Linear Vs. Non-Linear Periodisation For Size And Strength


Optimal Recovery, Maximal Progression

Periodisation of training programs is something not often talked about on the gym floor. In fact, you will only really hear about periodisation online. Come to think of it, I have never actually heard the word ‘periodisation’ being used outside of the internet! This is a shame, because periodisation is such a great way of organising your training to maximise your long term development. I guess the problem is that when you type in periodisation into Google, you are bombarded with so much information, you literally have no idea how to decipher it all.

If I am honest, most of the periodisation stuff available online is too complex and if you really start to dig deep on the subject (if you are really brave enough!), it can take you back through decades of history and research on the subject. Interesting stuff no doubt! But, only if you have plenty of time on your hands to sit down and really pick it all apart and study it. Any volunteers? This frankly, can give you a rather nasty headache! It did with me a few times! This is probably the reason why periodisation is not more commonly implemented outside of ‘elite’ lifting rings and keeps it’s presence mainly online. It’s just too complex in it’s current form to implement for ‘general’ size and strength goals. If you ask me, I would like to see more people using some form of periodisation in their programs, simply due to the longer-term benefits they offer for size and strength development. 

What is periodisation?  

Simply put: It’s the planned manipulation of training variables such as volume and intensity in order to maximise progressive overload and enhance recovery capabilities. 

The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) and Fitness-Fatigue Model (FFM)

If you want to develop size and strength over the long-term, then the goal of a periodised program is simple: to allow you to progressively increase the amount of work you can do over time (e.g. more sets, more reps and more weight) through ensuring optimal recovery. More work is needed over time to drive the necessary muscular adaptations to allow you to get bigger and stronger. But, there is something else: recovery. An often overlooked concept amongst most gym goers, but it’s the catalyst of all progress. When you subject your body to greater workloads, it takes a greater beating. It’s needs sufficient time to heal and come back stronger from all this current work before you can go at it again, with even more work loads. 

Important point to always keep in mind: When it comes to utilising more work loads over time, you need to be able to recover sufficiently. If you can not adequately recover, then it becomes impossible to do even more work over time. If that happens, then you can’t stay progressing!

GAS encapsulates the power of a periodised program in three steps:

GAS: The body will attempt to adapt to a stress in order to better meet the demands of that stress

The Alarm/Reaction Phase: The body is subjected to a new stressor for the first time (e.g. a particular weight, a certain number of reps or sets). The body will experience fatigue as it’s not adapted to handle with this new stress. This will cause soreness, stiffness and a drop in performance. 

The Resistance Phase: The body will initiate a series of internal mechanisms (e.g. enzymatic activity, signal pathways, anabolic processes) to allow it to adapt to the new stress. There will be less soreness, stiffness and fatigue and it will have better tolerance to the stress. There will also be a temporary increase in performance over previous levels (supercompensation). During this supercompensation period you will exhibit higher levels of strength. 

The Exhaustion Phase (You want to avoid this!): If the body doesn’t have the chance to adapt to the stressor (too much training and not enough rest!) then performance will go further down (rather than up), fatigue will increase and your body will begin to fall apart (heading into overtraining territory). Let’s prevent this with a proper periodised program!



FFM looks at periodisation in terms of a ‘balancing act’ between fitness and fatigue:

Trying to balance fitness (e.g. current levels of size and strength) and fatigue has effects on what is termed preparedness (this is your performance potential). Essentially, if your levels of preparedness are high, then you are likely ready to perform at a much higher level (e.g. greater strength exhibited during your following training sessions). However, this can only happen when you adequately manage fatigue.

After a training session both fatigue and your level of fitness will increase above baseline. Post-exercise fatigue increases are shorter in duration, while those of fitness, are longer in duration. It’s therefore wise to time your next session when the levels of fatigue have dissipated, but fitness is still above baseline. This then results in higher levels of preparedness because you will be able to go harder, longer and heavier in your next session. If you try and train too soon when levels of fatigue are still high, then your levels of preparedness will be lower. I mean, who can go to the max when you feel zombie-like? 

Ultimately, GAS and FFM highlight the problems that can arise when recovery is a little off. Continued increases in workloads without adequate recovery management, will simply put too much stress on your body and increase fatigue to levels in which performance starts to regress, rather than progress. For most people, they tend to either follow programs that are high-intensity, or high-volume in nature. While you will make progress following one or the other, there reaches a point in which the body just can’t adequately recover from all the, I like to call, ‘accumulated intensity- or volume-specific work’. Managing both intensity and volume in your program, is a much better way of allowing your body to deal with increasing amounts of both over time. 


Types Of Periodisation?

In periodised programs, planning and manipulation of training will usually occur across time periods: macrocycle (this usually spans over 12 months). This looks at the broader training plan. Mesocycle (this usually spans 1-4 months). This looks at how each skill (such as strength, hypertrophy) is organised. Microcycle (this usually spans 1 week) and looks at how variables such as reps, sets and weight are manipulated. By splitting your entire training plan into smaller chunks, it makes it easier to plan and manipulate your training variables.

