Woman and man resting on yoga mats looking at each other

Ask a Personal Trainer: What Is a Deload Week?

Hint: Sometimes training less is more.

If you want to build strength, lifting heavy things is generally part of the plan. But if you’ve been crushing your workouts for weeks or months on end without full recovery, you might hit a plateau. That’s where a deload week—a designated week in your workout program devoted to scaling back on lifting—can help.

Cutting down on training seems counterintuitive, especially if you’re close to a PR breakthrough. However, taking an intentionally programmed break when fatigue is at an all time high can boost adaptation and performance, says certified personal trainer Sean Sullivan, C.S.C.S. “Understanding that less is sometimes more is an important tool for consistency and making progress moving forward,” he explains.

When and how you implement a deload (and whether you actually need one) depends on your goals, training schedule, and even what’s going on outside of the gym. Here’s everything you need to know.

About the Expert

Sean Sullivan, C.S.C.S. is a certified personal trainer with his BS in Exercise Science, and the Director of Health and Performance at Matterhorn Fit. He specializes in performance, corrective exercise, functional fitness, and body composition.

What Is a Deload Week?

At its most basic, a deload week is a recovery week. In theory, a deload week is not all that different from taking a vacation from your training routine; but in practice, it doesn’t always look like a full week off. In most cases, a deload week involves keeping your routine nearly the same while tapering volume (sets or reps), intensity (load or weight lifted), or both to boost recovery. 

“Intentionally backing off on intensity and/or volume gives the nervous and anatomical systems necessary time to adapt to previous stresses and prepare for future stresses,” explains Sullivan. In other words, a deload gives your body a chance to recover from the hard workouts you put in before the deload, and tees you up to perform your best after the deload. 

How often you take a deload week comes down to how you train. Generally, deloads are scheduled every four to eight weeks of hard training, although some athletes take just one or two per year. Some deloads occur naturally, like during a long off-season for athletes. 

Why Deload?

If you follow a linear training schedule that doesn’t incorporate a variety of intensities each week (or month), taking a deload can help prevent burnout, says Sullivan. This is especially true for bodybuilding, where high-volume training for muscle growth can lead to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and fatigue (1).  

Beginners don’t need to worry about deloads, since the focus is on learning proper technique rather than pushing the intensity. You can also skip on a deload if you aren’t consistent with your training, or you typically lift at a relatively low intensity and volume anyways: Odds are you aren’t generating enough fatigue to warrant a deload.


Benefits of Taking a Deload Week

Several benefits make regular deloads worth your while. Here are the top four.

Prevents overtraining

According to the Fitness-Fatigue Model, any time you train you increase both fitness and fatigue (2). A high level of fitness is a good thing. But to combat high levels of fatigue, you’ll want to make sure you’re mostly if not fully recovered before training again. Without adequate recovery, you risk overtraining—which can decrease performance, increase your risk of injury, and weaken your immune system (3). 

Overtraining can also lower your heart rate variability (HRV)—the difference in the time intervals between heart beats. In general, the higher your HRV, the better because it means you recover better from stress. A case study of a college athlete found that taking one deload week for every five weeks of training may improve HRV (4). But more research is needed.

Deload weeks are just one way to facilitate recovery and prevent overtraining. Taking rest days and incorporating eccentric, isometric, and concentric contractions throughout the week can also “deload” the body while maintaining enough intensity to make progress, says Sullivan. Take note: Eccentric training can dial up muscle damage and may require more recovery. 

Boosts performance

Nothing is more frustrating than putting in 110% and not getting anywhere. Yes, high training loads increase strength and performance, but they also increase fatigue. A deload allows your body to retain fitness after a peak in hard training while reducing fatigue—boosting performance (2). 

In a small study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, rugby players saw improved strength and speed performance after a one to two week deloading period following four weeks of training (5). Another study found that a strategic deload may help manage fatigue and potentially boost preparation before a one rep max (1RM) test in powerlifting athletes (6).

If you’re worried you might lose fitness by taking a week off, that isn’t the case. Studies suggest that so long as you aren’t in a calorie deficit most people maintain muscle mass and strength up to three weeks without training (789). 

The TL;DR: Recovery gained during a needed deload week far outweighs any performance losses that occur from reduced training. The ability to resume harder training sessions with less fatigue after a deload week can result in a significant net positive in performance and gains over time.

Reduces your risk of injury

Regular resistance training stresses your muscles, bones, joints, and other connective tissues like ligaments. Gradually increasing your workload intensity overtime (known as progressive overload), encourages those tissues to adapt to stress safely and get stronger. Without recovery, cumulative stress can lead to strains or injuries (1011). 

A review published in Sports Medicine suggests that deload training can reduce the risk of injury and non-functional overreaching—a training state where you push yourself beyond your body’s capacity for recovery, increasing your risk of injury (12). 

