Picture the scene. You work out diligently, following a training plan to the letter. You eat well and don’t often splurge on a plate of waffles and whipped cream for a weekend brunch, opting instead for an egg white and spinach omelette. You get enough protein and use the right protein shake for you. And yet your progress with increasing your muscle mass or getting leaner seems to be at a standstill. What gives?
You’ve probably heard the term deload week bandied around the fitness world, but do you actually know what it means? It can be a misunderstood concept, but it’s incredibly important for anyone who’s training seriously, works out several times a week or has a propensity to push themselves too hard.
What is a deload week?
A deload week is a time for your body to repair the damage you’ve been doing to it with your intense workout routine. Without this time to heal and rest, your progress will plateau as you’re pushing your body too hard. It’s not about being lazy, it’s about rejuvenation and growth.
Wellness coach and personal trainer Mike Bufton is an expert at understanding the way deload weeks can boost your training, reboot your body and ensure the progression of both your mental and physical health.
‘Deload weeks are essential for the body to relax and repair after weeks of intense training,’ says Mike. ‘It allows the body to rest from the damage and trauma you do to it when you put it through excessive stress. Exercise is good trauma, but your body still has to recover from it. Taking a week off allows you to rest and recoup - when you’re training in an intense way, you need more than just two or three days to rest.’
Should I be deloading?
It’s very likely that you should. Even if you’re just working out a few times a week, that’s still a lot of stress for your body.
Mike has more insight. ‘You get the most out of a deload week when you’ve been training intensely,’ he says. ‘When I took my first one, I had reached a frustrating plateau in my weight training and had stopped making any progress or hitting any goals. I took a week off, didn’t lift anything, did a single gentle jog and came back feeling stronger than I ever had before.’
It might help if you consider how intense your workouts are, rather than how many hours a week you work out. ‘If you’re doing HIIT or long runs on multiple days every week, that’s a lot of bodily stress,’ says Mike. By taking some time to rest, you’ll be doing yourself a bigger favour than you know.
Mike continues: ‘If you’re not exercising intensely, it’s less essential to take that time off. However, it’s still nice to take some time away from your regular routine as this can help you to remember how much you love exercising and the benefits it brings you. This can be easy to forget until it stops.’
How often should I be doing a deload week?
The schedule you work to will very much depend on your individual training plan, which Mike can’t overstate the importance of.
‘To make progress, you have to document and write down the exercises you’re working on, the weights you’re doing and what your plan is to maintain or to ramp things up,’ he says. ‘If you’re simply rolling your training plan over week on week, you can’t expect to make the maximum amount of progress you could be. Your deload week needs to be incorporated into these plans.’
In short, how often you deload depends on your workout schedule. ‘Some people train for four weeks then have a day or two off, while others train for eight weeks followed by a week off,’ says Mike. ‘As a professional personal trainer, I train for two months then take a full seven days off. For amateurs, every month is a good guideline. This allows the body to recover and adapt.’
What should I be doing during a deload week?
It’s all about rest and relaxation - think about a deload week as a vacation for your body. You’re giving your muscles and joints the space they need to fully heal, which prepares them better for the work you’ll do on them in the future.
If the thought of dropping your gym routine makes you antsy, you’re not alone. Just keep in mind why you’re doing what you’re doing, and remember that deload weeks are crucial for mental health as well as physical health.
‘I find deload weeks difficult mentally, because I feel like I should always be doing something,’ says Mike. ‘A lot of people live for that physical exertion, but you have to counterbalance that with the goodness you’re giving your body by letting it rest.
The good news is that you don’t have to just lay horizontal on the sofa the entire time. ‘Think about ways to treat your body with respect, such as going out for walks or a gentle jog rather than pounding the treadmill for an hour. Yoga, a swim, connecting with nature - this is what you should be aiming for,’ says Mike.
Before you head off for your week of long baths, nature walks and Shavasana pose, however, Mike has one more point to make. ‘Don’t use this week as an excuse to have a food cheat week. It’s important you stick to the healthy, nourishing diet you eat when you’re training. Just because you’re resting, it’s definitely not an excuse to eat a bunch of junk food.’