It’s important to keep in mind that periodisation of training was primarily implemented to allow athletes to develop many different qualities like strength, power, speed, size that they would need for their competition events. In this article, I am taking about periodisation use for general size and strength development, not for competition preparations. 

Linear periodization (LP)

LP is termed the ‘classical’ form of periodisation, since it was the first form of periodisation to arise. Simply put, LP involves starting off with high-volume, low-intensity work, and as you transition through the macrocycle (say 12 months), the volume is gradually reduced and the intensity is gradually increased (Brown, 2001). However, the macrocycle of a LP scheme will consist of mesocycles (each say 4 weeks) in which you will tend to stick with a desired set and rep range throughout a given mesocycle (Hoffman et al, 2003). As you progress into the next mesocycle, the rep and set range will be adjusted.

Typically in a LP scheme, you will transition from hypertrophy-based work (higher volumes, higher rep ranges) to more strength-based work (higher intensities, lower rep ranges). By starting with higher-volume based work, the higher repetition ranges will support increased muscular hypertrophy, thus acting as the ‘platform’ for higher maximum strength gains later (Kok et al, 2009). Likewise, the higher-intensity work in later mesocycles will act to ‘stress’ the neural properties of this muscle tissue, leading to the expression of maxima strength (Kok et al, 2009). With LP, your progress will typically come from increasing the weight for your given rep and set ranges week to week, up until the end of the program.  

Benefits Of LP For General Size And Strength?

Easy to program and structured. The repetition ranges and set ranges in each mesocycle are determined. It’s simply trying to increase the weight on a weekly basis.

Negatives Of LP For General Size And Strength?

LP is split into distinct mesocycles of either high-volume or high-intensity. Depending on the length of each mesocycle, long-periods of high-volume are likely to cause recovery issues through ‘volume accumulation’ (depending on the individual) and long-periods of high-intensity are likely to cause neural fatigue compromising strength development.

Spending long periods of time on either high-volume or high-intensity makes it difficult to maintain the qualities of each. Spending a long-time focusing on high-intensity may make it difficult to maintain the hypertrophic benefits of high-volume. Likewise, spending long periods of time doing high-volume, might make it difficult to maintain the maximum strength capabilities developed during high-intensity training. 


A typical ‘pure’ LP scheme (with NO undulating elements)


Non-Linear Periodisation (NLP)

With NLP, volume- and intensity-driven training is changed on a much more frequent basis.   Typically with NLP, the volume and intensity can be changed through the training week, with different repetition ranges being utilised between each training session (daily NLP) or, on a weekly/bi-weekly basis, in which repetition ranges are changed between weeks (Fleck 2011). Unlike LP, NLP allows for you to train for both qualities (size and strength) within the same mesocycle. In an NLP resistance training program, progressive overload will come from an increase in weight, reps or sets over the training period.

Benefits of NLP For General Size And Strength? 

By varying training volume and intensity more frequently, it’s likely that you will be able to better retain the hypertrophy and maximum strength qualities you develop from each.

There will be better reinforcement between higher volume and higher intensity sessions. Since you are more likely to retain the qualities developed from both, they are likely to reinforce each other better. In other words, hypertrophy for further strength gains, and strength gains for further hypertrophy.  

Better management of workloads. There will be more time to recover from higher volume and higher intensity work since it will be varied more frequently. This is contrast to LP whereby long periods of only high-volume or high-intensity training, are likely to lead to recovery issues through ‘accumulative effects’. NLP avoids this problem.   

Negatives Of NLP For General Size And Strength?

Slightly more planning required in terms of manipulating variables!

Depending on how often volume and intensity are manipulated, it might make it difficult to fully develop both hypertrophic and maximum strength qualities. You are no longer spending long periods of time on either higher volume or higher intensity training unlike in LP. 

*It’s important to note that even LP might be considered a form of NLP due to the fact that it also contains fluctuations in work load during the week (microcycle), in order to maximise training frequency and reduce possible overtraining effects. This is probably achieved by adding in ‘light’ training days (of low intensity, higher repetitions) during the training week in order to enhance recovery and keep training frequency high (Brown, 2001). Therefore given this and the potential disadvantages of LP, you might be better off with NLP! 

NLP Scheme.jpg

A typical NLP (daily) scheme. Reps and set are changed BETWEEN training sessions WITHIN the same week, but they stay the same, BETWEEN DIFFERENT WEEKS.

LP Vs. NLP For Strength And Hypertrophy?

So, both LP and NLP provide ways of managing volume and intensity in order to maximise adaptations from both (hypertrophy and maximum strength development), while ensuring optimal recovery. However, an important question to ask is: is one form of periodisation better than the other for strength/hypertrophy development? What does the science tell us?

