What’s Undulating Strength Periodization?
Strength training results in numerous performance and health-related benefits in youth and adults. These benefits include improvements in athletic performance, musculoskeletal health, muscular strength, power and endurance, motor performance including jumping ability, balance and coordination, and cardiovascular and metabolic health (Faigenbaum et al., 2009). To obtain maximum benefits from strength training we must systematically plan and structure training variables (intensity, volume, frequency, and rest) throughout the different cycles of the season (Harries, Lubans, & Callister, 2015).
Such planning and structuring is known by the term “periodization”. A broad scientific evidence base shows that periodized programs are more effective than non-periodized ones (ACSM, 2009; Fleck, 2011). The goal of periodization is to subject our body to the stress of training to improve fitness, but that stress must vary because if it remains at the same magnitude (intensity, volume and frequency) the system will adapt to that stress and will not improve (Harries et al., 2015). There are several ways to periodize training, with the linear periodization model and the undulating periodization model being the most referenced in the literature.
Why should we take into account sports periodization, both in young and adult athletes?
A planned and structured training (periodized) is more effective than one in which the training variables are not manipulated in a systematic and controlled way (non-periodized). The training program should vary the volume, intensity and frequency in a systematic way to avoid stagnation and adaptation to the same training approach (Harries et al., 2015). Once we consider how to do the periodization, we can do it with a linear periodization (slow and gradual progression) or with an undulating periodization (frequent variation every day or few days).
Linear periodization, also known as traditional periodization, establishes weekly training blocks (microcycles), which form monthly blocks (mesocycles), which in turn give rise to a block of several months (macrocycle). This periodization starts with high volume and low intensity at the beginning and gradually alternates these variables, ending with low volume and high intensity. (study).
Undulating periodization varies intensity and volume much more frequently and less gradually (Lorenz & Morrison, 2015). It can be done on a biweekly, weekly, and even daily basis (Apel, Lacey, & Kell, 2011). If we manipulate volume and intensity on a daily basis it is known as daily undulating periodization. If we do it on a weekly basis the term weekly undulating periodization is used.
Scientific Literature Comparing Linear Versus Undulating Periodization in Adults and Juveniles
Until now, no clear consensus can be established at a general level that tips the balance towards one of the two models, especially in young athletes. Much of the scientific evidence suggests that both periodization models produce similar neuromuscular results if training variables are matched (Harries et al., 2015; Kok, Hamer, & Bishop, 2009; Miranda et al., 2011; Silva et al., 2022; Ullrich et al., 2015). However, a portion of researchers have concluded that undulating periodization, by modifying volume and intensity more frequently, lead to greater strength and performance gains (Hoffman et al., 2009; Prestes et al., 2009; Rhea, Ball, Phillips, & Burkett, 2002).
One of the problems why there is no consensus on which model to preferentially use is that many of the studies have been conducted on novice strength individuals. These individuals will improve with any stimulus, whether it is more or less effective. In addition to athlete level, age is another factor to consider. Research comparing undulating periodization with other models in youth and adolescents is much more limited than what has been done in adults (Mcintyre, 2019).
What is clear is that periodized strength training in adolescent athletes improves athletic performance, prevents injury, and serves as a foundation for their future athletic development (Small et al., 2008). Therefore, the only thing we will have to do to fine-tune is to select one undulating period or another depending on our athlete and sport.
There is no consensus on the preferential use of undulating periodization in young athletes
A group of teenage rugby players performed a 12-week program with either undulating periodization or linear periodization. The mean improvements were not significant between both training models over that time (Harries, Lubans, Buxton, MacDougall, & Callister, 2018). Another research conducted in adolescent novice strength players compared a traditional periodization with an undulating periodization without finding significant differences between both models (Moraes, Fleck, Dias, & Simão, 2013).
In adolescent American soccer players there were also no differences in strength, muscle mass, power and performance gains using different periodization models (Gavanda, Geisler, Quittmann, & Schiffer, 2019). In adolescent judo athletes there was also no significant difference in neuromuscular improvements between linear periodization or undulating periodization, being more a matter of individual athlete and coach preference (Boris Ullrich, Pelzer, Oliveira, & Pfeiffer, 2016).
Other researchers have seen more effective for gaining strength the linear periodization model than the undulating periodization model if it was done on individuals without a strength base (Apel et al., 2011). At the other extreme, greater gains in qualities such as acceleration have been seen in 9 – 10 year old child skaters with undulating periodization (Jaimes et al., 2019). Therefore, linear periodization or undulating periodization can be used depending on the individual athlete and sport.
Advantages and disadvantages of undulating strength periodization in young athletes
Periodization of strength training in children should be progressive and effective, as this is when the optimal periods for the development of the base of physical qualities occur (Lloyd et al., 2014). Undulating periodization can optimize the effects on neural pathways related to strength development and movement control in these stages (Monteiro et al., 2009). In addition, undulating periodization allows manipulating the load each day to facilitate supercompensation and avoid plateaus in athletic performance that often appear with linear periodization (Harries et al., 2015).
