This is why a lot of people prefer not to take too much time off, and instead of taking a lot of training breaks, more often, they use deloads, which is what we’ll talk about next.
Deloads are another recovery strategy that’s an alternative to a total break from weight training
Everyone could use a complete break once in a while, but deloads have some advantages over breaks.
We’ve established that you’re not likely to lose muscle from a short break, but long breaks or too many breaks could make you lose some of the progress you made in previous training blocks. If you could keep training and keep giving your muscles some kind of stimulus, without digging yourself into a deeper recovery hole, you’d be more likely to hang on to all the adaptations you made.
Another advantage of deloads (compared to breaks) is that lifting with good form is a skill, and skills get better the more you practice them. If you take a lot breaks, that’s less time developing lifting skill. If you take more deloads than breaks, that’s more time spent practicing each exercise with perfect technique, and increasing your skill at using the mind to muscle connection.
The benefits you get from deloads are similar to what you get from a break: reducing fatigue, improving performance, avoiding burnout, decreasing injury risk, and increasing recovery. The difference is, a deload is where you keep lifting, but you intentionally do easier workouts. Basically what we’re talking about is active recovery.
What does an “easier” workout mean specifically? The simplest explanation is that it feels a lot easier than your usual workouts by comparison.
Usually it means lighter, which is where the term deload comes from, because you’re reducing the weight, but it could be any kind of drop in total workload. Usually your goal is to take a step forward by using progressive overload. But deloads are not progressive overload workouts. Deloading is like taking one step back after taking a few steps forward.
During deloads you don’t want to break down muscle tissue, create soreness, add fatigue, or stress your central nervous system. You turn the dials down on volume, intensity and poundage so the workout feels more refreshing than exhausting. If you want to keep the weight up, that’s an option (especially for strength athletes), but then your deload would mean dropping your volume way down and you wouldn’t do as many sets.
So a deload is a period where you train but there’s a lower amount of training stress. Some people call this a taper, but tapering and deloading have a difference: A taper is backing off on the workload in the week or two before a competition. A deload is something you do throughout the year even if you don’t compete.
How long should a deloading phase last?
A deload is usually one week long, just like a training break, which works out well if your lifting schedule fits evenly in a 7-day calendar week. However, a deloads could be shorter.
For example, a lot of the time I use a 3-day or 4-day bodybuilding split routine. Since that’s 3 or 4 different body part workouts, that means I take a 3 or 4-day deload. Every body part gets one easy workout – that’s one microcycle. Sometimes that feels like enough extra recovery for me.
Even backing off for a single day can be helpful if you’re only a little fatigued. We might not call that a deload, we might say it’s a “recovery day,” but it serves a similar purpose.
Let’s say that your whole body in general is feeling okay, but you’re tight and achy in one area – your shoulders. You might have a heavy hard deltoid workout scheduled, but you change your plan and take a light easy workout instead. Compared to skipping the workout, it actually feels good pumping blood in there and moving through the usual range of motion (it’s active recovery), but you’re not accumulating more stress on an already tired muscle or joint.
A deload could be longer as well. If your connective tissues and joints and your central nervous system are really fatigued, it can take more time to recover. If you have full-blown overtraining syndrome or if you need to let an injury heal, you may need multiple weeks of easy training or no training at all for a week or more before you get back to normal.
How often should you do deloads?
There’s no rule carved in stone, but most experts agree that you can deload more often than you’d take complete breaks. Some people take a break only once or twice a year, but they might take deloads every one to two months.
Also, you can do both, depending on how you feel. If you took a deload every month or two, that’s exactly why you might feel you only need a break once or twice a year.
I would recommend that instead of searching for one ideal frequency rule to pre-plan your deloads that you consider using the instinctive approach (autoregulation). That means you pay attention to what your body is telling you and you deload whenever you feel like you need it. At the very least, you can put it in your schedule it at certain intervals but leave it flexible based on how you feel when that week rolls around.
Your decision will have a lot to do with how hard you’ve been training recently, and for how many weeks in a row. You can also factor in your sleep, nutrition, and overall stress level. There’s stuff that happens in life sometimes that’s so stressful, it affects everything, including how you adapt to training.
You also might want to think about what’s coming up in your training calendar. If you’re planning on starting a really tough high-volume or heavy training phase next, then putting a deload right before that makes a lot of sense.
When should you take a deload?
If you’re not sure if you need a deload or not, here are some of the signs that it’s the right time:
1. You’ve hit a progress plateau (you can’t increase the weight or the reps) and you’ve been stuck there for more than one workout.
