Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Raw Lifting and Linear Periodization

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking over the past couple of years as far as deciding what I want to do with myself as far as training and goals. I dabbled with powerlifting for years, but it wasn’t ever satisfying to me as a competitive sport. I like hitting big weights, and I even like competing from time to time. What I don’t like is how gear has become such an integral part of training and competing. Even in the IPF affiliates it’s gotten a bit wacky, and don’t get me started on the multi-ply feds.

This isn’t a swipe at geared powerlifting. If you enjoy it, then best of luck to you. But it’s not what I signed up for. The reason I lift weights is, for lack of a better phrase, because of “physical culture”. Bodybuilders back in the day actually had to lift weights in their contests. The earliest powerlifters trained more like what we think of as bodybuilding today. That’s the old idea of physical culture: that you develop both strength and the physique with well-rounded weight training.

Today, both of those activities have become specialized and streamlined to the point that there’s little room for that kind of generalized diversity in training. At the competitive level, bodybuilders are considered “weak”, and powerlifters are considered “fat”. Those are extremes of course, and like any stereotype there’s some truth to it but also a lot of exaggeration.

The point I’m making is that I’m not interested in specializing in either of those activities. I want to be strong. I want to have a decent amount of muscle at a reasonable bodyfat percentage. That makes me a recreational lifter, and I’m okay with that.

In my ever so roundabout way, what I’m trying to say is that as someone after a more classical approach to strength and physique development, it’d be boneheaded of me to copy programs designed for those specific activities. And yet for years that’s what I always did. It’s very true that there’s a lot to be learned from powerlifting and bodybuilding training methods. It’s also true that copying them verbatim when you aren’t training for those goals is pretty short-sighted.

Apparently I’m not the only one that feels that way, for whatever it’s worth. There’s been a backlash against the hyper-equipped multi-ply kind of powerlifting in the last couple of years. You can see it with the popularity of things like the Raw Unity meet, and indeed this is a key theme behind Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 manual.

There comes a point where being strong for the sake of waddling up to the bar and high squatting a big weight just isn’t fulfilling anymore. There comes a point when training to add an extra few pounds of LBM just isn’t fulfilling.

It’s easy to be tempted by that path, but if you have no competitive goals, then what’s the point? I’ve had to sit down and ask myself what I want out of this, and as much as I’m tempted by full-bore competition, I don’t think it really has the lure it used to have. All I really want now is to lift weights, and to handle whatever I can handle with minimal equipment.

And the simple fact is that the strongest raw guys inevitably use some kind of linear programming. I’ve been reading around a lot on that subject, along with my Bulgarian obsession, and I’ve had some thoughts occur to me which I’d like to share.

Why Linear Periodization? I thought that didn’t work.

That meme came about because of some comments made by the late Yuri Verkhoshansky, in response to one particular type of periodized plan. In particular, that plan was one year in length and had One Big Peak.

This was further expanded on by Louie Simmons, who made the point that using long linear cycles where you train for hypertrophy, then strength, then power, would be inefficient because by the time you were peaking with triples, all that size you built three months ago with 10s would be atrophied.

I think both these criticisms are valid. However, they also criticize specific programs that have pretty glaring flaws.

Terminology nit-picking time.

Linear periodization originated with Matveyev’s yearly model with One Big Peak at the end. You’d start early with high volume and gradually move towards that peak over months. Verkhoshansky rightly took that model apart as being inflexible and useless in the practical sense; how many sports would benefit from having an athlete in top condition once a year?

However the basic idea of that system — build a base with high volume, then increase the intensity towards a peak — is still valid. It’s still how most people train today. Tudor Bompa introduced a modified version of linear periodization that breaks the training year into blocks of general preparation and specific preparation (or off-season and in-season as we’d commonly refer to it). This included things like the high-volume “anatomical adaptation” or hypertrophy block, a maximum strength block, a power block, and a peaking or transition block.

The power of Bompa’s particular system is that it’s not strictly linear in the sense of working towards One Big Peak. The yearly plan can change and vary according to the athletic calendar and according to who’s using it. Bompa also made use of monthly cycles within each block of training, so that you had “mini-peaks”.

Charlie Francis was big on using Bompa’s kind of programming, and he commented that his advanced sprinters — who were already very strong and physically developed — would drop the hypertrophy or base-building phases entirely, training heavy year-round. This is pretty much what you see advanced lifters doing as well. The more developed they get, the more time is spent training heavier and more specific to the events.

Bompa’s setup, incidentally, is where that old Periodization Peaking Cycle, the one that was so popular back in the 90s, came from. This is that old program where you did sets of 8-10 for 4-6 weeks for hypertrophy, then did sets of 5-6 for strength, then 2-3 for power, then peaked and transitioned. This particular plan is often associated with Ed Coan in some variation or another, and it’s also the program that Louie Simmons was criticizing. It was all the rage back in the mid to late 90s as a Russian Training Secret (shhh!), when it turns out it was a pretty watered-down version of what was actually going on. Oh well.

Short story: Bompa’s method of “linear block” periodization is good, precisely because it addresses the main criticisms that started the “linear periodization doesn’t work” internet meme.

