3/2/1 Wave Loading: The Ultimate Guide!


3/2/1 wave

3/2/1 wave loading is by far one of the best training methods that you can use to increase relative and absolute strength levels. If you are stuck at a strength plateau then you must try this superior training protocol!

Introduction

  • Part 1: What Is 3/2/1 Wave Loading?
  • Part 2: Sample Wave Loading Workout Progressions
  • Part 3: What Are The Benefits Of 3/2/1 Wave Loading?
  • Part 4: 3/2/1 Wave Loading Percentages
  • Part 5: The Best 3/2/1 Wave Loading Workouts
  • Part 6: How To Cycle 3/2/1 Waves In Your Long-Term Programming

Wave loading is one of the oldest and most effective ways to train for strength. It was first used by Olympic weightlifters in the middle of the 20th century.

Wave loading may be an older training method. However, it is just as effective today as it was in the 1950s. Many of the world’s leading strength coaches such as Christian Thibadeau, Charles Poliquin, and Wolfgang Unsoeld use 3/2/1 wave loading protocols with their elite-level athletes.

A strength training wave is a group of three sets performed on an exercise with decreasing rep ranges. For example, a 3/2/1 wave involves performing 3 reps on the first set, 2 reps on the second set, and 1 rep on the third set.

Varying the number of reps you do from one set to the next helps to excite the central nervous system and lets you lift more weight than ever before! 

Here is world-renowned strength coach Christian Thibadeau talking about the benefits of wave loading and 3/2/1 waves in particular:

In this comprehensive guide I am going to teach you everything you need to know about 3/2/1 wave loading so that you can start getting results from it in your own workouts!

The first half of this article will cover the basics of 3/2/1 wave loading including the benefits of this novel set / rep scheme and the best percentages to use on each set.

The second half of this article will feature sample 3/21 wave loading workouts and a discussion on how to cycle these workouts in your long-term programming.

Please note that the sample routines are written with all of the loading parameters clearly defined. If you have any trouble reading these routines then please consult this article.

Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: What Is 3/2/1 Wave Loading?

A 3/2/1 wave is a series of three sets where you decrease the number of reps you perform on each subsequent set.

For example, here is what a single 3/2/1 wave might look like:

  • Set #1: 3 reps
  • Set #2: 2 reps
  • Set #3: 1 rep

This whole series constitutes one single 3/2/1 wave. Of course a typical 3/2/1 wave loading workout features anywhere from 2-4 of these waves.

If you are having an average day then 2 waves is probably plenty. However, if you are feeling particularly strong on a particular day then you may want to perform as many as 3-4 total waves.

Here is what a 3/2/1 wave loading workout might look like when you are feeling particularly strong:

First Wave

  • Set #1: 3 reps
  • Set #2: 2 reps
  • Set #3: 1 rep

Second Wave

  • Set #4: 3 reps
  • Set #5: 2 reps
  • Set #6: 1 rep

Third Wave

  • Set #7: 3 reps
  • Set #8: 2 reps
  • Set #9: 1 rep

If you select the appropriate weights for each wave you should find that your strength actually increases as you progress to your second and third wave. I know this probably sounds confusing – after all, most of the time your strength decreases over the course of a workout.

However, wave loading is no ordinary workout. It takes advantage of the principle of post-tetanic facilitation to excite your nervous system and propel you to lift heavier and heavier loads.

I will cover the principle of post-tetanic facilitation as it applies to wave loading in greater depth in part 3 of this article. For now let’s take a look at how you might progress from workout to workout on a 3/2/1 wave loading protocol.

Part 2: Sample Wave Loading Workout Progressions

As a general rule of thumb most lifters will adapt to any routine after about 3-6 workouts. That is, after 3-6 workouts the average lifter will begin to “stall out” on whatever routine they are using.

Of course 6 workouts still gives us plenty of time to make awesome progress on a particular routine before we need to switch things up. I would like to show you a sample 6 workouts progression using the 3/2/1 wave loading protocol.

