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Rest days: can a deload week help you become stronger?

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You know about rest days, but can rest weeks really help you get stronger? This is everything you need to know about deload weeks.

Rest days are an important part of your workout plan, giving the muscles a chance to rebuild, your nervous system a rest from the stress of training and your energy levels a chance to recoup. But sometimes the body needs more than just a day off, particularly if you’ve been following a tough workout plan for a while.

If you threw yourself back into your gym training six weeks ago, your post-lifting DOMS may have eased but you may also notice that you’ve reached a training plateauing, are feeling extra tired or finding that your muscles need longer than usual to get rid of stiffness and aches.

What is a deload week?

For those of us brought up with the whole “go hard or go home” ethos, the prospect of taking a whole week off may be a weird one. But a deload week isn’t just about stopping all exercise for seven days (although if that’s what you need, that’s totally fine). Deloading is actually a way to continue the training you love without over-exertion

“A deadload week is a short period of recovery that allows those who are training frequently or intensely to make their training lighter, workout less and focus on things that support their body’s recovery,” says Farah Fonseca, trainer and England’s Strongest Woman three times running. The idea is that after a week of down time, your body will come back stronger because it will still be getting the benefits of moving without the stress of heavy training. 

“Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s a certain lift or a run, you want to do it at around 40-60% of your usual exertion,” she explains. For example, if you’ve been in the gym squatting 50kg for five sets of five, you might want to take the weight down to 20kg. If you usually run a 25 minute 5k, you could take that to a light jog that lasts 35 minutes.

And rather than doing your usual number of exercises or keeping in your high-intensity finisher circuits, lose the intensity by “spending your gym time focusing on foam rolling and stretching,” adds Farah. “You can also in Epsom salt baths or other recovery tactics that you enjoy.” 

How often should you have a deload week?

This depends on the intensity of your training, Farah says. “For example, if you’re training four-six times a week at a high stress level, you might want to think about a deload week every eight-ten weeks. For someone who takes things lighter or only trains a few times a week, they can probably leave it longer before needing time off.”

Ensuring that you have the right recovery habits for your body on a day to day basis will mean you can probably extend the amount of time you need to leave between deloading weeks. “If you’re having sports massages, getting enough sleep and focusing on nutrition, then your body might be recovering really well by itself. But if you find that you are getting joint stiffness, you’re getting weaker or feeling less fit, it could be a sign that your body needs some down time,” Farah explains. 

A woman on the floor recovering from her workout by breathing.
'Deload' or rest weeks can help if you are struggling to recover from training.

Should you deload or have a week off?

There may be times when a total rest is more appropriate than training, no matter how gentle you take your session. “If you’ve been working towards a race or competition or done a session that really exerted you, such as hitting a new personal best on your lift, it might be a good idea to give your body longer to recover,” says Farah. 

Even if you haven’t been training for a big goal, you don’t need a reason to take a break. If you don’t feel as though you can keep up with a deload week or simply want some proper rest time, know that you don’t need to justify taking a break from your training. However, if your workouts are leaving you feel sore, fatigued or stressed, you might want to ask yourself why that’s happening. Are you putting too much pressure on your training? Are you fuelling properly? How’s your recovery routine? After all, what you do out of the session counts just as much as what you do during it.

Take your fitness up a notch by joining one of the SWTC training plans. Let us know how you get on. It’s time to get strong!

Images: Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).