Wave Loading Vs Step Loading: The Ultimate Guide!


wave loading vs step loading

There are many different ways to train for muscle mass and strength. If you are a beginner then you will get great results from almost any training routine. A simple “3 sets of 10” or “5 sets of 5” routine is all a beginner needs to double their strength and add slabs of muscle mass.

Even a simple “pyramid” workout where you lower the reps as the weight gets heavier will work just fine for a beginner trainee.

Unfortunately those beginner gains don’t last forever. As you become more of an intermediate or advanced trainee you will have to use more advanced training methods to continue making progress.

In my experience two of the best loading schemes for intermediate and advanced trainees are wave loading and step loading. In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to build size and strength with wave loading and strep loading.

Wave loading and step loading are similar to each other but they have some key differences which you need to be aware of. Let’s start with wave loading.

A strength training “wave” is a series of 3 sets performed with decreasing rep ranges. One of the most popular wave loading protocols is the 7/5/3 wave. Here is what it looks like:

7/5/3 Wave

  • Set 1: 7 reps
  • Set 2: 5 reps
  • Set 3: 3 reps

A typical wave loading workout features 2-4 of these waves. Here is what the full 7/5/3 wave loading protocol looks like:

7/5/3 Wave Loading Protocol

  • Set 1: 7 reps
  • Set 2: 5 reps
  • Set 3: 3 reps
  • Set 4: 7 reps
  • Set 5: 5 reps
  • Set 6: 3 reps

As you can see the rep ranges are repeated as you progress through the workout.

Wave loading works because of the principle of “post-tetanic potentiation.” This a fancy way of saying that the varying rep ranges excite your nervous system so you can recruit more muscle fibers and produce more force as you progress through the workout.

For example the heavier 3-5 rep sets will make your second 7-rep set feel much lighter and more explosive.

Wave loading is a breath of fresh air for anyone who is used to performing the same number of reps per set over and over. Step loading is similar to wave loading. However, it has some key differences that you need to know about.

With step loading you use several different rep ranges and perform 2-4 sets at each rep range per exercise. However, unlike wave loading you do NOT go back and repeat a previous rep range. This will make more sense when we look at an example.

Here is what a 7/5/3 step loading protocol looks like:

7/5/3 Step Loading Protocol

  • Set 1: 7 reps
  • Set 2: 7 reps
  • Set 3: 5 reps
  • Set 4: 5 reps
  • Set 5: 3 reps
  • Set 6: 3 reps

As you can see you are still performing 6 total sets just like with wave loading. The big difference here is you perform 2 sets at one rep range, then drop the reps and move onto the next rep range. You never go back and perform a previous rep range.

This step loading protocol uses a pyramid scheme where the reps decrease over the course of the workout.

It is also possible to use step loading with a reverse pyramid scheme where the reps increase as you progress through the workout. For example here is a 3/5/7 step loading protocol:

3/5/7 Step Loading Protocol

  • Set 1: 3 reps
  • Set 2: 3 reps
  • Set 3: 5 reps
  • Set 4: 5 reps
  • Set 5: 7 reps
  • Set 6: 7 reps

As you can see the reps increase as you progress through the workout. Step loading has many advantages over traditional training protocols where you perform the same number of reps per set.

The change in rep ranges helps to prevent boredom in the gym and gets you excited to perform your sets. It also lets you train different rep ranges with the same exercise which is great for targeting different types of muscle fibers and preventing excessive fatigue build-up in your muscles or central nervous system.

In my experience some trainees do better on wave loading protocols and some trainees do better on step loading protocols. A lot of this comes down to your personality or your psychological profile.

If you are an adrenaline junkie and love to feel like you are pushing yourself to your limits on every workout then wave loading is a great choice. On the other hand if you like variety in your workouts but not too much then step loading will work awesome for you.

Note: if you are interested in personality-based training periodization then be sure to check out my article on neurotransmitter based program design.

Now let’s look at some of the best wave loading and step loading training protocols.

