5/3/2 Wave Loading: The Ultimate Guide!


5/3/2 Wave Loading

Wave loading is one of the best training methods you can use to build strength and functional hypertrophy. There are many different wave loading protocols that you can choose from. However, in my experience 5/3/2 wave loading works incredibly well for a large percentage of the weight training population.

Introduction

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

There is a very good chance that you have never heard of the term ‘wave loading.’ That is a shame, as it is one of the most effective set / rep schemes that you can use.

A strength training “wave” is a series of three sets performed on a specific exercise with decreasing rep ranges. Usually 2-4 total waves are performed per exercise in a given workout.

One of the most famous wave loading protocols is the 3/2/1 wave. For example:

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

After the third set the athlete might repeat this process all over again for 1-3 more waves.

Wave loading has truly stood the test of time as a training tool that delivers superior results. This cannot be said for many other fitness fads (bosu ball squats etc.).

In this article I am going to teach you everything you need to know about how to use 5-3-2 wave loading to build strength and muscle mass.

Numerous training programs and sample exercise videos will be provided so that you can start using 5-3-2 wave loading regardless of which type of weekly training split you like to use in your own training.

Note: when I write training routines I make sure all of the loading parameters are clearly defined. If you have any difficulty reading these articles then please consult this article 😀

Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: What Is 5/3/2 Wave Loading?

A 5-3-2 wave loading routine involves performing 2-3 total waves with the 5-3-2 rep scheme on each successive wave.

For example, here is what a 5-3-2 wave would look like:

  • Set 1: 5 reps
  • Set 2: 3 reps
  • Set 3: 2 reps

Of course most trainees get their best results performing more than one wave in a single workout. With the 5-3-2 wave loading protocol you will get your best results performing 2-3 total waves for 6-9 total sets.

For example, here is what a workout would look like for an individual attempting 3 seperate waves:

Wave 1

  • Set #1: 5 reps
  • Set #2: 3 reps
  • Set #3: 2 reps

Wave 2

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

Wave 3

  • Set #7: 5 reps
  • Set #8: 3 reps
  • Set #9: 2 reps

After these 3 “waves” the athlete would finish off the workout with some accessory work for the target body parts.

Don’t worry, I will go into more detail about designing wave loading routines in part 4 of this article.

Part 2: What Are The Benefits Of 5/3/2 Wave Loading?

Wave loading has many benefits. There are some very good reasons why the Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting team featured wave loading protocols heavily in their own workouts.

Wave loading works on a principle called post-tetanic facilitation. This is a fancy way of saying that your are capable of producing stronger muscular contractions if you first excite your nervous system.

For example, Josh Bryant commonly uses overcoming isometric contractions to trick his athlete’s bodies into lifting heavier weights.

Wave loading is another such way to accomplish this.

The idea is that as you perform three sets with decreasing rep ranges you excite your central nervous system and increase your ability to recruit the higher-threshold motor units.

Then when you start your second (or third) wave you are able to recruit additional motor units and lift even more weight than normal! How cool is that?

The 3/2/1 wave loading protocol is probably one of the best set / rep schemes for taking advantage of the principle of post-tetanic facilitation.

However, there are some downsides to 3/2/1 wave loading. Many trainees quickly burn out when they use a lot of maximal-effort singles in their training.

One of the reasons 5-3-2 wave loading works so well is it allows you to “flirt” with some heavy doubles and triples but without blowing out your nervous system!

A couple of other wave loading protocols that allow you to flirt with heavy weights but without burning out include 5/4/3 wave loading and 6/4/2 wave loading.

Strength athletes often thrive on 5-3-2 waves but I have seen many bodybuilders make awesome gains on this type of routine.

Of course 5-3-2 wave loading isn’t just for strength gains. It is also fantastic for improving functional hypertrophy levels. You know – the size of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Strength athletes such as powerlifters and strongmen are obviously interested in functional hypertrophy as the fast-twitch muscle fibers are the ones most responsible for strong muscular contractions.

Bodybuilders are also often interested in functional hypertrophy as the fast-twitch muscle fibers are the ones that have the greatest potential for growth.

If your goals include building muscle mass and strength then you may want to give a 5-3-2 wave loading routine a shot!

