If you have a training program that you’ve developed in order to build muscle and burn fat, then you need to stick at it in order to be effective. No matter how well designed your routine is, it just isn’t going to bring any benefits unless you actually stick at it. Furthermore, the more intensely you train, the more effort you put in, and the more regularly you work out, the faster the strength gains and overall health benefits are going to come.
But while it pays to go hard in your training and to put your all in, there is also such thing as ‘too much of a good thing’. In other words, there comes a point where putting extra effort in and working out religiously actually starts to do more harm than good. While intensity is to be encouraged for the most part, it’s also important to give your body the chance to recover and to heal. If you keep pushing yourself continuously, without giving yourself the opportunity to catch up on sleep or let your muscles heal, then eventually you will find that the benefits stop coming.
This is the function of what’s known among bodybuilding and athletic circles as a ‘deload week’. Essentially, a ‘deload week’ is a period of time during which you will stop working out and just take some time off. While it might feel counterintuitive to think that time off could lead to better benefits, it actually makes perfect sense… Here’s why.
The first thing to recognize is that you can only push your body so hard for so long. While you will normally give yourself a day or two to recover between workouts, these won’t always be enough to allow you to completely heal from your training and recoup your energy. Thus you gradually increase a deficit of rest to the point where you’re ‘running on empty’.
There are two things that can happen at this point. Either you carry on training, gradually losing motivation, effort and fitness but still not getting the rest you need… or you take one week out and then come back to your training with all cylinders firing.
As a Zen proverb goes:
“Sit, walk or run, but don’t wobble”
Another problem with trying to maintain a too-intensive training regime, is that you’re eventually likely to start causing yourself injuries. Whether this comes in the form of a damaged knee from running or a bad back from heavy lifting, it’s almost inevitable that you will eventually pick up some niggling complaint… and that won’t then go away until you take some time off to let it heal. In fact, if you keep training and refuse to take the time off, then you’ll likely just get worse and worse until you’re forced to take a lot of time off.
Motivation and Practicality
This ties closely in to the energy aspect, but taking a week off every so often can also be very useful in terms of motivation and practicality. If you train intensively for too long, then eventually you’re likely to find yourself becoming bored and craving a break. Then work gets extra busy and you end up struggling to train for a few evenings in a row and you end up giving up.
On the other hand though, if you know you have a scheduled break coming up in a couple of weeks, you’ll find it’s probably much easier to stay vigilant and to maintain your routine as a result.
In short, taking a week off means it’s much easier to stick to a workout routine if you struggle to stay disciplined. You’re much better taking a week off than giving up entirely.
Taking a week off also helps your body to progress in a number of ways, no matter what kind of routine you’re following. And the same is true for diets as well.
For instance, when using weight training in order to build big muscle, taking a week off gives your body more time to recover the microtears that your training has caused and to use protein in your diet to build your muscles up bigger and stronger. Likewise, if you’re dieting and doing lots of long-distance running, then taking a week off can help you to avoid your metabolism slowing down in order to become more energy-efficient (though sub-optimal for weight loss).
How to Incorporate Deload Weeks Into Your Training
Hopefully all that has motivated you to consider using deload weeks in your own training. The next question is how to implement them.
In terms of regularity, advice varies greatly. Some experts go as far as to recommend taking a deload week every month. For most people though, this will slow down progress to the point of actually being counterproductive. Others will say to take a deload week every 8 weeks, while others will say one every 6 months is sufficient.
This is something where you have to really listen to your own body and know what you’re capable of. If you want concrete guidelines though, then the best compromise between all these suggestions would be to deload about once every three months.
Schedule yourself in deload weeks once every three months as a way to motivate yourself to keep training. During this time, if you pick up an injury, find your workouts start to lack motivation, or generally begin to want a week off, feel free to bring it forward and to have your deload week right away. You can also time your deload weeks to coincide with holidays, injuries or other periods when you need to take the time off anyway.
If you don’t like the sounds of taking a full week off, then another consideration is to use ‘active recovery’. This involves switching to another type of training (from powerlifting to running for instance), using stretching, or just going significantly lighter in the gym for that time. This way you can still give your body the break, without feeling guilty because you aren’t training at all.