5/4/3 Wave Loading: The Ultimate Guide!


543 wave

Wave loading is easily one of the most effective set / rep schemes that you can use to get stronger in record time. One wave loading scheme that works fantastic for a wide variety of lifters is 5/4/3 wave loading. Continue reading to learn more!

Introduction

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

Wave loading is a classic strength training method that has been around sense at least the early 1900s. Wave loading was initially popular in Olympic Weightlifting circles although many other athletes including bodybuilders and powerlifters are now using it with outstanding results. 

A sample “wave” might be set up like this:

  • Set #1: high reps
  • Set #2: medium reps
  • Set #3: low reps

This entire process may be repeated a total of 2-4 times for 6-12 total sets.

A 5-4-3 wave loading workout usually looks like this:

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

For a 5-4-3 wave loading workout you would perform 2 total “waves” as demonstrated above before moving on to your accessory work for the targeted body parts.

Of course if you train using antagonistic body part supersets then you can perform 2 waves for 2 seperate body parts in a single workout.

For example, you might perform 5 reps on preacher curls, rest 100 seconds, perform 5 reps on close grip bench presses, rest 100 seconds, perform 4 reps on preacher curls, etc.

This is how I usually set up wave loading workouts for my clients. After all, training antagonistic body parts together has many advantages:

  • Increased motor unit recruitment
  • Decreased rate of fatigue
  • Increased training density

Don’t worry, I have also included sample training programs using traditional “straight sets” in part 5 of this article.

Part 1: What Are The Benefits Of 5/4/3 Wave Loading?

There are a couple of things that I really like about 5-4-3 wave loading protocols.

First of all this set / rep scheme allows you to train for strength gains without accumulating too much central nervous system fatigue.

Most strength and physique athletes can train in the 3-5 rep range without risking overtraining. However, problems usually start to arise when you perform a large number of sets in the 1-2 rep range.

Of course there are some individuals who thrive on lots of singles and doubles. These guys tend to have a dopamine-dominant neurotransmitter profile.

For everyone else it is a good idea to be careful with how many singles or doubles you perform in your training.

Other wave loading protocols that also do a great job of managing the central nervous system fatigue include 6/4/2 wave loading and 7/5/3 wave loading.

The other thing I really like about 5-4-3 waves is that it is a novel stimulus.

I know some people quickly become “bored” during a ten sets of three workout or something similar.

The variation in the rep ranges during a 5-4-3 wave workout keeps things exciting from both psychological and a physiological perspective.

This practically ensures that you will get better results from this type of wave loading workout than a more traditional workout.

Part 2: 5/4/3 Wave Loading Percentages

This is by far one of the most common questions I get regarding any wave loading workout:

“Mike, what training percentages should I use?”

I definitely understand where these trainees are coming from. It is useful to have some rough benchmarks in terms of how much weight you should use on each portion of the wave.

As a general rule of thumb I recommend you start with the following training percentages on the first wave of your first workout:

  • 5 rep sets: 83%
  • 4 rep sets: 86%
  • 3 rep sets: 88%

If these percentages prove to be too light then you can make an appropriate increase on your second wave.

Most people actually find they are STRONGER on their second wave compared to their first so you should plan on making a small weight increase regardless. 

Unfortunately there are some problems associated with using percentages to dictate the load you are using on various exercises.

First of all, individuals vary widely in terms of their ratios of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers. The above percentages are great for people with an even mix of these different fiber types.

If you happen to have an unusually large percentage of slow-twitch or fast-twitch fibers then the above numbers may be relatively useless.

The other major problem is that you may not even have accurate information for all of the exercises used in my routines.

For example, do you really know your current 1-rep max on lying leg curls, standing military presses, or narrow supinated-grip preacher ez-bar curls?

In my opinion your best bet is to simply select a weight that you think you can realistically get for 5, 4, or 3 reps and go from there. This will always be more accurate than some hypothetical training percentage.

This is not to say that training percentages should never be used on any training program. For example, Josh Bryant frequently uses training percentages to help his clients break bench press world records.

However, for the purposes of 5-4-3 wave loading workouts I recommend you ditch the percentages and let the weight dictate the load!

