Programming Wave Loading For Strength

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Written by Kim Leggett (Clean Health Online Master Coach)

Wave loading is an extremely popular method for improving maximal and relative strength and power because it is not only effective but it’s fun to do as well. Regardless if your client is looking to peak their strength or power for an event or develop some quality lean mass – wave loading is an excellent rep technique. 

How does Wave Loading work? 
The theory goes that neurological drive increases as you approach max efforts, this creates a spillover effect to improve strength in subsequent sets of lesser intensity of the same exercise. In other words, as your client approaches a max 1-RM intensity, they prime the central nervous system (CNS) through repeated efforts to perform the highest maximal effort for that day.

Wave loading is usually compromised of several waves or ‘series’ that normally consists of 2- 3 sets. The goal is to increase intensity progressively using more weight and less reps until the CNS is primed. In between each wave there is a ‘break’ before the next wave in a step-wise climb. Remember, the ultimate goal is to lift heavier loads in each subsequent wave. The more advanced the client, the more waves they will be able to complete, but as a rough guideline,  most clients should aim for 2 waves to start off with. 

An example of what a wave can look like is as follows:

Series 1
1 x 3 @ 85%
1 x 2 @ 87.5%
1 x 1 @ 90%

Series 2
1 x 3 @ 87.5%
1 x 2 @ 90%
1 x 1 @ 92.5%

Series 3
1 x 3 @ 90%
1 x 2 @ 92.5%
1 x 1 @ 95%

Tempos and Rest Periods
Similar to other relative strength methods – wave loading works best with tempos between 3-5 seconds in the eccentric or explosive in the concentric, i.e 40X0.  Keeping the tempo simple and straightforward is best but pauses can be placed at the stretched or contracted position to slightly alter training effect.

When it comes to rest periods, these should maximise full recovery and therefore a minimum for 2 mins rest per set.

Wave loading works best with low reps and heavy loads because it targets a clients neurological, psychological and physiological systems -all at once! 

Everytime your client lifts a weight, they excite the nervous system and neurons fire faster, increasing the strength of muscle contraction. At the same time, fatigue is also created which can reduce performance. However, if the performance potential from neural excitement exceeds fatigue, their capacity to produce force increases and therefore they can lift MORE weight. 

Wave loading works with low reps as your client uses heavier loads that lead to higher force production with the lowest work output. This means max excitation and minimal fatigue!

As your client approaches each wave or series, they are using different weights and hitting different reps. This ensures variation which helps keep motivation high. Psychologically, each set ‘feels easier’ because their brain focuses on the fact that they have less reps to perform despite the load being heavier. 

Now we know what a wave load is, how do we apply it?

Understanding that the key to wave loading is that the goal is NOT to hit a new 1, 2 3 RM but to perform each at the HIGHEST level on the higher rep sets of each series. The lower rep set of each series is used to excite the CNS to allow for the next wave MORE EFFECTIVE

Let’s look at the 3/2/1 wave loading for example:

Series 1
Set 1: 3 reps at 85% — This is essentially a “preparation/warm-up set” to get the body ready for the 90% weight on the set of 1

Set 2: 2 reps at 87.5% — This is the last “preparation set”

Set 3: 1 rep a 90% — This is the first real working set; the purpose is to increase performance for the sets of 3 and 2 reps to come at the next series. 

Although percentages are shown in the example above, they serve as merely an example. The most important thing to understand is that the first series is conservative as the REAL WORK starts with the 3rd set of the 1st series. 

Some effective wave loading schemes are:

  • The 7-5-3 and 6-4-2 waves are effective at building strength and size due to increased fatigue. 
  • The 5-3-1 wave is most effective at building strength. 
  • The 3-2-1 and 2-2-1 waves are pure limit strength methods that can rapidly increase your 1RM as they have the largest impact on neural adaptations. 

By now hopefully that gives you some insight into wave loading. Wave loading is very intense and the body will only make progress so long before the individual experiences diminishing returns. Encourage your client to take adequate time during their warm ups, use several sets of low reps to prime the CNS before beginning our work and ensure the first wave is CONSERVATIVE to guarantee success in subsequent waves.

To learn more about training principles and methods to maximize your client’s performance, click here to enrol into Sebastian Oreb’s Strength System International Certification online courses!

References:

  1. Diaz, M. (2020. Wave loading increases power, maximal/relative strength and functional hypertrophy. Physiqology. Retrieved from: https://physiqology.com/increasing-power-maximalrelative-strength-and-functional-hypertrophy-with-wave-loading/3/
  2. Thibaudeau, C. (2018). Wave Loading. Thibarmy. Retrieved from: https://thibarmy.com/wave-loading-02/
  3. Oreb,S. (2020). Strength Systems International Certification Level 1. Clean Health Fitness Institute. 

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