I have used 3/2/1 wave loading routines with many of my online coaching clients. Here is how they typical progress from one workout to the next. 

Let’s go over a series of six workouts for Joe Average who is looking to increase his best close grip bench press. Joe currently has a 1-rep max of 250 pounds on the close grip bench press. This makes him a lower intermediate-level lifter.

 Please note that Joe Average is using micro-plates to make small 1-3 pound weight jumps when necessary. This explains how it is possible to load the barbell with 212 or 227 pounds.

Workout #1

Wave #1:

  • Set #1: 210 x 3 – very easy!
  • Set #2: 225 x 2 – easy
  • Set #3: 240 x 1 – pretty hard

Wave 2:

  • Set 4: 212 x 3 – super easy
  • Set 5: 227 x 2 – hard, slow bar speed
  • Set 6: 242 x 1 – very hard, a complete grinder

This is Joe’s first time performing this workout and he was rather fatigued so he stops after 2 waves. Sometimes wave loading workouts are only done for 2 total waves.

With a 3/2/1 wave loading routine it is possible to do anywhere from 2-4 total waves. Of course 4 waves would only be performed on a very good day where the weights feel relatively light.

Joe probably went a little too heavy on the singles, although he did manage to complete them while maintaining good technique. He will probably reduce the weight on the singles for the next workout to better conserve his energy.

Workout #2

Wave #1:

  • Set #1: 215 x 3 – easy
  • Set #2: 225 x 2 – extremely easy
  • Set #3: 235 x 1 – easy

Wave 2:

  • Set #4: 220 x 3 – moderately hard
  • Set #5: 230 x 2 – fast, good set
  • Set #6: 240 x 1 – very fast!

Wave 3:

  • set #7: 223 x 3 – hard
  • set #8: 233 x 2 – very hard
  • set #9: 243 x 1 – hard but no worse than sets #7 or #8.

Joe had a great second workout. He did a better job of selecting his weights for this 3/2/1 wave workout, particularly the singles on sets 3, 6, and 9.

Joe went ahead and completed a third wave for this workout because he was feeling so good. This gamble paid off as Joe progressed on the triples, doubles and singles on the third wave.

Workout #3

Wave #1:

  • Set #1: 218 x 3 – light as a feather!
  • Set #2: 230 x 2 – very easy
  • Set #3: 245 x 1 – easy!

Wave 2:

  • Set #4: 225 x 3 – hard
  • Set #5: 240 x 2 – mildly difficult
  • Set #6: 250 x 1 – moderately difficult

Joe stops after 2 waves as he is feeling rather gassed. He didn’t have the best night of sleep last night but he still put in a great effort.

Joe tied his previous best of 250 pounds on the close grip bench press and it wasn’t as hard as he remembers. This is definitely a good sign!

Workout #4

Wave #1:

  • Set #1: 220 x 3 – way too easy!
  • Set #2: 240 x 2 – decently heavy
  • Set #3: 250 x 1 – too easy

Wave 2:

  • Set #4: 225 x 3 – very easy
  • Set #5: 242 x 2 – mildly heavy
  • Set #6: 252 x 1 – moderately hard

Wave #3:

  • Set 7: 228 x 3 – hard
  • Set 8: 244 x 2 – heavy
  • Set 9: 254 x 1 – very hard

Wave #4:

  • Set 10: 230 x 3 – moderately hard
  • Set 11: 247 x 2 – very hard
  • Set 12: 258 x 1 – very very hard!

What a workout!! Joe manages to complete 4 total waves for a total of 12 sets. This is an enormous amount of high quality work and Joe will be rewarded in the coming weeks.

Joe is doing a better job of choosing his loads for each set. It is quite common for this to improve after just a few workouts on a 3-2-1 wave loading protocol.

At this point Joe is starting to feel a little burnt out on this wave loading. He knows from experience that he can typically stick with the same routine for 6 total workouts so he doesn’t make any big changes for now.