Part 3: The Best 5/4/3 Wave Loading Workouts

There are a huge number of different training splits that you could use for your 5-4-3 wave loading workouts. In fact, there are at least 16 different training splits that I regularly use with my own online coaching clients!

However, for the purposes of this article there are three splits I will be covering:

  • The upper / lower split
  • The Poliquin split
  • The push / pull / legs split

I am very confident that at least one of these splits will work AWESOME for you!

Please note: if you have any trouble reading the following routines then I recommend you consult this article on reading a training program.

The Upper / Lower Split

The upper / lower split is one of the most popular training splits in the world, especially amongst strength athletes. The idea is simple: you train your entire upper body in one workout and then your entire lower body in another workout.

For the purposes of this routine I recommend you use either a 4 days per week upper / lower split or a 3 days per week upper / lower split. 

For example, here is how you might set up the 4 days per week version:

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

On this split you will be training body parts twice per week. Productive workouts add up very quickly but some people find that this split is too difficult to recover from.

Another viable option is to perform an upper / lower split 3 days per week. For example:

Week 1

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

Week 2

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

On this split body parts are hit about once every 5 days. This split tends to work great for individuals with average to below average recovery ability.

Finally here are the exact workouts that you can use with either of the upper / lower splits shown above:

Upper Body 5/4/3 Wave Loading Workout

  • A1: Standing military press, 6 x 5/4/3/5/4/3**, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Pronated wide-grip pull ups, 6 x 5/4/3/5/4/3**, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: 45 degree incline DB press, 4 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: One-arm dead stop DB row, 4 x 6-8, 2/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C1: Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip), 3 x 8-10, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: Decline ez-bar extension (to forehead), 3 x 8-10, 3/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed 6 total sets using the 5-4-3 wave loading scheme as described above. 

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

Lower Body 5/4/3 Wave Loading Workout

  • A1: Back squat (medium stance / heels flat), 6 x 5/4/3/5/4/3**, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Bilateral seated leg curl (Poliquin method / feet pointed out), 6 x 5/4/3/5/4/3**, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Snatch grip deadlift, 4 x 6-8, 3/1/X/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed 6 total sets using the 5-4-3 wave loading scheme as described above. 

Again here are the sample training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

The Poliquin Split

Another great training split that you can use with 5-4-3 wave loading (or any other wave loading set / rep scheme for that matter!) is the Poliquin split.

This split is named after the strength coach Charles Poliquin as he did more than any other man to popularize it. In fact, Charles used some version of the following split with approximately 70% of his professional athletes.

Check it out:

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

The major disadvantage of this split is that you need to have the availability to train on any day of the week.

Even though you will only be working out about 4 days per week I know many people with a busy career and family life will not be able to train this way. C’est la vie!

Here are the 5-4-3 wave loading workouts featuring the Poliquin split:

Arms / Rotator Cuff 5/4/3 Wave Loading Workout

  • A1: Shoulder-width bench press (with chains), 6 x 5/4/3**, 3/2/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Preacher ez-bar curl (narrow / supinated grip), 6 x 5/4/3**, 3/1/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Dead stop skullcrusher, 4 x 6-8, 2/1/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: 30 degree incline DB curl (supinating grip), 4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C1: Cuban press, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/2/0, 60 seconds rest
  • C2: 15 degree prone trap 3 raise, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/2, 60 seconds rest

**Performed 6 total sets using the 5-4-3 wave loading scheme as described above. 

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

Legs 5/4/3 Wave Loading Workout

  • A1: Front squat with chains (narrow stance / heels elevated), 6 x 5/4/3**, 3/2/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Unilateral kneeling leg curl (foot plantar flexed / pointed straight), 
  • B1: Machine hack squat, 4 x 6-8, 4/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: 45 degree back extension (holding barbell w/ snatch grip), 4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest

**Performed 6 total sets using the 5-4-3 wave loading scheme as described above. 

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

Chest / Back 5/4/3 Wave Loading Workout

  • A1: 30 degree incline bench press (medium grip), 6 x 5/4/3**, 3/2/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Narrow supinated-grip chin ups, 6 x 5/4/3**, 3/0/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: 75 degree incline DB press, 4 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated cable rope face pull, 4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/1, 60 seconds rest

**Performed 6 total sets using the 5-4-3 wave loading scheme as described above. 

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

A1: 30 degree incline bench press (medium grip)

A2: Narrow supinated-grip chin ups

B1: 75 degree incline DB press

B2: Seated cable rope face pull

Push / Pull / Legs

The last training split I will be covering is the classic push / pull / legs split.

