Ascending Wave-Loading

Wave Loading

Wave loading is the adjusting of the load and repetitions up and/or down within subsequent sets of the same exercise.  There are multiple types of wave loading within strength training, each wave has its own specific purpose. For the most part, each wave moves in either ascending or descending fashion to expose your muscles to variations in load in one training session. At FE3, we identify four types of Wave Loading; Ascending, Descending, Multiple, and Rapid. In this post we will dive into the key factors of

Ascending Wave Loading

When it comes to strength training, intensity is seldom kept constant. It is usually varied not only over the course of the training period (periodization), but also from set to set within each training session in accordance to specific patterns (1). Wave loading involves adjusting the load up and/or down within succeeding sets of the same exercise. When training for maximum strength, the load should vary within the 1-5 RM (Repetition Maximum) zone, when training for relative strength, the load should vary between 5-8 RM, when training for hypertrophy, the load would fluctuate between 9-12 RM, and finally when training for muscular endurance the training load should fluctuate between 13-20+ RM.  This method recognizes the implications of neuromuscular adaptations within a multiple set exercise arising from exposure from increased loads (2). This excitation activates high threshold motor units. The physiological mechanism in which Wave loading is reliant is that of post activation potentiation (P.A.P.). According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information “P.A.P. is a phenomenon by which the force exerted by a muscle is increased due to its previous contraction.” Post-activation potentiation is a theory that “purports that the contractile history of a muscle influences the mechanical performance of subsequent muscle contractions.” So, in other words, fatiguing muscle contractions with a lot of reps will impair your muscle performance on the following set, but non-fatiguing muscle contractions at high loads with low repetitions may enhance your neuromuscular performance. 

Ascend to the Top

Ascending waves allow you to gain exposure to maximal loading without prior fatigue of the higher rep sets. Ascending waves consist of sets where you are increasing the number of repetitions each set while simultaneously lowering the load each set. 

A single wave for hypertrophy might look like this:

  • Set 1: 8 Reps @ 80kg 100s Rest
  • Set 2: 9 Reps @ 75kg 100s Rest
  • Set 3: 10 Reps @ 70kg 100s Rest

Using ascending repetitions allows you to achieve the volume required to build muscle and strength while focusing on using high-quality repetitions. I find ascending waves to be best performed with major compound barbell movements (Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Bentover Row). They should be avoided on your accessory movements due to the amount of neural demand placed on the smaller muscle units.

The following is a sample ascending wave protocol for maximizing relative strength in the Back Squat

Yo, what percent should I use?

Strength training programs are often built using a system where various percentages of maximum load are used. This system works, but has serious complications. An individuals’ strength varies 10 to 20 percent over the course of a single day (3). The percentage relationship between the maximum and submaximal repetitions is different from one muscle to another (4). For example, you may be able to perform the prescribed 10 reps at 75% of your back squat, but can only perform 5 repetitions of 75% of your leg curl maximum. Percentages also don’t allow for individual training responses, some individuals can respond quickly to a percentage prescribed program, while other individuals can be overstressed with the same percentages (3).  With RM (Repetition Maximum) loading, the load is increased when the athlete is stronger so that the number of repetitions completed is unchanged. This results in more control over the number of repetitions performed, reducing the chance of “over-“ or undershooting the desired training zone (5). So, when it comes to strength training in general it is best to select the number of repetitions first, then find the appropriate load/weight for the prescribed repetitions where you are at or near muscular failure on the last repetition.

Key Terms

  • Wave Loading – The adjusting of the load and repetitions up and/or down within subsequent sets of the same exercise.
  • Repetition Maximum (RM)- The maximal load one can take in a certain exercise for a set number of repetitions
  • Post-Activation Potentiation – A theory that purports that the contractile history of a muscle influences the mechanical performance of subsequent muscle contractions
  • Ascending Wave – An increase in the number of repetitions each set with a coinciding decrease in load for a single exercise. 


  1. FLECK, S.J., AND W.J. KRAEMER. Designing Resistance Training Programs (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1997
  2. WARDLE, H., AND G. WILSON. Practical strength programming training tips for athletes: What works. Strength Cond. Coach 4: 3–5. 1996.
  3. POLIQUIN, C. Five steps to increasing the effectiveness of your strength training program. Natl. Strength Cond. Assoc. J. 10:34– 39. 1988.
  4. BENEDICT, T., 1999. Manipulating Resistance Training Program Variables to Optimize Maximum Strength in Men: A Review. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 13(3), pp.289-304.
  5. HOEGER, W.W.K., D.R. HOPKINS, S.L. BARETTE, AND D.F. HALE. Relationship between repetitions and selected percentages of one repetition maximum: A comparison between untrained and trained males and females. J. Appl. Sport Sci. Res. 4:47–54. 1990.

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