The science behind why skipping the gym is totally ok (and how)

Sometimes it’s actually good to skip the gym

You will hear some mantras going around in the fitness industry like “No days off!” and “I can rest when I’m dead.” You will also hear trainers telling their clients that they need to push harder and that they are never allowed to take time away from the gym. This in turn makes people feel guilty and shameful over not making it to the gym as often as they think they should.

I’m here to tell you its ok to take some time off from the gym. As long as its properly planned and well thought out there is actually a scientific benefit to taking a break. This type of break from the gym is called a deload.

Now before we get into this there is one point I would like to make. Deload are used for those people that train more than 3 days per week. If your training is less frequent than that you are most likely getting enough rest time throughout your week to recover from training.

But… If you are training more frequently than that it's time to consider taking a break every now and then.

If you have ever heard of a taper (most of the time you will hear about this while training for a marathon or the like) when leading up to a competition, deloads are very similar. Typically a deload is a 40-60% drop in volume of training for 1-2 weeks. This should be planned out so that your training leading up to this point is pretty challenging and you have accumulated enough fatigue over the last training block to warrant this break in training.

Now, before we get into the scientific reasoning, here are a quick definition of terms (assuming most of you reading this are not as into this stuff and familiar with the terminology as I am but if you are you can skip this).

Volume: Total workload - The simple way to figure this out is weight X reps not including warm up sets

Accumulated Fatigue: This is the amount of work done over a period of time, weeks or months and will build up fatigue over time. As you keep working hard in the gym week after week your body breaks down more and more thus not allowing you to perform optimally. This is because your performance gains are masked by how tired you are.

Training Block: This just refers to the period of time you are focusing on a specific goal in training ie: muscle size gain, endurance, strength. These blocks and these goals are normally defined by the rep range you are in.

Intensity: Total weight or percentage of maximum capability

Ok, so the science behind the deload is this:

Taking breaks from training have been shown to do two big things to benefit your training.

  1. To dissipate fatigue: You know that accumulation I was talking about earlier, this brief break from the “work” required to make a training plan effective will actually make it so you can do more work when you come back to training hard again. At a certain point you just expose the body to so much fatigue that you can no longer make optimal gains from training so you have to take this break to make sure you don’t work yourself into the ground.

  2. You make your muscles more sensitive to growth: So when you train on a regular basis you get to a point where the muscle needs more and more stimulus to actually grow or get stronger. Similar to caffeine tolerance your body will build up more tolerance to the training you do and will not respond as well the longer you keep training. If you take breaks like this though, you can increase the sensitivity of the muscle for growth without losing any of your hard earned muscle. This helps you get a boost of muscle growth every time you take this short break and come back to the gym.

How to organize a deload for strength training:

Now the science isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule on how to properly deload from training because everyone is going to respond a little differently so you have to figure out for yourself how much time off you need and how much volume you need to decrease.

Here at our gym we start with setting a deload for every 5th week of training. During this week we start with the larger end of the volume drop with is 60% with a minimal intensity drop (5-10% decrease in load from the week before).

For example, if on the 4th week of your last block you did 3 sets of 10 at 65% of your max for your deload week you would do 3 sets of 4 at 60% or something similar.

One thing we have found is that for certain lifts this protocol does not ring true, namely the deadlift. The deadlifts can be pretty demanding on the body, something about breaking it from the floor that makes you feel like you got hit by a truck. So our protocol with this is that we will drop the volume and intensity down quite a bit.

For example if on the 4th week of your last block you did 3 sets of 5 reps at 85% of your max for your deload week you would do 6 sets of 1 at 65% of your max.

With the deadlift we will still go for about 60% decrease in reps but also drop the intensity by about 20% as opposed to 5%.

So this is why and how you want to take breaks every few weeks from training. These breaks don’t mean to just leave the gym for a month and expect to be stronger when you come back but taking a light week every few weeks is a great idea to keep your training going the right direction.

If you want to learn more about how to program this into your training or need some help with a program in general just shoot us an email

jimmy@progressiveperformance.com