Linear Periodization: A Ridiculously Simple Way to Get Stronger

I’ve recently went back and thought about the early days of my own training. I’d just go into the gym, add weight to the bar or machine whenever I could, and try to outdo my previous best efforts in a number of different rep ranges on the big exercises. And you know what? It worked…that is until I thought-and maybe you did too-I was getting more advanced and needed shiny new techniques that the “pros”, “bros” and “gurus” were advocating.

Sometimes, in the pursuit of increased strength, size and fitness, we become way too smart for our own good and abandon the tried, true and tested methods which had us gaining to begin with. Basic linear periodization is a prime example. If it was a staple in the training of some of the strongest people ever to walk the planet-guys like Ed Coan, Fred Hatfield, and Lamar Grant-and it worked for them-for YEARS- chances are it will work for you too. These guys would simply pick a meet, and over 12–16 weeks, they would add weight to the bar and drop reps until they were primed to hit a personal record on the day of competition.

So before you consider block periodization, the conjugate method, the Bulgarian method, undulating periodization, drop sets, chains and bands, or morphing a bunch of these methods together, just do me a favor: get a rep max calculator handy and give the simpler (not easy) linear approach a try.

The basic idea behind linear periodization is simple: start with moderate weights and higher reps, add weight to the bar each week, and, over the course of several weeks, gradually work up to heavier absolute weights and lower reps. The idea is to try NOT to lose reps as the weeks go on. Now, of course, you will…but TRY WITH EVERYTHING YOU HAVE NOT TO! This is where using a rep max calculator comes into play: as long your 1 rep max is projecting higher, even if you are losing reps, you are on the right track. For those who don’t want to use a rep max calculator, here is a little “hack” sheet for you:

70%=12 rep max

75%=10 rep max

80%=8 rep max

85%=5 rep max

90%=3 rep max

Now, the above is inexact. Training age and strength level will influence how many reps someone can do with any particular percentage of 1RM: a very strong guy who has been training for many years and is technically proficient will be able to perform fewer reps at any given percentage of absolute strength when compared to a newbie who is relatively weak and who has only been training a year. That being, said, rep max performance is still a very valuable tool and indicator of progress. So use it.

The way I implement linear periodization combines rep max weeks and higher volume weeks at a certain rep max number. One week, you’ll do only ONE top set (with 2 back down sets) and try to perform as many reps as possible. The following week, you’ll add a little weight and perform 5 sets at about half your rep max number from the prior week. The idea here is to alternate intensity (in terms of momentary effort) weeks with volume weeks where you end performing 2–2.5 times the number of reps you could do in one all out set.

Here is what a theoretical example would be for a guy who can currently bench press 280 lbs. for a single rep and wants to get stronger:

Week 1: 1 set of maximum reps at 70% of 1 RM 195x12

Week 2: 5 sets of 6 (one half 12 RM) 200 5x6

Week 3: 1 set of maximum reps 205x11 (projected max now at 282 or 72.5% of max)

Week 4: 5 sets of 5–6 (one half 11 RM) 210 5x5

Week 5: 1 set of maximum reps 215x10 (projected max now at 286 or 75% of max)

I think you get the gist of it. You would just continue like this week to week until you got down to rep max weeks of 5’s or 3’s. The interesting thing about this method is that you’ll find “sweet spots” in terms of rep ranges for specific exercises and you’ll gain like crazy-projecting out higher in terms of 1 RM-and be able to add weight to the bar each week without losing reps. Each person-and each exercise-has their own sweet spots.

For example, in my case, I’ve never gained well doing over 3 reps in an overhead press. I’m awful with sets of 6–10 and my maximum strength will project lower and I’ll lose reps each week as I add weight. Then, I’ll get into rep max sets of 3’s on rep max weeks, and multiple sets of 1–2 on volume weeks, and I’ll gain like crazy for 5–6 weeks and end up with a much higher 1 RM at the end of a the cycle. For squats, it’s the exact opposite: I thrive and gain at lower percentages and higher reps and plummet with heavier loads and lower reps. However, in the end, the goal is to end up stronger in terms of how your 1RM estimates at the end of a cycle.

A few other notes and tidbits:

• Only use this linear periodization technique on ONE exercise each workout. You could bench on Monday, squat on Tuesday, Chin ups/Pull ups on Thursday, and Deadlift on Friday or Saturday (or whatever your preference is). If you do a body part split, just choose one exercise for each body part per workout and work it like that.

• Each week, add 2–5 lbs. on upper body exercises and 5–10 lbs. on lower body exercises.

• On rep max/intensity weeks, warm-up is KEY. Do 3–5 ramp up sets to the top weight of the day and THEN perform 1 rep with the actual rep max weight, rest, and perform another single rep about 10% heavier than your rep max weight for the day. Rest two minutes and THEN perform your rep max test. You’ll benefit from the post activation potentiation from handling a heavier weight and perform better. If you get down to rep max sets of 3–5, you might nix the single rep at rep max weight and simply do an overloaded hold (squat walkout, bench hold, etc.) before you do the rep max test.

• On rep max/intensity weeks, perform 2 back off sets, resting about 90 seconds between each, with about 10–15% less than your rep max weight and try to match your reps from your rep max weight. For example, if you squatted 225x10 on your rep max, drop down to 200 and try to get two sets of 10.

• On volume weeks, if you feel really good, don’t stop at 5 sets…try to get 6 or 7 at one half your rep max from the prior week. Conversely, if you feel fried, maybe you only do 4 sets. Auto regulate.

Wrap Up

If you’ve reached a plateau or stalled out using fancy methods and techniques, or THINK you need these methods to get moving again, please take my advice and give linear periodization a shot. Sometimes simply “doing what you got you there” is the best remedy for a plateau. If it worked for guys that totaled over 2000 lbs. in powerlifting, it’s probably good enough for you as well. Train hard!

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