In Defense of Program Hoppers; DUP Revisited

Ever since I wrote my article on Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP) a couple months ago, I’ve had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right, like something was a little bit off.  (If you haven’t read the first article, or if you don’t know what DUP is, I’d suggest you check it out first)

Physiologically, I’m not sure the rationale behind DUP totally makes sense of the situation.  Not that it is entirely nonsensical, but I had a feeling that the effects and benefits couldn’t be explained solely by the physiological mechanisms proposed.

The basic notion is that your body meets a new stressor, and responds strongly to it.  The more times it’s exposed to the same stressor, the weaker the reaction to it is.  When you give someone similar workouts week-in-and-week-out their body habituates to the stressor, so the rate of adaptation slows down.  This is known as the repeated bouts effect.  With DUP, since you’re changing the volume and intensity with every training session, you’re not dealing with the exact same stressor all the time, so less habituation takes place, so your body keeps adapting faster.  DUP, the theory goes, minimizes the factors contributing to the repeated bouts effect, so you get better gains from it.

That’s the basic theory, and it’s certainly a plausible one.  And I certainly believe that it can account for some of the differences observed in the research.  However, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced these physiological differences don’t account for the entirety of the difference, or perhaps even the majority.

I’d like to go back to the study I used as an illustration in my first DUP article, Rhea (2002).

Just to recap the study, two group of people trained their bench press and leg press.  One group did linear periodization (LP), and the other group did daily undulating periodization.

The LP group did 3×8 for each movement three times per week for 4 weeks, then 3×6 three times per week for 4 weeks, and then 3×4 three times per week for 4 weeks.

The DUP group did 3×8 for each movement one day, 3×6 the next training day, and 3×4 the last training day of each week.  They continued with that pattern for the 12 weeks of the study.

Training volume was the same, average intensity was the same, but the DUP group got, on average, twice the gains of the LP group.*  28.8% vs 14.4% improvement on bench press, and 55.8% vs. 25.7% improvement on leg press.

DUP vs LP strength


So let’s just stop and think about this for a moment.  Volume and intensity, which are generally considered the most important factors for strength and hypertrophy, were equated.  Simply changing around when people did which workout made a big enough difference to result it basically twice the gains for the DUP group.

Let’s think about something for a moment, though.  Are the sets of 6 on Wednesday REALLY that different from the sets of 8 on Monday?  Are the sets of 4 on Friday REALLY that different from the sets of 6 on Wednesday?  Although the stressors are slightly different, are they really so different that your body wouldn’t experience the repeated bouts effect?  I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but I’m skeptical of the notion that your body’s adaptations are so specific that its response to training at 75% 1rm (about what you’d use for 3 sets of 8) would have no bearing on how it would subsequently respond to training at 80% (about what 3 sets of 6 would be) or 85% (about what 3 sets of 4 would be).

However, I think there’s something else going on here.  I think there’s a psychological component that is quite important.

There’s an old British proverb that has become popular in sports psychology, “a change is as good as a rest.”  This notion is captured in the Russian weightlifting concept of “staleness” – the idea that if an athlete does the exact same type of training for too long, they’ll lose motivation and burn out emotionally, leading to decreased performance and adaptation.

Let’s do a scary thing with a scientific study.  Let’s forget about the data for a moment, remember that the participants were human beings and not robots, and step into the subjects’ shoes.

You’re in the LP group.

First day in the gym/lab.  3 sets of 8 leg press and bench press.  Time to kill it.  Let’s give this 100% and hop aboard the gain train.  Workout went well.  Looking forward to the next 12 weeks.

Second training day.  You gave it everything you had on day 1.  You’re a little sore, but you’re pretty sure that if you push yourself, you can lift a little more than you did a couple day ago.  Sure enough, you get sets of 8 with 5 more pounds on your bench press and 10 pounds more on your leg press.  Feeling good about yourself.

Third training day.  Man, it took everything you had to make improvements on day 2.  Getting those sets in with a little more weight seems a bit more intimidating today, but you’re going to give it your best.  You end up having to repeat the same weights on bench press, but you get 10 more pounds on leg press.  Not bad.

