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Non-linear Periodization

August 24, 2011

Today we have a guest post by Melissa Witmer of Ultimate Fitness:

Nonlinear Periodization:  A new way to plan your in season strength training.

Over the past two years my training has been revolutionized by three books:  Functional Training for Sport, Athletic Development, and Optimizing Strength Training.

Functional Training for Sport changed the types of exercises I do in the weight room.  Athletic Development changed the way I think about long term program planning.  Optimizing Strength training changed the way I plan my lifting cycles within the context of the year long plan.

What is Periodization?

Periodization in weight training is the idea that a lifting program starts with light weight high volume and moves to heavy weight low volume work with the goal of peaking at a particular time of the year.  In a traditional periodized program the athlete would move through cycles of workouts that emphasize specific strength related qualities: base strength, muscle endurance, hypertrophy, strength, and max strength or power.  The repetition of cycles is repeated over and over hopefully with increasing gains each year.

This system of thinking comes directly from the sport of weight lifting where training for the sport and performing the sport are nearly the same thing.

Muscle Confusion

At the opposite end of the spectrum from periodization is doing randomized workouts.  The idea of muscle confusion has been popularized by mainstream fitness programs, such as P90X.  The philosophy is that stimulus to muscle needs to be varied as much as possible for optimal results. I have nothing against P90X.  Variety works well for fitness enthusiast.  If there is no clear goal outside of general fitness the workouts themselves must be fun and interesting. Circuit training style workouts are also great for decreasing body fat percentages which seems to be a major goal of the p90x program.  However, it appears that the plan for strength training is random.  A lack of a long term plan is the plan.  Let’s move on…

Nonlinear Periodization

A linear periodization program is optimized for weightlifting athletes who’s primary purpose is to peak at a specific lifting event.  For athletes who need to incorporate various training methods (speed training, conditioning, agility, etc) and who also need to perform over a long season, linear periodization in weight training is undermined by conflicting training goals.

In nonlinear periodization, a six week cycle will still have a particular emphasis, but not all workouts will focus on that emphasis.  A six week cycle emphasising strength would have a greater proportion of strength emphasis workouts but there would also be workouts for muscle endurance, power, and hypertrophy interspersed.  In this way, the athlete does not lose strength gained in the off season.  Experiments with the University of Connecticut’s basketball team even had athletes gaining strength over the course of the season on a nonlinear periodized program.

It seems a little complicated at first.  You must train everything over the long season.  But workouts cannot be random and there must be an emphasis on a particular athletic quality you are trying to develop.  Completely ignoring some components while working others (as in a linear periodization model) causes the athlete to lose what has been gained in other training cycles.  Conversely not choosing and emphasis for a training cycle will lead to random workouts and less than optimal adaptation.  Having a plan with focus is what separates athletes from fitness enthusiasts.

So how do I do it?

The key is to have a higher proportion of training sessions of the quality that you are focusing on.  That might be strength, power, or strength endurance.

A full explanation is beyond my capabilities but here is a very simple example of what it might look like.  Say you want to emphasize strength endurance but you want to maintain your strength.  You could plan a series of workouts with varying emphasis:  8-10 RM workouts with short rest periods increase the bodies ability to tolerate acid buildup in the muscles, 3-5 RM workouts maintain strength, 10-12 RM days are a little easier and offer some low intensity endurance benefit.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
8-10RM 12-15RM 3-5 RM 8-10 RM 3-5 RM 8-10 RM 3-5 RM 8-10RM 8-10 RM 12-15 RM 3-5 RM 8-10 RM


In the above example, half of the workouts target strength endurance, and a quarter emphasize basic strength.  Whether you decide on training 2, 3, or 4 times per week, you can simply rotate through the workouts.  Follow the general rules of strength training, putting 48 hours between stressing the same muscle groups.

The principles in “Optimizing Strength Training” are especially applicable to ultimate athletes with long seasons.  Nonlinear periodization allows for some flexibility in training on a particular day without causing the athlete to abandon a plan completely.  Still not recovered from the weekend tournament?  Switch today’s power workout with Thursday’s hypertrophy workout.  Did practice get rained out yesterday?  Might be a good opportunity for a high intensity Olympic lifting session.

You still want to do all of your scheduled sessions in the given period, but when you do each session can be moved around a bit to help get more optimal results from your strength training sessions.  Learn to pay attention to how you’re performing on a particular day.  Adjust when needed.

My Experience this Season

Ideally you would want to be in the weight room 3-4 times per week all year long.  Realistically, once the season starts and you’re balancing all kinds of training and time demands, you have to be ruthless in assessing and sticking with your priorities.  How it looks can be very different from player to player.  A player who is skilled but injury prone should prioritize the weight room moreso than the former high school football star who hasn’t really mastered his forehand.

To keep things ridiculously simple for myself this season, I’ve been using one heavy strength emphasis day and one strength endurance day per week.  I alternate the strength endurance day between 8-10 RM days and 12-15 RM days.  Occasionally I will split one day into upper/lower body days to get in more training volume.  I’m not sure this plan is ideal, but it is very doable and is allowing me to make strength gains in season.  I am able to recover from weekend tournaments/practices, have time for a lot of throwing practice, plyo workouts, and general conditioning workouts as well.

Final Thoughts

Managing your year round training plan is part art, part science.  You are your own experiment!  This doesn’t mean there are no rules and no plans.  It does mean that you should feel free to try different plans within the parameters of common sense.  Learn from what others are doing.  Adopt, adapt, evaluate.  Please tell me your plan for in season training in the comments!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. David Haas permalink
    January 25, 2012 5:15 pm

    I have a question about your blog. Please email me!

  2. nathalstead permalink
    December 11, 2012 7:20 pm

    Reblogged this on Huck and Study and commented:
    As most of you can probably tell by now, training for ultimate is essential. Being in shape not only prevents injuries but helps to elevate your play, especially by the Sunday games in a tournament. There are many different theories of the best workout regimen for an ultimate player, with Crossfit being one of the most popular, but here is a cool article explaining Non-linear Periodization and what it can do for your body.

  3. Geoa permalink
    February 5, 2014 9:29 pm

    Just found this and your website – thanks Melissa! You’re doing great work. I’m so excited we have ultimate-focused training guidelines now!! As someone who’s torn both her ACLs, it is much appreciated getting tips from my physical therapists *and* from ultimate trainers who actually understand our sport 🙂

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