Is Linear Style Training The Right Fit For General Fitness?

Aug 20, 2021

Over the last 10 years we’ve experimented with linear periodization in our programming but always found more drawbacks than benefits — not to mention the results have paled in comparison to using the conjugate system.

I’m not saying linear periodization will not work; I believe anything will work, but there is a long list of variables to consider before deciding the best course of action regarding your approach to program design.

Additionally, I’m biased now because of my experience and success with myself and tens of thousands of athletes worldwide who use my programming.

My bias revolves around concurrent training, in which the conjugate system provides the framework of all of our programming, regardless of the client’s goals.

Moreover, I am talking specifically about programming that is delivered for general fitness where we can make gains in strength, conditioning, and body composition concurrently.

Linear periodization has its place for certain individuals, and I’ve used it with varying levels of success, but overall there are simply too many drawbacks when the big picture is considered.

Within any program design, there are many variables to consider, the first one being our clients’ schedules and lives outside of the gym.

We are only really able to have a small glimpse into the stressors of their lives and their psychological profile. Some coaches may even go as far as tracking their client’s heart rate variability which I’d highly recommend checking Morpheus from Joel Jamieson here.

Potential Linear Periodization Drawbacks

  • Mismatch For People With Stressful Jobs: Beyond a stressful job if you have a long list of responsibilities outside of the gym, it will be tough to adhere to a rigid training plan and most of the clients I work with simply cannot be bound to set percentages of expectations as each day is different. Not only does this present issues from a training standpoint but this often handicaps people mentally.
  • Often times in an effort to develop one quality, you neglect other areas of fitness. For example, it’s not uncommon to see losses in maximal strength when strength-endurance is targeted. Similarly, when power development is targeted, it’s not uncommon to see losses in muscular hypertrophy.
  • Accommodation: Adapting to performing the same patterns week in and week out often demotivates people to train. For most, the rate at which they adapt to a given exercise variation will vary, but at some point, if exercise selection is not varied enough people can incur detraining effects. This is why I’m a big fan of rotating variations for max effort and dynamic effort regularly. Overuse injury can be more prevalent. It’s not unreasonable to think that if you’re performing the same movement patterns every week with increasing levels of intensity that you will inevitably compensate, exacerbating faulty motor patterns thereby increasing the risk of injury. I’m also NOT saying that you have to rotate exercises like an a-hole every time you enter the gym – having some repetition does help ingrain good motor patterns – check this article here for more information on how often to rotate your exercise variations.
  • Life events can impact the success of your cycle: The overall success of your cycle is highly dependent on consistency, so if you miss a week for whatever reason (which is quite common if you have a family and other responsibilities), the results can be significantly different.
  • Demotivation effects: Performing the same squat, bench, and deadlifts variations for weeks on end gets repetitive, to say the least. Most people that are drawn to Conjugate love novelty and rotations of movement patterns – refer to point #3 if you’re wondering how often you should vary your exercise selection.
  • Does not account for muscle fiber types: Percentages do not take into account individual muscle-fiber type (Type 1 vs. Type 2). Performing two sets of two with 90% of one-rep max for some of your endurance athletes may be relatively smooth, whereas your fast-twitch and explosive athletes will have a difficult time performing doubles (even for two sets) with 90%.
  • Auto-regulation is critical to staying healthy and aligning your training to how you’re feeling on a given day. With a linear maximal strength cycle, the given percentages may not be reasonable if other stressors in your life are taking a toll. Has 85% of your 1RM ever felt like 100%? Having moments of simply feeling like shit or when your trainability is less than optimal needs to be managed. With Conjugate – our maximal work is a max ON THAT DAY, not based on an all-time personal record when things were feeling good! Being able to make game-time adjustments is a key tenet of training smarter.
  • Conditioning: Most linear cycles, unless they are devoted to improving conditioning (conditioning only cycles present challenges as well), neglect proper energy systems development. This can have a negative impact on recovery and one’s ability to handle stress.
  • Personality Types: Most linear cycles do not align with Type A folks and if you’re someone that enjoys variability, training multiple qualities within a given week, engaging in a linear cycle will not be in your best interest – you’ll likely get bored after a 4 weeks (or sooner) and look for something else.

The Alternative

After over 10 years of experimentation, giving multiple schools of thought a chance with my own personal programming, the most success, consistency, and lowest injury rates have been derived from using a set template with the conjugate method, delivering concurrent fitness year-round.

We even use this SAME APPROACH to athletes training for a specific sport or event, but of course, there will be subtle nuances with the specificity of their strength & conditioning.

This works well because all of the aforementioned drawbacks such as consistency or training schedule and auto-regulation are accounted for. You don’t have to worry about getting stale with the same movements and/or hitting plateaus.

You also don’t have to worry that if you’re out of the gym for a week that you’ll miss out on the crux of your maximal strength cycle either.

This system is consistent in that the template does not change, which ensures proper separation of intensity and movement patterns. Context, however, can vary quite a bit, as variation is an instrumental part of the system and the reasons it is so successful.

Here is a quick overview of the template we use:

Day 1: Max Effort Lower Session

Day 2: Strongman Endurance – 30-40 minutes of loaded carries (i.e., sled pushes or pulls, stone or heavy sandbag carries, SS Yoke Bar Walks, etc.).

Day 3: Max Effort Upper Session

Day 4: Cardiac Output Method: Perform 30-45 minutes of low-intensity work (i.e., walking on an incline on a treadmill, biking, Stairmaster, light jogging, rowing, light sled-pulling, etc.). Heart rate should NOT exceed 150 BPM and average around 135.

Day 5: Dynamic Effort Lower

Day 6: Dynamic Effort Upper or Upper-body Focused ESD 

Day 7: Recovery: Active Recovery – 20 minutes of low-intensity cyclical work + correctives. Perform 20 minutes of light cyclical work (can use the same measure as cardiac output, but this time your heart rate should NOT exceed 130). This session will culminate with some easy static stretching to drive the parasympathetic nervous system.

Bringing it all together

There are just simply too many drawbacks for a linear model to be efficient. In theory, a linear model looks appropriate on paper, but remember that there is often a disconnect between the textbook and real-world practical application – if you any stressors or responsibilities the last thing you want to do is add more stress to your plate.

Missing week 8 of your maximal power cycle because your child got sick and was home from school for 3 days and then stressing because your 8-weeks of hard work goes down the drain doesn’t seem prudent either.

At the end of the day, life is unpredictable, and being able to adjust at a moment’s notice, aligns more with the dynamic nature of life and the human body.

The human body is NOT linear – why train it that way?