De-Load Weeks and Why Rest is Your Secret Weapon for Muscle Growth

By on April 19, 2016

A back off week, also known as a ‘de-load week’, is a period of time where you reduce your training in order to allow your body to recover. This is one of the most effective ways to trigger more growth and athletic performance. And all you have to do is… kind of just lie there.

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And it’s effective for more reasons than you might initially think. I.e. it’s not just about your body needing to rest occasionally…

Your Body Does Need to Rest Occasionally Though…

One reason that ‘back off’ weeks work so well, is that they provide the body with the rest it needs to recover and repair muscle. As long as you are getting plenty of sleep, eating a nutritious and calorie-and-protein-high diet and resting, your muscles have a chance to respond to all the training you’ve put them through and adapt.

Additionally, a back off week also has the advantage of preventing over-training or burn out. It avoids overloading your CNS (very important for this particularly demanding workouts) and it allows the immune system to recover and prevent disease. This latter aspect shouldn’t be overlooked: getting colds has got to be one of the most common and irritating setbacks I regularly experience in my training. Think of it this way: you can either take time off voluntarily now or be forced to take much longer off later on.

What’s more, a de-load week gives you ample time to recovery from any minor injuries lest they create bad movement patterns and compensatory musculoskeletal adjustments. Likewise, a back off week gives you something to work towards and offers a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ which is very useful for adherence. In this regard it works similarly to a ‘cheat day’ in a strict diet.

This is something I tried to deny for many years. In the past I have worked out with colds, infections, a broken arm and a smashed face (not all at the same time mind). At the time I thought I was being dedicated but in reality, I was actually doing myself a lot more harm than good. (It still feels lame to admit that though…)

But there is something more profound going on too…

The Other Kind of Armchair Athlete

Guess who has nearly as much fast twitch muscle fiber as an athlete? A couch potato! In fact, sometimes slob-types can actually have more fast twitch muscle fiber than athletes or sportsmen and women (depending on the type of athlete of course). They lack the ability to activate a lot of that twitch muscle fiber due to a considerably weaker mind-muscle connection; but nevertheless in terms of the sheer ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch, people who lie around score surprisingly well.

The reason for this is simply that the human body is designed to adapt to the demands placed on it (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands – SAID) . Athletes require their bodies to be energy efficient but fast twitch muscle fiber is not energy efficient. Someone who runs long distances regularly needs to have muscle fiber that will allow them to train long hours on relatively low calories and with relatively little rest. They can’t afford to have powerful, explosive muscle that burns out quickly.

Someone who sits on their butt eating chips all day though has a calorie surplus and a small requirement for efficiency – thus the most adaptive type of muscle for them is fast twitch, or ‘full power when they need it’. The body adapts to not needing energy efficient muscle and so it racks up the other type of muscle: fast twitch.

Think about it; you don’t take a Lamborghini Diablo on the motorway to visit your Aunt Agnes and nor do you use it for city driving. It sits in the garage and waits for that rare sunny day where you can take it for a spin. I’m not sure about the precise mechanism through which this occurs but likely it has to do with training increasing the number of mitochondria in the cells (which is more typical of slow twitch) and rest leading to more stored glycogen.

As someone interested in optimizing your power then, should you sit on your butt all day? Obviously not: you’d have zero muscular endurance or size, poor motor recruitment, no hyperplasia and terrible fitness. But using a back-off week offers just enough recovery time to allow the body to create more fast twitch fiber and thereby prevent you from becoming a machine built entirely for endurance.

This is also a reason that periodised training for a sporting event includes a ‘tapering off’ period prior to the competition (another reason for this is that it prevents the athlete from being tired out from training when they’re competing).

My Experience and Advice

So how much rest do you need between intensive training sessions? That is of course going to depend on your body type, on your goals and on many other factors. Try taking short breaks once a month or once every two or three months and see what works for you.

 

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For me personally, I find I actually grow quite rapidly if I take every fourth week off. It sounds mad but the results speak for themselves; when I take a week off at this point and then come back to my training, I experience a sudden surge in muscle growth that is actually visible in the mirror. You might even find that your lifts improve.

Training for just three weeks out of four is going to feel all-kinds of wrong to you at first and you’ll likely find this is one of the hardest instructions to follow. But if you can be disciplined enough to try it for just a few months you’ll see the benefits for yourself.

What do you do during that week ‘off’? One option is to use very light training, complementary to your main training goals. Another is to take the time completely off. Or you could dedicate it to brain training, meditation, flexibility or learning other skills!

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About Adam Sinicki

Hi there! My name is Adam Sinicki, I'm an entrepreneur, psychology graduate and amateur bodybuilder interested in fitness, self improvement, technology and transhumanism. I run an online business (NQR Productions) which allows me to live the lifestyle I want: getting time to hit the gym and to work on my projects and apps. Stick around and I'll be sharing my experiments and adventures in brain training, bodybuilding, productivity, business and technology.