Linear vs Undulating Periodization

Do you ever wonder how trainers plan your sessions?

The title of this article might sound like a spell out of “Harry Potter” but it is worth learning about. Periodization in simple terms is how we organize our training. Remember that having a goal without a plan is like driving our car to a destination we’ve never been to without a map or GPS. Having a plan will keep us on track but the quality and organization of this plan matters as well. Let’s dive in and examine the most popular types of organization as well as the pros and cons of each.

Our first strategy is linear periodization. Simply put, linear periodization is increasing a certain variable like weight or time, every week or every training session. Think of this as an escalator. There are negatives and positives to using this method of training. First of which, it is easy to organize your training. Say you want to building up your cardiovascular health and run a 5K. Your goal is 3.1 miles and you can run 1 mile comfortably. Increasing your running distance by a quarter mile every training session will (in theory) get you to 3.1 miles eventually. Of course, you have to be smart about how much you increase from workout to workout. Making huge jumps will result in failure while making little jumps might not get you to your goals fast enough.

On the other hand, we have undulating periodization. This method of organization varies the amount of volume (reps/sets/time) and intensity (weight lifted/speed) on weekly or monthly basis. A good visualization of undulation periodization is a graph of a certain stock’s trend. It has highs and lows but continues on an upwards trend.  One way we do things at Body Elite is vary our reps in a specific training week. For example, a person who’s in 3 times a week might see one day where they do 10 reps at a moderate weight but the next day does 8 reps at a heavier weight, then the next day does 12 reps at a lighter weight. This ensures that we don’t plateau and get a good mix of rep ranges that ensures our fitness levels stay high. Weekly undulation is just one example. We can plan out our training into biweekly and monthly plans as well. Just as linear periodization, undulating periodization has some drawbacks. First of all, it is more difficult to plan out our training. We have to plan out weeks ahead to make sure our goals are being met. However, the chance for plateau is diminished and will keep you going on track for longer than if you were to organize linearly.

So which one should you use? That question can be answered with another question. Where are you in your training/fitness level? A new client comes to me who has never lifted weights in their lives’. I would set them up with a program that increases weights linearly. Typically, an untrained individual has more of a positive reaction to lifting that results in better strength gains quicker than someone who’s been training for a while. Unfair? Believe me, it is absolutely unfair. However, this induvial will eventually plateau. This means they will not be able to continue increasing weight lifted forever. They will not be able to go heavier or they will see diminishing returns over time. This is where most people give up and quit training. Instead of quitting we just have to make adjustments to our training program. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. This is when we use undulating periodization to change our workouts and see progress again. This will increase our fitness level and allow us to progress towards our goals again.

Sean Willitts, Body Elite Personal Trainer

Sean Willitts, Body Elite Personal Trainer

Sean Willitts is an ACE certified personal trainer. He graduated from Kutztown University in 2015 with a bachelor’s in sports management and a minor in fitness. Including training at Body Elite, he is also a record holding powerlifter. He uses his practical experience and knowledge to help his clients achieve their strength and fitness goals.