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What Is Deloading and Why Is It So Important for Building Strength?

To train hard, you need to recover harder.

Man performing core exercise on Tonal with deloading and supercompensation graph behind him.

You’re dialed into your workout plan, and your Strength Score keeps climbing, so it only makes sense to keep pushing harder, right? Wrong. It may actually be time to pull back. 

“If you’re training really hard, you want to plan for brief, intermittent periods of reduced loading for rejuvenation and recovery to ultimately optimize performance,” says Brad Scheonfeld, PhD, hypertrophy expert and Tonal Advisory Board Member. 

This short respite from lifting heavy is called deloading, and it can help you eventually reach new Power and Volume PRs. Here’s what you need to know about how to incorporate it into your program.

What Is Deloading? 

Deloading is a common strength and conditioning practice during which you maintain regular workouts while intentionally reducing the overall load placed on your body. This might be done by reducing the intensity or volume (sets and reps) for one or several exercise sessions. 

“The purpose of a deloading period is active recovery,” explains John Christie, Director of Curriculum at Tonal. “During this time, you still get some strength stimulus while recovering so you can pick up where you left off at an even higher level than baseline.” 

A typical training program calls for three or four weeks of progressively increasing weight or volume, then deloading with one week of lighter resistance training alongside recovery strategies such as flexibility training and mobility work. 

Think of deloading like a taper week in running. 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. The same concept can be applied to strength training.

Graph showing how adding deloading to your routine boosts performance and leads to supercompensation

Why is Deloading Important?

The idea behind deloading lies in the General Adaptation Syndrome presented by Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist who pioneered research on the effects of stress in the 1950s. Selye’s research explains that when your body faces a stressor of any kind, you experience a small dip in performance. When you take proper recovery during this time, however, your body adapts to the stressor, and your performance improves to an even higher level than when you started. 

“Science consistently shows that a strength training stimulus causes a wave,” adds Christie. It shocks the system to a point. But when you have reduced performance, and you ease up your efforts, you can reach supercompensation, or even better performance. Our objective is to ride that wave as high as we can for as long as we can.”

Research also shows that without this crucial active recovery, you can push yourself into overtraining, increasing your risk of injury and illness, according to a 2017 review of research by the International Olympics Committee.

When Should You Include a Deload?

Knowing when to slow down and when to push is essential to improve performance and decrease your chances of being sidelined. Here are some scenarios when you should consider a deload:

  • You’ve just finished a block of intensive training like Tony’s new “Pump Up the Volume” or “Go Big or Go Home 2.” You may be tempted to jump right into another program, but if you were truly pushing yourself with heavier resistance, taking a week to deload may help you more in the long run. In a small study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, rugby players saw improved strength and speed performance after a deloading period of one to two weeks following their four-week training camp program. 
  • You normally push yourself hard in your workouts, but you have an off day due to poor sleep, increased stress, or general fatigue. Listen to your body and make adjustments to your program. Try to limit your deload to a few days or when you are feeling fresh again.
Pull quote on the role of a deload week and active recovery: "Our objective is to ride that wave as high as we can for as long as we can." - John Christie, Director of Curriculum at Tonal

How Long Should You Deload?

If you are taking a breather between tough workouts, consider deloading for one or two workouts before returning to full capacity when you feel fresh again. If you’re deloading between multi-week programs, limit the active recovery period to one to two weeks to avoid detraining when you can start to lose strength gains. 

Schoenfeld notes that “there is conclusive evidence that [deloading] is going to vary substantially between individuals in their training,” so listen to your body to determine the ideal length of your deload.

Of course, there are times when complete rest is warranted. If you experience an acute injury, consult a physician before returning to your program. If you feel a chronic injury flaring up, taking time off or working a different muscle group might be a good option for you. 

If you’re debating whether to do active recovery or complete rest, “active recovery is almost always going to be a better choice,” says Christie. “The goal for deloading is to stay moving, to stay fresh, and to be able to enhance performance when you get back to your program.”