Wave loading is an advanced technique to improve maximum strength.
It’s been around for quite some time; there’s some question of who developed it initially. It seems to have been mentioned in German research from the earlier ’80s, but it gained traction here in the US after a former Romanian weightlifting coach spoke about it in 1991.
I initially learned about it thru the writings of both Charles Poliquin and Ian King in the late ’90s. I have used it thru the years in my own training and that of my athletes. It’s very effective if used at the correct time in the training plan.
Basically, wave loading refers to increasing or decreasing the weight & reps from set to set instead of performing multiple sets with the same weight. Here’s an example:
Set 1: 215lbs x 3
Set 2: 220lbs x 2
Set 3: 225lbs x 1
Set 4: 220lbs x 3
Set 5: 225lbs x 2
Set 6: 230lbs x 1
You can see that the first “wave” of 3,2,1 was a bit lighter than the second. This is one of the main reasons to use wave loading – it can temporarily stimulate your central nervous system, allowing the use of loads heavier than you otherwise could.
Let’s look at a few of the benefits:
In the example above, set 3 is a heavy BUT NOT MAXIMAL single. For set 4, the weight is reduced – but because of the stimulus provided by the heavier set prior, the 220lbs of set 4 “feels” lighter and you’ll be more likely to make all 3 reps than you would have been without it.
This activation hopefully continues thru sets 5 & 6.
There are multiple ways to do this, but here is a way I’ve commonly used with the Olympic lifts: complete 10-15 singles, starting easy and increasing weight every rep until a miss or form begins to break down.
At this point, reduce the weight some and build back up. After you back down, your confidence and power is increased in the lighter lifts (from the CNS activation) and this can carry thru as you build back up. It’s an effective technique to break thru plateaus.
For those seeking greater muscle mass or work capacity at a given weight, a more rapid wave is used:
Set 1: 185lbs x 6
Set 2: 220lbs x 1
Set 3: 200lbs x 6
Set 4: 230lbs x 1
Set 5: 155lbs x 10-12
The heavy singles are used to allow more load to be used in the sets of 6 and 10+ that follow.
What this means is you have done an intense action that leaves your nervous system temporarily very excited. This makes work of a lesser intensity feel easier.
It’s the same thing that’s going on when a baseball player adds weight to his bat for several practice swings before he gets to the plate. Once the weight is removed, his bat temporarily feels lighter and he’s able to swing it more powerfully.
I’ll leave you with some tips if you decide to try this:
1) Don’t go too heavy in your first wave! if you do, you will be too fatigued to increase the weight by the second wave.
It does take some trial and error – everyone is different.
2) Don’t overshoot your loading on the second wave. Your jumps must be realistic.
If you plan your weight increases right, the bar feels heavy but do-able once you take it out. If you overload it, then the bar feels REALLY heavy and the CNS advantage is quickly gone. You’ll rarely make a lift when you are feeling doubtful!
For example, suppose a buddy sets a target about an inch above your present best vertical jump. If he challenges you to jump and touch it, there’s a good chance you might be able to because it’s realistic and you’ll therefore put out maximal effort. If he puts it 6 inches above your best mark, you know there’s no way you’ll hit it, therefore your attempts will be half-hearted at best.
3) This is an advanced technique! I can’t stress this enough.
One of the biggest problems in strength training is that most everyone tries to do the most difficult and advanced program they can find.
You’ll not benefit from these techniques much if you are new to lifting or are unfamiliar with the lifts. You’ll likely slow your progress, not accelerate it.
Simple linear progressions will give you the best progress for quite a while. Save these techniques for when you really need them.
4) Another application is in advanced bodyweight strength work. A more difficult variation of an exercise can be used to stimulate progress on a easier version
For example, doing a short straddle front lever hold can allow you to then hold a flat tuck front lever for longer than you normally could.