You probably heard about ladders and (reverse) pyramids to do your reps and sets. Here is another great alternative: waves.
No one will argue that becoming more advanced with training slows down the rate at which you progress. Some people view this fact as an insurmountable obstacle, one which you just have to accept and humbly beg for a 5 kg increase on your squat in the next 6 months, but I beg to differ. In my opinion, things don’t necessary have to be as bad, if you just accept that things you did in the past have stopped working, at least in a way that would yield pleasing gains. Another plus to this entire story is that it makes training more interesting – finally you are free to explore a wider variety of exercises, techniques and, of course, set setups.
In the first installment, we looked at some basic setups, involving straight sets, normal pyramids, and reverse pyramids. You might recall that I pointed out the reverse pyramid technique as being the most advanced of the lot, in the sense that it will, most likely, allow you to keep on progressing once doing straight sets becomes difficult and unfeasible. This installment will help you understand why is that so and show you a variety of possible RPT setups, before finally explaining the namesake method of this article, the wave loading.
Acclimation And Potentiation Sets
Get yourself to understand these two concepts, and you’ll wield with all the theoretical background needed to understand how these methods work. In a nutshell, it goes like this: following a set with heavier weight with a set with lighter weight will improve your performance on the lighter set, an effect that wouldn’t have occurred had you used same weight on both sets, or have gone lighter on the first one and heavier on the second one.
Now the expanded version. Your performance in a set isn’t dictated just by the preparedness of your muscles and your mental focus. Two other important factors exist: are your joints and tendons ready to handle a heavier weight, and how much weight does your CNS expect to move. Acclimation deals with the former, while potentiation handles the latter.
You might have experienced that, even after a thorough warmup, your first working set tends to feel a little heavier than you’d like it to be. This feeling usually goes away once your actually start repping, but the initial shock that comes after you unrack the weight is sometimes enough to get you out of mental balance (some workouts tend to feel perfect, while others…). This is because the usual 20 kg / 45 lbs increment between your last warmup and first working set is, realistically, a lot of weight, especially if you’re fairly strong. This sense of pressure can’t, of course, be shaken off, but what you can do is perform a one or two rep set at your working weight, or just a little below it. If your working set is in at or above 8 reps, then doing a single rep at your working weight will be fine. If it’s below that rep range, to a single rep with 10-20 lbs off your working weight. Note that, in all set methods except the regular pyramid, the acclimation on subsequent sets is taken care of by preceding sets.
Postactivation potentiation (PAP), or just potentiation, is, simply put, a phenomenon in which your nervous system is “primed” by a heavier set, allowing your to perform better on a subsequent, lighter set. You might have experienced this yourself – say your last warmup weight is 100 kg. You go on and do a 120 kg working set, then reduce the weight again to 100 kg. Even though you’ll be using the same weight as in the warmup set, both the initial contact with the weight and performance on first few reps of this set will always feel a lot lighter. RPT and its sort-of-extension, the wave loading, exploit this effect to allow for more quality work to be done by advanced trainees. You can find all the relevant explanations and research at this NSCA link, and there’s no point in me rehashing something that other people have already done a great job at.
A Few More Words On Reverse Pyramids
Since the first part of the article came out, I felt that I made a mistake by missing out on more practical aspects of RPT. Basically, all you need to implement the system is already there, but people (myself included) like it better when more real world options are laid out in front of them. So, here’s a number of different RPT schemes that I use at the moment, or have used at some point in my training career:
a) Basics: 6-8-10 and 8-10-12
These are bread and butter setups, with the former being more oriented towards middle rep range, and the latter towards higher rep range. You can think of these two as sort-of equivalents of straight-setted 3×8 and 3×10 – the volume and average intensity per set are equal, but, again, the back-off component is more pronounced with RPT. A thing I like to do is to duplicate the middle sets, and do 6-8-8-10 and 8-10-10-12. It kind of deforms the pyramid, but works well because the middle set is usually the one that will feel “most right” – it feels lighter than the first set, but is shorter than the last set. I also tend to feel most comfortable with a weight that permits doing 8-10 reps.
b) Heavy: 4-6-8 (x2)
This is a low-rep pyramid that I like to use on exercises such as the deadlift and military press. The (x2) marks that you can double this scheme to get more volume, i.e, you’d do 4-6-8-4-6-8, making this a wave. I know I haven’t talked about waves yet, but you get the general picture. This hybrid scheme also shows a close relationship between waves and pyramiding. For the deadlift in particular, an even heavier setup, 3-4-5 (x2-3) or 3-5-6 (x2) tend to work well. I prefer the latter since the decrement between 3 and 4 reps and between 4 and 5 reps tends to be quite small, negating the acclimation/potentiation effect that RPT usually relies on.
c) Higher reps: 8-12-15, 10-12-15, 12-15-20
These three setups share a common trait of ushering a lot of volume with relatively few sets, but differ a lot in both practice and effect. The first one is peculiar because of the large discrepancy between the first two sets – the second set will feel a lot lighter than the first one, which helps when such higher reps are to be performed. The second one the only “basic” one out of the three, suitable for exercises that work well with higher reps (like squats :P). The last one is for an occasional venture into the world of very high reps without sacrificing too much weight (it starts out at 12 which is fairly decent).
Finally, The Waves
After covering the theoretical background and paying past dues, finally we arrive to the concept of wave loading. The easiest way to explain it is through an example. Consider these three wave loading protocols:
A) 1 @ 95% – 6 @ 75% – 2 @ 90% -5 @ 75%
B) 1 @ 90% – 6 @ 75% (x3)
C) 8 @ 75 % – 5 @ 80 % – 10 @ 70% – 8 @ 75% – 5 @ 80%
The 1RM percentages listed next to reps can be of some use, but don’t rely on them too much – their point here was to illustrate two important things regarding waves:
1) both the weight and reps undulate between sets, and
2) weight used on sets doesn’t have to correspond with given rep range as tightly as it does in other set setups (i.e, normally you’d do a 6 rep set at around 80% 1RM – in waves, this most often isn’t so).
