And now for the most neglected aspect of weight training… NOT training.
It’s a simple concept very few people seem to grasp or actually give a damn about to any degree. Yet, it’s a concept that will ensure you actually reach your goals, progress consistently, and prevent injuries.
When I say it like that, you’d think this would be something at the top of everyone’s list of training components… but it never is. In many cases, it’s not even on that list at all.
You see, I don’t care who you are, how genetically gifted you think you are, how “hardcore” you are trying to be, or how you just don’t feel any of this stuff applies to you.
The honest truth is that it always does… probably more so than you’ll ever realize.
In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that the aspects of NOT training (rest/recovery, scheduled breaks, deloading, taking time off, etc.) are JUST as important as all of the aspects of training that always get all of the attention.
I know, that’s a pretty bold statement which will probably take some explaining to understand (or just believe). So, let the explaining begin…
Scheduled Training Breaks
Scheduled training breaks are exactly what they sound like. They are…
Planned breaks you purposely take from training for the purpose of giving your entire body (muscles, nervous system, joints, etc.) and mind (training gets mentally draining on everyone after a while) an extra large dose of rest/recovery and to allow for super-compensation to occur (which is basically when all of your body’s improvements occur). This then puts you in a fresh and ideal state for the upcoming period of training.
There are mainly 2 different types of training breaks, and both have their place depending on the situation.
- Taking Time Off. This is what most people think of when they hear “training break.” You know, just take a full week off completely from all forms of weight training or possibly all forms of exercise in general.
- Deloading/Easy Weeks/Back Off Weeks. In this case you don’t take any time off, you just somehow reduce the work (or the amount of work) being done so that your workouts are “easier” for a certain period of time.
As usual, there are pros and cons to each, a recommended frequency, and a specific way to make them work best. All of which I’m going to explain right now.
Taking Time Off
This type of training break really doesn’t need much explaining. You just simply stop training. In most cases, you’d take 1 full week off from weight training (or all of forms of exercise, in which case you just stop working out altogether).
Of the 2 different types of training breaks, this one might offer the largest benefits. You really can’t beat an entire week off from training when it comes to giving your body/mind time to rest, recover and recharge.
The downside however is what you come back to. Specifically, the “oh-my-god-I-can’t-even-move” type soreness. Kinda like the muscle soreness you experienced when you first started weight training. Not fun at all.
Not to mention, while some people actually come back stronger after a full week off, some people find that they get set back a bit too far when they return, and they have to spend the next few weeks working to get back to where they were at before the break (while at the same time fighting the sometimes extreme soreness I just mentioned and attempting to get back into the groove of certain exercises).
Like I said… pros and cons.
How Often Should I Take Time Off From Working Out?
For the reasons mentioned above, I don’t recommend taking a training break like this TOO often.
I’m definitely not against doing it, but I just think the people who recommend that the average person should take a full week off from weight training every 4-8 weeks (or whatever) are out of their mind. For the majority of the population, it’s just unnecessary at best and counterproductive at worst.
Instead, taking 1 or 2 weeks off per year is more what I’d recommend (and personally do myself). There are exceptions of course (someone who is older and more beat up physically might need to do it more often), but in most cases, this is my recommendation.
So whether you make it an every 6-8 month thing, or just during a vacation or trip you take once or twice a year, or only when it feels like it’s needed… feel free to take a full week off from working out. As long as your diet stays even remotely sane during that time period, your muscle, strength and leanness will remain just fine.
I personally like taking my full week off at the end of the year during Christmas week. School sort of programmed that concept of “Christmas break” deep into my soul, so it just feels right to me. Plus I’m way too busy playing with toys and eating tree-shaped cookies to train anyway, so it works out perfectly.
Another Useful Option
Before moving on to deloading, there’s actually one other modified version of the “take-a-week-off” type of training break that I want to mention, because I happen to like it a lot.
You see, one way I’ve found of lessening those “cons” I mentioned a minute ago while still getting some of the same “pros” is simply by taking time off… but NOT taking a FULL week off. Instead, maybe just take half of the week off.
