In this blog, I will discuss a form of prescription that I was first introduced to when I followed a California strength cycle a few years ago; Wave Training.
Wave training, or loading, is an advanced training technique that can aims to increase strength and power in athletes who are capable of training at higher loads.
At first, I was apprehensive when I first saw the prescription of a wave. I thought the straight set prescriptions of 3×10, 5×5 and 4×8 were effective enough in getting me bigger or stronger.
Little did I know that the benefits of using wave training — not just for me but for athletes I have trained – is a fantastic way to build strength and confidence when it came to moving weight.
The programme I followed was a block approach and had me doing three progressively heavier snatch (snatch is an Olympic weightlifting movement requiring you to move of a loaded barbell from the ground to overhead) waves of a triple, double and single, starting at 70, 75, 80%, then 75, 80, 85%, then finishing up with 80, 85, 90%. Here’s the example of what it looked like:
Week 1 |
Week 2 |
Week 3 |
Week 4 |
This block approach meant that over a period of 4 weeks the prescription of reps/sets were the same, but the intensity followed a linear progression; building you up over 4 weeks to be able to lift something heavy after the 4 weeks.
This was one of the first programmes I ever completed, and I did it for 3 lifts: snatch, clean & jerk and back squat.
All my lifts improved over 4 weeks and I trained 3 times a week (Day 1: Snatch, Day 2: Clean & jerk, Day 3: Back Squat). This was at a time when I didn’t have a coach and just jumped onto a programme — something that I do not advise anyone doing without understanding the context of that programme.
I was so curious as to how such a small volume could invoke such a large stimulus, so I dug into some more research and found some interesting information.
Wave loading is a systematic loading scheme done within a single workout that entails numerous waves of increased loading intensities (generally above 85% RM) to facilitate greater neuromuscular excitation. See the example above or at the end of this blog.
Wave loading works best with lower repetitions and heavier weights, and one of the reasons why some people report sub-optimal gains from wave loading is that they use the approach with reps that are too high.
Wave loading works via the benefit of a phenomenon called “post-tetanic potentiation”. Post-tetanic potentiation (PTP) is a process in which the motor neurons following repeated muscular activation are left in a state of excitability, often resulting in enhanced force production despite potential muscular activation decreases due to fatigue.
The progressive ramping of the motor units within the muscles and throughout the neuromuscular system allows for greater force development in successive contractions.
To simplify, understand that every time you lift a weight or produce force two things happen:
“The greater the force production, the higher the excitation, and the more work you need to do, the greater the accumulated fatigue.” — Christian Thibaudeau
Psychologically the benefit will apply mostly to people who, like me, hate doing the same thing over and over. For me doing the same number of reps with the same weight for two sets or more in a row is mentally draining; I need variation.
With wave loading, you have a different task on every set because the weight and reps change, and even when you start a new series, you are using different weights than you did in the first series. If you like variation and variety, this will help keep your motivation higher.
An argument against the use of waves is that the “potentiation” (the increase in strength of nerve impulses along pathways which have been used previously, either short-term or long-term.) set comes with the heaviest set, which is performed at the end of the wave. While this maximal set effectively ramps you up for the next wave, you also accumulate fatigue, which results in failure to optimally engage the nervous system in successive waves.
As competitive power and strength athletes looking to maximally perform on the platform or in the fitness arena, maximal excitation and activation of motor neurons are paramount for peak power and force development.
The ability to train the neuromuscular system leading up to competition could enhance your overall output. It is important to note that this type of training can be very exhausting and should be used with caution. Failure to properly train and then cease training in this fashion could result in blunted responses, neuromuscular fatigue, and potentially, over-reaching/overtraining. Also, sometimes it’s fun to hit some heavy weights to change things up in training and keep it fresh.
Whether you are a weightlifter, powerlifter, or competitive athlete or just a general gym goer, using wave loading at specific phases in your training could increase strength and performance over time.
Additionally, wave loading could be a beneficial training stimulus for strength and power athletes preparing for a meet, such as a weightlifting and a powerlifting meet. Used sparingly though it’s important that your taper towards weightlifting and powerlifting is done with the goal of peaking (reduction in mostly volume and a fair reduction in intensity).
The overall training volume (set x repetitions) should be kept low to allow for increased training intensity (% of RM). Due to the advanced stress and nature of this technique, coaches and athletes should not use this with beginner level athletes, or with any level athlete entering into a regular training phase.
Lifters should have sufficient experience training with heavier loads (ones at or above 85% RM) and be in a heightened state of readiness. There are plenty of schemes that will induce different stimuli, it’s important to know what the aim is.
The schemes I have found to be really effective are:
The above are effective at simultaneously building strength and size. Because they create more fatigue, I would limit them to two waves.
The 5−3−1 wave is arguably the most effective ways to build strength. You will improve muscle mass to a degree while optimizing neurological efficiency. With this scheme, I’d suggest 2 or 3 waves.
The 3−2−1 and 2−2−1 are pure strength methods: they may very rapidly increase your 1RM as they have the largest impact on neural adaptations. Since these are rapid, the strength gains are very fast, but because they don’t stimulate much muscle growth they won’t work for long. Generally, these schemes should last 3 – 4 weeks. Usually, I’d use week one as a build-up week and then the next 3 weeks as ramp-ups.
My two approaches to wave loading would either be to use a block approach, in which I use the same wave scheme for 3 – 4 weeks (like I explained the above; this is my personal favourite); and the pendulum wave approach in which you will cycle the scheme every week for 3‑week cycles — what you would consider undulated.
Weeks 1 – 4: 3−2−1 waves
Week 1 (Build-Up)
All rest periods should be roughly 3 – 5 minutes long between sets and waves.
Pendulum Approach (Undulated)
Week 1: 7−5−3 waves
Week 2: 5−3−1 waves
Week 3: 3−2−1 waves
Week 4: 6−4−2 waves
Week 5: 3−2−1 waves
Week 6: 2−2−1 waves
Week 1 (7−5−3 waves)
Week 2 (5−3−1 waves)
Week 3 (3−2−1 waves)
Week 4 (6−4−2 waves)
Week 5 (3−2−1 waves)
Week 6 (2−2−1 waves)
To summarise, wave loading is an advanced training technique that can be beneficial at increasing strength and power in athletes who are capable of training at higher loads.
When done sparingly, as in time leading up to competitions or planned repetition max testing, wave loading may lead to maximal force output and neuromuscular activation, allowing for enhanced training outcomes. When you use wave loading, you must understand that the key sets are not the low rep sets: the goal is not to succeed in hitting a new 1, 2 or 3RM while wave loading, but to perform at the highest level on the higher rep sets of each series.
The lower rep set of each wave (normally the last one in a 3‑set wave) is used to excite the central nervous system to make the next wave, specifically its first two sets, more effective (side note: the 7−5−3 & 6−4−2 wave scheme should mainly be applied for the strength movements — squats, bench, pulls, presses, rows etc).
Taking all this into consideration, it’s time to start asking some serious questions. Is the programme you are currently following structured with a long-term progression plan that’s specific to your goals, or is it simply just fatiguing you?
If it’s the later, it can be difficult to know where to start to implement these changes. Our Strength and Conditioning Coaches can ensure that you are given an individualised, progressive and detailed training programme that will keep you building towards your current goals and beyond.
Starting from your current fitness level, the team can, not only build the program, but assist you through it making sure movements and exercises are performed accurately in order to get the most benefit out of your training; all of our accredited S&C Coaches are well equipped to take you on this journey.