Use Daily Undulating Periodization To Force New Muscle And Strength Gains

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How do you approach your workouts? While it may seem like there are an infinite number of factors at play — how often you go to the gym, what exercises you do, the equipment you work with — one of the most defining elements that influence your gains is your choice of sets and reps.

Linear progression, wherein you attempt to improve your strength in small consistent increments, usually over the same set-rep scheme, is a foolproof means of making early strength or muscle gains. But what do you do when you’ve exhausted that avenue?

woman holding back squat bar
Credit: Paul Biryukov / Shutterstock

When it comes to making progress long-term, it’s hard to overstate the importance of novelty. To that end, you can employ Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP) to keep your workouts fresh, fun, and ensure the gains continue rolling in.

What Is Daily Undulating Periodization?

Don’t let the name fool you — DUP may sound intimidating, but the concept at play is actually quite straightforward.

Put simply, DUP is an approach to designing your workouts. Instead of performing your exercises the exact same way each session, DUP has you switch up your sets and reps on a workout-by-workout basis.

You can think of DUP as the flipside of standard linear progression. For example, instead of performing sets of squats with a 5×5 set-rep scheme twice per week (which would tally 50 total weekly reps), you could perform 3×10 during your first workout, and 4×5 in the second.

You’d complete roughly the same amount of total work, but through more varied means to encourage more robust strength adaptations.

What Daily Undulating Periodization Is Not

Although the concept of muscle confusion has largely (and rightly) been discarded in the wastebin of fitness myths, there’s no denying that it does share some similarity with DUP, at least in concept.

However, this doesn’t mean that DUP training has anything to do with confusing, or outwitting, or otherwise pulling a trick on your muscles. Both DUP and muscle confusion do lean on the idea of dodging the Repeated Bout Effect — the phenomenon of diminishing returns from exposing yourself to the same challenge again and again.

The key difference and takeaway is that DUP still necessitates predictable and reasonable progressions, whether through increased weight on the bar or more total volume week over week. You’re not just trying to prank your muscles with random challenges and see if they’ll grow or get stronger as a result.

What the Science Says

For a somewhat newer approach to resistance training, DUP actually has a large body of literature behind it stretching back across multiple decades. Unlike more controversial subjects, the scientific community mostly backs DUP’s efficacy in the weight room.

When it comes to strength, some studies have marked DUP as having the potential to nearly double your strength gains (over a period of 12 weeks) when compared against linear loading schemes. (1)

While remarkable, comparable papers don’t corroborate such astounding increases, though most do assert that DUP does lead to statistically significant strength gains for most trainees. (2)

On the muscle-building front, things are less clear. Some studies have shown that DUP can improve muscular endurance better than standard protocols, (3) but evidence that DUP specifically leads to more muscle growth than other approaches is sparse.

This may be attributed to the fact that your specific set-rep schemes are less important than the other factors that influence muscle gain.

Benefits of Daily Undulating Periodization

The literature studying DUP helps back it as a valid methodology in a clinical setting, but it has more going for it than just getting the thumbs-up from exercise science researchers.

Consistent Strength Gains

The longer you’re in the gym, the harder it is to continue making progress. This holds true for both bodybuilders pursuing bigger muscles and strength athletes who want to add pounds to their Total.

Straight sets and linear progression is the bread and butter of every beginning gymgoer. But if you could stack plates on your bar every week indefinitely, everyone would be setting new World Records.

It varies from person to person, but your progress in the gym will eventually slow down. Once you notice yourself running out of gas, turning to an alternative pathway such as DUP can help ensure that your workouts are productive long-term.

Variety In Your Workouts

It’s one of the more obvious perks of DUP, but moving away from using the same set-rep scheme multiple times over can add a bit of spice to your training sessions.

Three sets of 10, or four sets of eight, or whatever rep scheme you lean on can get repetitive and dull over time. Even if you’re working with the exact same exercise (which isn’t actually a requirement for DUP), altering your rep counts can inject some welcome newness to your training.

Not only will it help your sessions feel different, but working in both low and high rep ranges can help you develop multiple athletic qualities in tandem.

A Break From Heavy Lifting

For powerlifters and weightlifters specifically, repetitive bouts of low-rep, high-intensity training can definitely beat you down over time.

Keeping your sets and reps consistent certainly has its place, but DUP can serve as a welcome reprieve that also allows you to keep adding weight to your barbell long-term.

Who Should Use Daily Undulating Periodization

Nothing is for everyone (though things like vegetables and proper sleep are the exception), but DUP is worth a shot for almost any serious gymgoer looking to ante up their training plan.

Intermediate Strength Athletes

You don’t have to have competed in a powerlifting meet or an Olympic lifting competition to dabble in DUP. Even if you just go to the gym to get stronger overall and have no competitive aspirations, you should give DUP a try.

However, note that DUP is a more complex and demanding approach to training than simple linear progression where you add five or ten pounds to the same lift with the same sets and reps per week.

Fresh-faced beginners can make gains just fine on a linear program, and advanced strength athletes would probably do better following a personalized program from a competent coach.

Powerbuilders

Gone are the days where physique athletes can’t pursue a big squat or deadlift. Moreover, even recreational powerlifters have no good reason to not be at least somewhat muscular. If you’re a powerbuilder who wants the best of both worlds, DUP is right up your alley.

Most bodybuilding workouts generally involve higher repetition counts than the three-to-five-rep province of powerlifters. Therefore, working with DUP can allow you to have your cake and eat it too.

You can get some pump work in on your leg days with higher-rep squatting and then push your strength potential during your second workout with sets of two, three, or five reps.