So for example, if you’re using a 4 day upper/lower program (like The Muscle Building Workout Routine), you’d do just 2 of the workouts for the week and take the other 2 off. I’ve found this to work quite well.
Deloading (aka Easy Weeks/Back Off Weeks)
In the case of a “deload,” rather than taking actual time off from training, you just take some of the “load” off from training (hence the name de-loading). Meaning, you continue to train, but you somehow back off and make your workouts easier for you in some way for a predetermined amount of time.
That means NO training to failure, NO attempts at progression, and NO really hard work, period. This time should be relatively easy and comfortable. If it’s not… then you’re doing it wrong.
There are many different ways to deload properly and plenty of different protocols that can all work quite well, but in terms of what I prefer myself and recommend most often, this predetermined amount of time will be a 1-3 week period.
And the 3 most common ways of backing off and making your workouts easier during this time is by either significantly reducing your training volume, intensity or both for 1 week, and then spending the next 2 weeks or so gradually bringing it back up to what it originally was.
Let me break that down for you…
How To Deload Volume:
- When deloading your volume, your goal is to maintain all of the weights you lift on every exercise WHILE you reduce the total number of sets (and/or reps) being done each workout for an entire week by about 40-50% of what it usually is. (Examples: If a workout normally has 20 sets total, maybe you do 10-12 sets total. If you normally do 4 sets of an exercise, maybe you do just 2. If you normally do 3 sets of 8 reps, maybe do 2 sets of 5 reps.)
- The following week, you’d start bringing volume back up to about 60-70% of what it originally was.
- The week after that, you’d bring volume back up to about 80-90% of what it originally was.
- And the week after that, you’re back up to 100% of your original prescribed volume and ready to start a fresh new cycle of consistent progression.
Also note that this is just one way of doing it, and that some people can get this protocol done in 3 weeks instead of 4. So maybe 50% in week one, then about 75% in week 2, and then 100% in week 3, thus eliminating one of the “ramp up” weeks. For others, that extra week of building up is beneficial or sometimes just flat out necessary.
The only way to know what’s best for you is to try it both ways and see.
In either case, the concept is the same. You spend 1 full week at a greatly reduced level of volume, and then use the next 1-2 weeks to gradually ramp that volume back up to what it originally was (or will now become). At that point, everything is back to its normal level and you’re ready to start pushing for progression again.
How To Deload Intensity:
- When deloading your intensity, you would maintain the total amount of volume being done WHILE you reduce the amount of weight you lift on every exercise to about 80-85% of what it usually is for an entire week. (Example: If you normally bench press 200lbs for 3×6-8, you’d now bench press 160-170lbs for 3×6-8.)
- The following week, you’d start bringing intensity back up to about 85-90% of what it originally was.
- The week after that, you’d bring intensity back up to about 90-95% of what it originally was.
- And the week after that, you’re back up to 100% of your original intensity (aka the weight you were lifting on each exercise) and you’re ready to start a fresh new cycle of consistent progression.
Again note that this is just one way of doing it, and that some people can get this protocol done in 3 weeks instead of 4. So maybe 80% in week one, then about 90% in week 2, and then 100% in week 3, thus eliminating one of the “ramp up” weeks. For others, that extra week of building up is beneficial or sometimes just flat out necessary.
The only way to know what’s best for you is to try it both ways and see.
In either case, the concept is the same. You spend 1 full week at a greatly reduced level of intensity, and then use the next 1-2 weeks to gradually ramp that intensity back up to what it originally was. At that point, everything is back to its normal level and you’re ready to start pushing for progression again.
How To Deload Both:
- When deloading both volume AND intensity together, just do some combination of the above protocols. (Example: If you normally bench press 200lbs for 3 sets of 8 reps, you’d maybe do something like 165lbs for 2 sets of 8 reps).
- You’d then spend the next couple of weeks bringing volume and intensity back up to their original levels as outlined above, and then start working your ass off for progression again.
