Linear or Undulating Periodization for Maximal Strength & Size Gains? Latest Study Shows Both Work, Differences Between the Two Exist, But May Eventually Be Negligible

Box squats and bench presses were the "core" exercises the trainees periodized differently in the linear and undulating periodization group.
I have previously written about undulating and linear periodization (learn more). While the former term refers to the classic way of starting out with high reps and low weight and gradually decreasing to low reps and high weight, the latter denotes a periodization scheme in which you mix higher rep low eight and lower weight high rep work in a non-linear fashion.

Harries, Lubans and Callister are now the first to compare the differential effects of these types of periodization on strength and size gains in 26 adolescent male sub-elite rugby players (aged 14 to 18 years). And what they found is... well, interesting to say the least.
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Participants were randomly assigned to two different training progression models. A linear periodization program (LP) an undulating periodization program (DUP) for 12 weeks (see Table 1).
Table 1: Core exercise (back squat + bench press) progression for LP and DUP programs (Harries. 2015).
The study ran during the preseason period prior to the commencement of regular competition games. The LP and DUP groups performed their regular sports training (twice weekly 60-min rugby skill based sessions) in addition to the resistance-training program. The CON group undertook their regular sports training (twice weekly 60-min rugby skill based sessions) and were asked to refrain from performing any resistance training for the duration of the study.
Table 2: Training program session template for linear and daily undulating groups. What is important to note is that the programs differed differed only in the manipulation of volume and intensity for the back squat and bench press, not for the other exercises (Harries. 2015).
In addition to the "core exercises" (Table 1), the subjects also performed 8 auxiliary exercises (see Table 2) in the two 60-min resistance-training sessions per week. An experienced strength and conditioning coach supervised all training sessions. If you review Table 1 & 2 you will realize that the two training programs differed only in the manipulation of volume and intensity for the back squat and bench press. All other training variables were the same for both groups.
Does it make a difference that the trainees were adolescents? Obviously it could, but if you look at the studies in adult subjects, the results are similarly ambiguous. As of now, it seems as if both types of periodization work and whether one is more effective than another may depend on (a) unknown individual variables and/or (b) rarely tested previous training experience. What I would like to know is whether someone who has always been using a classic linear periodization scheme may see greater strength and size gains if he / she switches to an undulating scheme.
When performing the core strength exercises, the back squat and bench press, the heaviest load used during each training session (daily max load) was prescribed using percentages of the maximum training weight. Participants were instructed to incrementally increase the load on the barbell to achieve this daily maxload by commencement of the third set. Sets one and two of each core strength exercise during each training session were considered warm up sets and participants were instructed to use 60–70% of the daily max load on the first set, and 70–80% on the second set. For the third and all subsequent sets participants used 100% ofthe daily max load (the loading pattern for each training group is described in detail in Table 1).
Figure 1: Comparison of the increases in 1-RM box squat & bench press performance (Harries. 2015).
The results show that both, the LP and DUP groups, significantly increased their squat and bench press strength from baseline to 12 weeks. If you take a closer look at the data in Figure 1 it is yet obvious that despite the lack of significant differences for strength gains, the undulating periodization scheme yielded greater increases in box squat, while the linear scheme produced greater increases in bench press performance.
Figure 1: Comparison of the changes in muscle mass and body fat (Harries. 2015).
A more significant difference was observed for the total skeletal muscle mass which increased significantly only in the linear periodization group. That's quite interesting, because even the normal training routine lead to significant, albeit low increases in total skeletal mass. An observation that appears to suggest that an undulating periodization scheme as it was used in the study at hand should not be recommended as an adjunct to sport-specific training if increases in lean mass are the intended training outcome.
Periodization Techniques Revisited: Improved Strength & Size Gains W/ 12-Week Undulatory vs. Linear Periodization | read more
Bottom line: Overall, the differences between the two periodization schemes is yet too small to warrant credible recommendations in favor of one or the other method. Previous studies in adult populations yielded similarly inconclusive results (Hoffman. 2009). While some researchers have have reported results favoring linear periodization schemes (Hoffman. 2003), others would suggest that undulating periodization schemes have the adaptational edge (Rhea. 2002). The best advice I can give you is thus to try both and to remember that among the tried and proven methods to gain muscle strength and size, it is usually the one you haven't been doing for the past months that is the most effective one | Comment on Facebook!
  • Harries, Simon K., David R. Lubans, and Robin Callister. "Comparison of resistance training progression models on maximal strength in sub-elite adolescent rugby union players." Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport (2015).
  • Hoffman, Jay R., et al. "Comparison between linear and nonlinear in-season training programs in freshman football players." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 17.3 (2003): 561-565.
  • Hoffman, Jay R., et al. "Comparison between different off-season resistance training programs in Division III American college football players." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.1 (2009): 11-19.
  • Rhea, Matthew R., et al. "A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 16.2 (2002): 250-255.
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