How to Trick Your Brain Into Lifting Heavier Weights

It’s been said that being successful at anything is more mental than physical.

The same is true with lifting, although we’ll be more specific: It’s neural. Your nervous system controls your muscles, but you control your nervous system. And, if you can trick it into lifting heavier weights for more sets and reps, you’ll get bigger and stronger.

Wave loading, as popularized by Australian strength coach Ian King, has you change the load you use for each set of an exercise, in an effort to excite the nervous system. Said more simply, it will make weights that normally feel heavy suddenly feel lighter, allowing you to do more work with them, and that, in turn, delivers a greater stimulus for muscle and strength gains.

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How to Use Wave Loading

Getty ImagesMike Kemp

Confused about how this might work? Here’s a real-world example.

You’re squatting, and you work up to a heavy set of five reps with 275 pounds. You feel good, so you decide to up the load to 300 and go for three reps. That felt heavy, so you back off to a lighter weight for five reps again, but this time you know you can go heavier than before.

The 300-pound set “woke up” all your muscle fibers — you can just feel it — and you know you’re good for 280 to 285 pounds for five squats again. You do the set, and, sure enough, you were right. Picture a graph with your sets on the x axis, and the load you use on the y axis. If you connected the points that mark each load with a line, they would look like a wave.

Mixing up the weight and reps you do each set is a shrewd way of getting your muscles to lift more weight than they otherwise could, and it makes training heavy feel easier and less intimidating.

Wave Loading Breakdown

There are many ways to wave load. Here’s an example of a two-wave approach with descending reps from trainer Joe Dowdell that’s great for building strength.

Here’s another one that alternates higher reps, which makes it more focused on muscle gain.

You can come up with your own waves, but respect some ground rules. Wave loading was designed for big-muscle barbell exercises like squats, presses, and deadlifts, so don’t try to apply it to curls or lateral raises.

Getty ImagesChristopher Kimmel

Stick with two or three waves (any time you back off the load equals a wave) totaling four to six sets, and keep your reps low for the most part — six and under. Higher reps won’t produce the neural effect that allows heavy weights to feel lighter.

Leave a little in the tank on every set. If you go too heavy in the first wave, you won’t be able to go heavier in the second one, thereby defeating the purpose. Furthermore, the less you change the reps between sets, the less you can vary the load — i.e., a set of four reps done after a set of five can’t be done much heavier. But, never repeat the same number of reps with the same load. So, if you lifted 300 pounds for five reps in a previous wave, you should strive for 305 or 310 the second time through.

Because wave loading means heavy training, make sure you rest long enough — 2 minutes or more — between sets to give each one your best. And, because wave loading can be intense and time consuming, do it on a maximum of two exercises in your workout. Run your wave-loading workouts for 3 to 4 weeks only. “You could wave load squats on Monday and Thursday,” says Dowdell, “and wave bench press and rows on Tuesday and Friday.”

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Also, feel free to experiment with a back-off set or two, where you really hike the number of reps. For instance, after two waves of 5, 3, and 1, reduce the load and go for 10 or 15 reps. What you usually use for that many reps will feel light, and you’ll crank out a few more — or go ahead and add a few pounds to the bar, and tie your best rep record with heavier weight.

Another option after some heavy waves is to go on to an accessory lift — one that builds the muscles responsible for performing your main exercise. For example, “you could do bench presses with wave loading,” says Dowdell, “and then bang out some high-rep work on incline dumbbell press” for a massive chest pump.

The Wave Loading Trial Workout

Alternate between sets of the paired exercises (marked “A” and “B”), resting for 2 minutes between sets. So, you’ll do a set of A, rest, then a set of B, rest again, and repeat until the sets are complete.

For 1A and 1B (the wave-loading exercises), perform a thorough warm up and then gradually work up to your first work set. For the bench press, perform sets of 3 to 5 reps until you reach a load that’s about 90 percent of what you think you can lift for one rep with good form (be conservative).

None of these warmup sets should be fatiguing — take your time between them. Aim for the following percentages of your max on each set.

Note that on your final set you can challenge yourself and go for more than 6 reps.

Bench Press

Mitch Mandel

Lie on the bench and arch your back, pulling your shoulder blades down and together. Grasp the bar just wider than shoulder width, and pull it out of the rack. Take a deep breath, tighten your glutes, and lower the bar to your sternum, tucking your elbows to your sides at 45 degrees on the descent.

When the bar touches your body, push your feet into the floor and press the bar up at the same time. Take 3 seconds to lower the bar to your chest on each rep, and press up explosively.

Neutral Grip Chinup

Mitch Mandel

Hang from a bar that has handles, so that when you grasp them with your hands shoulder-width apart, your palms face each other. Draw your ribs down, and tighten your core. Draw your shoulder blades back and together, and pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Take 3 seconds to lower your body into the hang, and pull up explosively.

Wear a belt that you can attach extra weight to, so you can vary the load each set (or perform the same movement on a pulldown machine).

Lateral Raise

Mitch Mandel

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Raise your arms out 90 degrees from your sides, with your elbows straight. Take 2 seconds to lower your arms, and then lift the weight in 1 second, and hold at the top for another second.

Face Pull

Mitch Mandel

Attach a rope handle to the top pulley of a cable station. Grasp an end in each hand with your palms facing each other. Step back to place tension on the cable. Draw your shoulder blades together and down as you pull the handle to your forehead, so your palms face your ears and your upper back is fully contracted.

Take 2 seconds to extend your arms, and then lift the weight in 1 second, and hold with your back contracted for another second.

Band Triceps Pushdown

Mitch Mandel

Attach a light resistance exercise band to a sturdy overhead object. Grasp an end in each hand and tuck your elbows to your sides. Extend your elbows and rotate your wrists inward, flexing your triceps to finish each rep (no tempo here). Perform as many sets as it takes to reach 100 total reps, resting, as needed, in between.

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