Undulating periodization has been gaining increasing popularity by introducing more flexibility than linear periodization and varying workouts more frequently (Afonso, Clemente, Ribeiro, Ferreira, & Fernandes, 2020). This continuous manipulation allows us to better adjust the loads each day, since our body is not a closed system that receives a stimulus and always responds in the same way. There are many factors external to the load that can make that one day or one week we have to modify the training sessions. This situation fits much better with an undulating periodization than a linear one.
Most sports require high levels of performance to be maintained throughout the season, not just at two or three key points. Linear periodization can be used in purely physical disciplines where there are a few set competitions at the end of the season. However, sports mostly require fitness throughout the year, and some peak performance can be achieved by moving little in the programming. The undulating periodization allows us to make these more abrupt jumps from one week or one day to the next, while the linear periodization does it in a much more gradual way.
Flexible undulating periodization: the secret weapon for youth and adult athletes
There is a relatively new undulating periodization model known as “flexible” (McNamara & Stearne, 2013). Today, if we know well how to apply it according to the basis of training science, it is the best option for programming training in young and adult athletes. This type of undulating periodization allows training each day according to the fatigue or energy level of the athlete (Mcnamara & Stearne, 2010). Thanks to the advances that are happening exponentially in technology applied to training, we can know in just a few seconds how our athlete is doing.
One of the interesting devices to implement flexible undulating periodization are those that measure running speed. The Vitruve device measures in a single jump whether the athlete is recovered or fatigued from previous workouts or for other reasons unrelated to training (Cooper, Dabbs, Davis, & Sauls, 2020). It can be measured equally well in exercises with a load, whether it is a bench press, squat, pull-up, deadlift, etc. All we need to do is obtain the speed at which the bar has moved with the intention of doing so at the maximum possible speed. We will compare that measurement with others from previous sessions and we will know immediately if we can go with a high, medium or low intensity.
Reasons to use undulating strength periodization in young athletes
Throughout this article we have found that the choice of a linear or undulating type of periodization varies depending on the level of the athlete, his or her preferences and the sport practiced. However, flexible undulating periodization has several interesting strengths when training young athletes.
Linear periodization should not be discarded, far from it.
Undulating periodization requires the use of high loads to produce these frequent variations in volume and intensity. A beginner athlete will benefit most from starting with a high training volume and low intensity to adapt his tissues to the training and to learn the techniques of all the basic exercises. As the weeks progress, we can gradually increase the loads (intensity) and decrease the volume. In other words, our young athlete with no strength experience will benefit more from a linear periodization than an undulating periodization in the first months of his preparation.
Linear periodization is more interesting in these early phases of beginners in strength, whether they are young or adult athletes (Mcintyre, 2019). Once the young athlete is no longer a beginner, we will move to an undulating periodization model, which seems to do better in such trained individuals (Rhea et al., 2002). Advanced lifters who have already improved their initial strength potential may progress further with undulating periodization.
Children and adolescents should practice several sports at the same time
Early specialization is a bad decision if we want to develop the athlete in the long term. This situation is much more complex to carry out with a linear periodization than with an undulating periodization. The former will be much slower and will not be able to adjust to the different demands that the child or adolescent needs on a daily basis. If the young athlete does only one sport and trains only for it, he will not have so much variation, but that situation is not ideal, but different disciplines should be practiced until in the last adolescent stage he chooses one of them.
Ease of generating fitness peaks throughout the season
A linear periodization starts with high volume and low intensity and ends with a low-volume, high-intensity peak of form. That process is much longer than what happens with undulating periodization, which can manipulate these variables week by week to generate peaks of form throughout the year, without the need to look so long term.
If the child doesn’t know what he will be eating tomorrow, how will he know if he will be able to train better or worse?
Children and adolescents have a long list of factors that can compromise their stress and fatigue levels, beyond what the workouts may entail. A flexible undulating periodization will give the young athlete the ability to adapt those workouts according to each day’s energy, fatigue and motivation. There will be days when he has slept less because of an exam, and we may have to prescribe “an easy day”. Linear periodization has more difficult flexibility from one session to the next. The Vitruve speed measuring device will be able to show us in the warm-up the decision to increase or decrease the intensity of the day.
Light technical learning days and heavy days in the same week
Young athletes need to learn the fundamentals of each lift and perfect them in each session. One of the classic divisions of daily undulating periodization is to perform a light day (3×10 with low load), a medium day (3×5 with moderate load) and a heavy day (3×3 with high load). In the same week, the athlete has been able to perfect technique with low loads and practice what has been learned with high loads. Linear periodization leaves much more space between light and heavy weeks, which makes this transfer from undulating periodization unfeasible.
The basis of training is adherence, and boredom drives young people away from it
A mature athlete who has been training for many years will have habits and discipline built into their DNA. However, young athletes first need to stick to the training, and this can only be achieved if there is some variation in the sessions. The monotony that can happen with linear periodization is more boring than the constant modification of undulating periodization. This aspect is another positive point for such non-linear periodization that allows for the introduction of more dynamic sessions in this population.
Joaquín Vico Plaza
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