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Achieve Non Stop Gains with Non Linear Programs

Using the standard strength training protocol? Consistently hitting those trusted 4x8-10 sets and reps to get those gains? If you’re seeking to burn fat and gain lean muscle mass, fluctuating your routine can speed up the process and promise you consistent results over the long haul. This fluctuation is referred to as periodization.


Used since the 1950s, periodization of resistance training refers to purposeful sequencing of different training variables (duration, volume, load, etc.). Program periodization was traditionally developed for training athletes so they can hit peak physical performance at a particular point in time, such as for a competition or game. These programs have been shown to result in greater increases in strength compared to non-periodized programs.

Furthermore, periodized programs are not only useful for athletes, studies have shown that increases in strength were seen in both men and women, trained and untrained individuals [4]. This suggests periodized programming to be a superior method of training for not only coaches, but for personal trainers and the general population.

There are various types of periodized programs, the two major types being linear and nonlinear.

Type 1: Linear Periodization

Linear periodization, or traditional periodization, uses three training phases, each lasting 4-6 weeks. The different training phases in many linear programs have a specific training goal (hypertrophy/endurance, basic strength, strength/power) beginning with high-volume low-intensity and gradually shifting to low-volume high-intensity (table 1). The goal of a linear program is to peak maximum strength/power at the time of competition, which is at the end of the last training phase- power phase [2].


Linear Periodization

Weeks 1-4 Muscular Endurance

Weeks 5-8 Hypertrophy

Weeks 9-12 Strength/Power

Table 1. Linear Periodization Model

Preparatory Period= Hypertrophy/Endurance; Transition Period=Basic Strength; Competition Period=Strength/Power

Type 2: Non-linear Periodization

Nonlinear periodization, or undulating periodization, uses a more variable approach, with training intensity and volume changing more frequently (table 2). Changes could occur daily, weekly, or biweekly.

Daily nonlinear uses a different number of reps and sets from training session to training session. For example, session 1 may require 4-6 reps, session 2: 8-10 reps, session 3: 12-15 reps. Each training phase being used for 1 session each week.

Weekly or biweekly nonlinear spends 1-2 weeks in a training phase before a change in training volume or intensity is made [2].


Daily Nonlinear Periodization

Day 1- Muscular Endurance

Day 2- Hypertrophy

Day 3- Strength

Weekly Nonlinear Periodization:

Week 1- Power

Week 2- Hypertrophy

Week 3 Strength

Week 4 Muscular Endurance

Table 2. Nonlinear Periodization Model

Given that the body takes time to adapt to a training goal and consistency is key, it would seem that nonlinear would hinder the body from becoming efficient in any training goal because of the excessive variability in programming. However, compared to linear, nonlinear increased maximum strength to a greater magnitude during the first weeks of training and resulted in more consistent strength gains throughout a 12 week training period [5].

Interestingly, the effectiveness of nonlinear is due to the fact that there is enough variation in stressors to continually make progress without allowing the body to fully adapt to all the stressors taking place. Of course, there should always be one primary goal in mind when following an exercise program whether it be muscular endurance, hypertrophy, strength, or power; nonlinear serves this requirement, but also allows for the maintenance and development of secondary fitness qualities at the same time. This is contrary to linear, where only one training goal is addressed each phase, then quickly lost once you move onto the next phase.

Improvements in hypertrophy, strength, and power are interrelated and partially dependent on one another so staying conscious of all three is recommended.

Table 3 illustrates the training goals and their levels of activity during each phase. You can see that if you only focus on one training goal, let’s say strength/power (2-6 reps), highlighted in yellow, that hypertrophy and muscular endurance remain almost completely untrained, which is highlighted in green. Stay in the strength/power phase for a prolonged period of time (4-6weeks) and you will eventually lose adaptations in hypertrophy and muscular endurance. But, if you fluctuate throughout the entire continuum on a regular basis you will remain conditioned in all areas, provide sufficient recovery to each energy system, and see greater improvements because you are able to workout more frequently.

Table 3. Repetition Maximum Continuum

This repetition maximum continuum displays a range of reps (2-20). The training goal’s font size and color code indicates its level of activity during that rep range. Notice that all training goals are present during all rep ranges, but their utilization fluctuates.

Ex. Muscular Endurance is most active from 12-20 reps, while hypertrophy, strength, and power gradually diminish and become almost completely untrained when performing over 15 reps.

It is suggested that daily/weekly variations are crucial for athletes because they ensure the avoidance of overtraining and maximize total work accomplished [3].


Overtraining can occur when the training stimulus is so great that the athlete is unable to adapt. For example, if you’re following a linear program during a 4-6 week power phase and performing explosive exercises with high intensity repeatedly with no variation, you will most likely begin seeing declining returns or even regression due to overexertion. Table 4 shows how the body normally responds to stress, named The General Adaptation Syndrome, and how this process can be interrupted with overtraining.

Table 4. General Adaptation Syndrome

The General Adaptation Syndrome was described by endocrinologist, Hans Selye and is 3 stage manner in which the body reacts to stress.

Stage 1. Alarm Stage: when the body experiences new stress or more intense stress (increase exercise intensity). Resulting in soreness and temporary drop in performance.

Stage 2. Resistance Stage: the body adapts to the stimulus and returns to more normal functioning at an elevated level. At this time the muscle continues to remodel resulting in increased performance.

Stage 3. Exhaustion Stage: Only occurs if increased stress persists for an extended period of time and athlete loses the ability to adapt to the stressor, leading to overtraining.

Overtraining often shows in the form of fatigue and decreased strength. Incorporating daily and weekly fluctuations in intensity and volume will ensure that fatigue is avoided and sufficient recovery time is provided to nourish strength gains.

For these reasons, I prefer using nonlinear periodization when designing training programs for my clients, regardless of their fitness level. To summarize everything we’ve talked about, I believe nonlinear programs are more effective in burning fat and gaining lean mass in the long term. If my clients are having an off day or just not feeling it mentally, I can easily alter our routine and continue toward our goals without skipping a beat. Nonlinear provides necessary recovery time for my extremely active clients who want to workout frequently and keeps the routine interesting, which increases adherence to the program.

If you’re interested in giving a nonlinear program a try, but are looking for a little more detail and structure, please reach out:


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