An In Depth Look at Wave Loading

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Snapshot of Takeaway Points

  • Progress through 4 different wave/step protocols
  • Lift more weight and increase strength due to the potentiation effect
  • Improper weight selection is a mistake I see often with wavelike loading

Introduction

Wave loading is a strength building protocol I have been using for many moons now. My first introduction to it was from my mentor Charles Poliquin/Strength Sensei. He was introduced to it from his mentor, Canadian Olympic weightlifting coach Pierre Roy. Research shows that the Bulgarian’s used and popularised it, but in all likelihood it came from the Soviet Union as they were at the forefront and much of their research you can’t access for obvious reasons.

The physiological mechanism behind the protocol is that of post tetanic facilitation/post activation potentiation (PTF/PAP). The explanation is that the neurological system is excited and therefore will produce an increase in motor unit output. You go from lifting a heavy weight at the end of a wave/step, into lifting a lighter weight at the start of the next wave/step. It is this transition that gives you the increased output. The lighter weight at the start of the next wave/step feels even lighter than normal due to the heavier set just before it.

Training Progression

As a principle, you don’t want to use protocols before you are ready for them. Someone who is just beginning out won’t need to delve right into wave loading as they are likely to be neurologically inefficient. That’s my polite way of saying you’re as weak as a pre-pubescent stamp collector or Theresa May’s negotiation skills. It is likely that you won’t need to upgrade from one protocol to the next without finishing a full 8-12 week phase.

Protocol 1: Step loading

Step loading examples include:

  • 7,5,7,5,7,5
  • 6,4,6,4,6,4
  • 5,3,5,3,5,3
  • 3,2,3,2,3,2

I know that this is step loading and not wavelike loading but the principle is to ease a newbie’s nervous system into the PTF/PAP concept. If you can make gains on this, why use the next most demanding method in the sequence beforehand? Use the right tool at the right time.

Protocol 2: Wavelike loading

Step loading examples include:

  • 7,5,3,7,5,3
  • 6,4,2,6,4,2
  • 5,3,2,5,3,2
  • 3,2,1,3,2,1

You can indeed see more than two waves as illustrated above. It’s been said that the most neurologically efficient athletes could end up completing 3 or even 4 waves. Given that most don’t have the time available to complete 12 sets with 3-6 minutes rest in between, plus any assistance work, it’s likely that programming for two waves is realistic.

Protocol 3: Wavelike 5% loading

Step loading examples include:

  • Week 1: 7,5,3,7,5,3
  • Week 2: 6,4,2,6,4,2
  • Week 3: 5,3,2,5,3,2
  • Week 4: repeat cycle from a 4-5% heavier starting point

Or

  • Week 1: 5,3,2,5,3,2
  • Week 2: 3,2,1,3,2,1
  • Week 3: 2,2,1,2,2,1
  • Week 4: repeat cycle from a 4-5% heavier starting point

The difference between this and the wavelike loading is the weekly change in repetition schemes into a set 6 week program.

Protocol 4: Ascending wavelike loading

Step loading examples include:

  • 7,5,3,6,4,2
  • 6,4,2,5,3,1
  • 5,3,2,4,2,1

Here you guarantee a larger increase on the second wave due to the decrease in repetitions.

Training Execution

Your first wave is likely to feel heavier than the next wave(s). This due to the fact that your nervous system isn’t at full activation as of yet. Although the planned weights for the next waves are heavier, the nervous system holds the key to them feeling easier.

Protocol 1: Step loading weight selection
  • Set 1: 7 reps at 100kg
  • Set 2: 5 reps at 105kg
  • Set 3: 7 reps at 101-104kg (weight selection is above set 1 but below set 2)
  • Set 4: 5 reps at 106-110kg (weight selection is above set 2 and the same percentage increase or less from set 1 to set 2)
  • Set 5: 7 reps at above set 3 but below set 4
  • Set 6: 5 reps at above set 4 and same percentage increase or less, than the difference of set 3 to set 4
Protocol 2: Wavelike loading weight selection
  • Set 1: 6 reps at 100kg
  • Set 2: 4 reps at 105kg
  • Set 3: 2 reps at 110kg
  • Set 4: 6 reps at 101-104kg (weight selection is above set 1 but below set 2)
  • Set 5: 4 reps at 106-109kg (weight selection is above set 2 but below set 3)
  • Set 6: 2 reps at 111-115kg (weight selection is above set 3 and same or less percentage increase)

The biggest mistake I see is trying to use too heavy a weight for the next wave. You want to split in between the previous weights achieved.