Study 1

In a study by Simao et al (2012), the effects of NLP and LP resistance training were utilised to study their effects on muscle thickness and strength. 30 untrained men were split into either NLP resistance training or LP resistance training groups. The NLP resistance training group trained for 12 weeks, alternating between volume and intensity every two weeks for weeks 1-6, and then daily every week for the last 6 weeks. The LP resistance training group progressed from higher volume to higher intensity training throughout the 12 week period. A control group did not undergo any resistance training. It was found that both LP and NLP after 12 weeks produced significant increases in 1RM strength, while the NLP group exhibited greater increases in muscle thickness than the control group.

This suggested that NLP might produce better strength and hypertrophy gains over a 12 week period compared with LP.

Study 2

In a study by Monteiro et al (2009), the effects of NLP, LP and non-periodised (NP) resistance training programs on maximum strength (1RM) development were investigated in  27 resistance trained men. The NLP, LP and NP resistance training programs were broken down into 4 mesocycles (4 weeks in length) and each week there were 4 training sessions, with one rest day. In the NP training program, the repetitions and sets were kept constant through the entire program. With the LP training program, participants started off with high volume (3 sets, 12-15 repetitions) training, working towards the end of the training cycle with high-intensity training (3 sets, 4-5 repetitions). Finally, the NLP group underwent daily fluctuations in the number of sets and repetitions performed. At the end of each mesocycle in each training group, there was a recovery weak (microcycle) consisting of reduced work load. In this study, it was found that the NLP group was the only group to significantly increase 1RM in bench press and leg presses throughout the entire 12 week training period. With significant increases after 4 weeks, then from 4-8 weeks and finally, 8 weeks to post-training. The LP group increased 1RM in the bench and leg presses up to 8 weeks into the training period. However, after 8 weeks, LP produced no further increases in 1RM strength. In the NP group, there were no strength increases after 12 weeks of training.

Therefore, this study suggested that NLP training routines are the most effective for increasing maximum strength in a 12 week training period. 

Study 3

In a study by Miranda et al (2011), 20 resistance trained men underwent either 12 weeks of LP resistance training or NLP (daily) resistance training. Both groups performed 4 training sessions per week. Each resistance training program was split into 4 mesocycles (each lasting 4 weeks). In the LP training group, participants started off the program with high-volume training (3 sets, 8-10 repetitions) and gradually working towards higher-intensity training (3 sets, 4-6 repetitions). With the NLP group, participants underwent daily changes in the number of sets and repetitions used (3 sets, 8-10 repetitions, 6-8 repetitions and 4-6 repetitions). In both groups, week 13 consisted of testing 1RM and 8RM. At the end of the training period, both LP and NLP was found to produce significant increases in 1RM and 8RM on the leg and bench presses. However, it was found that NLP produced greater effect sizes in 1RM and 8RM loads for bench and leg presses.

This study suggested that both NLP and LP can produce significant gains in strength and muscular endurance in individuals, the NLP method likely has the upper hand in producing superior maximum and sub maximal strength over a 12 week period. 

So What Is The Verdict?

Looking at the studies (there are many of them, so I haven’t listed them all!), it’s clear that both LP and NLP of resistance training programs, provide superior benefits for strength and hypertrophy development over NP training programs. Furthermore, it’s likely that NLP may provide additional benefits for size and strength development over LP programs (although it’s not really understood what the trigger for this might be). 

So, what can say about these results? Well, it’s pretty clear why LP and NLP resistance training programs are superior over NP for size and strength development: they maximise the benefits of both higher-volume and higher-intensity training through optimised recovery capabilities. It’s highly likely then that through better recovery, it’s possible to progressively overload (in terms of both volume and intensity) for longer, and thus the potential for more size and strength gains over time is greater. With NP training programs, keeping repetitions and sets the same throughout the entire training period is likely to cause significant issues with recovery through lack of volume and intensity management. This could explain why a NP training program failed to increase strength after 12 weeks of training (Monteiro et al, 2011).

Why might NLP resistance training programs produce better results over LP ones? Even though there is no clear answer yet for this, it’s possible that the more frequent variation in both volume and intensity (through changes in repetition ranges and sets) in comparison to LP, allows for better prevention of ‘volume- and intensity-accumulated effects on recovery’, while providing better reinforcement between the two qualities themselves. It might not be much of a surprise then why NLP likely holds the slight upper hand over LP for size and strength development!

Ultimately, if you are looking long-term, then a periodised program is probably going to give you better size and strength development over a NP plan. Regular variation in volume and intensity (especially with NLP) is going to allow you to maximise the qualities gained from both, while allowing for better recovery. Overall, this will make progressive overload more successful for you over the long-term! More gains! Therefore, NLP gets my vote for long-term size and strength training programming. 

Any questions, ask away!


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