Step Loading Periodization

by Dr. Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., CSCS*D

February 10, 2017


As previously discussed in order to continually make gains we need to combine a new training stimulus with enough rest and recovery to adapt. Before beginning it’s important to understand that we have different ways to increase the load on the body. Loading can be any of the 3 categories:

Stimulatory – above what you are used to
Retaining – maintenance of training stimulus
Detraining – below what you are accustomed to

What is Step Loading?


Most guys and gals in the gym deflect to a standard loading. They go into the gym, provide a new workout, but keep performing that workout for weeks on end. The result is that what was initially a stimulatory load, eventually becomes nothing more than a retaining or detraining load. A second method is called linear loading. In this case, in order to avoid a plateau, you continually try and up the weight or volume each week. While this may work initially, eventually the load will overwhelm you and you will likely overreach or over train. The solution to this problem may lie in a procedure known as step loading.

Standard step loading is a method in which intensity and or volume are increased for three to four weeks, followed by a decline in volume on the final week. This allows for full recovery. Each step loading cycle is followed by a cycle which has slightly (2-3%) greater volume or intensity This method pre factors in progressive resistance and rest and is a tried and true method to gaining strength and size!

Practical Applications

Step loading can occur by increasing volume or load. For example, say you were doing squats. You could begin with 4 sets each workout, move to 6 on week 2, and 8 on week three. After the 8 sets week you will likely be extremely taxed. At this point, you might move back to a pure maintenance volume of 2-3 sets in a workout.

Remember that step loading occurs from week to week, but also from cycle to cycle. If we consider a cycle four weeks, then each cycle should be progressively harder. In addition, to step loading some athletes do a cycle in which they take the 3rd week and extend it to the fourth week (two high volume weeks straight). When you select this it is important that you have 10-14 days of lowered volume. This is brutal but is a great plateau breaker!

You should also realize that step loading by increasing your volume can be done several ways. First, you can simply increase the weights, reps, and sets. Second, you can select exercises that naturally increase your volume. For example, on your hardest week, you might have squats, leg presses, and deadlifts all in the same workout. In this case compound movements allow for greater volume. However, in your light retaining load week you would opt for just one compound movement with the remainder being isolation.