In Defense of Program Hoppers; DUP Revisited

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Bar_bending

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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38 thoughts on “In Defense of Program Hoppers; DUP Revisited”

  1. Thanks for this article! I’ve been pretty hesitant to program hop due to the “necessity” of giving a program time to work, even when a new program doesn’t gel with me. It’s comforting to see that it’s actually encouraged, until a program is found that does in fact gel.

    FWIW, my next program I’m hopping to comes out of the sample programs received in tandem with the Art and Science of Lifting books. I’ve been holding off from starting them (didn’t want to abandon my current program too quickly), although I’ve been really wanting to give them a shot. Will be starting it up next week!

      1. Sorry Greg, I am not all too sure how this comment section works.

        Do you think there would be massive differences if the volume did not decrease daily (as in 3×8, 4×6, 5×5 or vice versa)? Also, does DUP impact hypertrophy in any way?

  2. Hi Greg,
    in a recent webinar with Mike Israetel he talked about DUP briefly and stated that this only works optimally as long as rep ranges are kept within the same range for different blocks, for example a hypertrophy block should undulate 8’s 10’s and 12’s and strength block should be 5’s 3’s and 2’s. Basically stating that the adaptations can actually interfere with each other if you were doing sets of 12 one day and then set of 3 the next. I have been trying to research this but finding it difficult would love to get your take on this if possible?

    1. As far as I know, that’s primarily theoretical reasoning. The opposing theoretical reasoning would be that exposing the body to stimuli that are too similar with a high degree of frequency would lead to rapid accommodation so they body would stop responding. Personally, I think both are wrong (or at least, not entirely right). If the latter were true, something like the Bulgarian method wouldn’t work at all (though, for many people, it work great). If the former were true, then the DUP setup Dr. Zourdos used in his dissertation (going all the way from ~75% to 95% in a single week) wouldn’t work (http://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6817&context=etd).

      I think the point Mike made may be true in the context of peaking for a meet – you want to be as fresh as possible for your heaviest work, so doing high reps and causing metabolic fatigue may keep you from being as fresh as possible for your heaviest training. However, in terms of off-season work or hypertrophy work, I doubt it matters a ton.

      1. This was my thinking also just wanted an unbiased opinion from someone who knows what they’re talking about, thanks Greg much appreciated! Looking forward to your seminar here in Ireland soon.

    2. I just finished reading Mike Israetel’s Scientific Principles of Strength Training book. He makes that same argument for block periodization. I was left wondering the same thing. This seems to clear it up 🙂

  3. Great article.I have been lifting seriously/with a goal while logging my progression for the past three months now.After i crashed doing a 5×5 routine while undereating earlie,this year,i decided to start all over and get proficient in the techniques required.Im still a novice by all means,i did a 3×5 thrice a week and then canditos linear up to this point,but after a lot of reading i really want to implement auto regulation and dup into my training.It just seems more fun.Also,woulnt it make more sense for a novice to train with a high frequency/lower volume(4-5-6 days a week) just to master the movements,before adding serious weight to the bar?I would really like to get to the gym as much as possible,work up to a given weight based on how im feeling on that day while using the RPE scale.It just makes more sence to me.But everyone says i shouldn’t periodize until i get my numbers up with a linear program.What do you think?

  4. Hi Greg,how are you? My name is Carlos and I am a huge fan from spain.
    I read all your texts and I love them,I think you are one of the best coaches in the world.
    The principal reason to this post is a little doubt about your example of DUP in jtsstrength
    The progression is simple but i don’t know if the percentages are based in a 1RM.
    For example,if my 1RM in squat is 100kg the progression would be like this?

    1x/week Squat/Bench Press/OHP/Deadlift
    Week 1: 5×5 75% 1RM 75kg
    Week 2: 4×3 85% 1RM 85kg
    Week 3: 5×4 80% 1RM 80kg
    Week 4: 3×2 90% 1RM 90kg
    In week five go back to 5 x 5 but increase the weight by 5-10 pounds and repeat.

    My template would be a upper/lower split.

    Thanks you very much Mr. Nuckols and sorry for my bad english.

  5. Hey Greg ! A great article

    I have understood the psychological effects and advantages of DUP over linear periodisation but what about the physiological response differences? You said responses aren’t that different to 4rm 6rm and 8rm regarding the study . Isn’t it too far fetched to credit the double strength gains in the DUP group to psychological states of the individuals ? Or is there a physiological response that that is vastly different for both training programs ?

