Mini Pause #18: Deload Weeks & Physical Breaks: Rest=Progress

You Must Squat Before You Jump: Deload, Take a Break, and See Even More Gains

TL,DR (too long, didn’t read)

Deloads are a necessary part of training hard [*] when you are chasing all those gainz. They are often a welcome relief when you have accumulated sufficient stress and fatigue in your training regimen. This happens somewhere between four to eight weeks of intense training and allows for proper recovery.

Deloads can be a drop in weight or volume in your regular program, or you can choose to take a week off altogether. This week I am opting for a reduction in both volume and weight to help with my own (very overdue) deload week.

WHY

I’ve been feeling kind of run down and tired lately, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on what it is. I’ve been sleeping well (better than I ever have, truthfully, consistently hitting new PRs at the gym, and my nutrition is no different than it normally is.

But somehow, I’m exhausted, recovery is taking longer, and I’m even dreading the gym.

Now y’all know something is off when I am not excited about gym time. That’s my happy place!

I took a look at my volume and my progression over the last six months and then it hit me like a 1 Rep Max sumo squat. I’ve accumulated too much physical fatigue, and I failed to schedule a deload week [*].

When I first wrote about training around your cycle in The Betty Body, I naturally built a deload week into Week 4 of the cycle of training with lighter weights than usual. Although it wasn’t intentionally programmed as a deload week in the book, for cycling women it’s a nice anchor to be able to think about a lighter workout in the late luteal phase of your menstrual cycle. This helps to reduce the physical and often psychological stress that accompanies this time of the month.

I find I require a lighter week either on Week 4 or Week 8 of steady training. But for whatever reason, I’ve trained 16 heavy weeks in a row. That explains my current disdain for the gym and poor recovery recently. I’ve been noticing I have been much more sore than normal, taking at least a day longer than I normally do to recover. From leg workouts, specifically.

WHAT

Everyone who’s lifting weights close to failure can and should be thinking about building in regular deload weeks to reduce physical and mental stress and fatigue and to help you push in the next cycle of lifting. For my Type A Boardroom Bettys where I can ALREADY see your brains working (“Maybe I don’t need a deload! I should continue to push despite what she is saying!”), deloads are a necessary part of any intense training regimen. It doesn’t mean you’re broken, failing, or not making gains. By contrast, it’s how you make EPIC gains. In recovery.

Deloading is a crucial part of any well-rounded fitness routine to help reduce overall fatigue, reduce the risk of injury, and help your lifting become stronger in the following weeks. In the same way, you need a break from your diet now and then, the same is true for your physical diet.

When you are training hard, there is a predictable accumulation of stress and fatigue. There is nothing to fear about this, as this is how you get better and improve your energy levels, body composition, and strength.

But when you have accumulated too much stress and fatigue over several weeks or months of training, you can and should actively reduce it so you can facilitate recovery and get back to progress the next week.

Generally speaking, you know you are ready for a deload week when you have had two or three workouts of the same body part where you are either not making any progress, your recovery is longer than normal, or worse, you are regressing in your program.

Let me illustrate with an example.

Let’s assume you train legs on Tuesday and Friday. On both those days, you’d experience substandard workouts in the absence of any other explanation (jet lag, a child was sick, a stressful time at work, etc.).

And even if it were the case where your psychological stress was acutely through the roof, I’m going to gently remind you that psychological or mental stress also accumulates in the physical realm. This would be your cue to lighten up.

HOW

The No. 1 rule about a deload week is KISS: Keep it Simple Smartypants.

Once your strength is not improving by your typical measurements (weight, volume, etc.) for two or three consecutive workouts, it’s time to take a break and amp up recovery.

Here are a couple of ways you can structure a deload:

  • Reduce weights
  • Reduce volume
  • Reduce weight and volume
  • Do absolutely nothing (not a typo and a perfectly reasonable option)

Typically when I deload, I reduce both weight and volume by about 50 percent.

Yes, by that much.
Yes, it seems like a lot.
Yes, these workouts are easy.

So let’s say I am regularly squatting 135 lbs for 10 reps for 3 sets. I might structure a recovery week in the following way:

  • Deload Leg Day 1: 3 sets, 10 reps, but the weight will drop to 67.5lbs (this includes the bar at 45lbs, so using gym math that is 22.5 lbs of weight on the bar, so I usually just round up to 12.5 lbs per side)
  • Deload Leg Day 2: 3 sets, 5 reps, 67.5 lbs (weight and volume drop)

So you can see that I initially just dropped the weight, but kept the volume consistent. On the second leg day of the week, I dropped both the weight and the volume. It feels like an easy workout. And that’s the whole point. You’re training easier this week so you can better recover.

When I structure my deloads so that the workouts are progressively easier for the week, I’m absolutely itching and ready to get back at it the next week. This is because I’ve dropped the stress of the workouts considerably, allowing for my body’s recovery processes to get ahead of the stress I have accumulated. I always find that in the weeks following a deload, I often hit a new personal best.

The important takeaway? When you structure your deload weeks this way, you can still work on your technical skills with the lighter weight.

And in total transparency–about once a year–I simply need a complete break from the gym. A 100% complete drop in volume and weights for at least half a week, and often a full week.

I just get to this place where I don’t want to be in the gym at all, and I honor that. So I will get in a lot of walking, sleep in, spend lots of time in the sauna, and do cold plunges. (I’ve linked my heat and cold recovery tools here for you to explore. Use code DRSTEPHANIE for each to receive an exclusive discount.)

For me, this week I am opting to drop weights and volume on all workouts all week long.

NOW

If you have been noticing your workouts suffering and an inability to progress with at least two workouts feeling like they were crappy, decide to take the next week to amplify recovery. Here are two possible approaches:

  • Reduce your volume, your weights, or both while still training at the same frequency.
  • Take the week off completely. Go for some walks, do some yoga, practice mindfulness, sleep in, and allow your magical body to do its thing.

Prepare your mind for the deload. It isn’t a failure, a setback, or anything of the sort. Think about jumping. Usually, the lower you can go into a squat, the higher you can jump. Think of deloads this way. The squat part of the jump.

Question of the Week

Q: I know rest days are important when working out. I’ve heard women in perimenopause and postmenopausal women should have more than two rest days a week. What are your thoughts?

Thank you to reader Gina G. for asking this question that fits in so well with today’s main topic on deloading!

I am not one for hard rules that apply across the board, so I will say that you should take as much rest as you need. And when you are fully recovered–get back at it!

If you are regularly training legs, let’s say, you can aim to train them twice a week, but if you feel like in between those sessions you are not sore, have the energy, and can easily fit in another workout, you should definitely try it out and see how you respond!

I typically take one full day off and my shoulder days are lighter in terms of energetic output. Sometimes I’ll throw in one or two leg exercises at the end of a shoulder day. Not all the time–just when I have the energy.

YOUR TURN!

I’ll be answering your questions every week right here in the Mini Pause! Let me know what’s on your mind. I’ll be checking for both questions and feedback at support@drstephanieestima.com.