Fourth training day.  Really not looking forward to this.  3 sets of 8 again?!  Stalled on both.  Oh well, I’ll do better next time.

Fifth training day.  3 more sets of 8?  If I HAVE to.  Do I seriously have to do two and half more weeks of this exact same workout?

Now you’re in the DUP group.

First day in the gym/lab.  3 sets of 8 leg press and bench press.  Time to kill it.  Let’s give this 100% and hop aboard the gain train.  Workout went well.  Looking forward to the next 12 weeks.

Second training day.  3 sets of 6 for each.  Fewer reps mean I can go a little heavier than day 1.  Time to load up the bar/leg press and destroy these weights.

Third training day.  3 sets of 4.  Heck yes, even heavier.  Low volume today, too, so walking out of the gym feeling good.  I am a god among men.

Fourth training day.  3 sets of 8 again.  Good week of training last week.  I’m pretty darn sure I can get more weight than I did on day 1.  Sure enough, I can.  Let’s keep the gain train rolling.

Fifth training day.  3 more sets of 6.  Let’s keep this momentum rolling.  If I could go up for 3 sets of 8, I bet I can do the same for 3 sets of 6.  What do you know, I can.  Let the sweet, sweet gains shower down upon me forever.

You see where I’m going with this.  Even though both groups were doing the same workouts across the 12 weeks of training, the way the LP program was structured all but ensured that the subjects would hit a wall with each set/rep combination at some point, and even if the participants WERE able to keep adding weight to the bar, the only exciting thing about the training was the gains – the workouts themselves were bound to get pretty dull, pretty quickly.

For the DUP program, since each workout was always a bit different from the previous one, they would be a little more novel and exciting, and it would take longer for the participants to reach a point that they couldn’t progress with a certain set/rep scheme, thus avoiding the demotivational effects of failure.

Those factors – enjoyment and novelty, can affect perception and effort, which can impact performance and training effect.  If you do two equally difficult tasks, the one that is fresh and challenging without throwing you too terribly far outside your comfort zone is the one that will seem easier, and the one you’re going to pour more effort into.

Like I said previously, if we lean solely on physiological explanations for DUP’s success, we have to ask ourselves, “Are sets of 6 on Wednesday really that different from sets of 8 on Monday?  Are sets of 4 on Friday really that different from sets of 6 on Wednesday?”  It’s not that I’m saying the repeated bouts effect is totally unimportant, but I don’t think you can lean on it, and it alone, to explain the difference.

So, what do we do with all this?

Let’s take a look at some of the popular training programs floating around out there, and try to understand why people tend to hop from program to program.  I’m sure there’s an element of chasing the exciting new thing – the strength world’s flavor of the week – but I think there’s more to it than that.

Let’s start by looking at the various beginner routines out there.  When you look at the Starting Strength program, or Stronglifts 5×5, or any of the other LP programs, what do you see?

Basically the exact same workout every time you walk into the gym.  The same exercises, with the same volume and intensity, in the same rep ranges, 5 pounds heavier than last time.  I’m not saying it can’t work, but for many people it’ll be just as much a test of their patience as it will be a test of their strength.  Why not keep the latter while dispensing with the former?

When you move past that, you see a much broader range of approaches.  There’s Sheiko with vanilla exercise selection and the same general intensities, with weekly fluctuations in volume.  There’s Westside with a load of exercise variation, but similar volume and intensity week to week.  There’s the Cube and 5/3/1 that have more weekly variation in loading, with the Cube having a broader array of exercises than 5/3/1.  There’s Madcow and the Texas Method with variations in volume and intensity workout to workout, but the same training setup week to week.  Going back to the Rhea DUP study from earlier in this article, the same principles apply.  Some things change (volume and intensity with each session), while others remain constant (exercise selection and the structure of the training week).  In all these examples, there’s variety of some sort or another to keep the training fresh, while retaining enough consistency for you to gauge progress.

The great thing about this scenario?  They all work.  Plenty of people have gotten good results with all of them.

So what do we make of the program hopper?  Are they ADD, lacking diligence and motivation?  Or are they simply trying to find the type of training that clicks with them?