Part 3: 5/3/2 Wave Loading Percentages

As a general rule of thumb I don’t think using percentages to dictate your loads is a very good idea. In my experience a much better method is to let the reps dictate the load!

If you are going to perform 5 reps on an exercise (or 3, or 2 etc.) then your best bet is to perform several progressively heavier warm-up sets and select a weight that will allow you to complete the desired number of repetitions.

Of course I know many of you reading this article would like to use percentages anyways. Don’t worry, I have your back.

As a general rule of thumb I recommend you use the following percentages:

  • Set 1: 5 reps with 83%
  • Set 2: 3 reps with 88%
  • Set 3: 2 reps with 91%

These percentages should allow you to complete the desired number of repetitions without risking muscular failure.

If all of the weights on your first “wave” feel light then go ahead and increase the weights by 1-2% per set on your second wave.

You may find that your strength increases significantly from the first wave to the second wave, and from the second wave to the third wave.

Of course these percentages will not work perfectly for everyone.

If you have a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers (or if you have more of a dopamine-dominant neurotransmitter profile) then these percentages may be too high for you.

On the other hand if you have a larger percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers (or if you have a more balanced neurotransmitter profile) then you may want to slightly increase the percentages.

Remember, it is not super important that you use precise training percentages on this workout program.

The important part is that you select loads that are extremely challenging but still allow you to complete the desired number of reps.

Or as my old mentor Charles Poliquin liked to say, “your spleen should come out through your left eye on the last rep. Your left eye, not the right eye! That is very important.”

Part 4: Sample Programs

Now we’re onto the good stuff: sample wave loading protocols for all bodyparts!

One of the first things to consider when designing a training routine is which training split to use.

I use a huge number of training splits with my clients. However, for the purposes of this article I have decided to cover two of the more effective ones:

  1. Upper / lower splits
  2. Poliquin splits

I will be covering wave loading workouts for each of these different families of training splits. I am confident that at least one of these routines will work AWESOME for you!

Routine Format #1: The Upper / Lower Split

The first training split I will cover is the classic upper / lower training split.

The upper / lower split can be performed 2, 3, or 4 days per week. For the purposes of this article I recommend you use either the 3 or 4 days per week versions.

For example, here is how you might set up the 3 days per week version of this training split:

Week 1

  • Monday: Upper
  • Wednesday: Lower
  • Friday: Upper

Week 2

  • Monday: Lower
  • Wednesday: Upper
  • Friday: Upper

This routine format works awesome for individuals with average to below average recovery ability. One of the big advantages of it is that you have a full 4-5 days off between lower body training sessions.

Many people find that their lumbar spine quickly over trains when they try to perform 2 heavy lower body training sessions in a 7-day period. If this describes you then I highly recommend you give this 3 days per week split a shot.

On the other hand here is how you might set up the 4 days per week version of this training split:

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

This is probably the most popular version of the upper / lower split, and for good reason: it works! In fact the 4 days per week upper/lower split is the most popular training split amongst elite strength athletes.

If you have at least average to above average recovery ability then I highly recommend you give it a try.

Upper / Lower Split Sample Training Routine

The sample routine can be performed either three or four days per week.

Check it out:

Upper Body Workout

  • A1: Close grip bench press, 6 x 5/3/2**, 3/1/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Close grip supinated chin ups, 6 x 5/3/2**, 3/1/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree incline DB press pronating grip, 4 x 5-7, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: T-bar dead-stop row, 4 x 5-7, 2/0/X/2, 90 seconds rest
  • C1: Overhead ez-bar extension close grip, 3 x 7-9, 4/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: Incline cable curl, 3 x 7-9, 4/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed as two seperate 5-3-2 waves as described earlier.

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

Lower Body Workout

  • A1: Safety squat bar squat, heels medium / elevated, 6 x 5/3/2**, 3/1/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Standing unilateral leg curl, feet dorsiflexed / pointed out, 6 x 5/3/2**, 3/1/X/1, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Back squat, heels narrow / flat, 4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Glute-ham raise, 4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest

**Performed as two separate 5-3-2 waves as described earlier.

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

I recommend you repeat both the upper and lower body workouts for approximately 3-6 workouts before moving onto a different routine.

