Linear Vs Block Vs Undulating Periodization: It Matters Less Than You Might Think

Types of periodization are a hot topic within strength and conditioning and sports performance.  Some coaches argue that linear periodization is the best thing since sliced bread, whilst others swear blind that we should all be using block periodization or undulating or whatever other method they happen to like.

The truth is though, that it matters way less than you might think.  In this guide, we’re going to look at what periodization actually is, the three most common types of periodisation (with program examples) and how to taper periodised programs, before concluding with an analysis that might quite surprise you.

Let’s get started, shall we?

What is periodization in strength training?

Periodization is simply the changing of training stressors over time.

That’s it.

So for weight training that can mean changing…

  • The number of sets 
  • The number of reps
  • The intensity (weight used)
  • The exercise
  • The tempo
  • The rest between sets

So unless you literally just do the exact same session every single time you enter the gym, you’re doing some form of periodised training.

Planning and periodization

Of course, it’s only natural that athletes and coaches want to order and structure these changes into some kind of logical sequence, which leads us to divide training into specific timeframes.

The macrocycle:  Which is the largest timeframe, and can be anything from 6 weeks up to 4 years (an olympic quad plan).

The mesocycle:  Which is the medium timeframe, and is typically between 2 to 6 weeks long.

The microcycle:  Which is the smallest timeframe, and is used to describe a specific, repeating cycle of training.  Most often, the microcycle is simply your typical training week.

And as you can see in the diagram below, multiple microcycles make up a mesocycle, whilst multiple mesocycles make up a macrocycle.

Types of periodisation

Now that we have a general plan or structure for periodisation, it’s time to decide on the specifics.  And this is where coaches and athletes seem to absolutely lose their minds.  Hence we have a bunch of different models.

Today, to keep things simple,  I’m just going to take you through the three most common types of periodisation.

Linear periodisation

Linear periodisation is best described as the movement from volume to intensity over time.  In the world of strength training, this might mean moving from 4 sets of 10 at the start of a program, to heavy single reps at the end of a program.

So the total amount of work (sets x reps) reduces over time, as the intensity (the weight you’re lifting) goes up.

For endurance athletes the exact same process applies, the only difference is that volume will be in metres or miles, and the intensity will be a speed or heart rate zone rather than a weight.

Block periodisation

Block periodisation does exactly what it says on the tin, and uses specific ‘blocks’ of training time dedicated to specific types of training, physical qualities or adaptations (for example, fibre type)  Typically this will look like…

General Preparatory Block: In which training is very general in nature.

Specific Preparatory Block:  In which training is more sport specific in nature.

Peaking and Competitive Block:  In which training is very sport specific and fatigue is reduced ready for competition performance.

Transition Block:  In which training is easier, allowing mental and physical recuperation before the next general block.

For strength athletes and weightlifters, a general block is often a hypertrophy block, a specific block is often a strength block, and a peaking block is often a block of heavy singles or doubles.

Undulating periodisation

Undulating or ‘Non-Linear’ periodization uses more frequent variation than linear or block periodisation, opting to change training variables on a daily or weekly basis.  A daily undulating structure might look like…

Monday: Hypertrophy Focus

Wednesday: Strength Focus

Friday: Peak or Intensity Focus

Periodization training programme examples

Alright, be honest, you want to see what these different types of periodization look like as part of a programme.

I’ve got you covered.

To keep things simple, I’ve used powerlifting as my example sport, but the same overall principles apply across the board in all sports.

Example linear periodization program

Example block periodization program

Example undulating periodization program

Periodisation and tapering

For any athlete, it doesn’t really matter how you perform 90% of the time, what matters is how you perform the 10% of the time that it counts – in competition.

In other words, no one cares how good your training looks if you bomb out of your competition.

That’s where tapering or ‘peaking’ comes into play as part of your periodisation.  To be honest, it’s a big enough topic that I could write a whole separate article on it, but here’s the most important two things you need to know…

1) Peaking/Tapering works by reducing fatigue to facilitate maximal performance for a limited time.

2) Peaking can’t work forever, because a reduction in fatigue requires a reduction in training, which eventually lowers your fitness level.

So any type of periodisation that aims to peak an athlete for competition must balance these two things carefully.

Selecting periodisation based on sport

From a tapering and peaking standpoint, different types of periodisation lend themselves to different sports.

