I guess I should get more into the notion of linear progression and what that means. First of all it has become nothing more than a term meant to apply to novice trainees for the first few months of strength training. That of itself makes it un-useful since you are basically making assumptions as to how novices can and should progress and then appropriating a term for that progression. If you believe that to be basic why not call it basic progression.
Basically linear progression is implying that if you looked at increases or improvements in performance, on a QUANTITATIVE basis, those improvements would more or less form a straight line.
When you measure performance quantitatively, you pick one measure of performance. In this case, weight on the bar.
Linear progression becomes a meaningless term over a career since ANY progression, when measured over a long enough time period, becomes more or less a straight line. I can't say a perfectly straight line so let's just assume that if you looked at it on a graph…the progress line would be tending in a general upward direction over time.
Mathematically, a "linear graph" is a graph with a straight line. That would mean that the increases make a consistent pattern. So, increase in weight on the bar of 5, 5, 5, 5, and so on would make a straight line if you plotted it on a graph. By telling you that linear progression is 'best' all that is really being said is that trying to make a perfectly straight line is best. I'm not kidding. That's really all there is to it. Now, of course this so called linear progression doe not really make a straight line unless you plotted it for a short period. It's essentially meaningless.
A line is a line and it does not have to be straight to still be a line. Yet another fallacy is calling straight lines "linear" and other lines "non-linear"! The terms themselves are silly. But anyway…we are not dealing with equations, we are dealing with strength progression.
No matter how you progress, the more you increase the period of time you are looking at, the straighter the line becomes. In other words, all the dips and wiggles smooth out over time. To sum it up…if progress wasn't "linear" it would not be "progress". The line would zigzag up down but never TEND toward a more or less straight line upwards.
So "linear progression" is a meaningless buzz word. All progression, in terms of a certain quality or number, is linear by the sheer fact that it is progression. The idea is that a beginner will make "tremendous" progress using linear progression and that in the long term this actually has an effect on that line graph I described.
Well, not only is the line formed using so-called linear progression and intensity cycling about as jagged a line as you can imagine all those jigs and jags, even if they have the line rising higher after a few months will not represent anything when the line is looked at over a longer term. And since this so-called novice training model only works under ideal conditions (which is assuming all things being perfect and no real cross training or skill work is involved) it is not a real training model but simply a training method with a "model" pinned on to it.
And what really tends to happen is that trainees begin to struggle their ass off to maintain the reps and sets and add weight and you see injuries cropping up even at the end of the first month sometimes or little nagging problems.
This begs the question, of course, of whether it makes sense at all to measure progress purely on a quantitative basis. And it does not and no trainer worth his paycheck would think so.
Yes, I know I've used "begging the question" in two different ways. The second way how most of us use it and the first way how about five logicians use it whose hobby is to recreate Ancient Greece on the weekends and dress up in togas.
Here are two charts showing an imaginary squat progression over ten weeks. The first one could be using an SDT type progression or any kind of slow steady progression. The second one is only adding weight to the bar and using intensity cycling.
I've been generous, to my mind, with the intensity cycling. I've made the overall progression, in terms of weight to be more than with the first progression. But notice the linear notion doesn't bear a lot of weight except for the fact that yes, it is a line.
Ten Week Squat Progression: SDT or other sustainable progression
Ten week squat progression adding weight to the bar and intensity cycling
So again, the mere fact that you add weight to the bar doesn't mean basic progression is "linear" as opposed to something else, it just means you progressed, at least in those quantitative terms.
Using linear to describe progression implies that it is possible to have non-linear progression. Which is like comparing strength training to quantum mechanics. It would mean:
1. That you could get something out of your training that was disproportionate to what you put in. Or your training could have NO EFFECT at all. Neither of which is possilbe.
2. It would mean that the body adapted in an unpredictable way…meaning simply that you could not plan training at all but simply watch the interesting and unexpected stuff that happens.
To be honest I think "linear" is just a word applied by coaches wishing to sound smart. It doesn't really define anything as distinct from something else. Linear periodization, although that is still a silly name, at least has a concrete definition.
In terms of how quantitative progress really looks, I think most will find the first example more esthetically pleasing.
I made the first one using PR's and the second one using weight added to the bar starting from zero. It's the same thing except I did it this way because I knew that the second method would produce a steeper line and thus, viewed simplistically, I'm still being generous to the intensity cycling by making it look faster in terms of "steeper" progress. This was to show how you can manipulate data. The two graphs are really showing a similar thing.
So at the end of 10 weeks, 30 pounds are added to the bar with SDT and 35 pounds with intensity cycling. Intensity cycling wins! I could have been more generous with that and made it look even better with a steeper hypothetical curve. I just wasn't feeling THAT generous.
Intensity cycling wins over 10 weeks, in this scenario. If you want to look at just the starting and ending number. I happen to know that trainees DO have minds, however, and that steep up and down lines, in terms of real world training, corresponds with a steep up and down state of readiness. The only way to make a trainee feel ready for that kind of constant let down is to stamp your feet, bang your fist on the table and make them believe. At least until the next workout.
Here are some charts, however, showing progression over a more realistic time frame. Thirty weeks. A bit over half a year.
30 week squat progression using weight added to bar and intensity cycling
Oops. Intensity cycling stopped working. Couldn't make it to 30 weeks. Assume that after a point of a couple of weeks of no progress and having already set the weights back a few times the trainee is left scratching his head wondering what to do. Maybe he can now try SDT. But the question is, at the end of 30 weeks, has he progressed more by virtue of having used intensity cycling?
You don't have to answer that because it is a rhetorical question. Tricked you with rhetoric! You can't answer that because it assumes knowledge about all sorts of things that you don't have. All you have is a bunch of numbers. All anyone is ever given to support this type of training theory is a bunch of numbers. You have know way of knowing how the trainee will respond to what comes next because you know nothing of his state and how the training up till now has actually affected him. He most likely looks like a blob with a barbell attached to it at some point.
This is a graph of steady sustained progression which doesn't hit failure, doesn't ever dial back the weights, has at least a bit more interesting parameters, and, actually thinks about quality along the way:
30 week squat progression
Now, if I were to make another chart that covered a long enough period of time and I combined that first 30 weeks of intensity cycling with a whole imaginary training career..I could eventually make all those dips and rebounds start to disappear. When viewed in this very clinical, if not completely scientific way, the bumps get smoother and smoother. That applies to the first few months of ANY training. The numbers fade. It also applies to any one period of time during a training career.
What you must understand is that all those little up and down fluctuations look significant on a chart and seem significant when isolated but they are not PRACTICALLY MEANINGFUL…or significant.
And that is why we do NOT measure the first few months of progress in terms of NUMBERS alone! All such progress, at any one period of time, is a snapshot. It is not representative over a career of more efficient or less efficient training since it takes nothing else into consideration, including what is acceptable given a cost benefit analysis.
This whole analysis is ridiculous on the face of it…because the terminology is ridiculous. Within the terms I have set forth in this article, if a trainee simply progresses by loading the bar he is using single progression. The affect that loading the bar will have as opposed to adding volume, etc. will depend on his training status at that time.
To sum it up, the idea that it matters, over any meaningful time period to have progression form a 'straight line' is silly. Because it NEVER WILL. Straight line or 'linear progression' will happen only for very short periods of time in a training career. And the more aggressive the linear loading is, the longer more 'regressive lines' you have (lines that go down).