As an athlete, you’re used to giving it your all. But when it comes to recovery, less is more. It might be hard to believe that easier workouts—or no workouts at all—are the secret to sustained performance, but it’s true. Every once in a while, athletes need to step away from the field and the weight room. This often-overlooked technique is called deloading, and it’s the secret to workout recovery, avoiding overtraining and peaking for competition.
What Is a Deload?
A deload is a period of training that’s significantly easier than normal. By reducing volume (total sets and reps), intensity (weight on the bar), frequency (number of workouts) or a combination of all three, you allow your body to recover from the stress you build up over the course of a season.
But isn’t time off going to set you back? The simple answer is “no.” If you’ve been working hard enough, a deload will leave you feeling refreshed and energized when you return to the weight room or the field. That’s because a good training program accumulates fatigue and purposefully pushes you harder and harder over time. Eventually, your body can’t keep up, you get tired, and your performance drops slightly. But once you back off a bit, you experience a phenomenon called supercompensation. You stress the body hard, give it a break, and grow back bigger and stronger.
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Adaptation and the Injury Formula
Supercompensation is one of the many ways we adapt to training. If you push your body hard enough at the right time, followed by a deload, you’ll bounce back with better performance. It’s the “two steps forward, one step back” approach. Distance runners, powerlifters and track & field athletes having been using it for years. The chart below shows how an intense phase of training followed by a deloading period leads to better performance:
Source: Haff, G., and E. Haff. “Training Integration and Periodization.” NSCA’s Guide to Program Design. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2012.
Deloading not only improves workout recovery, it also reduces the chance for injury. Eric Cressey, owner of Cressey Sports Performance and strength coach to over 100 professional baseball players, often speaks about the Law of Repetitive Motion as a way to predict injury. He uses the equation I = N x F / A x R, where injury (I) equals the number of repetitions of a movement (N) multiplied by the force of the movement (F), divided by the amplitude (range of motion) of the repetitions (A) multiplied by the rest interval (R). It sounds complicated, but it means that if you do something difficult often enough without rest, you’re going to get hurt.
Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg is a perfect example. As a young fireballer at San Diego State, Strasburg threw thousands of high-velocity pitches before becoming the No. 1 draft pick in 2009. That much stress on a young arm without much rest inevitably led to an elbow injury and Tommy John surgery in 2010. Taking a few months off from throwing each year, a baseball-specific deload, may have prevented Strasburg’s injury. So how do you reach the highest levels of performance without setbacks or injuries? Use deload periods every four to 12 weeks to stay fresh and healthy. Here’s how:
How to Deload
How and when you deload depends on your sport, your season and how hard you’ve been training. Here are the variables you need to change for workout recovery.
The most important variable for recovery is volume. Nothing beats you up like lots of sets and reps, even if you’re not lifting that heavy. In fact, you can still lift heavy during a deload week as long as you cut the volume by 50-60 percent. So if your normal lower-body workout looks like this:
- A1. Squat – 315x6x3
- B1. Deadlift – 405x5x2
- C1. Lunges – 135x3x10
A deload that cuts volume by 50 percent would look like this:
- A1. Squat – 315x3x3
- B1. Deadlift – 405x3x2
- C1. Lunges – 135x2x8
You’re doing half the work you normally do, but the weights stay heavy. You’ll recover without losing your feel for heavy weights, making it easier to get back in the swing of things when you return to normal training.
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A break from heavy weights is not as important for recovery as a break from volume, but sometimes lightening the load can boost your energy and give you a mental break. But be careful—backing off too much will make normal weights feel like a ton of bricks when you get back under the bar. Cut the weight by 30-40 percent of what you normally use and keep the volume about the same. For example, instead of the above workout, try this:
- A1. Squat – 225x6x3
- B1. Deadlift – 285x5x2
- C1. Lunges – 95x3x10
You can cut both volume and intensity, but that’s not an ideal approach, because you’ll have to ease back into training so you won’t feel like you got hit by a bus on day one. For optimal workout recovery, cut one variable and keep the other the same.
Time of year will dictate how often to back off. If it’s the off-season and you’re hitting it hard in the weight room, you might take it easy every fourth or fifth week to keep your strength trending up. If you’re in your pre-season and workouts are less intense to make room for practice, you might only need a break every eight to 10 weeks. And if you’re in the middle of your competitive season, you might not deload at all, since you are training only enough to maintain strength.
You can also work out less often during your deload week. Instead of three or four workouts each week, cut it down to two or three while adjusting volume or intensity. Finally, athletes who are peaking for an important competition (powerlifters, track athletes, etc.) should cut back on training one to two weeks out from the event to ensure total recovery.
When Not to Deload
Everyone needs to recover, but not everyone needs to take a break. Here’s when not to deload:
- If you’re a beginner (less than six months of training)
- If you train fewer than three times per week
- If two or more of your weekly workouts are easy days (low volume and low intensity)
- If your workouts are rehabilitative in nature (e.g., physical therapy, light running, mobility work, etc.)
The bottom line is that you have to earn your deload. Working hard enough that you deserve a break is part of the quest to becoming a great athlete. So put in the time, back off when needed, and watch your performance skyrocket.
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- Cressey, Eric. “The Law of Repetitive Motion.” 25 June 2009. Web.
- Gambetta, Vern. Athletic Development: The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.
- Haff, G., and E. Haff. “Training Integration and Periodization.” NSCA’s Guide to Program Design. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2012. 213-20.