Last week I wrote about one of my favorite loading schemes: the 1-6 contrast method. It’s a form of a broader group of training methods known as “wave loading”.
Wave loading has always been my favorite way of organizing heavy lifting work (along with ramping to a 1, 2 or 3RM) for both neurological and psychological reasons; I always got better results from wave loading than I did from straight sets.
With that in mind, I think it’s more than time that I presented wave loading and explained why it works and how to use it for maximum results. Because, as always, the devil is in the details!
What is wave loading?
Wave loading refers to grouping the work sets in “series”, each of these series normally have 2 or 3 sets. For a given exercise, you perform 2-4 of those series. The weight increases during the series (the second set is heavier than the first one, the third is heavier than the second if you have 3 sets per series) giving the loading scheme a wave-like structure since the weight goes up for a few sets, goes back down within a new series and goes back up again, etc.
Wave loading also has an increase in loading from series to series. The second series uses a little more weight that the first one, the third one (if there is one) is slightly heavier than the second one, etc. In fact, waves can be auto-regulating: you keep doing series as long as you can complete your sets.
An example of what a wave can look like is as follows:
1 x 3 @ 85%
1 x 2 @ 87.5%
1 x 1 @ 90%
1 x 3 @ 87.5%
1 x 2 @ 90%
1 x 1 @ 92.5%
1 x 3 @ 90%
1 x 2 @ 92.5%
1 x 1 @ 95%
Wave loading works best with lower repetitions and heavier weights, and we will see why in a few moments. But one of the reasons why some people report sub-optimal gains from wave loading is that they use the approach with reps that are too high.
Why does wave loading work?
Wave loading works for several reasons: neurological, psychological and physiological.
Neurological: Wave loading works via the benefit of a phenomenon called “post-tetanic potentiation”. To make things simple, understand that every time you lift a weight or produce force two things happen:
1) You excite the nervous system; the neurons start to fire faster, increasing (among other things) the strength of muscle contraction.
2) You create fatigue which can, of course, reduce performance. If the performance potential increase from neural excitation exceeds the fatigue accumulated your capacity to produce force goes up. This results in you lifting more weight.
The greater the force production, the higher the excitation.
And the more work you need to do, the greater the accumulated fatigue.
This is why wave loading works better with lower reps. Low reps using big weights lead to the highest force production and the lowest work output. So, you get maximum excitation and minimal fatigue. That’s why with wave loading your performance potential goes up from wave to wave, until the fatigue build-up catches up to you.
Psychological: This benefit will apply mostly to people who, like me, hate doing the same thing over and over. For me doing the same number of reps with the same weight for two sets or more in a row is mentally draining; I need variation.
With wave loading you have a different task on every set because the weight and reps change. And even when you start a new series, you are using different weights than you did in the first series. If you like variation and variety, this will help keep your motivation higher.
And because of a weird phenomenon, every set “feels easier”. Let’s say that you go from 3 reps at 300 to 2 reps at 310… it’s heavier, BUT you have less reps to perform. Your brain focuses on the 1 rep less and you are more positive and confident. And even when you change series and the reps go back up, it’s fine because the weight is going down compared to your last set and it feels lighter. You always have a positive mind set which will help you perform at your best.
Lastly, for the more competitive people who need to “win the workout” (Neurotypes 1A and 1B), when you use the auto-regulating approach of being allowed to add more series as long as you can use more weight, you see that as a challenge to complete as many series as possible.
So psychologically speaking, a lot of gym rats will be a lot more motivated by waves than by straight sets.
Physiologically: The physiological benefits are more important with mixed waves. Mixed waves include work in both the neurological and muscular zones. The 1-6 approach I explained last week is one example. But you could also use 7/5/3 or 6/4/2 waves. This approach will maximize strength gains by improving both muscle mass (strength potential) and neurological efficiency (how well you can use your potential).
Properly applying wave loading – the role of each set
When you use wave loading, you must understand that the key sets are not the low rep sets: the goal is not to succeed in hitting a new 1, 2 or 3RM while wave loading, but to perform at the highest level on the higher rep sets of each series. The lower rep set of each series (normally the last one in a 3 set series) is used to excite the CNS to make the next wave, specifically its first two sets, more effective.
