I often use waveloading methods to increase intensity and bust plateaus. I use mainly four different methods for functional hypertrophy and strength gains. This doesn’t mean I think any other are bad, I just pick these to be my favorites cause I have good experience with them and know they work well.
The principle of waveloading
When you start lifting weights the body is stimulated to recruit more muscle fiber motor units. To save energy during periods of less activity the body is set on “stand by”. So if you go in and try to lift a heavy weight without warming up, you will find it difficult. The necessary motor units isn’t ready. You need to fire up the engine sort of speak. Start light and then work yourself up the weights step by step. Lifting heavy weights especially helps to recruit the higher threshold units of type 2 muscle fibers. I would say anything between 1 and 7 rep max can be considered heavy enough to recruit type 2 fiber units, especially if you put some effort in accelerating the weight.
It’s not the speed of the object that defines muscle power. It’s the effort to accelerate the object by muscle force. It’s just very difficult to measure, which I believe screws up the mind of scientists. My absolute not humble personal opinion.
So how does waveloading works? Consider the 7-5-3 method for example – 7 rep “max” (you don’t need to go absolute max, but near enough) is heavy enough to prepare you for a 5 rep “max” which is heavy enough to prepare you for a 3 rep max. After you done a 3 rep “max”, your body will be so “fired up” that you can increase the weights on your next set of 7, 5 and ultimately 3 reps. But if you don’t lift heavier than a 7 rep “max”, your body won’t fire up as much, and it would be difficult to increase the weights between sets of only 7 reps. With wave loading you will do sets of 7 with heavier weights than otherwise, and stimulate growth in both size and strength. After a period of this method you will be able to do “normal” sets of 7 with heavier weights and stimulate even more growth in size, because your body have learned to recruit more motor units in any given lift (you’ve become stronger). With sets of only 3:s or singles, you will mainly stimulate better recruitment of motor units during very heavy attempts, which is good in preparation for competition, but it won’t stimulate as much growth in size (or strength endurance) which you need if you want to elevate your potential and continue to progress. I often use the 7-5-3 method in an early intensity phase, and the 3-2-1 method in the last intensity phase before an event or personal best attempt.
The rest between the steps (e.g. 5-3-1) should be less than 60 seconds. I usually go for a 30 second paus between steps, depending on exercise. This should be enough, but you need to experiment a little to find out what works for you. Women can often take shorter pauses than men. How much I increase the weights depend on the exercise (and strength level) but usually 3-5 kg between steps and 1-2 kg between sets (in every step respectively). So for example, this is how a 5-3-1 workout can look like:
5 reps, 70 kg
3 reps, 75 kg
1 reps, 80 kg
5 reps, 72 kg
3 reps, 77 kg
1 reps, 82 kg
5 reps, 74 kg
3 reps, 79 kg
1 reps, 84 kg
I always go for three sets.
The 4-3-2-1 method
Works very well for deadlifts. I started using this rep system as cluster training for an older female client, but found out that she could actually increase the weight between the steps. So now I use it as a waveloading system in the first intensity phase for deadlifts and squats.
The 7-5-3 method
I like to use this system for different kind of presses in the first intensity phase. Sometimes I change this to 5-3-2 in the last week.
The 1-5 method
I love this system for benchpresses. I learned it from reading Poliquin as a 1-6 method, but I prefer 5 reps. Works better for me. The single rep doesn’t need to be a max attempt. Just keep it heavy enough to fire up your muscles for a heavy 5 rep.
The 3-2-1 method
I use this system in the second intensity phase, in preparation for record attempts.
For more on this and other training principles, I highly recommend reading “Poliquin Principles” by Charles Poliquin, and “The Black Book of Training Secrets” by Christian Thibadue.