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6 Loading Schemes for Size and Strength

Here are my six favorite loading methods when it comes to stimulating high-threshold hypertrophy.


This is one of my favorite schemes because it's based on a psychological "trick" that gets you more into the workout with every single set. You basically remove one repetition while adding weight on every set.

For low-rep guys like myself, this method is fantastic because the decreasing rep pattern makes you believe that each set is easier than the one before, while the added weight makes it harder. I find my peformance to be better with each passing set, and it always leads to a solid performance. This is the scheme I like to use when I'm not really "in it."

3/2/1 Wave

This is quite possibly the most powerful loading scheme you can use to build strength. It has a profoundly stimulating effect on the nervous system, but it can also be draining because of the high neural output.

Basically you perform "waves" of 3 sets on an exercise. The weight is increased on every set during a wave while the reps are decreased. For example, a wave could be 315lbs x 3 reps, 325lbs x 2 reps, 335lbs x 1 rep. You rest your normal length between each set.

If you can successfully complete a wave without missing a rep you're allowed to start a new wave. The new wave uses more weight than the preceding one. Normally I recommend starting the wave with the load you used for the second set of the preceding wave. So in our example, you would use 325lbs x 3, 335lbs x 2, 345lbs x 1 for your second wave.

If you can complete all the reps in that second wave you can start a third wave, which would use 335lbs x 3, 345lbs x 2, 355lbs x 1. You stop the exercise when you cannot complete a wave.

Note that the first wave is conservative, the second one is more challenging but one notch below your maximum, and the third wave would lead to a 1RM. Being able to complete 4 waves would lead to a record.

For example, if your 1RM on a lift is 350lbs, your waves might look like this :

310lbs x 3, 320lbs x 2, 330lbs x1
320lbs x 3, 330lbs x 2, 340lbs x1
330lbs x 3, 340lbs x 2, 350lbs x 1
340lbs x 3, 350lbs x 2, 360lbs x 1

On any given day you should be able to complete 2 waves. Completing 3 waves is a very good session; completing 4 waves is an amazing workout. Completing 5 waves means that you underestimated the weights to use!

5/4/3 Wave

The basic principle of this scheme is the same as the 3/2/1 wave but with higher reps. While 3/2/1 wave loading is the most powerful strength-building scheme, the 5/4/3 wave loading approach represents the best compromise between strength and size gains.

3/2/1 will give you a lot of strength and some size gains. 5/4/3 will give you good strength and size gains. 7/5/3 wave loading (the next scheme in this article) will give you some strength and a lot of size gains. 5/4/3 has more volume, as such the limit performed is 3 waves (whereas it's 4 waves for the 3/2/1 scheme). So the first wave is conservative, the second wave would lead to your 3RM, and a third wave would lead to a personal record for 3 reps.

7/5/3 Wave

This is the most powerful high-threshold hypertrophy scheme you can use. It will lead to the greatest hypertrophy of the fast-twitch fibers and will also give you decent strength gains. Because of the higher volume, only 2 waves are to be done (versus a max of 4 waves for the 3/2/1 and 3 waves for the 5/4/3 scheme).

1/6 Contrast

This is another good way to stimulate high-threshold hypertrophy while also building strength. It will build slightly less size but a bit more strength than 7/5/3 wave loading and will be about equal to 5/4/3 in regard to gains. This loading scheme uses contrasts between sets of 1 repetition with 90-95% of your maximum and sets of 6 reps with 80-85% of your 1RM. You perform a total of 6 sets, so 3 contrast pairings. Each pairing is gradually heavier.

So it would look like this:

90% x 1 rep
80% x 6 reps
92.5% x 1 rep
82.5% x 6 reps
95% x 1 rep
85% x 6+ reps (Notice the +. This means that you go to failure. There's a good chance you'll get more than 6 reps because of the neural activation from the preceding sets.)

I like this approach because it takes advantage of post-tetanic potentiation: maximum lifting increases neural activation which improves your capacity to recruit fast twitch fibers in your set of 6 reps. You also get a psychological boost from going to a lighter weight after your set of 1.

The "3" Gradual Build-up

This is more a progression model than a loading scheme, but it works very well. It's based on the training of Doug Hepburn, the first man to bench press 500lbs. The goal is to get 6 sets of 3 reps with a near-maximal weight. To do so, you add one rep per workout while keeping the same weight. So it may look like this :

Workout 1: 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 2, 315lbs x2, 315lbs x 2, 315lbs x 2, 315lbs x 2

Workout 2: 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x2, 315lbs x 2, 315lbs x 2, 315lbs x 2

Workout 3: 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 2, 315lbs x 2, 315lbs x 2

Workout 4: 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x 2, 315lbs x 2

Workout 5: 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x 2

Workout 6: 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x 3, 315lbs x 3

* Once you completed 6 sets of 3 reps, you add 10lbs to the bar and start over on workout 1. A good starting weight for the first phase is 88% of your maximum.

Which Method To Use?

All six of these loading schemes will work in adding size and strength to a significant extent, but some will give you a tad more of one or the other.

If we're talking strictly about strength gains, here is the order of efficacy of these schemes (starting with the most effective):

"3" gradual build-up

If we're talking strictly about size gains the order is actually reversed:

"3" gradual build-up

If we're talking about the greatest overall gains (size and strength) then if would be as such:

"3" gradual build-up

-- Christian Thibaudeau

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