Linear periodization is the single most common method of progression seen in the wild, and for good reason: it’s the simplest and easiest to use. Unfortunately, this also makes it very easy to mess up for people who don’t approach it in the right way.
For those who may not know, linear periodization refers to a progression scheme (periodization) in which you’re progressing from week to week simply by adding weight to the bar (linearly). This is contrasted with popular non-linear periodization methods, which are more frequently seen with more advanced lifters.
So why has linear periodization gotten a bad rap, and why is it less commonly seen amongst advanced lifters? Well for one, since it’s so frequently used by novice lifters, we start to associate it with them too. One of the first steps most bros do on trying to get better is drop the linear periodization, pick up some kind of fancy non-linear periodization scheme, and never look back. It doesn’t help that most beginners do linear periodization amazingly poorly: typically, they throw weight onto the bar too quickly, quickly hit a plateau or wall, burn out, get disinterested, and move on to doing something else. Beginners rarely approach linear periodization with any degree of nuance, and they don’t know enough to make a linear scheme work well for themselves.
Sorry if dipping into a huge nerd reference is a bad idea here, but it’s like n00bs who play Bastion in Overwatch: they give the character a bad name because it’s considered to be a character that requires very little skill, when the reality is that high level players are still able to do amazing and skillful things with it.
Ideally, non-linear periodization schemes are supposed to be better, or get better results, or be less harsh on the lifter. These periodization schemes alter intensity and volume regularly throughout a training cycle, with the intention of still getting in a lot of high quality work while keeping the lifter adapting by using a variety of stimuli. In many circles, it’s accepted almost as fact that non-linear periodization is superior.
At the same time, why it’s supposed to be superior isn’t often examined. Non-linear periodization is a catch-all phrase for a lot of different periodization styles, many of which are just as different from each other as they are from linear periodization styles. I see a lot of guys on the internet who endlessly quibble over which periodization style is “best” or “perfect”, without ever really examining why or how these different styles work and what should be the theoretical underpinnings of these programs. More often than not, what it really boils down to is little more than dudes trying out a bunch of different programs, finding some that work for them and plenty that don’t, and then sticking with those programs that do work.
And that’s awesome! Honestly, I think that periodization is often over complicated, and that what matters most is getting in high quality training sessions which allow you to practice the skills you need to succeed in your goal of choice. Having a good plan is far more important than the plan itself - it’s the process of deliberate and regular training that’s the key here.
Research and Discussion
Jeremy Loenneke may be best known as the guy doing all the research on BFR, but he’s actually pretty vocal about a variety of research topics on twitter, and one of his most consistent rants is about how he feels that periodization is essentially pointless. Hell, he even wrote a research paper on it. Instead, he feels that all that matters is frequency and specificity of high quality work. I agree, though I tend to take a softer approach - I feel that periodization often makes it slightly easier for us to get in frequent and highly specific work by organizing things better than we would otherwise, but it’s certainly not magical. Regardless, he raises an effective point, and analyzes the shortcomings of much of the data on periodization to this point.
Recently, Greg Nuckols wrote an excellent defense piece on linear periodization for T Nation. In it, he analyzes some useful ways for looking at linear periodization, and points out that it’s worked well for plenty of legendary lifters. He also outlines some clear strategies for making it work well for a variety of lifters, and I agree with his conclusions wholeheartedly.
For untrained and trained subjects, periodization is probably superior to no periodization for strength gains. For untrained and trained subjects, non-linear and linear periodization probably lead to similar strength gains. The mechanism by which periodization might affect strength gains is unclear.
And from the page on hypertrophy:
For trained individuals, periodization makes little difference for hypertrophy. There is limited evidence to suggest that reverse linear is worse than linear but linear and non-linear approaches appear to have equal merit. For untrained individuals, there are conflicting indications that periodization might be superior to non-periodization and that non-linear might be superior to linear.
So to be clear: periodization is probably more important when it comes to strength than when it comes to size, some differences exist depending on your level of practice, and there seems to be no real difference between linear and non-linear approaches in terms of results.
Probably the biggest mistake n00bs make in linear periodization is adding weight waaay too fast. (If you don’t get this joke and have never seen that video, I apologize profusely for what you’re about to experience.) You see guys putting ten or twenty pounds on their bench each week, expecting this to last them for a while. Listen buddy: you know that 2.5lb plates exist, right? You know what else exists? 1 and 2 pound fractional plates.