2. You’re showing signs of overtraining including performance slipping backwards.
3. You feel mentally stale or lack of motivation.
4. You’re feeling unusually fatigued or low in energy.
5. You’re constantly sore, achy or have recurring joint or soft tissue pain or injuries.
I know a lot of people, especially beginners and intermediates, who still might not be sure when they should deload. A big reason is because they don’t have the experience yet to tell the difference between a bad day and a chronic state of overtraining. It can also be tricky, because even in people with experience, the highly motivated and competitive types will tend to not take deloads often enough, and the less motivated or overcautious types tend to take them too often. So let me at least give you some specific suggestions.
The standard advice you’ll hear from most trainers and coaches is to deload every fourth or fifth week. That’s 3 or 4 weeks of heavier and harder training, a deload week with lighter and easier lifting, then you repeat the cycle. That’s a fairly fool-proof way to do it. The downside is it’s conservative and it’s also not personalized because it doesn’t take into consideration how you’re feeling.
You might feel like you’re being more sophisticated if you schedule exactly when you’re going to deload in advance, and most standardized programs you buy have them built in (which is not a bad thing). But one of the reasons you might choose autoregulating deloads instead of pre-planning them is because what if you don’t feel like you need a rest? My philosophy is, if you’re feeling great, performing great, and making progress, you don’t need a deload, and if you did have one scheduled, you could skip it or bump it.
On the other end of the spectrum, I think that if you can keep going more than 8-12 weeks without feeling like you really need a deload, that’s a sign that you haven’t been training hard enough or with enough progression. If your goal is to gain muscle, not just to maintain or stay fit, and if you’re training in the sweet spot for weight, volume, and intensity, you’ll probably feel like you’re pushing the edge of the stress and fatigue envelope somewhere between 4 and 8 weeks, and for sure by 10 to 12 weeks.
After reaching this point, the thought of forcing yourself on to another week of high intensity training should give you anxiety. After 2 or 3 months, if you’ve really been training hard, you shouldn’t wonder if it’s time for some recovery, you should know for sure and welcome it. Then after your deload, it should have been easy enough that you feel refreshed, and you’re chomping at the bit to hit it hard again.
How do you train during a deload?
During the de-load there are 3 major variables you can work with. You can:
1. Reduce the weight (pounds lifted).
2. Reduce the volume (number of sets).
3. Reduce the intensity of effort (how close to failure you work).
You can use 1, 2 or all 3 of these variables however you see fit.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear all kinds of different rules for how to adjust your weights and volume. For example, it’s common to hear, “Don’t use more than 40% to 60% of your 1-rep max during a deload,” or “Reduce your poundage by 20% to 40%,” or “Keep the weight up, but reduce the volume by at least 20% to 25%.”
Keeping some heavy training while reducing the volume is thought to preserve muscle better, and strength athletes usually keep the weight heavy and lower the volume. But for physique training, which is what we’re focusing on here, my preference is to reduce the weight because one of the reasons people deload is to give the joints and connective tissue a break. This is even more important as you get older.
When you reduce the weight, you can cut it by a certain percentage number or you can drop it instinctively to whatever feels light enough for you to call it a “easy” workout. I like to reduce poundage by about 20% to 40%. It’s not at all unusual however, to hear coaches recommend cutting weight by as much as 50% (which makes it a very light weight).
An alternative is you can deload by dropping the number of sets you do (volume). Like the weight drop, recommendations for sets vary a lot. Usually it’s a 20% to 40% drop, but again, it’s not uncommon to see lifters cut sets in half on a deload.
People who have been feeling extremely fatigued may even do both – reduce volume and weight, which makes the workload even easier.
Another option is to increase the number of repetitions in reserve, which means that you don’t train as close to failure. You might keep the weights similar to what you were using, but you reduce the intensity of effort by leaving more reps in the tank.
During deload workouts, it’s important to not only avoid training to failure, but also stop well short of failure because failure training puts a lot of strain on your recovery capacity.
For example, suppose you were curling 100 pounds for 10 reps and that was a hard effort with only one rep left in the tank by your estimation. If you drop 25% of the weight for your deloads (lowering the weight down to 75 pounds), and if you stop at 10 reps, that set is going to feel easy. You might feel like you could do 4 or more reps with 75, but because it’s a deload workout, you stop there at 10 reps anyway.
Of course, the other alternative is to do more reps with those lighter weights. This is usually what most people think about first when you talk about deloading. It seems intuitive to assume that an “easier” workout is supposed to be done with lighter weights and higher reps. Higher reps with lighter weight is an option, but doing too many reps, or pushing the high rep sets too close to failure, especially on the big lifts like squats, can still put a lot of stress on your body.
So use caution if you do higher reps than usual. You may not be lifting heavy, but it can still be a hard workout – it’s simply a different type of hard. It may be better to keep the reps in the standard muscle building range like 6 to 12 and leave more reps in the tank, or increase the rep range only slightly, like to 15 or so and still stop plenty short of failure.
There’s one other variable you could play around with during your deloads and that’s your choice of exercise.
