One of the realities of weight training is that you’ll eventually reach a strength or hypertrophy plateau. A plateau is where you weight train but gains in muscle strength and size slow or stop. When this happens, you have to question your weight training routine as well as your nutrition. Are you consistent with your training and using progressive overload? If you’re still lifting the same weight and doing the same reps as a month ago, that’s not progressive overload. Are you getting enough calories and protein? If you’ve been making gains and it suddenly stops, it’s more likely that your body has adapted to the type of stress you’re placing on it.
There are lots of ways to change your workout by altering one of a variety of training variables, including:
· The weight or load you’re using
· Number of reps
· Number of sets
· Number of exercises
· Choice of exercises
· Exercise tempo
· Order of exercises
· Training frequency
· Rest periods between sets
But sometimes throwing your body a complete curveball is the only way to get it growing again. One line of attack that will counteract boredom and wake up your muscles is called wave loading. Wave loading is an approach where you change the weight and the number of reps with each set of the same exercise. You’re probably accustomed to doing three sets with the same weight or starting with a heavy load and gradually increasing or decreasing it in a linear manner if you’re using a pyramid scheme. With wave loading, you adjust the weight and reps in a wave-like fashion.
Here’s an example of a wave loading scheme for biceps curls:
· Set 1: 15 pounds 8 reps
· Set 2: 20 pounds 6 reps
· Set 3: 30 pounds 3 reps
· Set 4: 25 pounds 6 reps
· Set 5: 17 pounds 8 reps
As you can see, you vary the stimulus you place on your muscles in a wave-like pattern, increasing the load going up the wave and decreasing it going down. When the weight is heavier, your reps are fewer and as you decrease the load, you adjust the reps upward.
Why does wave loading work so well? For one, you’re training your body in a way it’s not accustomed to. We know that change is good for keeping your muscles guessing and growing. Secondly, it taps into the “principle of neural disinhibition.” You essentially trick your muscles into thinking the weight is lighter than actually is by exposing it to a heavy weight first. Plus, you’re stimulating your muscles you’re working in a way that straight sets do not.
In the scheme above, neural disinhibition can help you deal with heavier weight than you would otherwise be able to. During the second set, you do 6 reps with 20 pounds and then proceed to do 3 reps with 30 pounds. The heavier weight primes your nervous system and makes the fourth set feel easier. So, you instead grab a 25-pound weight instead of a 20 and do 6 reps. Using a heavier weight before the lighter weight ramps up your nervous system and makes it so you can potentially lift heavier on the following set.
Wave loading offers lots of flexibility. There’s no one way to structure the waves. You can lengthen or shorten the waves, add another wave, change the weight and the reps you use for the sets within a wave, change the tempo of your sets, and alter the rest periods. When doing sets with a heavy weight, give yourself more rest time before starting the next set.
You can also structure the waves like this:
· Set 1: 12 pounds x 6 reps
· Set 2: 20 pounds x 1 rep
· Set 3: 15 pounds x 6 reps
· Set 4: 25 pounds x 1 rep
· Set 5: 17 pounds x 6 reps
Using the heavy loads for a single rep excites your nervous system and gets it geared up to handle the lighter weights that follow. When you switch to the lighter weights, the 6 rep sets feel easier and you can pick up a heavier weight. Notice how you’re increasing the weight as you move up the sets. Using this type of wave loading scheme is ideal for building strength since you’re lifting at your one-rep max on alternate sets.
You can also use smaller waves, consisting of three sets, and do as many small waves as you can. For example:
· Set 1: 15 pounds x 7
· Set 2: 20 pounds x 5
· Set 3: 30 pounds x 3
Then repeat the wave using heavier load on the second wave and on each subsequent wave. Keep repeating the waves, starting with a heavier weight each time, until you can’t complete one. Most people can do two or three at most. When your goal is to develop strength, make sure your waves focus more on low rep sets, whereas if hypertrophy is your primary goal, increase the number of reps for the sets within each wave. For example, the wave above would be best for hypertrophy. If your primary goal is to build strength you would lower the number of reps for each set. For example, 3 reps on set 1, 2 reps on set 2, and 1 rep on set 3 for one wave and repeat two or three times.
Plateaus Are Frustrating
Wave loading offers a fresh approach to help you jumpstart your gains. Make sure you’re keeping a training journal so you know when you need to make modifications. It’s important to have a constant source of feedback as to the exercise you’re doing, the number of reps, the weight you’re using, and the results you’re getting should all be recorded. Don’t neglect nutrition either. It’s an important part of the equation. If you’re not consuming enough calories and protein, it will stall your gains even if you’re doing everything right from a training standpoint.
The Bottom Line
Wave loading is one of many ways to expose your muscles to a different stimulus. It’s unique in the sense that the stimulus on the muscle changes in a wave-like pattern and you tap into the power of neural disinhibition to help you lift harder. It’s also one of the most effective at keeping your muscles “guessing.” When you’re stuck in a rut, it’s a new way to vary your training and jumpstart your results. Take advantage of it!
One caveat. If you’re just starting out, save wave loading for later on when you’re more advanced. In the early stages, focus on using linear progression schemes. Keep wave loading in your back pocket for when linear progression is no longer working. It’s a different approach to structuring your sets and one that can yield gratifying results.
Human Kinetics. “Neuromuscular adaptations to strength training”
OnFitess. March/April 2016. “Wave Loading”
T Nation. “The Wave Loading Manifesto”
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