A set of 1 or 2 pound fractional plates will run you a pretty penny, but can be massively important if you’re looking to consistently add weight over time, particularly if you’re a woman and/or if you’re working with lifts that develop more slowly to begin with. I prefer a pair of magnetic fractional plates, which are useful for adding weight to dumbbells just as easily as to barbells. With fractional plates, you can add smaller amounts which make it easier to see consistent results, particularly if you’re struggling with progressing at a given weight. Over time, you’ll theoretically need to slow down your jumps even further as you get closer to your potential, and fractional plates are there for you, man.
Making small jumps should be the name of the game when it comes to linear periodization. You can often take bigger 10-20lb jumps safely with faster-developing lifts like the squat and deadlift, but should stick to smaller 5lb or less jumps with lifts like the bench press, strict shoulder press, or other assistance work. This is one area in which machines and cable machines can be useful, since it’s usually easy to add consistent, small amounts of weight.
Another method people often don’t realize that they can use is the manipulation of rep and set ranges, as Greg mentions in his article. More work is better - and your body usually doesn’t care about the exact weight, rep range, or number of sets used. It just needs consistent overload and effort within a relatively stable range. That means that going from training with 4 reps to 5 probably isn’t going to impact my strength much, but if I suddenly started doing 15 rep sets as my primary work, along with an appropriate drop in intensity, I’m probably not going to gain strength in the 4 rep range anymore.
To take advantage of this, one method you can use to progress from week to week is simply to add reps. Usually just 1-2 at a time is fine. I tend to use this method more with assistance work that uses pretty light weights anyway. For example, if I’m doing lateral raises or biceps curls, which use relatively light weights, I might start out at 10 reps with a set weight and then just add 1-2 reps each week until I hit something like 15 or 20 reps, and then just up the weight and start over at 10 reps again. This is slow and boring, but it works, and that’s all that matters.
Likewise, you shouldn’t hesitate to add sets if needed. If you’re used to doing 3 sets of an exercise, adding a 4th or a 5th, even if those sets are using a lighter weight or are done for fewer reps, can still be useful. There’s a limit to this, however: with each set that you complete a certain movement, (provided it’s appropriately intense) you’ll find yourself getting more and more tired. At a certain point, it’s not worth it to keep adding sets, particularly with really heavy movements. General wisdom suggests that 5-6 sets are usually Enough for most people, with 7+ generally being too much. Additional sets past this point usually imply either a) you weren’t working hard enough in the first place or b) that you’re beat up and can’t continue to get good volume without a huge drop in work quality and/or heightened risk of injury.
A huge issue with linear periodization is that sooner or later, you’re going to hit a wall. This can be because of poor recovery, or because of some quirk in which your body simply isn’t prepared for the workout, or whatever - your preparedness isn’t a constantly increasing straight line, but instead varies from day to day. Sooner or later, if you keep increasing the difficulty of your workouts in some linear fashion, that means that you’re going to hit a point where your preparedness is unnaturally low, and that means that you’re going to step up to the bar and fail to complete the work you’ve written for yourself. You might have planned for 5 sets of 5, but suddenly you find that you’re doing 5/4/3/3/2 on a barbell only five pounds heavier than you were able to do a full 5 across on last week.
A concept I like to consider useful here is that of Volume at Maximal Intensity. This is just a fancy way of saying that if you added either reps or weight, you’re improving. If you added five pounds but had to drop 3 total reps in the process, then you’ve improved because you’re handling a new weight. In the above example of 5/4/3/3/2, if you can do 5/4/4/3/3 next week then you’re improving. So if you’re ever not able to complete the work, I typically recommend sticking it out another week or two, adding reps until you are able to complete the work, then adding 5lbs as usual. If you’re really struggling to add reps or weight, or you’re absolutely stagnant or getting worse from week to week, this is a bad sign and you should definitely take a deload or look into what else could be compromising your results. But so long as you’re improving in some variable, you’re improving. Again, not quick, not sexy, but it frickin works.
As you increase in intensity, another option is just to drop reps or sets as needed too. When you get hella strong, particularly in taxing lifts like the deadlift, it may be hard to do 5 sets, or to go for 5 reps. You can often still build strength, but you may need to limit it to fewer sets or reps in order to focus on high quality work. In this case, as you add weight you can simply drop reps or sets as you find them difficult to complete. In the above example of 5/4/3/3/2, you could just drop to working with 4 reps as your working set, meaning that the next time you train you can probably hit at least 4/4/4/3/2 since this is an equivalent volume. Working with doubles or even singles isn’t out of the question, though many strength programs refuse to drop below 3 for some reason.
