Regular breaks from the intensity of resistance training are important to allow your body to recover, especially after strenuous bouts of activity. As your routine gets more advanced and you push your body to achieve your next target, it is even more essential to allow yourself these periods of rest. The temptation to go to the gym every day and lift as much as possible can be strong, but not only can this be dangerous to your health, it is also counterproductive.

Your body uses periods of rest to repair the tears in your muscle fibers caused when lifting weights; this is how your muscles achieve hypertrophy, i.e., increase in size. However, when you don’t allow your body a period of rest, your muscles will begin to break down, a condition known as catabolism. In the long term, your joints will suffer and you will be more prone to injuries that take longer to recover from. You also need to give your body a chance to restore its ratios of essential chemicals of testosterone and cortisol, which can only happen when you have a period of lowered activity.

In addition to the physical need for a deload week, you will also find that a mental break away from the intensity of your usual routine will to keep you fresh and enthusiastic. Even something you enjoy can start to feel like a chore when you do it day after day with no respite.

A deload week doesn’t mean a complete week away from the gym. Instead, your aim is to go easy for a week, reduce the intensity of your routine and give yourself an active break. There are several ways you can do this without needing to worry that you are losing out. To ensure you are refreshed when you return to your routine, mentally and physically prepared to achieve your goals, follow these recommendations:

1 Schedule your deload week

If you are following a pre-designed training program, you will probably have a deload week built into it. Make sure you stick to it, as it is part of the program for good reason. If the plan you are following doesn’t mention a deload week, then you should figure out what works for you; many popular plans recommend a deload every four to five weeks. If you start feeling fatigued or bored, or you have hit a plateau in your size or strength, then an immediate deload week is in order. Also, don’t be afraid to bring your deload week forward a few days, should there be the odd occasion that you might feel especially in need of a break, or if you have a nagging injury that requires attention.

2 Don’t avoid the gym altogether

During your deload week, you should still exercise. However, take one of three different approaches to allow your body to recover while staying strong:

– Use a different set of exercises altogether. Some people find it effective to avoid their usual routine and focus on something they wouldn’t normally do, such as yoga or cardio.

– Decrease the weight. If you choose this option, you should be lifting no more than 50 percent of your usual weight to give your joints a break and your muscles a chance to repair and grow.

– Reduce the volume. You can keep your weights the same and reduce the number of sets or reps. This method is utilized more by serious strength competitors who cannot afford to decrease the amount of weight they are lifting, even for a week.

3 Look after your nutrition

Your deload week isn’t an excuse to eat anything you want for seven days. As your muscles are using this downtime to heal and grow, they must have the right fuel to be able to achieve this. Carbs are vital to fuel your recovery, and your muscles need protein to rebuild themselves. It’s also important to keep up your calorie intake. If you go into a deficiency, you quickly will start to undo all the hard work you have put in so far.

4 Get plenty of sleep and avoid stress

Sleep is as important as good nutrition to help your body recover and repair itself. During this part of your schedule, you should be aiming for at least eight hours of deep, high-quality sleep to allow your muscles and connective tissue time to heal. Stress can be a negative factor in both your recovery and the rate at which your muscle mass increases. Avoid it when possible and use your deload week to relax and get some time to yourself.

5 Find an effective way of tracking your workouts

Tracking your workouts should be a continuous habit, even and is just as important during your deload week. Without tracking and making notes of your progress, you won’t be able to identify areas for improvement, plan effectively for the next stage of your training, and achieve your next goal. Incorporate and track regular tests of your strength to give yourself more motivation. Find a method that works for you, whether this is a training diary or a simple spreadsheet of activities and goals.

6 Have fun!

A deload week is necessary for reducing the mental stress that comes with intense daily training. Make more time to see friends, go for a walk or do some reading — anything that takes your mind off the gym. Doing the same thing every day can get boring; your mind can suffer from fatigue just as much as your body, so give it a rest. A deload week could also be the time to try something new or unusual that you don’t usually have time for. A fun sport like judo or scuba diving will take your mind off the gym but keep you active without stressing your body too much.

There are many different theories and myths about deload weeks. You may hear that they aren’t an essential part of a strength-training regimen, or that they will lead to a reduction in your muscle mass. This simply isn’t true. Human beings aren’t machines that can continually lift weights and increase the stress on their body without pause, and you are not going to lose muscle mass just by taking a week away from your normal workout volume. Your deload week will give your body and mind a well-deserved break, and you will return from it fresher and more committed to reaching your goals.