Wave Loading: What Is It? Why It Works? How To Do It?

 


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Optimizing peak strength and power is no small feat. 

The acquisition of such strength and power takes months to years to develop, and requires great attention to detail, recovery, and progress to stay the course. Along the way, coaches and lifters can use advanced progression techniques to maximize short term strength performance, one of which being wave loading.

So what is wave loading? Wave loading is a progressive rep and intensity scheme that has a lifter perform a series of sets with increasingly more weight and less reps per wave, followed by 1-2 more waves, each starting slightly higher in weight and running through the same rep scheme. 

For example, a common wave loading plans may have a lifter perform 9 total sets (3 waves), where wave one is three sets (3-2-1 reps at 85-87-90% of max), followed by 1-2 more wave sets starting at slightly higher loads than wave 1 (see below sample wave loading schemes for more).

In this article, we will discuss (1) why wave loading is so effective at increasing strength, (2) the potential risks of wave loading, (3) who can benefit from wave loading programs, (4) the different types of wave loading, and (5) sample wave loading programs for peak strength and general strength development.


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Why Does Wave Loading Work?

 


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Wave loading is an effective way at peaking strength in a very short amount of time due to post-activation potentiation (PAP). 

PAP is officially defined as “a phenomenon by which the force exerted by a muscle is increased due to its previous contraction.”

It’s a bit complex from a physiology standpoint, but in short,  wave loading helps the nervous system fire at increased rates, while also increasing muscle fiber activation. These are both very effective ways to boost overall maximal strength in a very short amount of time.

Potential Risks of Wave Loading

Wave loading is a very effective way of peaking neurological preparedness and expressing peak strength. 

The high amounts of neural stress and stimulation however can result in neural fatigue that is not programmed properly (or if programmed too frequently). 

Wave loading for maximal strength expression is often done leading up to a strength competition for 2-3 weeks at most, with the lifter often feeling they could perform another week of waves. 

The idea is to not push too long with wave loading (peaking strength wave loading) as this can result in long term neural fatigue and injury.

The exception to this would be when doing wave loading for the development of general strength and size, which has the lifter performing more volume (total reps) per workout with slightly less weight (often between 80-89% of maximum). 

Building strength is different than expressing strength in a lift. Building strength in a lift is done using loads of 80-89% of maximum, whereas expressing or peaking strength is often done in the above 90% range. The higher the % of maximum (intensity), the less training you spend in that range, as this can quickly zap progress and result in injury.

For this reason, wave loading used to peak strength should be used for no longer than 3 weeks at a time followed by longer periods of rest (longer than a deload week), where as wave loading plans for general strength and size may be used for 4-6 weeks, with planned deloads or lighter weeks during that period.

You don’t get stronger by always maxing out! Be sure to read my article, “How Often Should You Max Lifting Weights” to ensure you are not derailing your progress!

Who Should Do Wave Loading?

Wave loading is a training progression that can be used for intermediate to advanced lifers who have already established repetition maximums (needed for intensity calculations), and those who have experience lifting heavier loads. 

Wave loading in beginners will often result in disorganized rep to intensity schemes, and can also be impacted by less than perfect technique faults during heavier lift training (which can result in injury).

It is recommended that a lifter perform wave loading training (peaking or general) after at least 1 year of consistent training for strength, in which they have the ability to move 80-95% of true maximum with proper technique.

Lastly, it is imperative that a lifter calculates loads based on their true maximum (which should be done by testing accurate 1-3RMs). Calculating rep maximums using projected maxes from a lift done for more than 5 reps has little application for peak strength. For this reason, I suggest a lifter performs a 4-8 week standard strength program where they gain experience and knowledge about their strength potential moving high intensity (% of max) loads for 2-5 rep per set, and use those numbers to calculate a more valid 1-rep max.


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Types of Wave Loading

 


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There are two main types of wave loading. 

Both are effective means at increasing neural activation and strength, however they also are very effective at draining the neural system and can lead to overtraining and/or chronic neural fatigue and injury. Understanding what the purpose of each is and how to safely use the protocols are essential for optimal performance and injury prevention.