The Best Wave Loading Protocols

Wave loading protocols are helpful for teaching your body to recruit the fast-twitch muscle fibers. They are great for increasing your maximal strength and boosting functional hypertrophy.

Most wave loading protocols use low rep ranges to minimize muscular fatigue and maximize nervous system related adaptations during the workout. Here are 3 of the most effective wave loading protocols ever invented:

  • 7/5/3 wave loading
  • 5/3/1 wave loading
  • 3/2/1 wave loading

Let’s take a closer look at each of these training protocols.

7/5/3 Wave Loading

7/5/3 wave loading is probably the best all-around wave loading protocol that you can use. It gives you a nice blend of size and strength gains. Here is the exact protocol:

  • Set 1: 7 reps
  • Set 2: 5 reps
  • Set 3: 3 reps
  • Set 4: 7 reps
  • Set 5: 5 reps
  • Set 6: 3 reps

6 total sets are performed for the 7/5/3 wave loading protocol. It is a bad idea to try and perform more than 6 sets with this training method. You will accumulate too much muscular fatigue and sets 7/8/9 will be counterproductive.

One of the nice things about the 7/5/3 wave is it lets you flirt with lower rep ranges without burning out your central nervous system. This is an AWESOME protocol for a bodybuilder to use when he wants to train in lower rep ranges.

5/3/1 Wave Loading

5/3/1 wave loading is one of the most under-rated wave loading protocols. It works awesome for building maximal strength and lets you maintain or even build a little bit of muscular size. Here is the exact protocol:

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

With 5/3/1 wave loading you can perform anywhere from 6-9 total sets. If you are having a so-so day then don’t feel bad about stopping at 6 sets. You will still get great results training this way.

However, if you have more energy in the gym than Ace Ventura watching a slinky then go ahead and perform 9 total sets. The 5/3/1 wave loading protocol is a great way to incorporate some 1-3 rep sets into your routine without burning out your nervous system too much.

3/2/1 Wave Loading

3/2/1 wave loading is by far the most popular wave loading protocol in the world. It is easily one of the best overall training protocols you can use to build maximal strength. Here is the exact protocol:

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

With 3/2/1 wave loading you can perform anywhere from 6-12 total sets. If you are a fast-twitch freak then you may find that your strength finally peaks on the 10th, 11th and 12th sets.

The strength coach Christian Thibadeau recommends that you pick fairly conservatively weights on your first 3 sets. For example you may want to use 85% for your first triple, 90% for your first double and 95% for your first single.

If those weights are easy then you can be confident that your strength will shoot up on the subsequent sets.

Now let’s look at a sample wave loading workout. This upper body workout was written by Wolfgang Unsoeld, a world-class strength coach out of Germany. Check it out:

Upper Body Wave Loading Routine

  • A1: Chin up (medium / supinated grip), 6 x 3/2/1**,  5/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: 45° Incline bench press (shoulder-width grip), 6 x 5/3/1***, 5/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Kneeling High Pulley One Arm Row (rotating grip), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/1/1, 90 seconds rest
  • B2: Standing behind the neck press (shoulder-width grip), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/1/1, 90 seconds rest

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

As you can see this workout uses two different wave loading protocols: 5/3/1 wave loading and 3/2/1 wave loading. It is very important that you stick to the tempos and rest periods as they are written for this routine. They are there for a reason!

The Best Step Loading Protocols

Step Loading is an extremely versatile training method. There are way more effective step loading protocols than there are wave loading protocols. In fact the number of viable step loading protocols is almost limitless! Of course there are some general rules that you should follow.

If you are using step loading to build strength then you want the different rep ranges to be relatively close to each other. I wouldn’t use more than a 4-rep difference between your highest rep sets and lowest rep sets.

On the other hand if you are using step loading to build muscle mass then you can use a much larger range of repetitions. Here are 3 step loading protocols that I want to teach you:

  • 6/4/2 step loading
  • 5/10/15 step loading
  • 5/3/2 pendulum loading

Let’s take a closer look at each of these training methods.

