The best of all medicines is resting and fasting.
– Benjamin Franklin
Imagine a sinking ship. Someone on board failing to see the big picture may try anything to shovel water out of the boat as fast as possible. Regardless of what they do, they avoid the inevitable, that the ship will sink.
When many stagnate, they do more and more of the same things that stalled them. They engage in wishful thinking, such as trying to redesign their routine to perform exercises more often. This, in theory, leads to more opportunities for progress and minimizes the impact of a bad workout. Instead, it leads to even worse workouts when you fail to recover. Should you eat and rest enough, strength training is a straightforward pursuit once you establish the basics. A rut means that something has gone wrong, and you need to correct it.
A deload can refer to two methods. One involves peaking with a given weight and getting stuck. You get the same number of reps every workout for a number of times on end. In response, you decrease the weight and work your way back up, hoping to peak higher. Should you have a proper routine, this should not occur unless it coincides with a major change. This usually just undertrains you for a period of time, and after you recover, you just repeat the same mistakes after a lot of wasted time. The other more sensible method has you take a week off while maintaining your cardio.
Many popular and successful programs today have you blast at your lifts for 4-6 weeks and then take a week off. This occurs even with frequencies of each lift done every 5-10 days. So you may only hit each lift 2-3 times per month, yet the behemoths that follow such programs do just fine.
Strength gains linger much longer than most realize. You can hold onto your strength for as long as 3 weeks or even more without a stimulus. Conditioning comes and fades faster. Most people will start to get out of shape after a week. You can continue to do intervals and other easy activity during the off week. Make sure this conditioning stays in line with the usual amount you would do while lifting weights. Trying to fit in more exercise defeats the purpose.
You may lose some skill with the layoff, but not if you have some experience and choose basic lifts such as the squat, bench press, and pull-up. Beginners would never need a deload anyway. Some choose to do the weights much lighter so they maintain some skill. No right answer exists. Make sure though you do not work too hard during a deload. I usually suggest just taking the week off from weights entirely, especially since I promote simple exercises.
While feeling weak and sore limits your performance, other reasons can make a deload needed. Stress, lack of sleep, or a limited diet can destroy gains even if your training remains optimal. Be honest with how you feel.
I recommend reevaluating your program after a deload. Sometimes life gives a deload when you get busy or sick. Learn to embrace these times. Otherwise, you likely made this decision due to poor progress. Perhaps you overdid something. You may need more rest days, less sets and exercises, and more purpose for your routine. Consider smaller jumps in progress too, such as going for half a rep more or using weight jumps of 2.5 pounds or less instead of the usual full rep and 5 pounds more.
Systems recover at different rates. Muscles can feel recovered, but your central nervous system may have fatigue from training too often, even if you split the muscle groups well. Training stress accumulates and does not occur overnight. Use your progress as the test for the success of any program. Do not rely on other feelings such as how much you enjoy it, soreness, the burn, and so on. If you feel strong but make no progress, something is wrong.
Consistency ranks importantly for gains. Taking deload weeks too often will set you back. Even one after 4-6 weeks may be too high, as a well-designed routine could have none. Many conventional programs, while good in some ways, have you perform too much volume too often, and therefore the deload always comes with open arms.
If you seek out and discover the minimum required for improvement, you may avoid deloads entirely. Deloads still may occur due to non-training issues, such as sickness or a vacation. Do not regret them. If you haven’t made progress lately though, consider a deload. Reevaluate your program and return even stronger.