Enhances mental recovery

One review suggests that “deloading might mitigate the risk of both physical and psychological fatigue, while facilitating recovery and adaptation (12).” Exercise is typically associated with greater mental wellness (13). But hard workouts or blocks of training can be more mentally demanding because exercise is a form of stress.

In fact, one study found hard but not light exercise was associated with an increase in reported mental health issues and stress (14). Another suggests that physical tasks like exercise may cause more mental fatigue than activities that are purely mental (15). 

“Environmental and life stressors may also warrant a deload from training,” says Sullivan. Periods of high mental stress from work, relationships, family, etc. can skyrocket strain on the body and reduce your overall ability to train and recover. 

Downsides of a Deload

The only potential downside to taking a deload week is leaving gains on the table by reducing efforts for a week when it wasn’t really necessary. Other than that, there really aren’t any, says Sullivan. “Giving the body and mind ample time to recover will lead to further progress in the future.”


How to Deload

There are several different ways to deload. While research is ongoing to better define when to use different deload protocols, which is better may depend on your training goals. “How your programming is structured should dictate how and when a deload week is incorporated,” explains Sullivan. Here’s how to nail down the specifics:

1. Choose your deload

There are three main types of deloads. Here’s what each entails and why you might want to consider it.

Option 1: Full week off

Gains last a few weeks without training, so taking a full week off is worth considering. “For the average gym goer, this method can be used and structured accordingly when work or life demands get in the way of training sessions,” says Sullivan. It’s also an option for athletes needing R&R after a long season. 

This method typically means skipping the gym or structured workouts. However, active recovery and light activities like hiking and swimming can serve as a solid physical and mental reset, and may even enhance recovery (16). 

For example, you might take a week doing no activity, or just doing unstructured, light cardio like walking or cycling and lower-load training like pilates and yoga.

Option 2: Standard deload

Think of a standard deload as a light week of training. There isn’t exactly one defined way to do a standard deload; but the main goal is to mitigate fatigue, promote recovery, reduce the risk of overtraining, and enhance preparedness for subsequent training (12). 

While there are many ways to break it down, most often a standard deload involves lowering load, volume, or both, says Sullivan. Typically, this means dropping the volume by 30 to 50 percent, and decreasing intensity. You can do this by lowering the load lifted or slightly dropping the rate of perceived exertion (RPE)—how hard you think you’re working on a scale of 1 to 10. For example, shifting RPE from 8-10 to 6-8. Don’t know how to gauge RPE? Just stop a few more reps before failure than normal. 

Slashing volume and load can be a good opportunity to focus on form, or mind-muscle connection—one reason many coaches refer to a deload as a “technique week.” “Taking the focus away from heavier compound movements and exercises that tax the neurological system, and focusing more on work capacity movements (like accessory work, sled drags, farmers carries, and calisthenics) can also be effective,” Sullivan adds. That’s assuming the work capacity movements aren’t new—since sometimes new movements can be more taxing than familiar movements. 

For instance, if your leg day typically includes 4 sets of 8 reps (at an RPE or 8-10) of squats, deadlifts, as well as other accessory work like split squats, lunges, and single leg hip thrusts. To deload, drop the volume to 2 sets of 6-8 reps each (lowering RPE to 6-8). Or scratch the heavy squats and deadlifts and sub in lighter, form-focused exercise variations or work capacity movements. For example, goblet squats or box jumps in place of squats, and Romanian deadlifts or tire flips in place of deadlifts.

Option 3: Built-in Deload

Sullivan’s favorite deload—the built-in deload—involves periodizing and structuring your training to boost performance and allow recovery at the same time. You might still want to work in deload weeks, but you might not need them as often. Sullivan suggests this method for casual lifters who are training for longevity, or athletes with long seasons—who typically don’t have time for structured blocks of rest.

With a built-in deload, workouts are built around different movements tailored to the goals of each training phase. “For example, in the beginning of an athlete’s off-season in a rebuilding phase you might work on slow eccentrics, yielding isometrics, and work capacity via sled work and strongman training,” explains Sullivan. “As the off-season progresses you would transition to overspeed eccentrics, rapid isometrics, and loaded jumps, throws, etc.” 

Deload weeks could be useful during the off-season, when training intensity is typically at its highest. However, athletes with short off-seasons might not have time for a deload week, says Sullivan. During the competitive season, typically either training intensity or volume is dialed down to prioritize performance—which serves as a built-in deload (17). 

For casual lifters, a built-in deload just looks like varying the types of exercises and intensity used in your workouts throughout the week. You may also benefit from combining a built-in deload with standard deloads to maximize recovery.

What About a Taper Week?

A taper week is similar to a deload week, but a recent review published in Sports Medicine defines tapering and deloading as two separate strategies. A taper is used to achieve peak performance prior to competition; while a deload is used to enhance preparedness for subsequent training cycles (12).  