Another option for doing both, by the way, is to deload intensity on certain exercises (like primary compound movements), and deload volume on others (like secondary isolation movements). Just another method to keep in mind.
Which Is Better: Deloading Volume, Intensity or Both?
I’m not really sure if one deload method is truly “better” than another. The truth is that they all work and I think personal preferences and individual differences factor in a great deal in determining which way you should do it.
Which means, the best answer here is the one that everyone hates the most: try them all and see which works best for you. The next time you deload, reduce volume. The time after that, intensity. The time after that, both. Pay attention to how it goes each time and figure out which one is most ideal for you.
If I had to make one general note though, it’s that deloading intensity gives your joints (and for me at least, my mind) MUCH more of a break than deloading volume by itself.
How Often Should I Deload?
Once again, the best answer here is that it depends on you, your goal and the specifics of your weight training routine.
For example, someone training for strength who’s squatting and deadlifting at a higher frequency and a higher intensity and doing singles and triples and hardly ever going above 5 reps per set will need to deload more often than someone training more in the realm of hypertrophy (less frequency, less intensity, etc.) or some other less taxing goal.
Not to mention, it can vary from person to person depending on genetics, age, training experience level and strength levels.
For example, a 40 year old would need to deload more often than a 20 year old. Someone with terrible genetics would need to deload more often than a genetic freak. Someone advanced who is lifting VERY significant amounts of weight would need to deload more often than someone who hasn’t been training as long and isn’t really all that strong.
For this reason, you’ll typically see deloading frequency recommendations fall as frequently as every 3 weeks to as infrequently as a couple of times per year depending on the specifics. But, generally speaking…
I’d recommend deloading every 6-12 weeks (or more frequently if you feel you need it). That ends up being about 4-8 times per year on average.
When Should I Deload?
Many intelligent workout routines program deloading (and sometimes full weeks off as well) right into the design of the routine so it’s done on a very specific and required schedule.
In my opinion, this is both good and bad.
It’s good because it forces people to deload regularly and most people are just too dumb and stubborn to ever deload on their own accord (been there myself). On the other hand, it means everyone deloads at the exact same time, and not everyone needs it at the exact same time.
I find this to be the case more often with muscle building routines rather than strength/performance oriented routines, but it can really be true with any type of program or goal.
What I mean is, someone might have truly needed to deload at week 6, while someone else could have made it to week 10 or week 12 before truly needing to. While it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to deload too soon (much better than doing it too late), it still causes that second person to basically pause their progression unnecessarily right when everything is going perfectly and take a break sooner than they really needed to.
For all of these reasons, I usually prefer to go by feel. So if at week 6 I’m feeling physically or mentally in need of a break (progression stalls, my body hurts, I’m losing motivation, etc.), I’ll deload at week 6.
But if I’m feeling great, progressing well, killing it in the gym and can hardly wait for the next workout, I’ll just keep on going and not even consider stopping. In that case, I might go another 6 weeks before actually deloading.
This is how I do it and would typically recommend it be done. The only potential downside is that it’s then up to each person to be smart enough to actually deload when they need it and not keep trying to grind it out and basically run themselves into the ground. So um… don’t be a dumbass. If 12 weeks of hard consistent training have passed and you haven’t deloaded, take a very serious look at your progress and how you’re feeling (physically and mentally) in general. Chances are it’s time.
Should Everyone Deload or Take Time Off From Working Out?
Yes, pretty much everyone actively trying to build muscle, increase strength, improve performance or really just push/challenge their body to improve in any capacity certainly should.
However, there are 4 possible exceptions that come to mind…
- Beginners (and maybe early intermediates).
Most people won’t really need or benefit from any sort of true training break during their first entire year of weight training, sometimes slightly longer. This becomes much more of a requirement when you reach mid-intermediate levels and beyond. This is partially because you’re just so fresh and new to weight training as a beginner (meaning your body is less beat up and fatigued), and because the weights you’re lifting aren’t really all that heavy at this point. However, the stronger you get, the harder you have to work, the more advanced the training methods become, the higher the volume gets, the longer you’ve been doing it all, and so on… the more of a regular requirement deloading and/or taking time off from working out becomes.