Those Looking For a Change

Make no mistake about it, you don’t need to have a quantitative or well-thought-out reason for trying DUP. While program-hopping isn’t necessarily conducive for making solid progress, you won’t get much of anything done if you’re bored to tears by your workouts.

DUP can be fun to play with as a way of introducing some freshness to your workouts, particularly if you’ve been working with the same sets, reps, or exercises for an extended period of time.

How to Program Daily Undulating Periodization

DUP isn’t a set-in-stone program that you can refer to when you walk into the gym. It’s a principle that you apply to your training. That said, seeing it in plain terms on paper can help you understand how to utilize it yourself.

Step 1 — Pick Your Exercises

Fortunately, you can apply DUP to just about any exercise under the sun. That said, as DUP is primarily used for gaining strength, you should probably lean on heavy compound or barbell-based movements. Think of your squats, presses, and pulls.

Step 2 — Establish Your Volume

When utilizing DUP, you should look primarily at your total weekly volume as your primary progression pathway. You can still add weight every workout for the most part, but keep a weather eye on how much total work you’re doing per week.

man performs powerlifting squat
Credit: sportpoint / Shutterstock

Set a conservative baseline of total weekly reps divided across two (or even three) training sessions and try to slowly bump it up over time.

Step 3 — Divide Your Work Up

DUP entails two or more differentiating set and rep schemes. This can take all kinds of shapes depending on your goals. For instance, you can back squat three sets of five reps on Monday, and then four sets of eight reps on Thursday.

While you should have different rep ranges across workouts, there’s no reason to push things to any extreme. If your main focus is gaining strength, your average rep count should probably be around 6 or so, to avoid making your sessions too contingent on endurance or other qualities.

If you’re pursuing muscle gains more than anything else, you can err on the side of higher reps overall. Think bench pressing 3 sets of 8 and 4 sets of 12 during two different workouts, for instance.

Sample Daily Undulating Periodization Workout

Seeing a DUP-based workout on paper can help you understand how it works as a training principle. This template below shows two lower-body strength-based sessions that involve alternating your set-rep scheme on your big lifts while your accessory work stays in a consistent rep range.

Day One

  • Back Squat: 4 x 5
  • Romanian Deadlift: 2 x 12
  • Lunge: 2 x 10
  • Back Extension: 2 x 10

Day Two

  • Deadlift: 3 x 5
  • Back Squat: 3 x 8
  • Zercher Squat: 2 x 12
  • Hip Thrust: 2 x 12

Notice that when you’re set to do heavier sets of squats with 5 reps, you’d perform that exercise first. On Day Two, you’re squatting in a higher rep range and pulling heavier, so the order is flipped. You’ll (almost) always want to prioritize the heavier exercise first, no matter what day it is.

The more advanced you are in your lifting career, the more intricate DUP can become to suit your needs. Performing fewer reps one day and more reps later on in the week is an adequate means of utilizing DUP, but it can get far more intricate.

If you’re a high-level athlete looking to utilize DUP for a specific or competition-oriented purpose, your best bet is to seek out a qualified coach or trainer.

Daily Undulating Periodization Tips & Tricks

There is nuance to any training technique you utilize, and DUP is no different. If you want to reap the greatest benefit from it, there are some clever tricks and tactics you should be aware of.

Use It on Compounds

DUP isn’t suitable for every exercise. You’ll find it difficult, for example, to vary your rep ranges in a meaningful way on calisthenics since your body doesn’t neatly respond to bodyweight training the same way it does for a loaded movement.

Further, if you want to lower your rep ranges, you should probably increase the weight to compensate. This might be impractical on isolation exercises — a heavy set of 5 reps on the cable lateral raise sounds a bit silly, after all.

Don’t Go to Extremes

More isn’t always more, and this goes for your rep ranges just as much as anything else. Having a bit of disparity between your set-rep schemes will help you build strength, but pushing that concept too far might lead to rapidly-diminishing returns.

Start out with small swings at first. Sets of three to five one day and eight to 10 later on. You can experiment from there and see if bigger differences work well for you.

Avoid Stacking the Heavy (or Light) Work

One of the few ways you can go awry with DUP, especially if you’re undulating multiple movements in a single week, is “stacking” your work.

DUP affords you flexibility that you should take advantage of. For example, if you’re undulating several lifts in a given workout, there’s no reason to put all your heavy, low-rep training on the same day. This may create too much fatigue or turn your session into a slog.

The Big Picture

Strength training is a big world, and there are many tools of the trade that successful lifters rely on to perform well. Daily Undulating Periodization may be having its day in the sun, but plenty of athletes have gotten strong through other means.

That said, DUP has a lot going for it, and for good reason. Five sets of five is all well and good, but it’s far from thrilling and you’ll exhaust its usefulness eventually.

DUP is well-supported in the literature as a way of keeping your training fun and varied while still ensuring you build strength that’ll turn heads in your gym.

References

1. Rhea, M. R., Ball, S. D., Phillips, W. T., & Burkett, L. N. (2002). A comparison of linear and daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 16(2), 250–255.
2. Prestes, J., Frollini, A. B., de Lima, C., Donatto, F. F., Foschini, D., de Cássia Marqueti, R., Figueira, A., Jr, & Fleck, S. J. (2009). Comparison between linear and daily undulating periodized resistance training to increase strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 23(9), 2437–2442.
3. de Lima, C., Boullosa, D. A., Frollini, A. B., Donatto, F. F., Leite, R. D., Gonelli, P. R., Montebello, M. I., Prestes, J., & Cesar, M. C. (2012). Linear and daily undulating resistance training periodizations have differential beneficial effects in young sedentary women. International journal of sports medicine, 33(9), 723–727.

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