Linear Versus Non-Linear Periodization: Which is More Effective?

November 8, 2015 Cathe Friedrich

Linear Versus Non-Linear Periodization: Which is More Effective?

You may already be familiar with the concept of periodized strength training. Periodization is basically organizing your training into periods or cycles where you work on a particular fitness goal during a particular cycle. For example, during one cycle, you might do high-volume, low-intensity training to build muscle endurance and in the next cycle emphasize high-intensity, low-volume lifts to enhance strength.

Periodization is typically broken into distinct rotations that last for a certain period of time. The rotations are referred to as macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. A macrocycle refers to the entire training period, which might be a year or even two years. Mesocycles are “mini-cycles” usually from two weeks to two months while a microcycle, an even shorter cycle, may last a few days up to a week.

What’s the purpose of periodizing a workout? By cycling through periods where you vary the volume and intensity, you can better avoid the issue of overtraining. Plus, periodization allows you to pursue more than one fitness goal at a time – building muscle endurance, building muscle size, enhancing strength etc. during a macrocycle.

Another reason to periodize your resistance-training workouts – some studies show it’s a more effective way to train with regard to building strength and improving body composition. Studies show that even over relatively short training durations of 2 weeks to 2 months, the equivalent of the average mesocycle, gains are greater with periodized training. Sounds like a pretty good reason to do it, doesn’t it? Plus, you’re less likely to become bored and lose your motivation when you’re changing the intensity and volume of your training at intervals.

Linear Periodization

Periodization actually comes in two different “flavors:” linear (STS) and non-linear  (XTrain) periodization. With linear periodization, you progress through each cycle in a linear fashion. As you move through a cycle, you gradually increase the intensity and reduce the volume of your training. For example, during the first cycle, you might focus on muscle endurance by using a load that’s 60 to 70% of your one-rep max and higher reps. (greater than 12).

During the second cycle, you might increase the load to 70 to 85% of your one-rep max and reduce the number of reps to 6 to 10 for hypertrophy gains. In the final cycle, you increase the load further to 80 to 90% of your one-rep max and reduce the volume further by doing 2 to 5 reps per set, so your focus is during this cycle is on strength.

Non-Linear Periodization

Unlike linear periodization where you increase the intensity and lower the volume in a stepwise manner, non-linear periodization doesn’t follow this regular pattern. The most common type of non-linear periodization is called undulating periodization.

With this type of periodization schedule, training volume and intensity doesn’t follow a distinct pattern and may change on a session by session basis. During one session, you might do high reps, low intensity and the next high intensity, low volume. By doing this you expose your muscles to variable amounts of stress from session to session.

One reason for varying the stimulus you place on your muscles on a day-by-day basis is your muscles don’t get a chance to adapt to any one stimuli, yet you’re still maintaining structure since you’re doing similar exercises on a daily basis -squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, biceps curls etc. You’re only varying the intensity and volume from day to day. What undulating periodization is NOT is doing whatever exercises you feel like doing on a particular day. There’s still underlying structure – but it’s variable or undulating structure.

What Does Science Say?

Research suggests that undulating periodization is slightly superior to linear periodization in terms of hypertrophy and strength gains. However, linear periodization provides more structure and may help to keep an exerciser more focused on achieving their specific fitness goal. Linear periodization also helps to to teach and make an exerciser more aware of the importance of slowly increasing their resistance weight over time to continually challenge their body with the increased  weight load.

In one study, two groups of trained participants did similar workouts and trained 3 times weekly. The only variable was the periodization schedule they used. One group used linear periodization and the other undulating periodization. At the end of 12 weeks, the differences between the two groups were significant. The undulating periodization group experienced almost double the improvement in strength for bench press and leg press.

Which Periodization Structure is Best?

If you plan on periodizing your training, the undulating periodization model appears to be the most effective approach based on the current literature for increasing hypertrophy and strength, but both linear and non-linear periodization are more effective when than non-periodized workouts. Linear and undulating aren’t the only approaches to periodization, but they’re the most popular.

Two other forms of periodization, step-wise and overreaching, are more advanced approaches. With step-wise periodization, training intensity increases as volume drops off in a step-wise fashion over a training period. The other approach, overreaching, is mostly used by competitive athletes. With this type of periodization, training intensity increases for a week or so and then returns to baseline training level. Keep in mind that periodization can be applied to other types of workouts as well, including endurance training. You simply vary the stimulus you place on your muscles or cardiovascular system in cycles.

The Bottom Line

So is periodization really better? Yes, it is based on current research. Periodized training, whether linear or undulating, is more effective than non-periodized training. Of the main types of periodized training schedules, undulating periodization leads to greater strength gains than linear periodization because your muscles get little opportunity to adapt to the stimulus you’re placing on them. Still, both methods have their advantages and disadvantages and both methods are more effective than non-periodized workouts.

Whichever approach you take, periodization can help you gain strength and size and reduce your risk for overreaching or overtraining. It also keeps things fun and interesting so your motivation level stays high. How about you? Do you periodize your workouts, and if so, do you periodize them linearly or undulate them, or do you do both methods?



Periodization: Latest Studies and Practical Applications. By Christopher C. Frankel and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.

Strengtheory. “The Bogeyman of Training Programs (and why it may be just what you need)”

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2002, 16(2), 250-255.

Florida State University. “Optimizing Periodization and Program Design Muscle Performance

Adaptations. Michael C. Zourdos, Ph.D., CSCS.

ACE Fit Facts. “Periodized Training and Why It Is Important”


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