Linear and block periodisation work great for athletes who compete a few times per year (maybe one or two major plus one or two minor competitions).  This is because the peak is very predictable, and you can time a 100% effort performance for the right week of the year with a long, steady build-up.

Undulating periodisation works great for athletes who compete a lot during the year, for example football, rugby and basketball players who will likely compete more than 30 times across a year.  For these athletes, long, steady programs don’t tend to work well amidst the chaos of regular training and competition, with athletes expected to be ‘peaked’ for most of the year.

By using an undulating periodization, athletes can build and/or maintain size, strength and power qualities throughout lengthy seasons, with a weekly ‘mini-peak’ in time for every competition.

Types of periodization matter way less than you might think

If you take a good look over the periodized program examples above, you should notice three really interesting things…

  1. The total volume of work is basically identical across all programs

What I mean by this is that although the arrangement of sets, reps and intensities may vary week to week per programme, if you were to average them out, the total amounts would essentially be the same.

  1. All three types of periodization follow the principles of training

As in, each programme allows for specificity, overload, variation etc. and adheres to the guiding principles of effective program design.

  1. All three types of periodization include elements of other types of periodization

For example…

  • Block periodization follows a linear reduction in sets and reps when moving from GPP to SPP or from SPP to Peaking.
  • Linear periodization follows an undulating pattern any time it utilises a ‘light’ day as part of the training week.
  • And undulating periodization uses a linear approach when it increases weights or reduces reps for a new week.

In fact, if you check out Greg Haff’s Periodization roundtable this is discussed in detail, with some of the most prominent names in strength training coming to very similar conclusions.

And what does this mean?

It means that linear, block and undulating periodization are equally effective and equally viable methods of organising training (2015 Meta-analysis). Something that Dan Baker was telling everyone back in 1994.

Frequently asked questions on periodization

Which period of periodization is the longest?

Each period or phase of a periodized program can be pretty much any length, so there’s no ‘longest’ or ‘shortest’ period.  It mainly depends on the goals of the program, the level of the athlete and the sporting calendar.

With that said, if you’re referring to the macro, meso and microcycles used to organise training, then macrocycles are the longest.

Is linear periodization good?

Absolutely, it’s an effective approach to building strength and fitness qualities.

Do beginners need periodization?

Yes, but this doesn’t mean that they need 12 or 16-week programmes.  Remember, periodization is simply the changing of training over time.  For beginners, periodization doesn’t need to be complex, it might just mean adding a few extra reps or a bit of extra weight every workout.

How do you create a periodized program?

Program design is a complex topic, and it’s probably beyond the scope of this article to go into detail about all the factors that you need to consider.  If you’re keen to learn more as a coach or athlete, then I recommend purchasing these books to give you a good grounding…

Or, an approach that I’ve taken in the past, is to get in touch with strength and conditioning coaches that you trust, or whose work looks good, and offer to pay them for an hour or two of their time to discuss periodization and program design in detail.  It’s a quick and effective way to learn fast, and to get the exact answers you need at the time you need them.

Putting it All Together: What’s the Right Periodization Model For You?

Honestly, the right model for you is simply the one that works for you (or your athletes). If it fits your sporting calendar and you’re getting stronger, faster or more powerful then that’s the approach for you.

  • Linear periodization works
  • Undulating periodization works
  • Block periodization works

As does a hybrid combination of any of the above.

So don’t overthink it, and start running a programme for a few months and tracking your results. 

After that, you can adjust as needed.

If you have any questions, feel free to pop them down in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

‘Til Next Time

Alex

Further Reading

Baker. (1994) Periodization

Haff et al. (2004) Roundtable Discussion: Periodization of Training— Part 1

Harries et al. (2015) Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Linear and Undulating Periodized Resistance Training Programs on Muscular Strength

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • Parry, A (2021). Linear Vs Block Vs Undulating Periodization: It Matters Less Than You Might ThinkAvailable from: https://sportscienceinsider.com/linear-vs-block-vs-undulating-periodization/. [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].

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Alex Parry header image
Alex Parry
British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator at Character Strength & Conditioning | Website | + posts

Alex is the Owner and Head Coach of Character Strength & Conditioning, and specialises in strength & power development for athletes.

He currently works as a Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting, and has previously delivered S&C support to gymnastics and swimming talent pathways.