Linear Periodization versus Undulating Periodization

Periodization is a cyclic structure of training designed to maximize performance, manage fatigue, and minimize plateaus (1).

It can be implemented in many forms, however, at its most basic level it incorporates planned variation in loading and volume over the course of a training cycle.

This is in contrast to a typical ‘bro-like’ approach to training, which usually entails performing the same set-rep scheme with no variation in loading.

While periodized resistance training can be incorporated in a variety of forms (2), the most common forms are linear periodization (LP) and undulating periodization (UP).

Linear periodization (or ‘traditional periodization’) typically involves training with high volume and low intensity and transitioning to lower volumes and higher intensities over the course of several mesocycles (3).

Undulating (or ‘non-linear’) periodization, on the other hand, involves variation in loading and volume on a more frequent basis (3).

While linear periodization typically involves staying in the same loading zone over an entire mesocycle before transitioning into a different loading zone, undulating periodization can change the loading zone on a daily, weekly, or bi-weekly basis.

Some experts have proposed that this frequent variation in training stimuli associated with UP will elicit superior training adaptations compared to LP (4).

This is because the lengthy time periods spent in a specific loading zone during a Linear program may cause you to lose the adaptations that you made in the previous training cycles (4).

Given this notion, many trainers praise undulating periodization as the be-all-end-all for optimizing muscle and strength gains.

However, direct research onto the matter may not be so definitive.

A meta-analysis by Harries et al. directly compared the effects of LP to UP for eliciting strength gains (5).

Surprisingly, the researchers found no differences between periodization models for improving strength.

Contrasting these findings, a more recent meta-analysis by Caldas et al. found undulating periodization to be superior to linear periodization for increasing maximal strength, but not for increasing hypertrophy or muscular endurance (6).

The authors note that their divergent findings from Harries et al. may be due to the larger pool of studies included in their meta-analysis compared to the one by Harries et al (6).

Some people have speculated whether training status moderates the effect of LP or UP for maximizing strength gains.

However, the meta-analysis by Caldas et al. found that the training status of the participants did not influence the results (6).

Given the available evidence, it appears that undulating periodization may be superior to linear periodization for maximizing strength, however, the jury is still out on whether this is truly the case.


My Thoughts

Personally, I was surprised that Caldas et al. did not find a difference between periodization models for muscle hypertrophy, considering the linear model involves lengthy time periods spent training with a low amount of volume.

Given the clear relationship between volume and muscle growth (7–9), I would have expected the undulating model to be superior to the linear model for increasing muscle size.

Speaking of the fact that there were no differences found between models for muscle growth, it cannot be suggested that the greater strength gains from UP are due to greater muscle gains.

Given this point, Caldas et al. speculate that the UP model may allow for better neural adaptations to occur which are conducive to strength gains (6).

As a final note, it must be stated that most periodization studies are short in duration (usually around 12 weeks), which is a glaring limitation of periodization research (10).

Considering periodization is meant as a long-term approach to training (11), longer-term studies are needed to fully gauge the efficacy of different periodization models for eliciting muscle and strength gains.

See you next time.



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  2. Evans JW. The Science of Weight Training. July 2017.
  3. Fleck SJ. Non-linear periodization for general fitness & athletes. J Hum Kinet. 2011 Sep;29:41–5.
  4. Poliquin C. Five steps to increasing the effectiveness of your strength training program. Strength Cond J. 1988 Jun;10(3):34–9.
  5. Harries SK, Lubans DR, Callister R. Systematic review and meta-analysis of linear and undulating periodized resistance training programs on muscular strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Apr 1;29(4):1113–25.
  6. Caldas LC, Guimarães-Ferreira L, Duncan MJ, Leopoldo AS, Leopoldo AP, Lunz W. Traditional vs. undulating periodization in the context of muscular strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Int J Sports Sci. 2016;6(6):219–29.
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  9. Radaelli R, Fleck SJ, Leite T, Leite RD, Pinto RS, Fernandes L, et al. Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 May;29(5):1349–58.
  10. Afonso J, Nikolaidis PT, Sousa P, Mesquita I. Is Empirical Research on Periodization Trustworthy? A Comprehensive Review of Conceptual and Methodological Issues. J Sports Sci Med. 2017 Mar;16(1):27–34.
  11. Stone MH, O’bryant HS, Schilling BK, Johnson RL, Pierce KC, Haff GG, et al. Periodization: effects of manipulating volume and intensity. Part 1. Strength Cond J 1999 Apr;21(2):56–62.