Linear periodization: why does it work?

Linear periodization is one of the most tried and true methods for getting stronger and more muscular, and has been so for nearly 70 years. The concept is simple: add weight every time you lift. Of course, the only way this can be done for a protracted period of time is to begin the progression at a relatively low intensity (% of your 1RM) and slowly add weight in small increments — usually 5lbs. This also tends to work only with heavier compound movements — trying to add 5lbs each workout to your dumbbell curls, for example, would cause you to plateau very quickly. That's why linear periodization tends to focus on compound lifts like the squat, bench press, and dealift where adding weight in small increments week after week is attainable.

Sooner or later, even on the big lifts, you'll plateau. This is followed by a "de-load" in which the weight is reduced by a prescribed amount, and the progression begins anew. Eventually this cycle will stall as well, and the set/rep prescription can be changed. So while you may start with 5 sets of 5 reps, you might switch to 5 sets of 3 reps and begin another linear progression.

Make no mistake about it — this method works. People really do get stronger, sometimes dramatically so. But why? What's so special about linear periodization and de-loading? Most research indicates that in order to stimulate an adaptation in muscle size and strength, you have to train at a pretty high degree of intensity. So what are those lower-intensity workouts doing? "Neural adaptation"? Maybe. But often the lifters using these programs are very experienced. I have another, more simple hypothesis: lifting with lighter weight cures lousy form.

In my experience, most people train heavier than they should. There's a time and a place to push weight to the max, but that is not in regular training. A squat, for example, typically looks like this:

  • Rapid drop
  • Bounce out of the bottom position, using momentum
  • Partial range of motion (i.e., not to parallel or below)
  • Forward lean to take stress off the legs and use the hips, almost like a 'good morning'
  • Strain at the midpoint above parallel (about 70°)
  • Explosive lock-out followed by a pause to take several breaths before the next rep

What an optimal squat should look like is this:

  • Steady, controlled descent
  • Control out of the bottom position
  • Smooth, powerful push upward, maintaining perfect posture (chest upright)
  • Stopping short of lockout and immediately descending into the next rep

The first way is how I've seen countless gym 'bros' squat, usually with the plates piles on the bar. The second way is how I see incredibly strong Olympic lifters and elite athletes squat. Take this example of Olympic sprint cyclist Robert Forsetmann squatting  approximately 460lbs for a set of 10:

By the end of the set he's starting to bow just a bit, but he's also really pushing himself with a lot of reps at insanely heavy weight — this is a guy with 28" thighs! He maintains a strict cadence, keeping his posture tight and tension on the thighs. And this is a 'challenge', not even a normal part of his training; dig around the web for those videos, and you'll find is form is even more strict — often with a pause at the bottom of each repetition. 

Linear periodization generally starts lifters with a very low percentage of their 1RM — sometimes as low as 30%. When you're not focused on pushing the weight, you can much more easily shift your focus to your form. And when you lift with impeccable form, you'll stimulate the target muscles and grow bigger and stronger. As you progress in small increments each week, well before a "missed" lift your form will start to degrade. If you're really focused on results, you'll count a rep as "missed" if you break form, not just if you can't get the weight up. A deeper focus on form result in more effective lifts; unfortunately, egos prevent many lifters from continuing to work properly with lighter weights. 

Personally, I don't think there's anything magical about linear periodization. I tried it for a while and didn't get particularly good results with it, but I think that's because I already lift with very, very strict form. That means:

  • 3-4 second eccentric
  • Pause in the stretch position
  • Smooth accelerated concentric
  • No intra-set resting

Additionally, I frequently employ bands or chains to not only eliminate intra-set rest but to eliminate intra-set deloads due to mechanical leverage. I think this amounts to a far more effective form of training than simply trying to move weight from "a to b" with form only playing a secondary role. After all, the goal of training is to build muscle and get stronger. That requires actually using muscles instead of leverage and momentum — in other words, deliberately making the movement inefficient so that your muscles have to work harder and adapt to the stress. 

It's been said through the ages, but it bears repeating: when you come to the gym, leave your ego at the door. 

Mike Doolittle