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Locked and Loaded – Loading Patterns for Strength and Muscle Gains

Besides exercise selection, the most important factor involved in developing size and strength is the nature of the load. This is a function of three separate but interrelated elements: 

  1. The magnitude of the load (amount of weight used) 
  2. The number of reps per set (dictated by the magnitude of the load) 
  3. The loading pattern 

Intensity, Hypertrophy, and Training Experience 

 

Your body adapts to training-induced stress by making itself stronger and more resistive to physical loading. In simpler words, the more experienced a trainee is, the better his body is built to tolerate training stress. 

To explain that fact, we can use a simple analogy: A man starts to work a physically demanding job (e.g. farm work). He does manual labor tasks eight hours a day. At first he’ll get extremely tired by the end of the day and be painfully sore the next morning. But over time, the more experienced he becomes at his job, the daily workload doesn’t affect his body as much. His body has adapted to the very brutal physical demands of his work. 

Same goes for strength training (which is basically artificial manual labor). The more years a trainee has put in, the better his body is at handling training related stress. So it should be obvious that the more experienced a trainee is, the higher the training stress level should be to elicit progress. 

There’s also what’s called an “optimal intensity threshold” (OIT) that must be surpassed if maximum hypertrophy is to be stimulated. You can use all the advanced methods in the world or perform sets until the cows come home, but if you don’t train past that threshold you won’t stimulate maximum growth. 

The following table indicates the ideal training intensities, depending on the level of the trainee: 

Experience Level 

Optimal Intensity Threshold 

Acceptable Intensity Range 

Beginner 

60% 

50-70% 

Intermediate 

70% 

60-80% 

Advanced 

80% 

70-90% 

Now understand that even if you train under the optimal intensity threshold (or even under the acceptable intensity range), you can still stimulate some muscle growth. However, this increase in muscle size will mostly be of the non-functional type. This is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and it refers to an increase in the elements of the muscle cell other than the muscle fibers. As a result of this type of hypertrophy, a muscle can get bigger, but its strength won’t improve much, if at all. 

This table displays the different training zones depending on the level of a trainee: 

For maximum muscle growth, a trainee should spend most of his training time in the functional and total hypertrophy zones. Training volume should be divided about 40//40 (percent-wise) between those two zones (normally use the functional hypertrophy zone for compound exercises and the total hypertrophy zone for isolation exercises). 

Every once in a while, (the other 20%), it’d be smart to spend some time in the strength zone because this will increase myogenic tone (muscle tonus), creating a denser and harder look. It’ll also increase the capacity of the nervous system to recruit muscle fibers which will enhance the effect of the subsequent bouts of hypertrophy training. 

Strength-endurance work (especially when used with short rest intervals) can help with fat loss, vascularization, and even serve as active recovery if the loads used are very light. 

The following table briefly explains the benefits of each training zone: 

Training Zone 

Name 

Positive Effects

85-100% 

Limit strength 

Increase in strength 

Stimulation of functional hypertrophy 

Increase in muscle density 

80-85% 

Functional hypertrophy 

Stimulation of functional hypertrophy 

Increase in strength 

70-80% 

Total hypertrophy 

Stimulation of total hypertrophy (functional + non-functional) 

Slight increase in muscle endurance 

Improved lactic acid tolerance 

50-70% 

Strength-endurance 

Increase in non-functional hypertrophy 

Increase in muscle endurance 

Improved capillarization 

– 50% 

Endurance-strength 

Increase in muscle endurance 

Improved capilarization 

Active recovery 

Speeds up recovery from tendon injuries 

 

Loading Patterns 

A loading pattern refers to how the sets for one exercise are arranged. For example, straight sets will have you use the same weight and reps for all your work sets while wave loading, pyramidal loading, or plateau loading will vary the load and reps with each set. Let’s take a look at each. 

Straight Sets 

 

When performing straight sets, you execute one or two warm-up sets then jump right into your working weight, which you maintain for the whole exercise. For example, let’s say that your program calls for 4 x 6-8. You’d do: 

1 x 8 @ 90lbs (warm-up) 

1 x 8 @ 135lbs (warm-up) 

4 x 8 @ 185lbs (work sets) 

It’s possible that due to fatigue you won’t be able to complete the 8 reps on your last set or two. That’s why the prescription calls for 6-8 reps. I believe in giving a 2 rep “give” when designing a program. If you’re in top shape and the program calls for 6 reps but you’re able to do 8, isn’t it better to go up to 8? Sure it is! 

And if you’re tired and are not able to perform the prescribed 8 reps, does it mean that you screwed up your workout? No, as long as you can stay within the 2 rep range you’re fine. 

Graphically, straight sets look like this (we’ll keep our 4 x 6-8 example): 

Wave Loading 

 

Wave loading refers to a loading pattern where the load and reps change with every set within a wave. A wave is a group of 2-3 sets. Normally 2 waves are performed when training for muscle size, while 2-4 waves can be used when training for strength. You should try to use heavier weights with each new wave. 

