Wave Loading: How to Do It Within the Week and Within the Session
Everything in life is cyclic, whether we want to admit it or not. From the El Nino effect to the stock market, life follows a roller coaster flow - no matter how much we try to tame it.
Smart trainers know that the best way to continue making progress is not to go all out every session, but to build and reduce the intensity from session to session during the week. Instead of our week being one hard session after another, a KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach to programming that will work forever is moderate-hard-easy-moderate, with the effort level of the session being determined by total load lifted.
Here’s how to work it out. Let’s say you’ve got a maximum lift of 100kg for five reps on the squat and you’re looking to improve that.
- Heavy day: 5 sets of 5 at 100kg (Total 2500kg)
- Medium day: 4 sets of 5 at 100kg (Total 2000kg)
- Light day: 3 sets of 5 at 100kg (Total 1500kg)
Despite squatting at 100kg each time you trained, the total load on the body can change by as much as a ton just by dropping two sets of work. The other approach, if you like keeping sets and reps the same every session looks like this:
- Heavy day: 5 sets of 5 at 100kg (Total 2500kg)
- Medium day: 5 sets of 5 at 85kg (Total 2125kg)
- Light day: 5 sets of 5 at 70kg (Total 1750kg)
It’s pretty clear from the numbers that option two is a much harder way to wave the intensity during the week, so be careful if you choose to go down that path. I’d suggest if you do choose the second option that you have a strict recovery week every third or fourth week.
That recovery week is something you may actually be able to go without if you use the first scenario. So even though you work less in the first plan, due to the likelihood of not needing recovery weeks as often you may still make faster progress. That’s been the experience of my clients - by waving the load via volume and not intensity they progress faster.
Having seen a little background on how to wave a week’s worth of training you might wonder how you can use waves within an individual training session? The main difference in using waves within a session is that instead of it being about total volume it becomes about total intensity.
Wave loading within a session is based on a trick called post-tetanic facilitation (PTF). The main message in PTF is that a more powerful muscular contraction can be achieved if preceded by a strong muscular contraction. Famous sprint coach Charlie Francis used this trick in training Ben Johnson, having him perform heavy squats before a track session. One of the most famous ways to use this principle is with the 1-6 workout system used by Ian King and Charles Poliquin. They actually both have a different way of doing it to boost a different function, but I’ll explain that shortly.
The system is simple - perform a single repetition, then after adequate rest perform a set of six reps, after resting again go back to another single rep and then another set of six. Easy so far, right? But this is where the magic starts to happen. The heavy singles fire up the nervous system, and if you choose your starting weights wisely you’ll actually find you can lift more on subsequent sets.
A sample progression might look like this for a lifter with a 100kg 1RM:
- 1 rep at 95kg
- 6 reps at 75kg
- 1 rep at 100kg
- 6 reps at 80kg
- 1 rep at 102.5kg
- 6 reps at 82.5kg
There are two main ways to use this benefit of wave training. One is for size, the other for strength:
- In the hypertrophy option, you allow the sets of singles to amp up the CNS to allow you to lift more weight for your sets of six reps. Done this way there’s no need to keep edging forward with the singles trying for a new 1RM. Just use a weight that is around 90-95% of your 1RM and push as hard as you can on the sets of six.
- The other option is to do it as written and use the PTF to increase your 1RM while training. If you’re doing it this way, reverse the process just mentioned and don’t go all out on your sets of six, instead use a weight that you’d probably get eight reps with.
You can cycle how hard a session is by changing the number of waves used or even the type of wave. For instance, a heavy session might have three waves and look like the example above, while a medium day may only have two, with a light day just having one wave of one and six.
An alternative to that is to use wider rep ranges in your wave. Waves like 3-2-1, or 5-3-2 work very well too. Obviously a wave of 5-3-2 can have a much bigger total load lifted over the session than one that is 5-2, so be careful how many of these you use. While it may be tempting to start making longer waves, with more reps built in, you actually lose the effect if the reps are spread out over a wider intensity range.
Some exercises work much better than others with this technique - concentration curls will likely be a waste of time. If you’re going to use these techniques remember they are for strength and size and reward strength and size exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, pull ups, and overhead pressing. (If using 3-2-1 the clean and snatch fit well here, but the other ranges have too many reps for good lifting.)
Wave loading has been around for along time for a reason - because it works. It was a favorite method of Bulgarian and Hungarian weightlifters, as well as Russian coaches of speed athletes like sprinters. Just remember to cycle the volume in each session to allow you to stay fresh.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.