There’s one other matter to look at. Linear periodization covers the topics above, but it is often conflated with linear cycling. What’s the difference? One is a big ol’ plan that you map out in advance. The other is how you progress your weights from week to week.

Linear cycling, despite what you might have heard, still does great things. You start at week one with 70%, and then add weight each week until you hit a peak. Test max, start back over at 70%. Pretty easy, right? You see this kind of thing in effect in a lot of routines. Whatever you may think of linear periodization as an approach, this still works and works well.

Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program for beginner lifters is based on linear cycling. Start with three sets of five in the basic lifts. Add weight until progress stops. Reset and cycle back up.

Starr’s original 5×5 programs were still a form of linear progression from week to week. Even though you had heavy, medium, and light sessions, you still progressed in small increments between each heavy session. The same concept holds for what’s now called the Texas Method.

What spurred this entire post was reading an old thread over on the Power & Bulk about how Westside used to cycle percentages on their DE days. As you can see, that’s linear too, and the thread mentions that the guys using it got brute-strong using minimal gear. They never go above sets of three reps, but the volume drops while the intensity increases weekly. That’s as linear as it gets.

In another thread on the P&B, this plan from Barry Merriman was linked. I have to say I really like this one, partly because it autoregulates and because it sums up what linear periodization really should be for a lifter: it’s a relatively short cycle and it focuses on low reps. One of the big things that always irked me about popular linear systems is the focus on high reps. That’s fine for beginners but once you get fairly strong I’m not convinced it helps all that much.

Barry’s cycle would look like this as a starting point:

Week 1 – 5×5
Week 2 – 4×5
Week 3 – 3×5
Week 4 – 2×5
Week 5 – 1×5
Week 6 – 1×4
Week 7 – 1×3
Week 8 – 1×2
Week 9 – New Max

Of course, as per his comments that could be adjusted as needed. This is a common theme, in fact. Few of these programs used by the early powerlifters were strict linear to a peak kinds of training. John Kuc’s deadlift training often had him working up to mini-peaks and then cycling back several times on the way into a contest.

Even the 5/3/1 is linear if you look at what it does. You add intensity from week to week, back off, then ramp back up. Over the long run, six months to a year, you can bet this is going look pretty linear as your training max inches up (it’s also basically what Bompa’s system does, right down to the three weeks of loading/one week of unloading).

An old-school favorite, Doug Young had a system similar to 5/3/1’s “as many reps as possible” method of autoregulation:

The first four weeks he uses 4 sets of 6 reps in the bench press. On the 4th set he goes limit. He uses each rep as a 5-pound indicator for his next workout. He starts the cycle at 400 lbs.

Example – 400 x 6, 400 x 6, 400 x6, 400 x limit (e.g. 10)
So, from the last set, five pounds for each rep over six would work out to (10 reps minus 6) 4 times 5 (five pound for each rep over six) equals 20 (pounds more next workout).

Example (next workout) – 420 x 6, 420 x 6, 420 x 6, 420 x 8.
Many 420’s!
Then, by following the same plan – 2 reps more than 6 in the last set equals a 10 lb. weight increase at the next workout.

The highest he has reached in this program is 470 pounds for 4 sets of 6. These workouts fall twice a week of every fourth day, as desired…

There’s also a description of how Doug trained for the squat and deadlift, which is somewhat similar. In both cases you see that his training, while autoregulated to a degree, is still fairly linear.

The take home point here is that linear cycling and linear periodization aren’t inherently bad. Stupid variations of linear periodization, used without any consideration for the goals or current status of the person using them, are bad. But that goes for any program. If you use a routine that is completely unsuited for you, you can’t expect results.

Using very basic linear cycles (if you’re still hung up on “linear periodization sucks”) is basic meat-and-potatoes training that will never stop working, and has produced some very strong people over the years. More importantly, it produced strong raw (or sparsely-equipped) lifters, which is why I’m interested.

Regardless of the particular system you pick, there are some things in common.

  1. You always spend some time “building a base” with moderate weights and moderate to high volume.
  2. Spending time building a base with sub-max weights, what we might now call an accumulation phase, seems to build up some momentum from week to week that carries you up to a new peak. This is most likely due to a series of adaptations accumulating over time, so that when you peak you can display the new strength.
  3. You still get to train with heavy, mentally challenging grinder weights – just at the end of the cycle and only for a few workouts. You don’t wind up butting heads against maxed-out lifts for weeks on end.
  4. As per the Starr 5×5 systems and Doug Young’s setup, linear cycling doesn’t disallow training with heavy and light workouts each week. In fact, you probably should train that way.
  5. Like everything else I talk about, this wouldn’t necessarily be mandatory for year-round training. Do a cycle or two, then go bodybuild or something.
  6. Most of these systems have some kind of weekly or daily testing built in that lets you adjust the weight and/or volume on the fly.

To summarize: If you’re a raw lifter training for general strength, instead of specializing for a particular sport, some kind of linear programming may be your best bet (assuming you define linear programming as I do, which means incremental jumps in weight on a weekly basis and cycling back when you reach a peak). Throw in some autoregulation, like Barry Merriman, Doug Young, Jim Wendler, or pencilnecked labcoats and you’ll have a winner on your hands.