5 Best Loading Schemes for Size & Strength

Set/Rep Methods for Maximal Gains

Want Size, Strength, or Both?

Here are five of the most effective loading schemes (sets, reps, and weight used) for stimulating high-threshold hypertrophy, or maximizing the development of fast twitch fibers. Remember, high-threshold motor units have the greatest growth potential, and specific hypertrophy of these fibers can increase athletic performance.

This scheme is based on a psychological "trick" that gets you more into the workout with every single set. You basically remove one rep while adding weight on every set.

For low-rep guys, 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. You'll find that your performance gets better with each passing set, and it'll always lead to a solid performance. This is a great scheme to use if you're not really "feeling it" as you walk into the gym.

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 315 x 3 reps, 325 x 2 reps, 335 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. Start the wave with the load you used for the second set of the preceding wave. So in our example, you would use 325 x 3, 335 x 2, 345 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 335 x 3, 345 x 2, 355 x 1. Stop the exercise when you can't 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 four waves would lead to a record.

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

  • First Wave: 310 x 3, 320 x 2, 330 x1
  • Second Wave: 320 x 3, 330 x 2, 340 x1
  • Third Wave: 330 x 3, 340 x 2, 350 x 1
  • Fourth Wave: 340 x 3, 350 x 2, 360 x 1 (a new PR)

On any given day you should be able to complete two waves. Completing three waves is a very good workout. Completing four waves is an amazing workout. Completing five waves means that you underestimated the weights to use!

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.

The 3/2/1 method will give you a lot of strength and some size gains, while 5/4/3 will give you good strength and size gains. The 7/5/3 wave loading (the next scheme below) will give you some strength and a lot of size gains.

Now, 5/4/3 has more volume and as such the limit performed is 3 waves. 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.

Strength Athlete

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. If your main goal is size, this is your set/rep scheme.

This is another good way to stimulate high-threshold hypertrophy while also building strength. This loading scheme uses contrasts between sets of 1 rep 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. 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 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 sets of 1.

All six of these loading schemes will work for adding size and strength, but some will give you a tad more of one or the other:

Mainly Strength Gains

For mainly strength gains, here's the order of efficacy of these schemes (starting with the most effective):

  1. 3/2/1 Wave
  2. 5/4/3/2/1
  3. 1/6 Contrast
  4. 5/4/3 Wave
  5. 7/5/3 Wave

Mainly Size Gains

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

  1. 7/5/3 Wave
  2. 5/4/3 Wave
  3. 1/6 Contrast
  4. 5/4/3/2/1
  5. 3/2/1 Wave

Size and Strength Gains

If you're after the greatest overall gains then it would be as such:

  1. 5/4/3/2/1
  2. 1/6 Contrast
  3. 5/4/3 Wave
  4. 7/5/3 Wave
  5. 3/2/1 Wave
Christian Thibaudeau specializes in building bodies that perform as well as they look. He is one of the most sought-after coaches by the world's top athletes and bodybuilders. Check out the Christian Thibaudeau Coaching Forum.