Get Strong with Wave Loading
Getting stronger requires a finer approach than just dumping more weight on the bar. If your strength training gains have stalled out, it may be time to give wave loading a try.
When you first start strength training, life is good. Being a newbie means that pretty much anything will work, and it isn’t uncommon to see gains of 50 to 75 pounds on the major lifts in just a matter of months. You almost have to fail on purpose; as just showing up to the gym and picking up something heavy will give you results. Sounds like strength training heaven, right?
Issues arise after that initial period. Life will slam the brakes on your strength training and this is usually when most people give up. Fear not though as there are plenty of different techniques to help lift you out of a rut. One protocol that works wonders is that of wave loading: a workout routine that requires a bit of strategy to work up to a maximum effort.
The technique gets its name through the concept of approaching your workout in waves: one wave consists of three different sets. Two waves is six sets, three waves is nine sets….you get the idea. But the magic happens because each set requires you to do different reps. Here’s an example to clear things up:
Set 1: 8 reps
Set 2: 6 reps
Set 3: 4 reps
Set 4: 8 reps
Set 5: 6 reps
Set 6: 8 reps
Each attempt gets heavier and heavier, which helps prep your nervous system for the second wave when you do another set of 8 reps. We in the sports science world call this “post tetanic potentiation,” or PTP. In this case, our set of 4 reps make your nervous system tap into the muscle fibers most responsible for getting stronger. Your body is now ready to handle more weight for the second wave. If you want to see this in the real world, pick up a 20 pound box. Now set it down and grab a 40 pound box. Set that one down and scoop up a 25 pound box. That 25 pound box will feel much lighter thanks to the 40 pound load you were hauling around. Helping your buddy move can now make you feel like superhero!
The goal of wave loading is to work yourself up to an all-out, record setting attempt. Using our example from above, our workout now looks like this:
Set 1: 200 x 8 reps
Set 2: 210 x 6 reps
Set 3: 220 x 4 reps
Set 4: 205 x 8 reps
Set 5: 215 x 6 reps
Set 6: 225 x 4 reps
If you’re superhuman strong, your jumps might be as little as one pound. Someone who’s weaker can get away with 10 pounds or more on each wave. While there’s all sorts of combinations one can do, you’ll want to perform 2-4 waves. The goal is to be able to lift as much weight as possible without bringing on fatigue. That takes a little practice to master, but to get you started, here’s two of the more popular protocols:
The 7/5/3 Wave
In this case you’ll perform sets of 7,5, and 3 reps. This works very well for people interested in a mix of size and strength gains. Since the reps are on the higher end of range, two waves should do the trick.
The 3/2/1 Wave
If you want to get stronger without a change in your bodyweight, then you can’t go wrong with the 3/2/1 wave. This is definitely a go to for athletes who need to be strong and stay in the same weight class. Since the reps are lower, you can do 3-4 waves. You don’t have to throw in the towel if your strength gains have stalled out. I’m not going to lie – wave loading is a lot of work. But that hard work will pay off with a new level of strength you haven’t seen since first touching a barbell .