- People who aren’t trying or working hard enough in the first place.
The people who just go through the motions, don’t care at all about progressive overload, are wasting their time with pointless “toning workouts” (hi ladies!) and are essentially having an “easy week” every week do not really have a need for any sort of training break. What they really need to do is stop training like an idiot.
- People who have reached their goal and only want to “maintain.”
At this point, you’d really just need to be in a constant state of semi-reduced volume/frequency. This is because the volume/frequency required to just “maintain” is much less than what’s required to build or improve. So in a case like this, you’d just drop your volume down a little and/or cut back frequency a bit, and just stay there permanently. There’s no real need to regularly deload at that point unless you actually felt the need to do so.
- People whose primary goal at the time is fat loss (and maintaining muscle).
As I’ve explained in detail before (Burn Fat NOT Muscle), recovery is at its worst when losing fat. A caloric deficit is obviously super fantastic (and required) for fat loss, but it basically sucks for everything training related (recovery, work capacity, volume tolerance, etc.). This means you should automatically reduce your volume and/or frequency to some extent to compensate for this drop in recovery and prevent it from becoming a problem. What kind of problem, you ask? A strength loss/muscle loss kind of problem which occurs all too often when training isn’t set up correctly. What this means is that during fat loss, volume/frequency should already be somewhat reduced, thus greatly lessening or even eliminating the need for deloading or taking any time off. Not to mention, deloading intensity while in a caloric deficit is quite possibly the worst idea ever. More on that below.
How Should I Eat While Deloading or Taking Time Off?
Well, for starters, the macronutrients (protein, fat and carbs) should pretty much always remain within their ideal ranges… especially protein. As for calories, that depends on your exact goal at the time:
If Your Goal Is Building Muscle and/or Increasing Strength
With these goals, you would already be in a caloric surplus. During the deload weeks, you should definitely ensure that a small surplus remains intact.
Reason being, this is a time when your body is basically rebuilding and recovering more so than ever before, so it’s not uncommon to experience muscle growth WHILE you deload. Making sure the calories needed for it to happen are still being supplied is obviously a pretty good idea.
The same goes for when taking a full week off (or my half week off suggestion).
If Your Goal Is Losing Fat
With this goal, you would already be in a caloric deficit. And, as I mentioned a minute ago, the need for deloading regularly at this time isn’t really there as long as your routine has been adjusted accordingly.
HOWEVER, depending on how much fat you need to lose or how long it’s taking you, you can still definitely reach the point where you feel like some kind of deload or time off is needed. In this case, definitely come out of the deficit and go back up to maintenance level during the entire deloading period or the entire week you’re taking off.
Reason being, reducing intensity (aka the amount of weight you’re lifting) while in a caloric deficit is pretty much a recipe for disaster in terms of losing muscle. Maintaining that intensity is actually THE KEY to preserving lean muscle while body fat is lost, so the last thing you want to do is start purposely lifting less weight at this time (which is why the idea that you should switch to “lighter weight and higher reps” when trying to lose fat is a terrible F’ing idea).
Yes, going from a deficit back up to maintenance means you won’t lose fat during this training break, but it also means you won’t lose muscle either… and that’s WAY more important during this short time frame. Once the deload is over and intensity is back up to normal, resume the deficit and get back to losing fat.
And That’s How, When & Why To Take Breaks From Weight Training
So, that about wraps things up. Taking some form of training break when it’s needed, be it a full week off, half a week off, or a 1-3 week period of deloading intensity, volume or both is really one of the most important aspects of making long term progress, staying healthy, staying motivated, and getting the results you want and the body you desire.
Yet, it’s easily the aspect of working out that the average person ignores the most and always suffers for as a result. My advice? Don’t be that average person.
Don’t let your stubbornness or inability to take a break or train at anything less than 110% be what hurts your progress. I’ve been there and done that myself, and what finally got me to come around is the fact that it ALWAYS ends up being beneficial.
See for yourself.