Of course on this split you are training your chest/shoulders/triceps on the “push” day, your back/biceps on the “pull” day, and your entire lower body on the “legs” day.

For the purposes of this routine I recommend you train four days per week.

For example:

  • Monday: Push
  • Wednesday: Legs
  • Friday: Pull
  • Saturday: Push
  • etc.

The split continues to rotate such that you train your legs on the Monday of week 2, your pull muscles on the Wednesday of week 2, etc.

This means you are training body parts about once every 5-6 days. In my experience this is an absolutely awesome way to train and a big step up from the once-every-7-days training frequency that so many trainees use.

The major disadvantage of this split is that you can’t train using antagonistic supersets during your upper body days. If you train in a very busy commercial gym then this may actually be a benefit to you. 

Here are the sample push / pull / legs workouts:

Push 5/4/3 Wave Loading Workout

  • A1: 45 Degree incline bench press (medium grip), 6 x 5/4/3**, 5/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
  • B1: Seated DB overhead press, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: V-bar dips (upright torso), 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • D1: Standing cable external rotation (arm adducted), 2 x 8-10, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed 6 total sets using the 5-4-3 wave loading scheme as described above. 

Here are the sample training videos: Here are the sample training videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1.

Legs 5/4/3 Wave Loading Workout

  • A1: Safety squat bar squat (medium stance / heels flat), 6 x 5/4/3**, 5/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Lying leg curl (feet dorsiflexed / pointing in), 6 x 5/4/3**, 5/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Walking lunges (holding DBs), 4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest:
  • B2: 90 degree back extension (barbell on back), 4 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 60 seconds rest

**Performed 6 total sets using the 5-4-3 wave loading scheme as described above. 

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

Pull 5/4/3 Wave Loading Workout

  • A1: Neutral grip chin up on rings, 6 x 5/4/3**, 5/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest
  • B1: One-arm barbell row, 3 x 6-8, 2/0/1/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: 60 degree incline DB curl, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • D1: Seated bilateral preacher zottman curl, 3 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest

**Performed 6 total sets using the 5-4-3 wave loading scheme as described above.

Here are the sample training videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1.

Part 4: How To Cycle 5/4/3 Waves In Your Long-Term Programming

In an idea world you would be able to use one workout for years at a time and continuously make progress. Unfortunately this is just not how the human body works.

Eventually your body will get bored of any training program that you use and 5-4-3 wave loading is no different.

As a general rule of thumb I recommend you run a 5-4-3 wave loading program for 3-6 workouts per body part before moving on to something else.

For example:

  • Workout #1: 5-4-3 wave loading
  • Workout #2: 5-4-3 wave loading
  • Workout #3: 5-4-3 wave loading
  • Workout #4: 5-4-3 wave loading
  • Workout #5: 5-4-3 wave loading
  • Workout #6: 5-4-3 wave loading
  • Workout #7: Move on to a higher-rep accumulation-style workout

It’s important to stick to a workout long enough that your body has a chance to adapt to it but not so long that your body gets bored and you stop making progress.

In my experience that tends to be in the 3-6 workout range for most trainees.

Of course the exact number of times you can repeat a workout and still make progress is a function of your training age, your current strength levels, and your neurotransmitter profile.

Conclusion

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5/4/3 wave loading is easily one of the bets training methods you can use to get stronger without risking central nervous system burnout.

It works well for strength athletes and even bodybuilders who want to spend some time getting stronger before returning to their higher-rep training.

If you are unsure about what training routine to try next then I highly recommend you give 5/4/3 wave loading a shot!

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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