    1. Maybe not psychological per se, but probably neural. Hypertrophy is pretty similar when most periodization schemes are compared, so most of the additional progress would be attributable to learning the lifts better.

  6. Hey Greg,
    Great article along with your article titled “Increasing work capacity”. I’m running the DUP method with 5x/week workouts. The AMRAP set is taken to an RPE 9 and then based on the number of reps, the 1RM is calculated for the next week.

    Day 1: Push Squats
    Front Squat 10×3+ @ 80% of 1RM.
    Bench 6×6 @ 71% of 1RM.
    Press 5×10 @62% of 1RM.
    CGBP 5×10 @62% of 1RM.

    Day 2: Pull Row
    row 10×3+ @ 80% of 1RM.
    Chins 6×6 @ 71% of 1RM.
    Sumo Deadlift 5×10 @62% of 1RM.
    Snatch DL 5×10 @62% of 1RM. (Due to weakness in upper back)

    Day 3: Push Bench
    Bench 10×3+ @ 80% of 1RM.
    Press 6×6 @ 71% of 1RM.
    Front Squat 5×10 @62% of 1RM.
    Goodmorning 5×10 @62% of 1RM. (Due to weakness in hamstrings)

    Day 4: Pull DL
    Sumo Deadlift 10×3+ @ 80% of 1RM.
    Chins 6×6 @ 71% of 1RM.
    row 5×10 @62% of 1RM.
    Pulldown 5×10 @62% of 1RM. (To add volume)

    Day 5: Push Press
    Press 10×3+ @ 80% of 1RM.
    Squat 6×6 @ 71% of 1RM.
    Bench 5×10 @62% of 1RM.
    Floor Press 5×10 @62% of 1RM. (Due to weakness in midrange of bench)

    If i understand both of your articles, Day 1 helps build work capacity for press. Then, on Day 3 and Day 5 I reduce volume to get stronger and hit a high AMRAP (>4 reps) to increase 1RM for next week and consequently all my weights related to press.

    Am I correct?

  7. I’ve read your blog and Zourdos’ thesis, but there’s still one thing that’s not entirely clear to me: When trying to build an effective DUP setup, does it make a difference at all whether all of the lifts on a given day programmed for the same purpose, or if they are staggered? A staggered example would be what Raj has posted above, and a single purpose approach would be what Zourdos used in his study, or what you suggest in your previous article on the topic.

    Traditional DUP setups typically seem to concentrate around the first approach. However, based on your interpretation of why this might work and Zourdos’ conclusion that there does not seem to be a significant hormonal effect at play here, would it be fair to assume that the 2nd option works just as well? I just feel for me personally it would be easier to manage fatigue and effort if each workout in my program lasted a similar amount of time, and overall demanded a similar total effort. At the end of the day though I’m still going to prioritize gainzzz, so I’ll just suck it up if it sounds like I’m putting the program’s efficiency at risk.

    1. “Would it be fair to assume that the 2nd option works just as well?”

      Yep, absolutely! Doing high rep work for both squat and DL on the same day would be miserable.

  8. Hey Greg, I’ve been going through MASS—which is amazing—and I just finished listening to the audio roundtable on counting the number of sets of quantify volume.

    You guys point out that this is looking into lifters with at least a year of experience. Do you think anything would differ with new lifters?

    The reason I ask is because a lot of these beginner programs, such as the ones you mention here—Starting Strength and StrongLifts—use sets with fewer than six reps in them. I know beginners don’t need as much volume to see optimal growth, but would a new lifter expect more hypertrophy from doing, say, 3×8 instead of 3×5?

    On a similar note, is there truth to the idea that beginners shouldn’t be going above five reps for fear of technique breaking down?

    1. Did we say that in that roundtable? I think we were probably saying that there were ALSO studies on people with at least a year of experience. Most of the research is on new lifters.

      I think new lifters will grow similarly well doing sets of 5 vs. sets of 8.

      “is there truth to the idea that beginners shouldn’t be going above five reps for fear of technique breaking down?”

      If an individual’s technique breaks down if they go over 5 reps, they probably shouldn’t go over 5 reps. If it doesn’t, then they’re fine going over 5 reps. Some beginners are better at learning technique/keeping consistent technique than others.

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