Let’s look at the 3/2/1 wave loading for example:
Set 1: 3 reps at 85% — This is essentially a “preparation/warm-up set” to get your body ready for the 90% weight on the set of 1
Set 2: 2 reps at 87.5% — This is your last “preparation set”
Set 3: 1 rep a 90% — This is your first potentiation set; the purpose is to increase performance for the sets of 3 and 2 reps to come at the next series. This is your real first work set.
Set 4: 3 reps at 87.5% — This is the set that will build the most strength in the series
Set 5: 2 reps at 90% — This set both helps with building strength and prepares you for your potentiation set
Set 6: 1 rep at 92.5% — This set increases neural activation even more while also minimizing fatigue so that you will be in an optimal functioning state at the beginning of the next wave
Properly applying wave loading – load selection
I gave percentages in my earlier illustration but it’s only that: for illustration purposes. In reality I do not use percentages, or at least I do not blindly stick to them.
The most important thing to understand is that the first series is VERY conservative; the first two sets of the first series are basically the extension of your warm-up. The real work starts with the third set of the first series, but even that weight is conservative.
The second wave is more challenging. Normally I use a very simple progression model: for the first set of the second series I use the same weight I used for the second set of the first series.
For example, if I did:
1 x 3 @ 300
1 x 2 @ 310
1 x 1 @ 320
The second series will start at 310:
1 x 3 @ 310
1 x 2 @ 320
1 x 1 @ 330
Normally, I plan so that the second series is a challenge but can be completed without grinding or breaking form. The third series should be really hard and may not be successful every time. And if you can complete a fourth series you were either in killer form or you started too light.
Properly applying wave loading – rest intervals
Rest intervals are one of those things that are highly individual. For example, I personally hate long rest intervals. Even when I train for strength, I prefer to keep a fast training pace and shorter rest periods. Some people instinctively gravitate towards longer rest intervals and do better when they can recover more between sets.
I remember when I trained with Pierre Roy, he used a timed approach, not a sets prescription. For example, we would do snatches for sets of 3 reps, for 30 minutes going at our own pace but not allowing a drop in our performance. I used to do 15-18 work sets in that time frame while some others would do 5! But we all got good results.
So, I will not give you a precise duration for your rest intervals. Simply understand that post-tetanic potentiation peaks at around 90-120 seconds after a set and some benefits linger for up to 5 minutes. However, the optimal time to maximize the potentiation effect is likely 90-180 seconds between sets.
As long as you are in that zone you will be fine, otherwise go with what is natural for you. You might need shorter rest intervals during the first series, extend it a bit on the second one and even more if you do a third one.
Some effective wave loading schemes
Although you will find some people using schemes like 10-8-6 waves and even 12-10-8 waves, in my opinion it misapplies the principles. First, none of these rep ranges (and the loads that comes with them) gives maximum potentiation. Second, they all create a significant amount of fatigue. Essentially you get the opposite of what wave loading is all about!
The highest rep number I personally use with wave loading is 7. And even then, I don’t go there often.
The schemes I have found to be really effective are:
2-2-1 waves (still adding weight after the first set of 2, this is very popular among Olympic lifters, a favorite of Ilyia Illyin)
The first two (7-5-3 and 6-4-2) are effective at simultaneously building strength and size. Because they create more fatigue, I normally limit them to two series.
The 5-3-1 wave is one of the most effective way to build strength. You will improve muscle mass to a degree while optimizing neurological efficiency. With this scheme you can do 2 or 3 series.
The 3-2-1 and 2-2-1 are pure limit strength methods: they very rapidly increase your 1RM because they have the strongest impact on the neural adaptations. Since these are rapid, the strength gains are very fast, but because they don’t stimulate much muscle growth they won’t work for long. After around 3 weeks they have limited effect.
Some ideas of how to use wave loading
My two favorite approaches to wave loading are either using a block approach, in which I use the same wave scheme for 3-4 weeks; and the pendulum wave approach (this is my personal favorite) in which I cycle the scheme every week for 3-week cycles.
Weeks 1-4: 7-5-3 waves
Weeks 5-8: 5-3-1 waves
Weeks 9-11: 3-2-1 waves
Week 1: 7-5-3 waves
Week 2: 5-3-1 waves
Week 3: 3-2-1 waves
Week 4: 6-4-2 waves
Week 5: 3-2-1 waves
Week 6: 2-2-1 waves
Give these a try and you will be shocked at how effective they can be if used properly.