Located in Richmond, VA

Wave Loading – Programming in the Real World

K.I.S.S.

Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.

This adage always takes a focal point when I am writing programs for my clients. However, everyone seems to always want the ultra complex, as if that is the secret sauce to get you stronger or more jacked or whatever your goal may be.

I have written percentage-based programs and RPE-based programs with linear and undulating progressions for a variety of different goals. All of these different layers of complexity aren’t bad and they all have a time and a place. However, in most cases, for most people, the simpler of an approach we can take – the better the results that typically ensue.

The poster child for simplicity when it comes to strength programming is, without a doubt, the 5×5 linear progression. You keep the reps the same and continue to add 5-10 pounds to the bar each week until you can’t do that anymore. The only problem is, the rate of progress from a load standpoint accumulates rather quickly, making it limited in its utility.

The solution? Wave loading.

The principles of wave loading are fairly straightforward. A single wave consists of a defined number of weeks with progressively increasing either load or volume (very much the same as a normal block of training). The wave-like progression happens when you string multiple waves together. Instead of consistently increasing the intensity every week, you will instead increase the load from each week of the prior wave.

Let’s take a look at an example to help make that make sense.

Wave A

Wave B

Week 1 – 5 x 5 @ 275#

Week 1 – 5 x 5 @ 285#

Week 2 – 5 x 5 @ 295#

Week 2 – 5 x 5 @ 305#

Week 3 – 5 x 5 @ 315#

Week 3 – 5 x 5 @ 325#

In the example, the volume remains constant throughout. However, the intensity in Wave “A” increases from week 1 to week 2 to week 3. Then, you move directly to Wave “B” at a lighter load than week A3, but heavier than A1. This would continue indefinitely from Wave “B” to “C” and so on.

Each successive wave is heavier than the previous wave while decreasing the rate of progress, which will allow you to maintain it for a longer period of time. It is essentially like taking 3 steps forward and 1.5 steps backward. Sure, it isn’t as quick of progress as you would ideally like, but it is realistic and it is sustained.

I have had clients that could run this wave-like progression for 12 consecutive weeks without needing to take a ‘true’ deload. The drop in load from the last week of the prior wave to the first week in the next wave was sufficient enough of a reduction in intensity that it allowed for some recovery.

Now, we usually start this process at a lower intensity than you normally would for a 5×5 – typically around 65%, which had a big part of why we were able to continually progress without needing a deload.

Here is what our 12 week cycle looked like in a little more detail:

Wave & Week

Rep Scheme

Weight Used

% of 1RM

Total Volume

Increase / Decrease

% Change

INOL

A1

5 x 5

275

65%

6,875

0.71

A2

5 x 5

295

69%

7,375

+500

+7.2%

0.81

A3

5 x 5

315

74%

7,875

+500

+6.8%

0.96

B1

5 x 5

285

67%

7,125

-750

-9.5%

0.76

B2

5 x 5

305

72%

7,625

+500

+7.0%

0.89

B3

5 x 5

325

76%

8,125

+500

+6.6%

1.04

C1

5 x 5

295

69%

7,375

-750

-9.2%

0.81

C2

5 x 5

315

74%

7,875

+500

+6.7%

0.96

C3

5 x 5

335

79%

8,375

+500

+6.3%

1.19

D1

5 x 5

305

72%

7,625

-750

-9.0%

0.89

D2

5 x 5

325

76%

8,125

+500

+6.5%

1.04

D3

5 x 5

345

81%

8,625

+500

+6.1%

1.32

The big things to look at are the progressions from weeks 1 to 3 in each wave and the progression from A1 – B1 – C1 – D1. While at the start of a new wave, the weight on the bar drops from the end of the previous wave, it is still heavier than the same week from the prior wave.

Over the long term, this structure looks like this:

In Wave 4, the first week is heavier than the first week of Wave 3, which was heavier than the first week of Wave 2, which was heavier than the first week of Wave 1. The same can be said for the second and third weeks.

There are a few big take-aways from this programming style that make it work as well as it does and allows for continued progress.

  1. Most workouts should fall within an INOL range of (0.6 – 1.0). This range allows for enough of a stimulus to be challenging, but not too much to accumulate a lot of fatigue. In this structure, 8 of the 12 weeks are within this range and the other 4 are strategically designed for overreaching.
  2. The % change in each successive wave gets less. As the load on the bar gets heavier, the relative amount that we increase the weight decreases some to avoid any overtraining. It allows for you to continually progressing, but in smaller increments as you accommodate to the stresses.
  3. The first wave was started at 65% so that technique could be reinforced and honed in while accumulating volume. If you were wanting to push strength, you could start the first wave closer to 70-75%. This would likely necessitate a deload week after 2 or so waves, but would still work well.

Progressive overload is the name of the game when it comes to programming. The stronger that you get and the farther along you progress the harder it is and the longer it takes to overload. Applying a wave loading structure like this is a great way to progressively overload while accommodating your increased strength levels.

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