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Advanced Training: Basic Sets, Step Sets and Wave Loading

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Most beginning to intermediate lifters view weight training as an activity that is simple to understand. Slap weight on the bar, perform reps, go home. Doesn’t get much more complicated then that, does it?

Yes, it does.

Everything works for a beginner. That is one of the carved in stone truths of the iron game. During this time, it is easy to become over-confident about a given method of training. A trainee believes that they will continue to get bigger and stronger, because they have tapped into the holy grail of weight training.

Then, your bodybuilding or powerlifting routine lets you down.

You stop making gains, and you can’t figure out why. Maybe you need more food. Maybe you need more volume. Maybe you need to train less. Maybe Doggcrapp is the answer. Maybe HIT is the answer. Maybe Westside is the answer. Maybe Wendler’s 5/3/1 is the answer.

Maybe.

The problem with most trainees at this point is that they randomly start trying anything and everything under the sun. They frenetically search for the gains and growth they experienced during their early years of training. But they often fail to get scientific.

This article is about science. It is about understanding training theory, so you can better understand bodybuilding and powerlifting routine design. An advanced lifter is someone who isn’t just big and strong. An advanced lifter knows his stuff. And knowing your stuff is the difference between being above average, and well above average.

Basic Sets. A basic set is a set you’ve probably performed thousands of times. It involves a standard rep range of 6-12, using the same weight. This rep/set structure is the staple of most volume bodybuilding routines.

A basic set looks like this…it’s time to bench pres. You warm up, and then load 200 pounds on the bar. You hammer out 10 reps, rest, then knock out 2 more sets of 8 and 6 reps with the same weight.

Basic sets are also popular in powerlifting routines. Powerlifters often supplement their primary movements with basic sets. For example, in Louie Simmons’ Westside Barbell system, once the dynamic effort or max effort portion of the routine is finished, trainees generally knock out 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps on supplementary exercises.

Step Sets. Step sets, or step loading, is the adding or subtracting of weight from set to set. In a step set pattern where weight is increased, reps are decreased. In a step set pattern where weight is decreased, reps are increased.

For example, let’s say your initial bench press set was 225 by 9 reps. Next, you slap 235 on the bar, and knock out 7 reps. You follow this with a set of 6 reps using 240 pounds. This is a classic example of an increasing load step set.

In general, it is a fairly common practice in bodybuilding to go lighter from set to set. Doing so helps keep the number of repetitions in the 6-12 range. These style of sets are known as decreasing load step sets.

Wave Sets. Wave sets, or wave loading, is generally a pattern of increasing weight and decreasing reps in specific patterns or waves. It is much more easily understood by looking at wave loading pattern types.

6/1 Wave Loading. This is a popular style of wave loading. Trainees perform 6 reps with a given weight, and then bump up to a heavier single rep. Next, a lighter set of 6 reps is performed, and then another heavy single. this pattern is continued, often ending with a lower weight 15 rep set.

The most interesting aspect of this pattern is how the body reacts to lighter loads after performing heavy singles. When you drop back down to a lighter weight, it often feels unusually light. Your body has been stressed from the heavy load, and undergoes a neuromuscular adaptation.

Basically, a squat set of 315 x 6 reps feels lighter if you perform a heavier single prior to performing the set.

On leg day, I often perform good mornings following squats. My squat sets are performed with anywhere from 315 to 400 pounds. When I drop down to 225 pounds for good mornings, the weight seems light as a feather; much, much lighter then it did when I was warming up with 225 pounds.

This is neuromuscular adaptation to heavy loads. It’s a powerful bodybuilding and powerlifting tool, but it is rarely used.  Yes, bodybuilders should use this form of wave loading as well. It allows for more reps with heavier weights, and can also act as a powerful mental training tool. Who doesn’t like a set of 275 pound bench presses to feel light?

Straight 6/1 Wave Loading. A straight 6/1 wave loading pattern looks like this…

185 x 6 reps

215 x 1 rep

190 x 6 reps

220 x 1 rep

195 x 6 reps

225 x 1 rep

6/1 Wave Loading Ending with High Reps. This wave loading style works particularly well for exercises such as squats, and could be used on a bodybuilding-style leg day…

315 x 6 reps

355 x 1 rep

325 x 6 reps

365 x 1 rep

225 x 15-20 reps

Patterns. Please keep in mind that the 6/1 style of wave loading is merely an example. There are near endless wave loading scheme patterns available, based on your size/strength goals. Here are some possible patterns…

Low Rep Wave Loading. A wave loading pattern that might be used on a strength training/powerlifting program. In this example, I’m featuring a possible box squat wave loading scheme:

315 x 4 reps

335 x 3 reps

355 x 2 reps

335 x 3 reps

355 x 2 reps

375 x 1 rep

High Rep Wave Loading. This is a good wave loading pattern for trainees who are looking to gain muscle, but who also want to increase strength. In this example, I am featuring a possible bench press wave loading scheme:

235 x 4 reps

265 x 1 rep

225 x 6 reps

265 x 1 rep

215 x 8 reps

265 x 1 rep

205 x 10 reps

Hypertrophy Wave Loading. This is a wave loading scheme for pure hypertrophy. It starts with heavier weights and lower reps, and takes advantage of neuromuscular adaptation to drive you into higher rep sets. In this example, we are looking at a possible barbell row wave loading scheme:

185 x 4 reps

165 x 6 reps

145 x 8 reps

185 x 4 reps

135 x 10 reps

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