The point here is to exploit the PAP effect – precede a light set with a heavy set and either perform better on it or use priming effect on the CNS to be less fatigued from the lighter set. Fatigue management plays an important role in wave loading design: the lighter, back-off sets can be seen as a form of active rest – instead of resting 3-5 minutes after a heavy single or double, throw in a lighter set with more reps. This allows for more volume to be done in lesser time period while still handling heavy weights.
There are many ways to set up a wave, not all of which follow the orthodox principles I had just laid out, and I think the best way to show all these options is to accompany them with an example:
a) You can start out light on a wave – 6/1/6/1/6/1 – or start out heavy – 1/6/1/6/1/6.
b) You can do a high contrast wave – a 1/6 would be an example of such – or a low contrast wave – 5/4/3/5/4/3.
c) You can do a high rep wave – 8/10/12/8/10 – or a low rep wave – 1/6/1/5/1/4.
d) Waves don’t have to be symmetrical, i.e. you don’t have to decrease and increase the weight for a same number of sets. A wave on wich you spend more time decreasing weight than increasing it is, e.g, 1/5/7/1/5/7.
e) You don’t necessarily have to repeat the number of reps – example A) in the beginning and example c) here illustrate these concepts. Example c) shows the method of avoiding failure by doing less reps (6-5-4) with the same weight to accommodate increasing fatigue by the end of the set.
f) A wave can upshift or downshift its rep range. An example of an upshifting wave would be 6/10/8/12.
Similarly to RPT, I recommend doing waves for major exercises only, and stick to straight sets for assistance work. A thing to watch out here is total volume: waves usually consist of a lot of sets, so be mindful of the amount of work you’re doing and the time it’ll take you to accomplish it (i.e, cut back on assistance work if necessary).
A special sort of wave loading is the ladder set. As I said earlier, with wave loading, you vary weight and/or reps between sets. With ladders, it’s usually just varying the reps, but with much smaller increments. Ladders can be one sided or two sided (going just up the ladder, just down the ladder, or going both ways). I generally prefer the third option because it allows for a neat, cheap volume boost (cheap in terms of training resources – time, energy and focus).
For example, a two-sided ladder might look like this: 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1. As you can see, you’re climbing up the ladder (first bar, second bar, etc, get to the top, then go back down, forth bar, third bar…). The increments don’t necessarily have to be by just one rep (±1) – ±2, ±3 and even ±5 ladders also exist, but aren’t used in same circumstances.
Ladders can be particularly useful for home trainees who don’t have enough weight (at the moment) to keep progressing. They’re also good for trainees who have a hard time with more difficult bodyweight exercises, such as pull-ups or glute-ham raises, and can’t do more than 5 or 6 of those. The ladder helps in both of these cases because it ushers a lot of volume in a fairly short time period because it doesn’t necessitate longer rest times as working closer to failure does. Of course, this can be applied to any part of your training in which you feel you need some extra volume without sacrificing much more time or energy.
The reason why you can get this volume boost fairly cheaply is because the ladder is a lot less fatiguing than conventional set schemes – you start out light, work your way up to the most fatiguing set (closest to failure, or at failure), then go back down. Again, the psychological effect of getting prepped for this big set and then backing off helps a lot as well. This brings us back to difference between ±1, ±2 and ±more ladders. The higher the increment/decrement, the more difficult will the “up” sets be, and, of course, “down” sets (including the first two bars of the ladder) will tend to get ridiculously light. Say you’re doing a 1-5-10 ladder: you start out with your 11 or 12RM, so doing 1 and 5 reps at this weight feels like no work at all. Because of this, I prefer shorter, tighter ladders, going up no more than 5-6 reps.
Ladders aren’t the only way to apply the whole idea of wave loading to bodyweight-only training. Another nice way is to implement the usual low-high wave, but vary the tempo of sets. Let’s use pull-ups as an example, with a trainee who can do about 12 of those in a max set. Such a wave might look like this:
If you want the extra volume, do the wave three times, if not, do it just twice – the total number of reps cuts it in both cases, especially considering the fairly low max on the exercise (just 12 reps). The important thing here is the tempo at which you do these sets. Do the high-load set (in this case, the 10 rep one), on a usual tempo, 2010. On the other hand, use the low-load (3 rep) sets to practice form and explosiveness, and do them on a 31X0 tempo (explode to the top, immediately go down slowly for a count of 3, rest briefly to ensure that you’ve reached the bottom position, then explode back up again).
I could list more examples, but I strongly believe that it’s more important to understand and memorize the essence of the concept to become able to apply it in numerous, creative ways: it’s always about tricking your mind. So, the first set was 10 reps at normal tempo. You approach the second one, thinking: “Well, this’ll be a short one, better make my reps count.” You get powerful, blast away those reps, mind the tempo because it’s only 3 reps. Going back to the 10 rep set, you might think: “Well, I did less the previous set, now I’ll do some serious work, plus, the tempo isn’t as strict, I’ll get it.” And so on, and so on.
Waves, naturally, work without these mind games, but I find them extremely helpful. Playing similar tricks with your stream of thought usually requires a lot of focus, but these ones don’t, because what they talk about seems logical and obvious.
Wave loading is a great way to continue progressing once you start struggling with regular training methods. The basic concept of undulating workload is simple to understand and can be applied in numerous fashions, allowing for the variety an advanced trainee needs. I have, personally, used both RPT and waves to break plateaus and ensure a steady progress at late-intermediate-to-early-advanced level. Stay strong, train smart!