What is wave loading? I’ve done it a few times in the past without realizing what it really was. The classic article on T-Nation was written by Ian King, listed below:
Ian runs King Sports International out in Nevada and a quick read through his bio tells you this guy is a legit coach. He’s worked with athletes spanning 8 different olympic games and 20 different sports. I always suggest doing your research when reading some T-Nation articles. Figure out who’s writing and if they’re credible or not.
Try to avoid the “This one exercise has been missing from your program but is the sickest shredding exercise ever!” articles. But I digress.
Here’s a few examples of wave loading:
1×4 @ 88% 1RM
1×6 @ 84% 1RM
1×8 @ 80% 1RM
1×4 @ 85%
1×1 @ 95%
1×4 @ 87.5%
1×1 @ 97.5%
1×10 @ 75%
1×6 @ 83%
1×4 @ 86%
1×2 @ 90%
1×6 @ 85%
1×4 @ 88%
1×2 @ 92%
So, based off these examples, wave loading is altering volume and intensity within your work sets in order to provide a higher training stimulus, both metabolically and neurologically. Metabolically, it’s not hard to understand why and how wave loading can enhance your workout program. You’re adding in more volume and progressing intensity which, is the foundation of strength building.
Many folks don’t understand or realize the power of a solid mind-muscle connection but the effects are real on the quality and effectiveness of your workout. Ian alludes to the effect of both muscle spindle fibers and golgi tendon organs (GTOs) within the muscles. These two items work in contrast to each other. Spindles sense stretch in the muscle and when our muscles are stretched too far, these little guys cue the spinal cord to contract that muscle and resist stretch before damage is done.
GTOs, on the other hand, monitor force and when a muscle exerts so much force that GTOs perceive a possible tear, they cue the spinal cord to “slow down” the signaling and we lose force production (i.e. you just missed your lift). Not only do the decrease firing signal but they activate antagonist muscles (i.e. your triceps firing during a heavy bicep curl, cmon man!).
Ok, I know that was a quick detour, however it has a point: in highly trained athletes, they’ve found that the golgi tendon reflex is decreased and they experience less force loss and less antagonist activation during heavy lifts or maximal efforts (jumps, sprints, etc). Wave loading has the potential to expose the muscles to alternating heavy, less heavy loads in order to communicate to GTOs that they need to ‘chill’.
Now, I didn’t see any articles cited in Ian’s writing but after some brief research, I found one of my own. Miyamoto et. al. (2011) found that after a near maximal effort and within a reasonable recovery period, peak muscle activation was increased. So, Ian’s claim is somewhat scientifically backed. I would venture he writes this article after experiencing a lot of success with his own programming and other athletes so I’m not too worried about a lack of research.
Yet, a sound mind to muscle connection is going to reinforce and enhance the effects of wave loading. Start doing your isometric holds guys (click here if you want to learn more on mind to muscle connections).
How can you use wave loading in your program? An ascending wave (4, 6, 8 reps) are good for strength because you lift the heaviest weights earlier while you’re the freshest (I legitimately had to google ‘freshest’ to make sure it was a word). Descending waves work well for muscle hypertrophy (8, 6, 4).
Ian suggests that you really need to be aware of workout volume using waves. If you hit multiple waves with multiple movement patterns you may run the risk of overtraining and I agree. A single wave for a few movement patterns is good but multiple or rapid waves should only be used for 1-2 lifts during the workout.
After my current program, I will probably write up a wave loading program for powerlifting and we’ll see how it goes! I always like to try out principals that I learn and we’ll see what works! I’m probably still most impressed with Wendler’s 5, 3, 1(utilizing Boring but Big) and will probably do a cycle of that soon but I’m always on the hunt for other elite programs!
Alex Burtch, M.S., CSCS