Workout #5 

Wave #1:

  • Set #1: 235 x 3 – heavier than expected
  • Set #2: 250 x 1 – very very heavy
  • Set #3: 260 x 1 – Nearly impossible! 10/10 effort!

Joe is feeling really, really beat up from workout #4. He actually stops after 1 rep on his second set where he planned on getting 2 reps. He would have missed the second rep, so he just cuts it short.

Joe manages to improve on his best single vs last workout, but he is too fatigued to go on.

He wisely cuts his losses on Workout 5 knowing that a reduction in volume will have him primed to hit a huge PR on the next workout…

Workout #6

Wave 1:

  • Set 1: 230 x 3 – piece of cake!
  • Set 2: 245 x 2 – easy
  • Set 3: 260 x 1 – very easy

Wave 2:

  • Set #4: 235 x 3 – hard but doable
  • Set #5: 250 x 2 – easy!
  • Set #6: 265 x 1 – hard

Wave #3:

  • Set #7: 240 x 3 – hard
  • Set #8: 255 x 2 – very hard
  • Set #9: 270 x 1 – very very hard!

What a workout! The reduction in volume in workout 5 paid of big time – Joe hit a weight that was 20 lbs over his previous PR! Not bad progress for only 6 total workouts!

At this point Joe Average decides to take a few days off then start a new training cycle with a higher-rep accumulation phase.

I cannot promise you that your progress from workout to workout will exactly mirror Joe Average’s progress. However, I can tell you that these results are fairly typical for what you can expect if you are someone who tends to do well on lower-rep training protocols.

Part 3: What Are The Benefits Of 3/2/1 Wave Loading?

There are many advantages of a properly designed 3/2/1 wave loading program. Here is a list of some of these advantages:

  1. Increased recruitment of the high-threshold motor units
  2. Increased firing rate of the fast-twitch muscle fibers
  3. Diminishes the golgi tendon organ reflex
  4. Perfect for peaking your strength on an exercise
  5. It’s psychologically stimulating

Let’s address each of these points one-by-one.

Advantage #1: Increased Recruitment Of The High-Threshold Motor Units

When I say “high-threshold motor units” I am talking about the fast-twitch muscle fibers. These are the muscle fibers responsible for explosive muscular contractions and for lifting extremely heavy loads.

They are also the muscle fibers with the greatest potential for strength and size gains. 3/2/1 wave loading protocols are perfect for activating these fast-twitch muscle fibers!

The large number of sets in the 1-3 rep range combined with the waved rep targets teaches your body to more easily activate these fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Advantage #2: Increased Firing Rate Of The Fast-Twitch Muscle Fibers

Any time you approach muscular failure or lift weights in the 1-3 rep range you are heavily relying on your fast-twitch muscle fibers.

One of the your nervous system adapts to lifting heavy loads is to increase the firing rate of the fast-twitch muscle fibers. This simply means your individual fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited more frequently during a set.

Other training methods such as overcoming isometrics are also great for increasing the firing rate of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Advantage #3: Diminishes The Golgi Tendon Organ Reflex

The golgi tendon organs play an interesting role in the strength training process. Their job is actually to decrease the strength of the signals running from your brain to your muscles.

Any time your body senses that you might be setting yourself up for an injury it inhibits the brain’s signals to your muscle fibers to fire. One of the problems with the golgi tendon organ is that it tends to be overactive.

In other words it sometimes tells your brain to hit the brakes during a set even when it is perfectly safe to keep pushing forwards.

3/2/1 wave loading and other intensification protocols can actually diminish the golgi tendon organ over time! This is a huge benefit to anyone looking to become stronger.

Advantage #4: Perfect For Peaking Your Strength On An Exercise

3/2/1 wave loading is easily one of my favourite methods for peaking your strength on a particular exercise.

Of course peaking your strength on a lift has more to do with displaying strength than it does building strength. Any time you want to work on displaying your strength you want to use extremely low repetitions.

This is one of the reasons powerlifters begin using singles, doubles, and triples during the last month or two before their competitions. 

