Leg day observer

Deload weeks: Why rest can be as important as exercise

Rest doesn't need to be a dirty word.

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Boxing is a cool sport because after you fight states can take away the license that legally allows you to compete, depending on what state you live in.

Say Jake Paul and Nate Robinson’s fight was in Las Vegas and not in Los Angeles. The Nevada Athletic Commission would have stripped both “boxers” of their licenses immediately, for a month. It’s done in the interest of the boxers’ self-preservation, whether they’re interested in that or not. It’s less of a penalty and more a required timed-out.

This runs against the way most sports operate. Topping the flow of money right after it starts isn’t a thing the NFL does. Other leagues care about athletes’ health, but what other governing body forces its highest earners to lay fallow? There are other reasons to criticize the Nevada Athletic Commission, but here, health is prioritized. The ruling prevents fighters from fighting ad infinitum. And even though Paul and Robinson fought in California, Paul’s next fight is scheduled for months from now, and not next Sunday. Even boxers who aren’t really boxers have to hew to forced rest.

Elsewhere rest is a dirty word. Pro leagues try to shorten their offseasons, and fit in more games — exhibitions and otherwise — while amateur governing bodies do their best to spread out events throughout the year. On the labor side, the caliber of professional athletics has evolved to such a degree that workaday jocks have to train full-time to keep their seat at the table. It’s all turned athletic competition into a day job.

And lifters, whether competitive or not, have followed. Most of us train year-round, like the pro athletes who set the tempo. But if Jake Paul is anything, he’s a door to contemplation, and his mandatory-rest arrangement feels like a what-if. If rest was as big a deal in lifting as it was in boxing, we’d be better off for it.

What happens when you take a break from working out?

Boxers’ need for rest, to be fair, stands alone. They take repeated punches to the face, which can cause CTE and do irreparable brain damage. Psychologically, a boxing match is tougher — it has more unknowns — than even the most ambitious powerlifting or weightlifting meet plan. On a max day, a lifter might lift more than they ever have, but a boxer in the ring faces a completely different person, one who’s trying to hurt them.

There are many types of rest. Boxers’ mandated breaks give the option of time off from sparring, running, footwork drills, bag work, and the other exercises — which sometimes don’t include weights — that make up fight training. (Not that all boxers take long rests, though some may take time off from sparring.)

In powerlifting, rest naturally follows a meet. A max lift is an expenditure and physically taxing. It’s the end of the line and a natural fit for a break. And since many competitive lifters work off peaking programs — months-long protocols that crest in a single max effort on competition day — post-comp lifts are by definition lower-weight. (Lifters will either set a new max on comp day, and work off that, or keep their max; either way, start-of-program weights are lower.)

That finish line feels like an invitation to take a minute before starting again. Variety can help. Some lifters may take a week off outright. Some run bodybuilding programs, with lower weights and higher reps, that can heal injuries. Some do yoga. Breaks after competition are ideal since programs don’t get interrupted mid-stream.

The deload week — Many off-the-shelf peaking programs include rest as part of their blueprint. The most common way is through a deload week, a time when workouts continue but the week’s total poundage drops down. Deload weeks let lifters ease up while drilling down form. The shouldn’t I be working out right now? anxiety is kept at bay. Because total poundage is volume times intensity — reps and weight — a deload week can take many forms.

Some deloads keep volume static and drop weight on main lifts and accessories. Some deloads don’t touch the heavy sets but remove the accessory work, and I’m sure there’s a deload out there that’s made up of only accessory exercises. The principle here is half-rest; doing less.

The how of a deload week is not universal, and there’s no best answer on how one should look. The details depend on a lifter’s goals.

The right deloading program is dependent on the athlete. Getty Images

While most trainers agree that every once in a while, lifters should yield, there’s debate as to when and how long that should be. Some programs’ deloads are monthly, some every seventh week, some every third month. They usually last a week, but not always.

This variance depends on the lifter’s expertise. Novice lifters — who can’t squat double bodyweight — are less adapted. They can get stronger if they train, eat, and rest right. Because they’re further from their strength limit, they don’t need to deload often, or for long. In fact, doing so can hamper their goals. Beginner lifters might plateau only every six weeks, and a couple of days of low-intensity training might be all it takes, though some trainers vary it up, through exercise selection or a strict cardio phase.

