Linear Strength Cycling

by Chris on July 8, 2012

One of the top reasons that people don’t see results from their training is that they never change anything (right up there with not doing any work in the first place). That’s pretty surprising because there are tons of things you can change about your training program to stimulate results. Rotating stimuli is, after all, basically the entire essence of program design. One of the easiest things you can change is your volume/intensity relationship (read: rep range) and you don’t need an exercise science degree to do so.

Linear periodization has really gotten a bad wrap over the past few years. Everyone with some letters after their name has taken at least some time to talk about how much it blows. I, however, think it still has merits. Enter: linear cycling.

I want to take a second to note here that I am not talking about traditional “Western” periodization where you focus exclusively on one strength attribute for four months. I’m talking about short term linear cycling. Big difference. Linear cycling is incredibly simple and that’s one of the reasons I like it. It gets the job done and is easily used by anybody with half a brain that can lift weights.

Here’s an ultra minimal example of a strength cycle:

Week 1 – 3 x 10

Week 2 – 3 x 8

Week 3 – 4 x 6

Week 4 – 5 x 5

Week 5 – 6 x 4

Week 6 – 5 x 3

Week 7 – Work up to 1RM

Easy right? You start off with higher reps and just drop a few reps every week, adding weight to match the rep range. I.e. if you’re doing sets of 10, make sure you’re using a weight you can only lift 10 times. Don’t be the guy doing a set of 10 with a 20RM weight.

Now if you want you can fancy this up a little. Here’s a method I like to use:

Week 1 – 3 x 10

Week 2 – 4 x 10

Week 3 – 3 x 8

Week 4 – 4 x 8

Week 5 – 3 x 6

Week 6 – 4 x 6

Week 7 – 5 x 4

Week 8 – 6 x 4

Week 9 – 4 x 3

Week 10 – Work up to 1 or 2RM

This is a style of “step” cycling. I like this because it gives you a week of adjusting to the intensity (weight) and then the second week gives you extra volume exposure to the same, or ideally a little more, weight. Then the following week the volume tapers off to allow a little recovery but still letting you use some heavy weight.

Jim Wendler’s unbelievably popular 5/3/1 program also uses a method of linear cycling. If you haven’t picked up the book, you need to and I won’t give out Jim’s program here but here is an example of the type of “wave” cycling it uses.

Week 1 – Set of 10

Week 2 – Set of 8

Week 3 – Set of 6

Week 4 – Set of 8

Week 5 – Set of 6

Week 6 – Set of 4

Week 7 – Set of 6

Week 8 – Set of 4

Week 9 – Set of 2

Basically this method takes 3 steps forward and then one step back. By doing this you slowly creep towards heavier weight.

In case you need more convincing just know that some of the greatest lifters in history have used linear cycling including Ed Coan, Kirk Karwoski and Bill Kazmaier. So the next time someone tells you linear cycling sucks you can jam that little bit of knowledge right down their throat. Put in the work and almost any program works. Some just work better than others.

Even if you know nothing about strength training program design you can apply linear cycling without even thinking. Apply the cycled rep range to your biggest movements (squat, bench, deadlift, press, pullup) and make sure you pick worthwhile assistance moves. Then, when you’re finished with the cycle, repeat it.

By altering your rep range (and therefore your intensity/volume relationship) you constantly expose your system to stimuli that are new enough to cause an adaptation, but not so wild that your body doesn’t know what to do. The methods outlined above yield a solid blend of hypertrophy and strength training over the course of the cycle. This is basic programming at its best: simple and effective.

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