Why Linear Periodization Sucks for Hypertrophy

Tom MacCormick

Strength and Conditioning, Personal Training, Sports Science

We have all heard the clichés and truisms along the lines of “failing to plan is planning to fail,” or “a goal without a plan is just a wish.” These phrases have become popular because they are true. Building muscle is no different. To maximize your results, you must create an individualized plan that matches your goals. A roadmap to guide your way to bigger muscles. In the world of sports science, this plan is referred to as periodization.

 

Periodization is simply, “…the planned manipulation of training variables to maximize adaptation.” It was first utilized by Russian sports physiologist Leo Matveyev way back in the 1950s. It proved incredibly successful at producing peak performance in athletes.

 

 

An effective training program should integrate the planned manipulation of training variables to tax, stimulate, and overload the underlying systems of the adaptations you’re trying to elicit. If increased muscle mass is your goal, then your training should be directed towards achieving this. It is for this reason that I believe traditional, linear periodization has let so many of us down in the pursuit of hypertrophy.

 

Why Linear Periodization Doesn’t Help Hypertrophy

Linear periodization is the most common and widely used form of periodization. This model starts with a high volume of low intensity training, and gradually progresses to a lower volume of high intensity work. It is exceptional for strength and power sports (e.g., weightlifting, powerlifting, sprinting, etc.). Over time, you overload your body through intensity (as a % of 1RM).

 

The widespread popularity and awareness of linear periodization has caused almost everyone to view progress through weight on the bar. Sports science experts have popularized a paradigm where overload is almost exclusively viewed through the lens of intensity. In sports where absolute strength is the differential, this makes perfect sense. For competitive bodybuilding or recreational training in pursuit of increased muscle, this doesn’t make sense.

 

While there is an intensity element to training for hypertrophy, it is not as important a consideration as it is for sports performance. After all, numerous research papers report equal gains in hypertrophy when training at using very light loads, very heavy, or anything in between. In essence, hypertrophy can be stimulated across a very wide intensity spectrum. Intensity is definitely a factor to consider when planning your muscle-building training, but it is not the key factor.

 

Volume, on the other hand, has been found to have a dose-response relationship with hypertrophy. This means that more training volume equals more hypertrophy (until you exceed your capacity to recover). Thus, you should strive to do more volume over time to overload this key driver of hypertrophy. Linear periodization schemes do exactly the opposite. They progressively reduce training volume in favor of higher intensities.

 

You might be thinking, “why not just increase volume and intensity?” Well, intensity and volume are inversely related. As one goes up the other must come down. Short-term, you can increase both, but done for any length of time, you will over-train, get injured, or both. As such, you must pick one to emphasize during a phase of training. Chase two rabbits and you catch none.

 

Linear periodization overloads on intensity, but following this approach violates the principle of overload in relation to volume. Given that volume is the key driver of hypertrophy, this makes no sense. Instead, you should strive to train in a manner which allows you to do more hypertrophy-inducing work over time.

 

Reverse to Make Progress

In a reverse linear model, intensity reduces over time and volume increases. From a hypertrophy standpoint, this progression makes perfect sense. Brad Schoenfeld describes reverse linear periodization as a “…variation of the traditional periodization model specifically designed to maximize hypertrophy.”

 

Based on our current understanding of the mechanisms of hypertrophy, he says that reverse linear periodization has a “logical basis” for increasing hypertrophy. At this moment, there is a distinct lack of research in this area. As such, the best we can do is to create training programs that progressively stimulate the underlying mechanisms of hypertrophy. As things stand, I cannot think of a better periodization scheme than the reverse linear model. It allows you to continue to progressively overload the key driver of hypertrophy: volume. Rather than doing less and less work at higher intensities like you would with a traditional linear model, you do more and more muscle-building work.

 

Here is how successive blocks of training might look in a reverse linear periodization scheme:

 

  Block 1 Block 2 Block 3
Sets & Reps 3 x 6-8 @ 75-80% 3 x 8-12 @ 70-75% 3 x 12-15 @ 65-70% *

* Could utilize drop sets, supersets, tri-sets, rest/pause, occlusion training etc. in Block 3

 

Follow this with a strength block, doing most of your work in the 4-6 rep range at around 85% 1RM. Then, repeat the process starting at block 1, if your focus is on adding more muscle mass. If, however, you want to diet down to reveal the muscle you’ve built, then this is a perfect time for a cutting phase.

 

By following this approach, each phase builds on the previous one and potentiates the next. It enables you to consistently overload via training volume: the key variable for hypertrophy. Thus, it can be considered a hypertrophy-specific periodization scheme, rather than just a modification of a model designed sports performance.

 

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