Building High-Performance Muscle™

Nonlinear Periodization for Size and Strength


Nonlinear Periodization for Size and Strength


A great way to get a heated debate going among strength coaches is to ask what method of periodization they think is best.

Coaches and trainers tend to feel strongly about periodization methods – some swear by models like block periodization or the conjugate method, but most will agree that traditional linear periodization, well, sucks.

The basic aim of linear periodization is to start off using low intensity (measured by weight or percentage of one-rep max) but high volume (measured as reps) and gradually increase the weight while lowering reps.

The entire process is typically carried out over the course of a predetermined period, called a , and lasts anywhere from a few months to a year or more.

Most coaches have moved away from linear periodization in favor of models like , which has increased in popularity over the past few years.

Nonlinear periodization doesn't follow a typical one-way progression. In fact, a very effective method of nonlinear periodization (NLP) alters the intensity/volume relationship (daily nonlinear periodization, or DNLP for short).

Unfortunately, when someone mentions DNLP they usually lay it out like this:

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4
4-6 reps 12-15 reps 8-12 reps 1-3 reps

This leads to some false assertions about DNLP. For starters, it's been pointed out that the above model uses too many different rep ranges throughout the microcycle (week) to effectively train them all. Think "jack of all trades, master of none."

What if someone's goal doesn't require training a certain rep range? Or worse, what if his or her training is negatively affected by doing so?

If an athlete has no use for training a specific rep range or quality, then they shouldn't train it. Similarly, if their goal requires more time spent in a specific range, it should also be reflected in the programming.

Rather than just manipulating reps, a more effective way to look at periodization is training different strength qualities at different times.

For simplicity, we'll classify the different training days accordingly: light, moderate, heavy, very heavy, and power. Each of these has a place in the program and can be used to varying degrees based on the goal.

Light

Nonlinear Periodization for Size and Strength


The light day functions essentially as an active rest. This gets blood moving to help clear out waste products from the muscles, decrease soreness, and lets you rest the higher threshold motor units. This is the day for higher reps with lighter weight (15-20 reps) or some other active rest activity like pushing a sled.

Moderate

The moderate day is your traditional hypertrophy day. Specifically, it's your sarcoplasmic hypertrophy day, which is growth of the sarcoplasm and non-contractile proteins. This is going to be similar to bodybuilding style training and focuses on mass development.

If your primary goal is hypertrophy then there should be more moderate days in your training. Focus on training with weights that you can handle between 8-12 reps, the intensity best suited for developing hypertrophy. This is also the day where you'd use more isolation movements. So for everyone out there looking for where to put the "arms" workout, this is it.

Heavy

Heavy days are going to be focused on training with near max weights within the 4 to 6 rep range. Along with strength, these days will also stimulate myofibrillar hypertrophy, which is growth of the muscle fibers themselves. This is sometimes referred to as functional hypertrophy, essentially building a bigger and stronger muscle. The focus these days should be on compound exercises like squats and presses.

Very Heavy

Very heavy days revolve around moving maximum weights working mostly in the 1-3 rep range. If your focus is raw strength, expect to see extra very heavy training days in your program.

These days are going to focus on developing maximal strength by increasing neural recruitment of the muscle fibers. The volume will be lower than other days due to the low number of reps, but there will be a higher amount of sets to compensate and get a significant stimulus.

Exercises on these days will exclusively be compound lifts that train large amounts of muscle mass like squats, deadlifts, Olympic lift variations, and bench presses.

Power

Power days will use lower weights (anywhere from 30-70% of 1RM) for low reps while focusing on maximum speed and rate of force development. Like all other days, the number of power days used will vary depending on the athlete's goal.

Someone training primarily for hypertrophy may see few, if any, power days in his or her program. However, someone more concerned with developing maximum strength might use more power days for technique practice and rate of force development. These training days may focus on Olympic lifts, dynamic variations of traditional lifts (such as speed benching and deadlifts), and plyometric drills.

Here's an outline of the loading parameters for the different training days:

Day Purpose Sets Reps
Light Active rest 1-3 easy 15-20 or active rest
Moderate Hypertrophy 3-4 8-12 RM
Heavy Strength/Hypertrophy 2-5 4-6 RM
Very Heavy Max strength 3-5 1-3 RM
Power Power/Technique 3-8 3-5 at 30-70%


Putting it together

Now that we understand nonlinear periodization and how it's used, it's time to put it all together into a usable program.

The distribution of different training days will depend on the desired goal. Someone training for mass will see more moderate and heavy days, whereas someone focusing on increasing their one-rep max would have heavy days, but also power days to focus on technique work.

Here are two separate four-week templates using three training days per week. The first focuses on developing strength while the second is oriented towards building muscle mass.


