What is a De-Load in Resistance Training?

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Recovery is an essential part of any resistance training routine and de-load weeks are one method you can use to prevent overtraining, increase results, and provide a mental and physical break from a consistent resistance training regimen.

De-loads typically last 1 week and are training periods that are performed at a more reduced volume and intensity than your usual training. This often means fewer sets and reps as well as lighter weight during an intentionally programmed week-off of heavy or high-volume lifting.

There are several ways to program a de-load week. Read on to find out why you may want to add one to your training schedule as well as how to incorporate one into your existing routine.

Benefits of a De-Load

To see results when resistance training as well as reduce the likelihood of overtraining or hitting a plateau, periodization is essential. Periodization is a method of manipulating training variables like sets, repetitions, and rest intervals to optimize results. It was developed originally by Russian strength coaches who worked with Olympic athletes.

As a specific part of periodization, de-loading occurs where training variables are manipulated to provide a break from more intense training. There are a number of benefits to de-loading such as reducing the risk of overtraining and minimizing the likelihood of hitting a training plateau.

De-loads also can provide a much-needed mental break from intense training, which can reduce stress levels that occur with prolonged intense training. De-loading also prevents overtraining, giving your joints, ligaments, and muscles a break and preventing overuse injuries

Signs of Overtraining

  • Decreased performance over 1 week to 10 days
  • Reduced motivation and exercise adherence
  • Increased resting heart rate and/or blood pressure
  • Decreased body weight
  • Reduced appetite, sometimes with nausea
  • Reduction in sleep quality and/or quantity
  • Increased muscle soreness
  • More frequent mood changes and irritability

Signs You Need a De-Load

You can either pre-plan a de-load every so often—such as once every 4 weeks—or you can gauge your need for a de-load based on how your body is responding to training (or both). Here are some signs that it is time to de-load.

Reduced Strength and Recovery

If you cannot lift the same weight you were previously lifting, it could be a sign that you need a de-load. A strength training plateau can also signal a need to de-load.

Likewise, if you have begun to feel like you are not fully recovering between training sessions like you once were, that could be an indication that you are, in fact, not repairing and recovering optimally. A de-load can provide your body with a chance to catch up.

Waning Motivation and Increasing Stress

Lack of motivation can signal a need for a break from the grind of intense training along with increasing stress levels. Most of the time, physical activity is naturally a stressor but sometimes can become too much.

If you feel stressed out and irritable and/or have a lot of other stressors in your life at the moment, a break from intense or frequent training can be helpful. Additionally, if your stress or anxiety interferes with your everyday life (and exercise is not improving it) or if you are fixated on your training, it might be helpful to speak with a mental health provider.

Experiencing Sore Joints

Aching, painful joints can indicate overuse or poor recovery. Reduced heavy or frequent lifting can provide a much-needed break for your joints. It also may help to talk to a healthcare provider or a certified personal trainer if you continue to experience joint soreness even after de-loading.

Special Considerations

For women, it can be a good idea to program a de-load week just before or during the early days of their menstrual flow. This is because hormone fluctuations during this time can lead to feelings of fatigue and reduced motivation.

Pairing your de-load week with your cycle can help you create a workout routine that works with these changes while taking advantage of the weeks you feel stronger and more energized.

How to Do a De-Load

There are several ways to perform a de-load. Often, these methods are combined but you also can choose one strategy at a time.

For instance, you can reduce the weight lifted while also reducing the volume. Additionally, you could change the exercise selection at the same time. If you prefer to only choose one method, reducing the weight or volume is likely the most effective.

Reduce Weight Lifted

Reducing the amount of weight you lift is likely the most common and straightforward method of de-loading. To do this, you perform the same exercises you have been doing during previous weeks and stick to the same workout schedule.

Adjust your poundage by only lifting between 50% to 70% of your one-rep maximum. For greater impact, combine this with lower repetitions and sets. This method is especially useful if you have been training close to your one-rep maximum using very heavy loads.

Reduce the Volume

Often combined with a weight reduction, reducing the volume is sometimes wise during a de-load week—depending on how you have been training previously. Reduce the total volume if you've been training at high volumes of sets, repetitions, and frequent training days across the week.

Again, reducing the volume by 50% to 70% is a good baseline to work with. For instance, reduce your total sets and/or reps by 50% to 70% and perform 50% or fewer training sessions per week. This could mean you train only twice per week if you have previously been lifting for 5 days each week.

If you choose this option, you could keep your weight selection the same and only reduce the number of sets and/or reps by 50% to 70%. For example, if you have previously performed deadlifts with 250 pounds for five sets of five repetitions, you could still lift 250 pounds but only complete two sets of three repetitions.

Reduce Intensity

Reducing intensity can mean many things, including the aforementioned reduction in weight and volume. In this case, reducing intensity refers to two other variables.

One is increasing rest periods between sets and avoiding supersets, circuit training, or other types of exercise combinations. The other is increasing the number of reps in reserve (RIR). RIR refers to the number of repetitions you perceive to have left in the tank during a set.

For instance, if you previously were lifting with 1 to 2 RIR, it would mean you performed a set of repetitions to the point you could only do 1 or 2 more repetitions until complete inability to lift the weight (muscle failure). Increasing RIR to 4 or 5 during a de-load is a way of reducing intensity because you are stopping farther away from the point of failure.

Increasing rest periods reduces training intensity by reducing density—in other words, spreading out the sets over more time. It allows for more significant post-set recovery.

For example, if you usually performed your sets with only 60 seconds of rest between each one, you could increase the rest intervals to 3 to 5 minutes between sets.

This tactic would allow the heart rate to come back down after a set and decrease the demand on the body and central nervous system. On its own, this strategy is not likely to induce enough recovery if you have been training at high levels of intensity. It is best if you combine this with another strategy or two.

Mix-Up Exercise Selection

Changing your exercise selection can provide a break for your muscles and joints as well. This method should be combined with others such as reducing weight and volume.

Changing exercise selection is most beneficial if you have been performing exercises that are highly demanding—namely compound movements like the barbell squat, deadlift, bench press, barbell row, and shoulder press. Multi-joint compound movements are very taxing to the central nervous system (CNS) and muscles.

Choosing isolation or machine-assisted exercises can reduce the demand placed on the CNS and muscular system. It is also wise to change your exercise selection if you have been performing a lot of power-based movements such as plyometrics or other explosive techniques as they are also quite taxing.

A Word From Verywell

Recovery is a vital aspect of training and a de-load is a practical and straightforward way of ensuring your body is recovering optimally from resistance training. Several de-load methods exist and which one (or ones) you choose depends on how you have been training previously and how in need of a de-load you are.

You can also plan de-loads around particularly strenuous times of your life or during high hormone phases of your menstrual cycle. If you need assistance determining which de-load method right for you, be sure to talk with a certified personal trainer.

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