Linear vs. Block vs. Undulating Periodization: What’s The Difference?

If you’re new to training or training programs you may be confused when you hear people throw the phrase “periodization” around.

Often used as a buzzword to show that a program is “good” the truth is being periodised in and of itself doesn’t mean a program is all that special. Unless you do exactly the same workout every single time you enter the gym…down to the sets, reps, and even the load…your program is periodised.

Periodization simply refers to the fact that training stressors (sets, reps, load, rest, etc.) are changing over time. If any one of those variables changes over the course of your program it’s technically speaking periodised.

That being said there are different styles of periodization that have become popular than others, and these are the 3 main types you’re most likely to run into in the lifting world.

1. Linear Periodization

This is most likely the style of training you started out with.

Linear periodization is characterized by decreasing volume while simultaneously increasing intensity overtime. An example could be as simple as a program which went 4 sets of 10 reps to 4 sets of 9 reps the next week to 4 sets of 8 reps…and so on down to 4 sets of 1 rep on a given exercise. With each weeks decrease in reps implying an increase in load used.

It’s simple, easy to follow, and better yet, it works. 

Linear periodization can sometimes be unjustly thrown under the bus due to it’s inherent simplicity being associated with the “just add 5lbs” style of programming that often leads to plateaus. However, written correctly a linear program can be just as effective as more complex training systems.

Benefits:

  • Easy to follow and understand
  • Great for new lifters
  • Great “starter program” for those learning how to write programming
  • Allows smooth gradual progress

Downsides:

  • Potential for plateaus if poorly written
  • Can be monotonous
  • May not meet advanced athletes needs for training stimulus

2. Block Periodization

Block periodization is exactly what it sounds like. This is training which utilizes “blocks” (periods of around 2-5 weeks, the most common being 4) with each block having a specific training focus.

For example say you just ordered a 12 week powerlifting program. The first 4 week block could be a “general strength” block building up a solid base of volume for you to work with without being super specific. The next 4 week block could be more “sport specific” working in things like singles and dropping the overall volume for increased intensity. Finally your last block could be a “peaking block” keeping things extremely sport specific while also attempting to reduce fatigue to perform well for a competition or 1RM test.

If you’re saying to yourself “that sounds kinda similar to linear periodization” that’s because it is. You can have a program that is both linear and block periodised. That being said block periodization does not automatically imply linear periodization, some block style programs may actually increase volume and intensity at the same time from one block to the next.

Benefits:

  • Allows for extended periods of focus on specific training styles
  • Each block can be used to build upon the last, or transition to the next
  • Great for keeping a lifter in a high performance “groove” for an extended period of time

Downsides: 

  • Similar to linear periodization, the same training focus for 4 weeks can be boring
  • Can run a lifter into the ground if load/fatigue management is not built into the program
  • General lack of training variation for extended periods of time

3. Undulating Periodization

Undulating periodization is a style of programming most popularly associated with Westside Barbell and the Conjugate training method. However, don’t mistakenly assume Conjugate is the only undulating program out there for you to try!

Undulating periodization is characterized by frequent variation in training variables. This could be in the form of exercise selection, set and rep schemes, and even the training focus itself. The frequency to this variation differs from program to program and you will see programs that undulate on a daily basis, weekly basis, bi-weekly basis, etc. There is no “set interval” in which training variations have to change in undulating periodization.

An example of undulating periodization is again going back to Conjugate training. Conjugate has max effort training days and dynamic effort training days within the same week, two extremely different training focuses. You’ll likely be changing your main exercise variations every two weeks or so, as well as swapping in new assistance exercises on an almost daily basis.

Benefits:

  • Constant variation can keep training fun and exciting
  • Variation allows for multiple training focuses
  • Constantly varied training can keep you from running into a plateau

Downsides:

  • Not exactly novice friendly
  • May feel “unorganized” for those that prefer linear/block periodization
  • Constant variation may not allow you to get in a “groove” with new movement variations
Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.