6/4/2 Step Loading

6/4/2 step loading is a great choice for a bodybuilder looking to build strength or a strength athlete looking to build some functional hypertrophy. Here is the exact protocol:

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

As you can see the rep ranges decrease as you progress through the workout. Performing 2 sets at each rep range is just enough to ‘lock in” nervous system adaptations that are necessary for building strength.

You may find that the higher-rep sets pre-fatigue you a little bit so you can’t use quite as much weight on the doubles. Don’t worry, that is perfectly normal. You will still get awesome results even though these aren’t true 2-rep maxes.

If you are someone who normally burns out using lots of low-rep sets then this may even play to your advantage.

5/10/15 Step Loading

5/10/15 step loading is an awesome training protocol for building muscular size. In my experience this protocol works best for training the upper body. Most trainees do not have the muscular endurance or mental fortitude to use this on something like back squats!

Here is the exact training protocol:

  • Set 1: 5 reps
  • Set 2: 5 reps
  • Set 3: 10 reps
  • Set 4: 10 reps
  • Set 5: 15 reps
  • Set 6: 15 reps

As you can see this protocol features a wide range of repetitions. This is very useful for building muscle mass because hypertrophy training is all about knocking off as many motor units as you can in a given period of time.

5/3/2 Pendulum Loading

And now for something completely different! Pendulum loading is a special type of wave loading. The rep ranges go down and then go back up as you perform your sets. For example here is what the 5/3/2 pendulum loading scheme looks like:

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

So why would anyone bother training this way? Remember, strength training is a biological adaptation to a biological stimulus. If you expose the body to the exact same stimulus all the time then eventually it will get bored of it and stop responding.

Pendulum loading can be thought of as yet another loading scheme to keep your body off-balance and stimulate adaptations.

I recommend you play around with step loading and reverse step loading before you start using pendulum loading. However, if you are an advanced trainee then this can be an excellent plateau buster.

Here is a 2/4/6 step loading arm routine that Charles Poliquin wrote for the bodybuilder Milos Sarcev many years ago. This the last routine in a series of 4 routines which may or may not have helped Milos gain 1.5 inches on his arms in just 4 months! Check it out:

Milos Sarcev Step Loading Arm Routine

  • A1: Standing ez-bar reverse curl, 6 x 2,2,4,4,6,6, 4/0/1/0**, 90 seconds rest
  • A2: Bench press (shoulder-width grip), 6 x 2,2,4,4,6,6, 3/4/1/0***, 90 seconds rest
  • B1: Unilateral preacher DB curl (offset grip), 3-4 x 5-6, 4/0/4/0, 60 seconds rest
  • B2: Seated DB french press, 3-4 x 5-6, 4/0/4/0, 60 seconds rest

**Pause for 2 seconds at 30 degrees elbow flexion during the concentric range. Research shows this increases recruitment of the brachialis muscle. See the video below for more details.

***That is not a typo – lower the weight over 3 seconds and pause for 4 seconds in the bottom position.

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

For this exercise it is absolutely CRITICAL that you follow the tempo prescriptions. Bodybuilders can build lots of muscle mass in the lower rep ranges if they know how to manipulate their exercise tempos to accumulate enough time under tension. This step loading routine is a perfect example of this.

Conclusion

wave loading vs step loading

Wave loading and step loading are two of the most effective training methods that you can use. One of the things that I really like about these training methods is that they are so versatile.

Wave loading and step loading can be used to help you build muscle mass or strength in almost any rep range you can think of! Of course there are some differences between these two training programs that you need to be aware of.

If you are more interested in building maximal strength then wave loading has your name written all over it. On the other hand if you are more interested in building muscle or perhaps a blend of size and strength then pendulum loading is a great choice.

Whether you use wave loading or step loading I think you will find they are more exciting and maybe even more effective than traditional sets where you use one rep range per exercise.

“Give yourself permission to do something extraordinary and amazing on planet Earth. Acknowledge that you have and can do whatever it takes. You would not be given a true and inspiring dream without the potential to fulfill it.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT. I'm the creator / owner of Revolutionary Program Design. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere on planet Earth. If you're from another galaxy then all bets are off! So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to pump iron or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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