Updated: Sep 25, 2022
Written by Anna Tong, AES, CSCS
How many of you have tried to follow a training program without knowing what it is designed for? Did you simply follow a program just because your friend says it’s good? I often get that from my clients and unsurprisingly, many didn’t benefit from it.
To fully optimize a training program, it needs to be designed according to individual needs and goal. Just because a program works for others, it doesn’t mean that it will work for you without considering factors such as training goal, training experience, fitness level, etc.
There are many different methods of designing a training program. With so many types of programs available, it can be overwhelming and confusing at times. Before you dive into an exercise program, it will be good to know the different approaches and recommendations. Understanding why a program is designed that way would help you to choose the one that is suitable for you so that it can be effective and beneficial to you.
It has been shown that periodization appears to be the preferred method when it comes to optimizing training programs (2). Using the principle of overload, periodization allows proper progression in training load with planned periods of rest to prevent overtraining/detraining and injury (1,2). 2 of the most common types of periodization are traditional and undulating.
Traditional VS Undulating Periodization Models
So which model should you use? Each model would have its pros and cons, and it really depends on what you are training for.
FIG. 1.1 – Traditional VS Undulating
Traditional Periodization Model
Traditional periodization, often referred to as linear periodization due to the gradual and linear increase in weekly training load or volume (depending on your training adaptation for the cycle) for a few weeks or months before progressing to the next training adaptation. This style of programming is useful for people who needs to establish a solid foundation, focusing on improving one fitness component at a time. Most of you would have probably utilized this style of programming at some point in time (with or without realizing) when you first started on weights training due to the fairly straightforward approach. Since traditional periodization is more direct, it makes it easier to understand and apply. Therefore, it is also recommended for beginners who are new to periodization.
Even though the training load or volume increases linearly with traditional periodization, you must avoid progressing too quickly. A sudden overloading in exercise stress can lead to overused injury and might potentially increase the risk of overtraining, both which can compromise health and performance. Hence, with traditional periodization, it is best to allow a slow buildup to your peak or competition. Taking these into consideration, traditional periodization would be beneficial for you if you have ample training time or for athletes who have one or very few competitions close to each other. This allows you to gradually work towards your peak performance while preventing burnout or injury.
Undulating Periodization Model
Contrary to traditional periodization, undulating periodization depends on manipulation of the training variables frequently such as the intensity, volume and mode of exercise. The frequency for the manipulations can be daily, weekly or even once every 2 weeks. This allows you to work on more than 1 physical adaptations in a cycle, for example, hypertrophy training in a day and strength training in another day. It is difficult to maintain peak performance for a prolonged duration without causing burnout. Therefore, undulating periodization is beneficial for athletes who have longer competing period as it allows constant physiological adaptations to take place. This helps to maintain, if not, continue to improve the gains developed during the pre-season while preventing overtraining or detraining from occurring. Undulating periodization is also recommended for people who have good existing training foundation which multiple adaptations can be built on.
Any type of periodization will have its advantage and understanding the rationale behind each method would be beneficial when it comes to programming. If you have enough training time and you are fairly new to training, or if your sport has a short competing period, consider using the traditional periodization model. However, if you have been training for a while or if your sport has a long competition period, you might want to go with the undulating periodization model. Regardless of the periodization method you use, traditional or undulating, the objectives are the same – to improve and peak your performance while preventing the risk of overtraining or injury.
1) Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (1996). Periodization breakthrough: The ultimate training system. Ronkonkoma, NY: Advanced Research Press.
2) Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (2004). Designing resistance training programs (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.