Ideally you would follow this 5-3-2 wave program with a higher-rep accumulation phase to give your central nervous system some much-needed rest.

Why the 3-6 workout range? It’s simple, I’m not a psychic. I would need to know a lot more information about you to say for sure how long you should stick with this program.

There are many factors to consider, but if I were you I would start with calibrating my own unique neurotransmitter profile.

Routine Format #2: The Poliquin Split

Another type of training split that I use a TON with my online training clients is one that I have borrowed from Charles Poliquin.

There are many iterations of the Poliquin training split that you could choose from. For the purposes of this article I recommend you use the following variation:

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

All major body parts are hit on a once-every-five-days training frequency which works extremely well for most trainees.

This split works AWESOME for strength athletes but especially bodybuilders as it allows you to somewhat “specialize” on the upper body.

It also allows plenty of room to directly train the remedial exercises for critical muscle groups such as the external rotators and the lower traps.

Of course, I have never met a bodybuilder satisfied with the size of his arms, so the extra arm day is normally welcomed here.

Poliquin Split Sample Training Routine

The following routine can be used with either the three or four days per week routine.

Enjoy!

Arm Workout

  • A1: Upright v-bar dips, 6 x 5/3/2**, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Preacher pronated wide-grip ez-bar curl, 6 x 5/3/2**, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: dead-stop skull crushers, close grip ez-bar, 4 x 6-8, 3/1/X/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Preacher supinated close-grip ez-bar curl, 4 x 6-8, 3/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • C1: Standing cable external rotation, elbow flared out, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: Prone 45 degree trap 3 raise, 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed as two separate 5-3-2 waves as described earlier.

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

Leg Workout

  • A1: Front squat, heels medium / elevated, 6 x 5/3/2**, 4/2/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Standing unilateral leg curl, feet dorsiflexed / pointed out, 6 x 5/3/2**, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Drop lunge with DBs, 2 inch high platform, 4 x 5-7, 1/0/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: 45 degree back extension w/ bands, 4 x 5-7, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest

**Performed as two separate 5-3-2 waves as described earlier.

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

Chest / Back Workout

  • A1: 30 degree incline bench press, 6 x 5/3/2**, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • A2: Shoulder width pronated pull ups, 6 x 5/3/2**, 5/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: 75 degree incline DB press pronated grip, 4 x 5-7, 3/1/1/0, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated cable row w/ v-handle, 4 x 5-7, 3/0/X/1, 90 seconds rest

**Performed as two separate 5-3-2 waves as described earlier.

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

Again I would recommend you perform each of the above workouts for between 3-6 total workouts.

After the 3rd-6th workout I recommend you switch to a higher-rep accumulation phase to give your central nervous system a break.

Without workout with you directly it is hard to say with precision how many times you should repeat this workout.

If you are to train yourself then your best bet is to record all of your workouts in a logbook and figure out for yourself how long you can milk a routine before needing to switch up the loading parameters.

Part 5: How To Cycle 5/3/2 Wave Loading In Your Long-Term Programming

5-3-2 wave loading is a very demanding training program. Even though it is not quite as hard on the nervous system as something like 3/2/1 wave loading it can still leave you feeling quite fatigued.

In my experience 5-3-2 wave loading routines work best during intensification phases where your primary goal is to increase your overall strength levels.

For best results you should consider performing higher-rep accumulation programs both before and after a stint with 5-3-2 wave loading.

For example, here is how a bodybuilder might organize their training for 12 weeks:

  • Weeks 1-3: Giant sets in the 10-15 rep range
  • Weeks 4-6: 5 x 5 routine
  • Weeks 7-9: Tri-sets in the 8-12 rep range
  • Weeks 10-12: 5-3-2 wave loading

As you can see both accumulation and intensification phases are alternated in a pendulum-like manner.

This periodization model has been shown to produce superior results both in the scientific literature and in the real-world with Olympic and professional-caliber athletes.

Conclusion

5/3/2 Wave Loading

5/3/2 wave loading is a brutally effective way to train to get stronger.

Unlike a lot of other intensification protocols, your odds of burning out on this routine are relatively low.

So what are you waiting for? Now is the time to take advantage of this superior training method and make some of the best gains of your life!

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 in your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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