When planning a hypertrophy wave, you want to have one of the two following patterns: 

Hypertrophy Wave with Strength Gains 

Set 1 – Total hypertrophy zone 

Set 2 – Functional hypertrophy zone 

Set 3 – Strength zone 

Hypertrophy/Strength Wave 

SetBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced 

Set 115 reps12 reps10 reps 

Set 212 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 38 reps6 reps4 reps 

Set 415 reps12 reps10 reps 

Set 512 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 68 reps6 reps4 reps 

Hypertrophy Wave with Strength-endurance Gains 

Set 1 – Strength-endurance zone 

Set 2 – Total hypertrophy zone 

Set 3 – Functional hypertrophy zone 

Hypertrophy/Strength-Endurance Wave 

SetBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced 

Set 120 reps18 reps15 reps 

Set 215 reps12 reps10 reps 

Set 312 reps10 reps8 reps 

Set 420 reps18 reps15 reps 

Set 515 reps12 reps10 reps 

Set 612 reps10 reps8 reps 

When training for strength, one of the following wave patterns can be used: 

Mixed Strength/Functional Hypertrophy Wave 

Set 1 – Functional hypertrophy zone 

Set 2 – Strength zone high end 

Set 3 – Strength zone low end 

Mixed Strength/Functional Hypertrophy Wave 

SetBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced 

Set 110 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 28 reps6 reps4 reps 

Set 36 reps4 reps2 reps 

Set 410 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 58 reps6 reps4 reps 

Set 66 reps4 reps2 reps 

Mixed Relative/Limit Strength Wave 

Set 1 – Strength zone high end 

Set 2 – Strength zone middle 

Set 3 – Strength zone low end 

Mixed Relative/Limit Strength Wave 

SetBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced 

Set 19 reps7 reps5 reps 

Set 27 reps5 reps3 reps 

Set 35 reps3 reps2 reps 

Set 49 reps7 reps5 reps 

Set 57 reps5 reps3 reps 

Set 65 reps3 reps2 reps 

Relative Strength Wave 

Set 1 – Strength zone middle 

Set 2 – Strength zone low end 

Set 3 – Strength zone low end 

Relative Strength Wave 

SetBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced 

Set 17 reps5 reps3 reps 

Set 26 reps4 reps2 reps 

Set 34 reps2 reps1 reps 

Set 47 reps5 reps3 reps 

Set 56 reps4 reps2 reps 

Set 64 reps2 reps1 reps 

Pyramid Loading 

 

The pyramid schemes are somewhat outdated but can still be used when training for muscle size (not so much when training for strength). In a regular pyramid you start with a higher number of reps and a lesser amount of weight, and with each set you increase the weight while reducing the reps. In an inverted pyramid you do the opposite: you start with a heavy weight for few reps, and decrease the load with each set while increasing the reps. 

In a double pyramid you start like a regular pyramid: begin with higher reps and decrease them for your next 2-3 sets, then increase them again for your last set or two. 

Here are some illustrations of what a pyramid pattern might look like: 

There are two problems with pyramid loading schemes. They either: 

  1. Cause too much fatigue to make the heavy set effective (regular pyramid scheme) 
  2. Start heavy too soon, when the CNS isn’t properly activated (inverted pyramid) 

The double pyramid, which is somewhat similar to wave loading, is less problematic and should be the preferred pyramid pattern if you choose to use one. 

Flat Pyramid Loading 

 

This method is somewhat similar to regular pyramid loading in that the load is progressively increased with each set. However, the number of reps stays the same. This means that only the last 1-2 sets are actually true work sets while the other 2-3 are progressive warm-ups (they still have a training effect though). 

This is the type of loading scheme used by Dorian Yates among others. It’s often believed that Yates trained using HIT or Heavy Duty in which one performs only one set of an exercise to failure. Not so! Yates actually performed up to 5 sets of an exercise but only the last one was a true limit effort. 

This method is interesting when training in the functional hypertrophy zone because it allows you to get your CNS and muscles geared up for a limit effort gradually without causing too much fatigue (which would impair the limit effort). However, in most cases, the “effective volume” (EV), or number of reps that are tough enough to cause an adaptation, is too low. 

It’s a nice change of pace when you’ve been doing high volume training for a long time though. For example, if a trainee has been on a high volume routine for 6-8 weeks, including 3-4 weeks of flat pyramid loading with a low volume of work will enable the body to recover from the previous bout of high volume work and a supercompensation effect will occur. This is called delayed adaptation. 

The following table illustrates what a flat pyramid scheme might look like: 

SetBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced 

Set 110 reps @ 50%8 reps @ 55%6 reps @ 60% 

Set 210 reps @ 55%8 reps @ 60%6 reps @ 65% 

Set 310 Reps @ 60%8 reps @ 65%6 reps @ 70% 

Set 410 Reps @ 65%8 reps @ 70%6 reps @ 75% 

Set 510 reps @ 70%8 Reps @ 75%6 reps @ 80% 

Plateau Loading 

 

Plateau loading is somewhat similar to pyramid loading except for two differences: 

There aren’t as many different steps, and more than one set is performed at each step. 

You basically perform different plateaus (2 to 4), each one having 2 sets at the same training load and reps. After a plateau you can start another one either of a higher intensity or of a lower intensity level. Here are some examples: 

Example of a Simple Progressive Plateau 

SetBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced 

Set 112 reps10 reps8 reps 

Set 212 reps10 reps8 reps 

Set 310 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 410 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 58 reps6 reps4 reps 

Set 68 reps6 reps4 reps 

Example of a Simple Regressive Plateau 

SetBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced 

Set 18 reps6 reps4 reps 

Set 28 reps6 reps4 reps 

Set 310 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 410 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 512 reps10 reps8 reps 

Set 612 reps10 reps8 reps 

Example of a Double Progression Plateau 

SetBeginnerIntermediateAdvanced 

Set 110 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 210 reps8 reps6 reps 

Set 38 reps6 reps4 reps 

Set 48 reps6 reps4 reps 

Set 512 reps10 reps8 reps 

Set 612 reps10 reps8 reps 

I personally prefer the double progression plateau because it allows you to be properly prepared for the heavier sets while not being too fatigued to perform well. 

Conclusion 

 

As you can see, there’s more than one way to get big and strong muscles! But if you understand the basic scientific principles behind the whole process, you’ll be better equipped to design effective and efficient training programs. Now go do it! 

-CT 

*Originally posted on www.t-nation.com 06/20/05 

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…