If I’m taking a deload, or if I’m coming back from a quick break due to vacation, I’ll typically drop sets for a bit. If I spent a week travelling and had no time to train, for example, I might just drop down to 1-2 sets at my previous best weight/rep range. Then, over the next week or two, I’ll build back up to the usual 3-5 sets. From there, I just keep on progressing as normal.
Linear periodization can be slow, but it’s steady. Adding just 5lbs per week adds only 20lbs per month - but hell, after your beginner gains are over, most guys would kill for a consistent 20lbs per month on their main lifts. Doing linear periodization right requires patience, and it definitely requires that you take meticulous notes on your lifts so that you can remember what numbers to hit each week, but it can absolutely work if you do it right.
Here’s an example of a linear program - the exact program I’m following right now. Note that I’m not squatting due to an injury I’m recovering from, so you could easily replace the leg work with squatting.
Day 1 - Overhead
Push Press 5x5-6
Deficit Deadlift 5x8
Day 2 - Squat
Leg Press 5x15 (replace with Back Squat)
Pause Bench Press 5x3
(at least one rest day in between)
Day 3 - Bench
Bench Press 5x6
BB Walking Lunge 5x8/leg (replace with squat assistance work - pause squat or similar)
Day 4 - Deadlift
Traditional or Sumo Stance Deadlift 3-5x3
Strict Press 5x5-7
(at least one rest day in between)
This is the primary work for each day of the program, and is what matters the most. 5 sets might be rough for a lot of people and it certainly beats me up when it comes to deadlifting, but it’s what I’ve grown used to and what works for me. On each day of the program, I do 2-4 accessory exercises for hypertrophy - usually including back work, core work, hamstring work, arm work, or cardio, and done for 3 sets each to an appropriate level of effort. Again, simple and effective. Each time I complete the cycle, I add 5lbs to all my primary work and continue. This program has been my strategy for about 2 months, during which time I’ve consistently been putting weight on the bar without issue.
My previous program for hypertrophy was also linearly periodized, with a 4 day cycle to which you simply added weight to the primary work after each repetition of the cycle. Programming doesn’t have to be complicated. You just have to approach it in the right way.
My Take and Closing Remarks
Here’s my take on linear periodization.
Up until I started training for powerlifting, I had never followed a periodized program in any way. I just showed up at the gym and tried to hit more weight, or more reps, or whatever felt like an appropriate amount of effort. I certainly gained some muscle and remained hella lean, but I wasn’t really seeing any results in terms of gaining strength and I certainly wasn’t dieting for big changes in body composition.
The very first periodized program I ever followed was a linear one that worked by reps. Essentially, you would start off with 8 sets of 2 at a given weight, and then each time you repeated the lift you’d convert one of those sets into a set of 3. Thus, you were doing one more rep with the same weight each time you completed the workout. After 8 sessions you would simply add some set weight and repeat. Every now and then, you could test your 1RM. That was about it.
This program was still responsible for propelling me through plenty of gains, taking my deadlift from an initial ~300 to something like 450. My squat got up to 365, and my bench to 315. I fell off of that program eventually when I got bored of it, but I stuck with a similar (linear) training style for quite a while. A year and a half later at my first meet, I pulled 535, squatted 365, and benched 325.
After that, I trained at Westside. This was a disaster for me, causing me to lose a lot of weight in my deadlift while leaving my bench and squat basically stalled. After that, a brief training period of high intensity, high frequency training. (Like the Bulgarian method, but cruder - I hadn’t actually read any of the material on HIHF training at the time, so I was largely going in blind.) I remained largely stalled for a couple years while I was moving around the world, trying out a lot of new stuff, and just experimenting in general. But throughout that time, no matter how many different periodization schemes I tried, I never saw results as quickly or as consistently as I did during that first (linear) phase of my training.
This past year I’ve essentially gone through three different linear phases in a row. First was a strength-oriented phase which took my estimated 1RM deadlift to 555, then a mass-gaining phase in which I gained 30 lbs. Currently, my training is again in the linear style, and I’m in the process of passing up my old numbers within the next week or two. My total has been hampered by my inability to squat while I’m recovering from a work-related injury I sustained last year, but my deadlift and bench have been steadily improving, as have my numbers in other knee-extension related non-squatting exercises that I’ve been using as substitutes.
In any case, I’ve consistently been biggest and strongest via linear programs, with the possible exception of HIHF programs, which work well if I’m intending to peak for a meet. I’ve tried a lot of programs in a variety of periodization styles, and linear (for me) has always seemed to be the best. I might change my opinion on this as I get older and try new stuff, but thus far it seems to be the case. I’m also not arguing that linear periodization is best for everyone - just that it’s a valid option that I think a lot of people overlook.
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