Linear Periodization is Not Your Enemy. . .

It has become obvious to me over the past couple years of coaching and training that when people hear the words “linear” and “periodization” in concert with one another, they automatically turn-off. I haven’t met a single resistance-trained “athlete” that doesn’t consider themselves well-enough experienced in “the art of the iron-game” (to quote Dr. Randall Strossen) to be beyond this “elementary practice.”

I guess I can understand where people can have qualms with this type of training methodology. Sure, the annual macrocycle, bi-monthly mesocycles, and 3-4 week microcycles can get to be tedious, but in reality, how is this any different than any other method out there (with the exception of non-linear periodization. . . more to come later)?

Let’s consider the case of the “Westside method.” Don’t get me wrong, the Westside method is tried and true, and in my opinion, probably the most effective method for training as a powerlifter or strength-specific athlete out there. However, I think it’s necessary to take a bit more critical of an approach to what’s really going on here.

The “Westside philosophy” has adopted/created what they call the “Conjugate” method (which is really a concurrent method. . . not sure of the specifics. . . I’ll get back to you on this one. . .). Basically the idea of this philosophy is that the lifter will rotate their core exercise weekly, which will permit circa maximal efforts on a regular basis. Great! Who doesn’t like moving big-ass weight on a weekly basis? This is where, in my opinion, we become a bit confused with our understandings of training philosophies, and linear periodization is shed in a pejorative light.

As you all know, the idea of exercise rotation (conjugate training) is said to allow the lifter to continually perform max effort workouts every week, all year long (specifically on your ME days). Grip width and modality are continually changed in an effort to ‘stimulate’ additional training responses and recruit different muscles (some may even argue alterations in order of recruitment. . .no one likes neuromuscular physiology, so let’s not get into it. . .). However, I pose the question (I guess it would be rhetorical, but I am always open to new ideas): what are we really doing?

In essence, this exercise rotation does not involve changes in our primary/primal “movement patterns” (I use quotations because this expression, movement patterns, is one of the most overused phrases in my program/department, so I will try to keep its use to a minimum. . .kind of like “proprioception” . . .does anyone really know what this word means? I know I sure don’t, but it gets thrown around an awful lot. . .).

From a strength coaching perspective, we have four basic movements, not including rotary action. These are horizontal and vertical push and pull, for both your upper and lower body. These four movements can be performed either separately, or as a coordinated action, with your two hemispheres (think of your deadlift and powercleans, then wonder why you have tight lats/traps/rhomboids/etc. in addition to the typical hamstring/glute/quad stiffness afterwards). Your prime movements, specifically squat/bench/dead, when executed with “textbook precision,” incorporate all specified movements (“bend the bar over your back,” “drive into the ground and extend the hips,” etc.). This in turn leads one to the realization that the supposed “rotation of exercises” to elicit a different training response, is in reality not changing the overall pattern of movement. Basically, week-in and week-out, performing alternative exercises within the same range of motion, or pattern, we are still just doing the same thing. As is the case with any type of highly repeated movement, we become fatigued, whether we know it or not. This newfound vulnerability will potentially lead to some serious issues, whether musculoskeletal, or neurological (think: plateau). Even with these extensive, weekly exercise changes, the most we are potentially doing is just delaying the inevitable.

I apologize for the pessimism, I’m just trying to further amplify my point. What I am really trying to get at here is a better understanding of other, more important variables that should be manipulated as a means of maximizing your response to training: Work, specifically load and range, and Velocity.

Dynamic effort day, as presented by the “Westside method,” in essence, becomes the most important day of the week for neuromuscular adaptations (see: Hatfield et al., 2006. . . Kraemer was in on this too, if that name sounds more familiar. . .). While not necessarily directly related to load or range, the intent of moving the bar with maximal velocity will lead to the greatest adaptations, hence the application of accommodating resistance e.g. bands and chains (there are so many associated applications of accommodating resistance. . .just put it out of your head for now. . .). It is through improved neural networking and inter/intramuscular coordination and communication that we see our greatest gains in strength. This is then followed by an increase in muscle cross-sectional area, and finally hypertrophy, or increased intramuscular protein content .