Protocol 3: Wavelike 5% loading weight selection
Week 1: 5,3,2,5,3,2 Week 2: 3,2,1,3,2,1 Week 3: 2,2,1,2,2,1
Set 1 5 reps 100kg Set 1 3 reps 105kg Set 1 2 reps 110kg
Set 2 3 reps 105kg Set 2 2 reps 110kg Set 2 2 reps 115kg
Set 3 2 reps 110kg Set 3 1 rep 115kg Set 3 1 rep 120kg
Set 4 5 reps 102.5kg Set 4 3 reps 107.5kg Set 4 2 reps 112.5kg
Set 5 3 reps 107.5kg Set 5 2 reps 112.5kg Set 5 2 reps 117.5kg
Set 6 2 reps 112.5kg Set 6 1 rep 117.5kg Set 6 1 rep 122.5kg

 

Week 4: 5,3,2,5,3,2 Week 5: 3,2,1,3,2,1 Week 6: 2,2,1,2,2,1
Set 1 5 reps 102.5kg Set 1 3 reps 107.5kg Set 1 2 reps 112.5kg
Set 2 3 reps 107.5kg Set 2 2 reps 112.5kg Set 2 2 reps 117.5kg
Set 3 2 reps 112.5kg Set 3 1 rep 117.5kg Set 3 1 rep 122.5kg
Set 4 5 reps 105kg Set 4 3 reps 110kg Set 4 2 reps 115kg
Set 5 3 reps 110kg Set 5 2 reps 115kg Set 5 2 reps 120kg
Set 6 2 reps 115kg Set 6 1 rep 120kg Set 6 1 rep 125kg

 

The difference between this and the wavelike loading is the weekly change in repetition schemes plus the return back to the first scheme in week 4 but at a heavier start which leads to a heavier finish.

Protocol 4: Ascending wavelike loading weight selection
  • Set 1: 5 reps at 100kg
  • Set 2: 3 reps at 105kg
  • Set 3: 2 reps at 110kg
  • Set 4: 4 reps at 105kg
  • Set 5: 2 reps at 110kg
  • Set 6: 1 rep at 115kg

Although set 5 is the same weight selection as set 3, it will move quicker and give you the confidence to move to the final set.

Rest Periods

A quick note regarding rest during these protocols; rest should be complete so as to allow recovery of your nervous system. The principle is complete recovery for neural adaptations and incomplete recovery for hormonal adaptations. Here we want to get stronger and use the maximal weight possible which means full rest. Full rest could be anything from 3-6 minutes based on the lift, gender, training age, and phase of the program.

Assistance work

The general principle is that assistance work will be a lower threshold work compared to the prior series. The goal usually to improve structural balance and/or enhance hypertrophy/cross section of the musculature used.

Shoulder you choose to pair with an antagonist, note that the pairing doesn’t have to be a compound antagonist. It also doesn’t need to be the same repetition prescription. For example you could perform a bench press as [A1] and [A2] could be your main shoulder stabiliser weakness of external rotation which you could complete 4-6 reps for the 6 sets total.

Conclusion

Wavelike loading is one of many ways to improve relative strength. As it is a neurological method it is often placed into intensification phases where you are prioritising increasing the intensity which in this instance means the percentage of 1RM. Higher repetition maximum equals high intensity. It’s also a great method to use to peak a lift, using it in the latter stages of a periodised program.

For more repetition schemes, protocols and full programs check out the Winning Program Design templates that I’ve been updating since 2007 and continue to improve.

Article written by: Tom Hibbert

Published on: 10/6/2019

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