Motivation comes from both intrinsic and extrinsic sources.  Your choice of training plan can substantially affect your extrinsic motivation.  The more you enjoy your training, the more extrinsically motivating it is.  It’s the whole behaviorist idea of reinforcement.  The more you enjoy going to the gym and training, the more that reinforces the behavior.  The more apt you are to continue lifting, and the more effort you’ll put into your training.  Conversely, if you’re intrinsically motivated to train, but your training plan bores you to tears and you stop looking forward to going to the gym to carry out the training you have planned, it starts setting up a more aversive relationship with training.

When you like what you do, it sets up a positive feedback loop.  You enjoy training, so you’re more motivated to train harder, so you get better results, so you enjoy training more, so you’re more motivated to train harder, so you get better results, etc.  Worst case scenario is that, even if the training is psychologically appropriate, it’s not physiologically appropriate.  In that case, you can retain the training structure that you enjoy, and make some changes within that framework to get the results to start coming again.  Easy peasy.

When you don’t like what you do, it sets up a negative feedback loop.  You don’t enjoy training, so you’re less motivated to train, so you get worse results, so you enjoy training less, so you’re less motivated to train, etc.  Best case scenario here is that you get good results in spite of hating your training plan – the results of training are motivational while the training itself is demotivational.  Certainly not the worst possible scenario, but why suck it up and deal with such a scenario when it can be improved upon?

Not to mention, this isn’t Soviet Russia or Bulgaria where your ability to lift a barbell is directly related to your ability to provide for your family.  Why hate the process, in spite of good results, when you’re just doing it for personal enjoyment anyways?  There are other options out there that have worked for loads of people that you could also get results from, while also enjoying training.

Now, obviously different people are affected more or less by different motivational factors.  If your only drive to train is to be the biggest and strongest you can possibly be, you’ll probably find yourself enjoying any type of training that “works” for you, because the primary reinforcer is the result of the training, not the process of it.  But keep in mind that not everyone is wired like that – many people do want to get stronger and sexier, but the results themselves aren’t the only thing that draws them to the gym.  Maybe they lift for social reasons or for stress relief or just to stay healthy.  People competing at a high level (or striving to) are usually in the first category, while more casual lifters tend to be in the second.

It’s worth pointing out that not everyone finds the same type of training enjoyable.  Personally, I know that if I got my lifting advice from the internet when I first started and thought the only way forward was to run an LP program, just adding 5 pounds to the bar each workout for sets of 5, there’s no way in hell I’d have stuck with it for more than a couple weeks.  However, there are people who totally dig training in that style.  More variety and ambiguity drives them crazy, while predictable workouts and easily measurable progress are very motivating.

I still think the goal should be to stick with a training plan long-term – for 12 to 16 weeks minimum.  However, I don’t think you should necessarily stick with the training plan you have NOW long-term.  Just because you’ve done a program for a week, that doesn’t mean you have to do it for 15 more.  Try out a few training plans for a few weeks apiece.  When you find one that’s enjoyable and clicks with you, where you say, “hey, I’d really look forward to training like this for the next year or so,” then stick with THAT one.  Until that point, program hop to your heart’s content.  You may find you enjoy more exercise variety, or more changes in rep scheme, or weekly changes in volume and intensity, or you may just like doing the same thing every day, a little bit heavier.  Until you’ve tried, you don’t know what type of training you’ll find motivating and productive.

The key is to find something that meshes with your unique psychology (motivational factors) and physiology (it actually makes you bigger and stronger).  When you find it, stick with it.  Until then, don’t feel like you’re married to any particular program because you used it for 2 weeks.

*I realize that subsequent research hasn’t been AS eye-popping as Rhea’s 2002 study, but there is a trend in strength training right now moving toward DUP.  Additionally, though most of it hasn’t been published yet, Dr. Mike Zourdos has done a lot of research that’s either in review or being prepared for publication showing DUP’s benefits specifically for powerlifters .  Here’s a link to his dissertation for anyone interested.

So while we can’t make any definitive statements about DUP being better for all people, at all times, in all circumstances (which is obviously a ludicrously high bar in the first place), this is based on the general assumption that it tends to be better than linear approaches, and Rhea’s study was used our illustration since it just make it easier to dig our teeth into some of these concepts.

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