Again, another great idea that is included in the “Westside method.” However, we cannot complete our circle of understanding without including the second important variable for improvement: total work. This is, in my opinion, where we confront our primary issue between these two training schemes which leads to potential misappropriation. From the “Westside” articles, total work completed is presented more as a secondary sub-topic. Sure there is mention of “the rule of 60%,” which was adopted from some crazy Soviet methodologies, stating that total work completed (reps X sets) on your ME days should be 60% of the volume done on DE days. A good guideline to follow that makes sense. Again, I agree.

However, I have trouble with this type of programming generalization. I understand the philosophy was not written with the general population in mind; however I do find it troubling that this has become the case. Programming of this intensity, designed to accommodate such incredible amounts of total work can only really be prescribed on an individual basis. To expect your average, or even above-average lifter to improve in strength characteristics, or to even maintain for that matter, would be a superhuman accomplishment, necessitating some type of exogenous aid (see: steroids).

I do not mean to sound like I am rallying against the “Westside method,” as like I had mentioned earlier, I have nothing but the greatest respect for this philosophy, and have in fact attempted to abide by its principles as closely as possible both in my own personal programming, as well as those I prescribe for my athletes. My ultimate goal here is for people to synthesize this type of information and realize that in order to reduce personal injury risk, as well as potentially maximize personal gains would be to consider stipulations outlined by the principle of progressive overloading.

In his book “Periodization for Sports,” Tudor Bompa (Father of Periodization, and general Eastern-Bloc stud) explains this idea in great detail (if you’ve got an extra $20 lying around and a couple days/weeks of free time, I’d highly recommend this one. . .). It is through the manipulation of repetition cadence, or velocity, as well as load variation, which allows the athlete to most effectively and proficiently adapt to imposed stress (SAID: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands).

Phases are multi-layered, and highly variable. Anatomical adaptation, or the first phase, involves relatively light loads, lots of repetitions (high volume), and high variation in exercises. This phase is designed to improve joint (ligament, tendon) integrity, and improve and develop bone structure to accommodate ensuing improvements in both strength and mass (muscles pull on bones for leverage, bone restructuring takes approx. 2 months to initiate, etc.). Cadence is relatively slow, with minimal momentum developed during exercises. Maximal repetition strength, the predecessor to hypertrophy, increases load, decreases overall sets (while still maintaining work completed), and begins to focus on more specific movements related to choice activity, in our case powerlifting. This is when we begin our pause /separation between eccentric lowering and concentric raising. Maximum load strength, as the name implies, further decreases repetitions and increases load (your general strength phase). This is where we get into more familiar territory, completing between 1-6 repetitions per set, at 80-100% 1-RM intensity. Power conversion, or the predecessor to the “dynamic” day, reduces the weight and includes accommodation e.g. bands, over-speed work, etc. If anyone remembers Dr. Fred Hatfield a.k.a. Dr. Squat, he was a big proponent of this method for pre-competition, stating that reduction in “slow” strength movements and increase in plyometrics prior to competition will improve fiber type adaptation (in his words “conversion” . . .more confusion. . .), and result in maximal performance. Of course there is always your de-load and recovery phase as well, but you can all figure that one out yourselves.

Do these ideas and principles sound familiar? Repetition maximum and Power conversion? Still abiding by the principles of the “Westside philosophy,” it now becomes possible to perform a safer, yet still as effective means of training for those not ready to make the necessary financial and pharmacological commitment.

Maybe it has been my experience working with active-duty soldiers “training up” for deployment these past few months that has me a bit biased, but I feel the principle of progressive overload has vanished from all our minds in exchange for “cool” philosophies that may potentially lead to quick gains, but will definitely lead to some form of impairment.

If you’re wrapping up a training program, phase, or are post-competition, I say give old-fashioned Linear Periodization a chance (not the NSCA version. . .think Eastern Bloc), and see what you think. I’d be interested to see and hear if your gains match that, or even exceed those, of your last training program.