WAVE LOADING FOR PEAK STRENGTH

There are times in a training cycle where we want to peak our strength for an event, max lift testing, or time frame. This peaking time period is often a singular day, or at most a few days. You can use wave loading leading up to the event to maximize strength expression (setting person records) and bring to a successful conclusion a sound hypertrophy and strength program.

This loading phase is often 2-3 weeks, at most, and is done only a few times a year (1-3 times annually). This is something that is done on main strength lifters (not accessories), often the exact movement that is needed for strength testing or sport (such as squat, bench, or deadlift in competitive powerlifting). 

Following a successful 2-3 week peaking strength wave loading plan (which includes the rest period and competitive event), a lifter then goes back to a program that is using loads of less than 90% to allow the neural system to recover.

WAVE LOADING FOR STRENGTH AND SIZE

Similar to the peaking strength wave loading program, this is a great way to increase neural drive and muscle activation. Unlike the peaking strength wave loading scheme, this can be done for slightly longer periods of time (4-6 weeks, including a deload week), and often precedes a peaking wave loading period.

In this loading scheme, a lifter performs more reps per set (see below) using loading % of 80-89%, rather than 1-3 reps using above 90%. This allows for the development of strength (which is best developed training in the 80-89% range). After successful strength phases, a lifter can then learn to express that strength (a highly neurological and psychological process) doing a very short term peaking program (see below).

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Sample Wave Loading Schemes

 


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Below are two sample wave loading schemes that can be done using the main strength lifts (squat, bench, overhead press, deadlift) or Olympic lifts (snatch, clean, jerk). I do not recommend performing peaking wave schemes for more than a few lifts per program (1-3 total lifts) as this is very draining to the body. 

WAVE LOADING PLAN #1: PEAK STRENGTH

Below is a 3 week peaking program. The last week is a deload week leading up to a competition/testing day.

Week 1

  • 3 reps @ 85%

  • 2 reps @ 87%

  • 1 rep @89%

  • 3 reps @ 87%

  • 2 reps @ 89%

  • 1 rep @ 91%

  • 3 reps @ 89%

  • 2 reps @ 91%

  • 1 rep @ 93%

Week 2

  • 3 reps @ 87%

  • 2 reps @ 89%

  • 1 rep @ 91%

  • 3 reps @ 89%

  • 2 reps @ 91%

  • 1 rep @ 93%

  • 3 reps @ 91%

  • 2 reps @ 93%

  • 1 rep @ 95%

Week 3

  • 3 sets of 1 rep at 80% max

WAVE LOADING PLAN #2: STRENGTH AND SIZE

This program is one that can be done to develop strength for later peaking phases. This program consists of higher rep ranges and less waves, and lower intensity lifts (compared to peaking wave loading programs). The length of this training plan is 4 weeks, which also includes a deload week.

Week 1

  • 5 reps @ 80%

  • 4 reps @ 83%

  • 3 reps @ 85%

  • 5 reps @ 83%

  • 4 reps @ 85%

  • 3 reps @ 87%

Week 2

  • 5 reps @ 83%

  • 4 reps @ 85%

  • 3 reps @ 87%

  • 5 reps @ 85%

  • 4 reps @ 87%

  • 3 reps @ 89%

Week 3

  • 5 reps @ 85%

  • 4 reps @ 87%

  • 3 reps @ 89%

  • 5 reps @ 87%

  • 4 reps @ 89%

  • 3 reps @ 90+%

Week 4

  • 3 sets of 3-2-1 @ 80%

Final Notes

Wave loading is a very useful training progression to maximize performance and develop strength. With great power however, comes responsibility, with wave loading being no different. It is imperative that coaches and lifers understand the risks of pushing too hard and too long using wave loading programs in order to minimize injury and maximize performance. Use the article and sample programs above to help guide you along your strength and power journey, and feel free to connect with me personally at @mikejdewar with any questions.


About The Author

 


Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

 

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.


Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition.  In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.