Strength Program

Nonlinear Periodization for Size and Strength

Week 1


Day 1 – Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat 3 4-6
B Bench press 3 4-6
C DB row 3 8-10

Day 2 – Power

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Speed deadlift 5 3
B Speed bench 5 3
C Upper back assistance    

Day 3 – Very Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat 3 3
B Bench press 3 3
C Weighted pull-up 3 3

Week 2


Day 1 – Light

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Bodyweight circuit    
B Sled drags    

Day 2 – Very Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat 5 2
B Bench press 5 2
C Weighted pull-up 3 3

Day 3 – Moderate

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Romanian deadlift 3 8-10
B Incline bench press 3 8-10
C Wide grip cable row 3 8-10

Week 3


Day 1 – Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat 4 4-6
B Bench press 4 4-6
C DB row 4 6-8

Day 2 – Power

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Speed squat 6 3
B Speed bench 6 3
C Upper back assistance    

Day 3 – Very Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Deadlift * 1
B Bench press * 1
C Weighted pull-up 4 3

Week 4


Day 1 – Light

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Bodyweight circuit    
B Sled drags    

Day 2 – Power

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Speed squat 5 3
B Speed bench 5 3
C Upper back assistance    

Day 3 – Moderate

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat 3 8-10
B DB bench press 3 8-10
C Wide grip row 3 8-10


Hypertrophy Program

Nonlinear Periodization for Size and Strength

Week 1


Day 1 – Moderate

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat 3 8-10
B DB shoulder press 3 8-12
C Chin-ups 3 8-12
D Close grip bench press 3 10-12
E Barbell curl 3 10-12

Day 2 – Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Front squat 4 4-6
B Bench press 4 4-6
C DB row 4 8-10

Day 3 – Moderate

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Romanian deadlift 3 8-10
B DB incline press 3 8-10
C Bent over row 3 8-10
D Dips 3 10-15
E EZ bar curl 3 10-15

Week 2


Day 1 – Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Front squat 4 4-6
B Bench press 4 4-6
C DB row 4 8-10

Day 2 – Moderate

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat 3 8-10
B DB shoulder press 3 8-12
C Chin-ups 3 8-12
D Close grip bench press 3 10-12
E Barbell curl 3 10-12

Day 3 – Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Deadlift 3 4-6
B Barbell press 4 4-6
C Weighted pull-up 4 4-6

Week 3


Day 1 – Moderate

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat 3 8
B DB shoulder press 3 8
C Close grip bench press 3 8-10
D Barbell curl 3 8-10

Day 2 – Power

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Power clean 5 3
B Speed bench 5 3

Day 3 – Very Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Squat 4 2
B Bench press 4 2
C Weighted pull-ups 3 3

Week 4


Day 1 – Moderate

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Romanian deadlift 3 8-10
B DB incline press 3 8-10
C Bent over row 3 8-10
D Dips 3 10-15
E EZ bar curl 3 10-15

Day 2 – Light

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Bodyweight circuit    
B Sled drags    

Day 3 – Heavy

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Front squat 4 4-6
B Incline bench press 4 4-6
C Weighted pull-ups 4 4-6

These examples show how to implement the principles of nonlinear periodization for two different goals. The great thing about this system, however, is that it you can tailor your program to almost any goal by changing exercises or placing more focus on a specific strength quality.


Be Flexible

Nonlinear periodization also allows you to be flexible with your training days. So if you're scheduled for a very heavy workout but just aren't feeling up to the task, you can safely put in an easier training day that better suits how you're feeling.

However – and this is important – you should try to make up that day somewhere. That day of heavy lifting doesn't just disappear.

If you find yourself constantly not being up to the task of the day, it might be a sign that you're not recovering properly. At that point, you need to step back and reevaluate your nutrition and recovery as well as your programming.

The larger point here is that the nonlinear model lets you effectively manipulate your training to accommodate for how you feel on a given day.


The Bigger Picture

Nonlinear Periodization for Size and Strength


With nonlinear periodization models, it's crucial to keep both short term and long-term goals in mind. If an athlete's sport requires strength and power then that should be the primary focus closer to competition, but doesn't necessarily have to be priority year round.

After competition ceases, for example, the program might need to focus on regaining lost muscle with a secondary emphasis on strength. These secondary priorities may change numerous times based on the situation and the athlete's condition. A sound understanding of current needs versus long-term goals is essential.


Nonlinear, Nonstop Gains

Every program should always have a primary focus, whether it's hypertrophy, maximum strength, power, or something else. Nonlinear periodization fits this requirement yet allows for the development or maintenance of secondary strength qualities at the same time.

Contrast that with simple linear periodization, where only a single strength quality is addressed at a time – and rapidly lost once that training ceases – and you can see why savvy strength coaches are increasingly switching to the non-linear model.

It's a brave new world for strength coaches. Perhaps the shortest path to success is the nonlinear one!



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