A taper week is commonly used by lifters and athletes to achieve peak performance before a race or competition. Distance runners don’t stop running a week or two leading up to a big race; they taper their training by reducing mileage to improve performance on race day.

In resistance training, a taper involves cutting accessory work (more focused, isolation exercises used to complement main compound moves) and focusing on major lifts while dropping volume in half and keeping the intensity the same. This strategy helps you continue to lift heavy with less stress on your body, priming you for top performance. 

Say your leg day typically includes 4 sets of 8 reps of squats, deadlifts, as well as lighter accessory work. To taper, you’d scratch the accessory work, stick to squats and deadlifts only, and drop the volume to 2 sets of 8 reps.

2. Choose when to deload

There are generally two approaches to deloads: Proactive and reactive deloads.

Option 1: Proactive deload

“For those just looking to stay healthy and progress in their training, scheduled deload weeks may facilitate continued progress and keep motivation and morale high,” says Sullivan. Proactive deloads are typically scheduled every 4 to 8 weeks.

In general, the more advanced you are, the more often you’ll need to deload. That said, advanced lifters may also use a technique called undulating periodization to promote recovery within the week (or month) to allow themselves to peak in sequential weeks or months (18). In this case, deload weeks may be needed less often. 

A full week off, taper week, standard deload, or built-in deload can (and in most cases probably should) be proactively scheduled into your routine. However, a proactive taper week or built-in deload will make a bigger impact in performance and adaptations than if scheduled reactively. 

Option 2: Reactive deload

With a reactive deload, you only take a break when you feel you need one. “It’s so important to understand and listen to your body,” says Sullivan. If you feel sick, tired, or a nagging injury is rearing its head, a deload is likely needed. Stresses at work or home may also warrant a deload from training. 

Any type of deload can also be reactively incorporated into your routine. Which type of deload you choose to use ultimately comes down to how your body is feeling. If you have the flu, you’re probably best served taking the week off. If you tweaked your calf, fully offloading any exercises that involve your calf might be a better move. 


Signs You Need a Deload Week

“A leveling off of strength and rate of force development may be a good sign that it’s time to adjust the intensity and load of your program or take a deload,” says Sullivan. Other signs it’s time for a break include:

  1. Krzysztofik, M. et al. (2019) Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. 
  2. National Strength and Conditioning Association (2017) Central Concepts Related to Periodization.
  3. Armstrong, L. et al. (2022) Overtraining Syndrome as a Complex Systems Phenomenon.
  4. Holmes, C. et al. (2018) Heart Rate Variability Responses to an Undulating Resistance Training Program in Free-Living Conditions: A Case Study in a Collegiate Athlete.
  5. Marrier, B. et al. (2017) Supercompensation Kinetics of Physical Qualities During a Taper in Team-Sport Athletes.
  6. Andruolakis-Korakakis, P. et al (2021) The Minimum Effective Dose Required for 1RM Strength in Power Lifters. 
  7. Hwang, P. et al. (2017) Resistance Training-Induced Elevations in Muscular Strength in Trained Men Are Maintained After 2 Weeks of Detraining and Not Differentially Affected by Whey Protein Supplementation.
  8. McMaster, D. et al. (2013) The Development, Retention, and Decay Rates of Strength and Power in Elite Rugby Union, Rugby League and American Football: A Systematic Review.
  9. Ogasawara, R. et al. (2012) Comparison of Muscle Hypertophy Following 6-Month of Continuous and Periodic Strength Training.
  10. Hamstra-Wright, K. et al. (2021) Training Load Capacity, Cumulative Risk, and Bone Stress Injuries: A Narrative Review of a Holistic Approach. 
  11. Tang, D. et al. (2020) Diagnosis and Prognosis for Exercise Muscle Injuries: From Conventional Imaging to Emerging Point-of-Care Testing.
  12. Bell, L. et al. (2023) Integrating Deloading into Strength and Physique Sports Training Programmes: An International Delphi Consensus Approach.
  13. Mahindru, A. et al. (2023) Role of Physical Activity on Mental Health and Well-Being: A Review.
  14. Golshani, S. et al. (2021) When Much Is Too Much—Compared to Light Exercisers, Heavy Exercisers Report More Mental Health Issues and Stress, But Less Sleep Complaints.
  15. Xu, R. et al. (2018) How Physical Activities Affect Mental Fatigue Based on EEG Energy, Connectivity, and Complexity.
  16. Ortiz, R. et al. (2019) A Systematic Review on the Effectiveness of Active Recovery Interventions on Athletic Performance of Professional-, Collegiate-, and Competitive-Level Adult Athletes. 
  17. National Strength and Conditioning Association (2020) Preparatory Period. 
  18. National Academy of Sports Medicine (2022) Periodization Training Simplified: Your Guide to the Cycles and Phases.