Remembering Unloading Weeks

You grow outside the gym, not in it. That’s the mantra so often repeated, used to justify everything from training a muscle group only once a week to taking off whole months from exercise. There’s certainly a lot of truth in that statement. One thing that’s come into vogue these days is the concept of the unloading week (sometimes called deloading; it’s the same concept) where you do what the title says: remove the training stress from your body to “unload” it.

This is a valuable tool. Yet, as obvious as “take it easy” is, I don’t think a lot of people get it. So I want to talk about that.

The idea behind unloading is simple enough: after some period of hard training, which beats up your body, you need a break. You throttle back the stress by doing fewer sessions and less work within the remaining sessions. Easy enough in principle.

I want to note that unloading is not necessarily the same as back-cycling, or reducing your working weights. In fact, an unloading week might keep the actual working weights heavy; you just do less work with said weights, so it doesn’t dip into your recovery sink (which I touched on in my last post).

Say you’re normally doing a 5×5 program: Monday is 5×5 with the same weight, Wednesday’s the light day, and Friday works you up to a heavy set of five. To unload, you’d drop Monday back to say 15 total reps instead of 25 (5 sets of 3, or 3 sets of 5) with the same weight you used last week. Friday, you might just work up to a triple with the previous week’s set of five. Wednesday’s a light day so it could stay the same.

I want to note that this applies to cardio/endurance training as well, as I suggested in the post on running for fat loss. Stress is stress. So if you’re one of those that’s racking up some major hours worth of cardio each week, you’d be advised to reduce both the frequency and total volume of that too. Ladies, I’m looking at you.

So let’s set up some guidelines for this.

  • Frequency of unloading weeks is going to vary depending on how taxing your routine is. If you’re lifting weights three times a week with a mild program, and doing only small amounts of cardio, you’ll be able to go a lot longer than someone lifting weights 5-6 days a week and doing that on top of intense cardio sessions. If you want a rule of thumb, figure you’ll want to unload every 2-6 weeks.
  • Ideally you want to unload before you wear yourself out. It’s always easier to avoid getting worn out than it is to recover once you’ve over-extended your body’s recovery ability. This is where planned unloading weeks would be useful. If you’re one of those that has a tendency to push him/herself too hard in the gym, then you’d probably benefit from planning an easy week once a month or so. You don’t have to stay out of the gym completely, but definitely do less exercise and try to make it easier while you’re at it.
  • The other less-reliable option is to ‘listen to your body’. This is fraught with problems because, for all people supposedly like to ‘listen to their bodies’, it seems nobody ever actually does it. You can listen to it all day long but if you don’t actually follow through, then you’re no better off. The attentive among you that can be honest and actually reduce the work loads when symptoms start to arise will find this to be useful – train hard and when you start noticing plateaus, fatigue, lack of motivation, disrupted sleep, and all the rest, take an easy week or two. It really is that simple, but it does require that you can actually do this – some people simply can’t.
  • Unloading has no specific guidelines. How much you back off will depend on how long it’s been since you last rested, and how hard your most recent training has been. If you’re one of those that’s been active every day, doing things like HIIT and a difficult strength program (something with heavy weights/low reps and pushing you to get stronger), then you’ll probably benefit from a drastic reduction – maybe one weight session if that, and just active rest. Same if you’ve gone for quite awhile without any kind of break. On the other hand, if you’re a more casual exerciser, or have no issues with taking regular light weeks, then you may be able to keep up your normal schedule, just with lower volume each session.

There really are no strict rules here: just do less work in the gym, spend less time in the gym, and scale it according to your training and your recovery ability. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself, and not be so OCD that you just can’t take a break from the gym. You may be worried about getting fat or losing your precious muscle, but in the long term you’re only hurting yourself. If you’re so burned-out that you can’t make it to the gym, or that you’re getting fat despite all the work you put in, you’re not going to salvage the situation by making yourself go work harder.

Take some breaks.