Advantage #5: It’s Psychologically Stimulating

There is nothing worse than being bored with your training program. If you are bored in the gym then you are almost guaranteed to get poor results from your training. It is simply impossible to put 100% effort into your sets if you don’t find your training program mentally stimulating!

Fortunately for you 3/2/1 wave loading is one of the most exciting programs that you can use. The varying rep ranges means that you are going to get a completely different “feel” from the weight from one set to the next.

You also have the challenge of beating your training weights on each successive wave.

Part 4: 3/2/1 Wave Loading Percentages

This is easily one of the most common questions that I receive about 3/2/1 wave loading programs: what percentages of my one-rep max should I use?

As a general rule of thumb I am not a big fan of using percentages. Rather, I prefer to let the reps dictate the load. If you are performing a set of 2 reps then you should select a weight where you can complete 2 reps but not 3.

Still I understand that some of you reading this really like the idea of using percentages. 

One of the important points when using percentages is to pick loads for your first wave that are slightly sub maximal. You want the first wave to be sub maximal so that you have some room to progress on your 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th wave. 

Here are some sample percentages you might want to use::

Wave #1

  • 3 reps = 85%
  • 2 reps = 87.5%
  • 1 rep = 90%

Wave #2

  • 3 reps = 87.5%
  • 2 reps = 90%
  • 1 rep = 92.5%

Wave #3

  • 3 reps = 90%
  • 2 reps = 92.5%
  • 1 rep = 95%

If you are having an absolutely exceptional day then you may want to try for a fourth wave with even higher percentages than the third wave.

Again these percentages are for illustrative purposes only. It is more important that you pick loads that accurately reflect your performance on each specific day than it is to stick to some fancy percentage scheme.

Please note that you will likely need to use micro-plates in order to make these small 2.5% weight jumps from one wave to the next. You can easily find these on Amazon. Just do a search for “micro plates” or “plate mates.”

Part 5: The Best 3/2/1 Wave Loading Workouts

In my experience wave loading workouts work best when you are able to perform antagonistic supersets for opposing muscle groups.

For example, you might want to train quads and hamstrings together in the same workout. You could perform a set for quads, rest 2 minutes, perform a set for hamstrings, rest 2 minutes, and repeat the process with another set of quads etc.

Antagonistic supersets as described above have many advantages:

  1. Increased motor unit recruitment in the prime movers
  2. Increased muscular endurance over the course of the workout
  3. Increased training density

Probably the two best splits that accommodate antagonistic supersets are upper body / lower body splits and the Poliquin-style splits. I will provide you with sample routines for both of these splits so you can choose the split you like best.

Upper Body / Lower Body Split Routine

One of the best splits you can use for 3/2/1 wave loading is definitely an upper / lower split performed 3 or 4 days per week. Here is what the 4 days per week version looks like:

  • Monday: Upper Body
  • Wednesday: Lower Body
  • Friday: Upper Body
  • Saturday: Lower Body

One of the advantages of this split is the relatively high training frequency. You are going to train muscle groups twice every 7 days. This is a great training frequency for strength athletes and even many bodybuilders.

Here are the workouts:

Upper Body 3/2/1 Wave Loading Routine

  • A1: Standing military press, 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Close grip supinated chin ups, 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 3/0/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 3-4 x 5-7, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated cable rope face pulls, 3-4 x 5-7, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest

**Perform 6-12 total sets of the 3/2/1 wave loading protocol as described above. If you are having an average day stick to 6 total sets. If you having a great day then you should plan on performing between 9-12 total sets.

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

Lower Body 3/2/1 Wave Loading Routine

  • A1: Front squat (narrow stance / heels elevated), 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Unilateral lying leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointing straight), 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Front foot elevated split squat (holding DBs), 3-4 x 5-7, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: 45 degree back extension with bands, 3-4 x 5-7, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest

**Perform 6-12 total sets of the 3/2/1 wave loading protocol as described above. If you are having an average day stick to 6 total sets. If you having a great day then you should plan on performing between 9-12 total sets.

