Wave Periodization

 In Blog

At Vital Active Living, we customize workouts. We design your workouts according to your goals and abilities and preferences. And we also progress your workouts so that you continue to see improvement. This process is called periodization.

In this blog, we will briefly discuss the differences between linear periodization and wave periodization.

Linear Periodization

For beginner lifters, progress occurs fairly linearly. This is partly due to neuromuscular learning as the brain learns how to activate the muscles needed to perform the movement. It is also due to actual increases on muscle strength and joint stability, due to progressive overload and recovery.

In linear progression, the difficulty is gradually increased every week or two. For example, we can progress the exercise using a slightly more challenging technique. Or, we can increase the load lifted, increase the number of reps or number of sets, and, as beginners become more advance lifters, we can train closer to failure.  There are many adjustments we can make to continually challenge the client and see improvements. For beginners, we like to stay in the 10 – 15 rep range to ensure safe lifting.

After 6-12 months of training, linear progress may plateau.

Take, for example, a beginner female client performing a dumbbell chest press. She might start at 5 – 8 lb to learn the path of how to press the dumbbells. She will fairly quickly progress to 10lb, 12lb and 15 lb for 15 reps. She may also gradually progress to 17.5 lb, and 20 lb for fewer reps.  We supplement with other chest-pressing exercises such as push ups (from incline, knees, full body, negatives, resistance band), and cable chest press.

Eventually she may reach a plateau where she can press 25 lb for 15 reps, 30 lb for 10-12 reps and 35 lb for 5-8 reps. The jump to 40 lb chest press may be too ambitious for a linear progression. This is where wave periodization is very effective.

Wave periodization

The idea behind wave periodization is that there is benefit to working in different rep ranges. For my clients at Vital Active Living, I call these 5-10-15 workouts.

Research now shows that there are strength and muscle gains at all rep ranges.

Typically, a lower rep range refers to using the heaviest weight you can safely lift with proper technical form for 5 reps. This generally builds strength as the body learns to recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers.

The 10 rep range is generally the go-to rep amount for hypertrophy. It requires a lot of muscle recruitment but also takes longer which results in an adequate amount of time under tension that is beneficial for muscle stimulation for growth.

The 15 rep range is good for improving muscle endurance and leads to metabolic stress (the “burn”).  Researchers now believe that metabolic stress also contributes to increases in muscle size.

Traditional periodization

Using traditional periodization, you would perform a block in each of these stages. For example:

  • Block 1 (endurance) would be 15 reps.
  • Block 2 (hypertrophy) would be 10 reps.
  • Block 3 (strength) would be 5 reps.
  • Block 4 is a de-load week.

The issue is that this can be pretty exhausting. A whole workout of 5 reps is very taxing on the central nervous system. A whole workout of 15 reps is also fatiguing!

Weekly wave periodization

The idea of weekly wave periodization is that we use all three rep ranges in every workout. And the exercises rotate through the various ranges as well. Here is an example of a 5-10-15 workout:

  • The first superset will be the heavy set in the workout. For example, we will do 5 squats and 5 pull ups, for 3 to 5 sets.
  • The second superset will be the medium set. We could do 10 deadlifts and 10 bench press for 3 sets.
  • The third superset will be the light set. Make no mistake, “light” does not mean easy. This is the endurance set. It starts light, but it burns! We might do 15 reps of hip thrust and 15 reps of shoulder press.

What the actual split of exercises will depend on the number of days a week that a client trains. (Most clients will train 2 – 4 days a week, but I have used this format for myself up to 6 days a week.)

In the example above, lets call that a Day 1 workout. The next time we get to the Day 1 workout, we will change the order!

  • First, the heavy set: 5 reps of deadlifts and bench press.
  • Second: 10 reps of hip thrust and shoulder press.
  • Third, the endurance set: 15 reps of squats and band-assisted pull ups (or lat pulldowns).

We can spend leftover time at the end on accessory exercises (often 15-20 reps) aka “finishers”.

Our clients enjoy mixing it up this way. Every workout has variety. Clients see progress as we gradually increase the loads in all rep ranges.


In addition to the variety that this format gives the workouts, working through the various rep ranges is very effective. It covers the various training aspects of maximum muscle fiber recruitment, hypertrophy, endurance and metabolic stress.

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