Intermediate and advanced lifters are closer to their strength potentials and progress more slowly. Their workouts are harder, and put more stress on their bodies. Deloads are more flexible and become more necessary. Some programs have frequent deloads. 5-3-1, a popular powerlifting program, drops its training weight down one week every month. But those lifters are also more adapted and have a better sense of themselves. If they want, they can skip a light week. 5-3-1’s updated version has its deloads spaced to either the four or seven-week mark.

Balancing rest and working out — Elite athletes with time, resources, and genetics might only take a break every three months, which is at the end of a cycle. Like everything in lifting, there’s no concrete set of rules; no when that can be advanced in a column. Only an assumption that breaks, now and then, are necessary.

Less clear is whether, or how long, lifters should rest during a workout. Like baseball games, workouts aren’t timed. They can be boring. They last as long as it takes to get through them. Like a Sox-Yankees game, an unmanaged workout can stretch into eternity. There are great intermediate workouts that read like grocery lists, with warmups, accessory lifts, the mains, and conditioning. Reps on a squat day can edge into three figures, and resting regularly — a minute between heavy sets, with dawdling kept to a minimum — can lead to a three-hour workout.

For some people — ones who maybe don’t read this column — that’s fine. But it feels like a lot. Three-hour workouts, unless your life revolves around lifting, feels unsustainable.

And shorter doesn’t always mean worse. Most dawdlers take breaks because they’re not well conditioned and need to catch their breath between sets. Lifting isn’t exactly cardio, but it can have some aerobic benefits if its intensity is kept high. A study where athletes performed high-intensity interval training (HIIT) with squats suggests that the pace of these exercises improved their athletic conditioning. (The study also concedes that cycling is better). Squatting heavy and fast builds up both strength and conditioning, and feels like the path for every lifter who isn’t elite.

But given the choice — get the weight up, or plow through — most lifters would favor the former. And lifters who lift just for fun shouldn’t have to do cardio. But surging through a workout, or adding HIIT cardio — about 15 minutes on the bike — can make a difference down the line.

Rest meets recovery — Shorter, faster-paced workouts carry over better to competition. A well-conditioned lifter who doesn’t need to rest between sets will turn in double the reps in a workout, or take half the time. They can rest or train more and will be less sore. All these things translate to a competition. It’s not tricky to get there, but it’s work. It’s no fun to drop weights and focus on speed, or put the barbell aside and start powerlifting prep programs, or a GPP plan, or add wind sprints or tire pushes to exercises. But it pays off in the end.

On top of deloading, lifters also need help in the midst of their workouts, which is where recovery comes in.

Even thoughtful programs wear lifters out and put their joints under stress. Active and passive recovery can help. Active recovery — complementary exercises that stave off depletion — can be done regularly. Mobility work, like strength coach Joe DeFranco’s Limber 11, should be part of a daily routine. Scheduling massages and incorporating regular low-impact and recuperative workouts, like swimming or yoga, are also a good idea.

Passive recovery is less intense. It helps too. Epsom baths, cryotherapy, sauna, and contrast showers can relax muscles, and help lifters feel sprier. (Some trainers think passive recovery is best left for deload weeks.) While recovery doesn’t replace rest and adequate nutrition, it’s a helpful extra, and can keep a lifter going when a program gets hard.

Rest is less stigmatized now than it was, but it’s still considered a complement to lifting, as opposed to an equal part. Jim Wendler, who created the 5-3-1 program, advances this path. His e-book tells lifters to schedule daily Epsom baths and weekly massages, perform mobility work three times a day, and conditioning three times a week. He also recommends an hour of quiet a day. Taken alone, that rest feels extreme: that’s a lot of time out of the day spent on not lifting.

But as part of a gym routine, it’s the grease that keeps it going. That forced rest, different from the weeks off in boxing, sets up heavy days at the gym, and earns us our deloads. Rest isn’t what we do when we’re tired; it’s how we keep going. we all hit a wall, and when we do, we should pause. Even if, like Jake Paul, it’s not by choice.

Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.

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