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

One of the drawbacks of the 4 days per week upper body / lower body split is that it can be difficult to recover from 2 heavy lower body sessions in a 7 day period.

Many trainees find that their lumbar spines cannot recover from two heavy squatting sessions in a single week. If this describes you then I highly recommend you give a 3 days per week upper / lower split a shot with these same workouts.

You will only be training your lower body once every 5 days on average with that split which should give your lower back much more time to recover between lower body workouts.

The Poliquin-Style Split Routine

The world-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin used the following unique training split with about 70% of his athletes:

  • Day 1: Chest / Back
  • Day 2: Legs
  • Day 3: Off
  • Day 4: Arms / Rotator Cuff
  • Day 5: Off
  • Day 6: Repeat!

This is an excellent training split to use for our 3/2/1 wave loading protocol.

This split is literally designed from the ground up to accommodate antagonistic supersets. It also features a once-every-five-days training frequency which works extremely well for many intermediate to advanced trainees.

Here are the workouts:

Chest / Back 3/2/1 Wave Loading Routine

  • A1: Standing military press (shoulder-width grip), 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Close grip supinated chin ups, 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 3/0/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: V-bar dips (forward leaning torso), 4 x 5-7, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated cable rope face pulls, 4 x 5-7, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest

**Perform 6-12 total sets of the 3/2/1 wave loading protocol as described above. If you are having an average day stick to 6 total sets. If you having a great day then you should plan on performing between 9-12 total sets.

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

Legs 3/2/1 Wave Loading Routine

  • A1: Front squat, feet narrow / elevated, 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Lying unilateral leg curl, feet plantar flexed  / pointed neutral, 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 4/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Front foot elevated split squat, 4 x 5-7, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: 45 degree back extension with bands, 4 x 5-7, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest

**Perform 6-12 total sets of the 3/2/1 wave loading protocol as described above. If you are having an average day stick to 6 total sets. If you having a great day then you should plan on performing between 9-12 total sets.

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

Arms / Rotator Cuff 3/2/1 Wave Loading Routine

  • A1: Flat close grip bench press, 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (close / supinated grip), 6-12 x 3/2/1**, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Standing overhead rope cable extension, 3-4 x 5-7, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated incline cable curl, 3-4 x 5-7, 90 seconds rest
  • C1: Seated dumbbell external rotation (elbow on knee), 3 x 6-8, 4/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: 45 degree bilateral trap 3 raise, 3 x 6-8, 4/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

**Perform 6-12 total sets of the 3/2/1 wave loading protocol as described above. If you are having an average day stick to 6 total sets. If you having a great day then you should plan on performing between 9-12 total sets.

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2, exercise C1, exercise C2.

B1: Standing overhead rope cable extension

B2: Seated incline cable curl

C1: Seated dumbbell external rotation (elbow on knee)

C2: 45 degree bilateral trap 3 raise

One of the major downsides to the Poliquin-style split is that you need to have a very flexible schedule.

Although you are only going to be training 4 days per week you need to be available to train on any given day. This is because the days of the week that you are training on rotate every week.

If you can get around this minor inconvenience then you can expect screaming-fast strength gains from this 3/2/1 wave loading program.

Conclusion

3/2/1 wave

3/2/1 wave loading is easily one of the most effective training methods that you can use to boost relative strength and absolute strength. It is right up there with the best intensification protocols such as the Modified Hepburn Method, cluster sets, isometronics, and accentuated eccentric training.

I am confident you will experience some of the best strength gains of your life if you apply yourself for 2-3 weeks on either of the sample training programs provided in this article.

Keep in mind that these routines won’t work unless you do! In the words of Arnold Schwarzenegger: “you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets.”

Always remember: the mind is more important than the body. Where the mind goes the body will follow. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen

I am the creator and owner of Revolutionary Program Design. I help advanced athletes take their training to the next level and achieve results they never imagined possible.

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