There are some exercises, the ones we call the big compound movements like squats and deadlifts, that are a lot more demanding on your body than isolation exercises like curls and lateral raises and calf raises. This is why some people will drop those big exercises on a deload day or put in easier exercises.
For people who have trouble with their lower backs, another common practice on deload days is dropping heavy axial loading exercises like squats, and any other exercise that puts a lot of strain on the lumbar spine like deadlifts. Unloading the lower back from time to time can be helpful for a lot of people. Having had herniated disc problems in the past, I can speak from experience on that one.
You could do the same thing for any muscle or joint that might be bothering you and take a deload or recovery day just for that one area and keep doing your usual workouts for everything else. If your whole body feels tired, you deload everything across the board. But if you feel stress or strain only on one body part or joint, you can always unload that area alone and train around it.
Additional considerations for deloads
There are a several final considerations to keep in mind when you’re scheduling breaks or deloads.
1. Beginners don’t need deloads, or at least not as often.
Why? Because beginner workouts are not that strenuous. But the more advanced you get, the more important it is to deload because you’re stronger and more able to produce high intensity of effort and handle higher workloads. It also takes more volume for an advanced lifter to grow, and the higher your workload, the more you have to pay attention to recovery.
2. Don’t forget the age factor.
Especially after 40 or 45, it’s more likely that you won’t recover from training stress as well as you did when you were younger. The older you get, the more important it is to use recovery techniques to prevent overuse injuries and help improve performance. So for the older lifter, deloads are a great strategy and taking them more often makes a lot of sense.
Building muscle after age 50: How is it different than at 20 or 30?
3. Never ignore joint pain, especially if it keeps recurring.
If you have the same pains keep popping up, you should probably review your exercise technique first, and then your exercise selection. You may have to fix poor technique, or in some cases drop certain exercises completely and switch to more joint-friendly options.
Some trainers believe that proper exercise selection and exercise rotation are the best ways to reduce joint stress, and that is helpful, but in addition to exercise considerations, deloading is a very smart strategy for reducing risk of joint pain. If you’re dealing with joint pain, take deloads, take them as often as you need them, and when we say take it easy, we mean really take it easy.
Remember that muscle tissue is very resilient and can recover from normal weight training stress in a matter of days. But joints that you’ve beaten up can take a lot longer to recover, so it always pays to change exercises or back off the load and volume the moment you start feeling joint pain. You might be able to train through it if you go light and easy, but if you keep trying to train through it hard and heavy, it could get a lot worse, and you could be regretting it a long time.
Should you change how you eat when you take a deload and in particular during a break when there is zero training?
Many people worry that if they keep eating the same when they’re exercising less, they’ll gain fat. But this probably won’t happen because during a deload the difference in calorie expenditure is trivial, and even during a training break, the difference is still small because weight training just doesn’t burn that many calories. A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports And Exercise found that an average weight lifting workout only burns about 100 to 300 calories (see the research review here in the Burn the Fat members-only area).
Now, if you were doing high volume cardio, like training for a marathon, and you took a total break from running because you had a knee injury, that would be a different story because the drop in calorie burn there would be substantial, and if you kept eating the same amount you were to fuel 40 or 50 miles a week of running after you go to zero miles of running, you’d be almost sure to gain some fat.
Becoming sedentary for an extended period because of an injury is not at all the same thing as taking a week-long break just from lifting, let alone during deloads where you still keep training.
With deloads from weight lifting, Probably the best approach is to maintain your dietary habits and change nothing. If you’re taking a break and want to lower calories, even then you should only drop calories slightly with a goal to end up around maintenance level. You do not want to restrict calories into a deficit.
The whole idea of a deload is to enhance recovery, and being in a large deficit doesn’t help recovery – it’s another kind of stress on the body. That’s why if you were in a deficit and it’s time for a lifting break, then it would be the opposite – if you change anything, you increase the calories just a bit to get up closer to maintenance.
In future blog posts, we’ll talk more about periodization for building muscle, how else you can manage stress and recovery in your training and day-to-day lifestyle, and how else you can cycle heavier and lighter or easier and harder training.
But that’s a wrap for today and hopefully I’ve clarified these two specific topics – how to do a training break and how to do a deload. If you have any other questions about breaks or deloads, please post in the comments below.
-Tom Venuto, Author of, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM)
Author of, The BFFM Guide To Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
Founder of, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
PS. Progressive overload is the major key to making continued muscle gains over time. But you have to do it properly so you avoid overtraining. To learn the art and science of progressive overload training check out The Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle Guide To Building Muscle With Progressive Overload Training, available for instant download.
PPS. If there are any topics you’d like to see me write about in future blog posts in the areas of building muscle or burning fat naturally, I welcome suggestions and would love to hear from you. Simply send me a message here.
About Tom Venuto, The No-BS Fat Loss Coach
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 55,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details