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Heavy/Light/Medium Training

Strongest Shall Survive by Bill Starr

Having either depressed or angered folks with my discussion on anabolic steroids and how they factually build muscle and strength without training I want to shift gears and write about something that is in the long-list of “Stuff I’ve been meaning to put down” and never gotten around too.   Specifically I want to talk about the idea of Heavy/Light/Medium training,

Daily Undulating Periodization

I imagine that many if not most readers are familiar with a current training idea/fad called Daily Undulating Periodization or DUP.  DUP came out of problems with old-school linear periodization and the fact that physiological characteristics that are not trained for extended periods are lost.

The basic idea is that you train in different repetition ranges (i.e. 5’s, 8’s, 12’s) on different days to target different “aspects” of training (strength, growth, endurance) in hopes of getting the best of all worlds.  DUP has benefits and problems (not the least of which is a tendency to overtrain if every day is taken to maximum) but that’s neither here nor there.

Because readers probably won’t be surprised to find out that DUP isn’t even really that “new”.  Now I could be self-promoting and mention that my own Ultimate Diet 2.0 is actually a form of DUP.  The training uses sets of 15-20 for depletion, 6-8 for tension, 3-5 for power) even if the goal was really to synchronize the training with the diet.

Rather I want to talk about one of the earlier concepts/approaches/popularizations of the idea which was more commonly called the Heavy/Light/Medium training system.  While I’m sure someone did it back in the early days of training, I’d still chalk up the major popularization to Bill Starr of 5X5 fame.

I’d mention that Bill passed away a few weeks ago and I actually deliberately held off on writing/publishing this piece so it wouldn’t look like I was trying to capitalize on his name for SEO purposes.  That’s just not how I roll.

The Basic 5X5 Program

While there are a number of recent popularizations of the original Starr system, it basically entailed performing squat, bench press and power cleans in a 5X5 format.  Mind you, this was geared towards football players remember.  At least in its initial format, this meant pyramiding up to a single top set of 5.

For the record, Starr based the range on an early study showing that 4-6 sets of 4-6 gave the best strength gains and just averaged it/made it simpler (and of course Isonumeric Training Theory).  Later on for more advanced 5X5 became 2 warmup set and 3 work sets.  So far as I can tell, the idea of using 5 sets of 5 work sets came later.

As well, and this is something many seem to forget, Starr allowed for higher volume “beach work” for arms and such.  Knowing that young males were going to do it anyhow, he allowed up to 40 reps of pump work after the real work.  Keep that in mind when someone holds up a pure 5X5 (with no other work) as an ideal growth system.

But as trainees got stronger, they started to have problems going heavy at every workout and Starr had to come up with something different.  And that something was a heavy, light, medium approach to training with those words referring to the intensity on the given days.

Once again, Starr wasn’t the first and this system was used even earlier by some Olympic lifters (Tommy Kono writes about it in his book) but Starr wrote about it fairly relentlessly and went a lot further with the idea so it’s his “version” I’ll focus on.

The Purpose of Heavy/Light/Medium Training

Once people get past a certain level and their strength goes up, it becomes more and more difficult to train with the same heavy weights at all times.  Yes, I know what the Bulgarians do and will write about the recent re-interest in their training methods.

But for human beings there is only so much truly heavy work that can be done.  When people want, for whatever reason, to train the same muscle group multiple times in the same week, it often becomes better to cycle intensity to one degree or another.

Powerlifters have for years used a heavy/light type of system towards this goal, with one heavy workout for a given lift or muscle group and one light (or often speed) day for the other.  There are bodybuilding systems that are set up similarly, usually for advanced intermediate trainees.

So you might have one truly heavy day with sets of 5-8 and a second day with sets of 12-15.  Even the Texas method with 5 sets of 5 across on Monday and one top set of 5 on Friday is kind of a heavy/light although it’s varying volume rather than intensity or rep range.

But in some cases, working a muscle three times per week is still desired and once folks are strong enough to need variety cycling the heavy/light/medium training approach comes into play.  I’d mention that a lot of people tend to question the benefit of the light day, why not just go heavy/medium and drop it?

Well, it can act as a type of active recovery, moving some blood through fatigued muscles.  Depending on how the system is implemented it can also allow some practice at the movements (strength has a neural component and there has been a recent trend towards more frequent lifting to get more “practice” for this reason).

Interpretations of Heavy/Light/Medium

There are multiple ways to implement a heavy/light/medium type of approach and which is preferred really depends on the goals.  The simplest, for people who just love them some 5X5 is to just alter the intensity of the days so that the light and medium days are some percentage of the heavy day.  So if the heavy day is 100% (let’s say it’s 225 lbs/100 kg for a given exercises), light might be 65-75% (65-75kg/145-165) and the medium day is 75-85% (75-85 kg or 165-185 lbs).

Sample Heavy/Light/Medium Training

In this version, the trainee does the same exercises on each training day but modifies the weights being used.  The number of sets could also be adjusted to reduce the total stress.  So 5X5 on the heavy day might become 3X5 on the light day.   This just depends on individual work capacity and percentages will have to be adjusted based on the person.

The light workout should be very light and kept very snappy, Starr recommended keeping the rest intervals shorter to give it more of a conditioning effect.  Trainees should come out of a light day feeling better than they went into the gym in my opinion.

The point is not to increase fatigue and if you come out wrecked, you went too heavy and may need to go to 65% rather than 75%.   The same holds for the medium day. If you find that you are still fatigued the following Monday, you may need to reduce the medium day intensity to 75%, reduce the number of sets or both.

Some feel that women do better with higher percentages (or rather smaller percentage drops) than men due to differences in both absolute strength and recovery.   So women might use 85-90% of the heavy day for their medium day workout and go 80-85% on the medium day.

Varied Intensity and Repetitions

A second approach, and this will look very much like a DUP program is to not only vary the intensity but vary the reps.  So on the light day, with intensity dropped to 65-75%, the reps could be increased to 10-12 (12 reps at 75% is close to a maximum set).  On the medium day at 75-85%, you might get 8-10 reps.

This is a potentially dangerous approach since, lighter or not, a maximum day is a maximum day; if you go too close to limits every day, it’s easy to burn out.  Even in the DUP studies, there often seems to be some overtraining going on in the long-term when every day is taken to limits.  A trainee who wants to do this should probably keep a couple of reps in the tank on all but the heavy day to be safe.

There’s no reason that you have to use 5’s.  Starr was focusing primarily on strength for football players but you could just as easily use 8’s for the first method with the same percentages or set up a DUP with 8’s on the heavy day, 15’s on the light day and 12’s on the medium day.

Just make sure to define light and medium relative to heavy (so the 15’s are 65-75% of the heavy day weight, etc.).  Someone seeking more pure strength might use 3’s on the heavy day, 8’s on the light day and 5’s on the medium day.  Just define the heavy day as 100% weight, light as 65-75% of the heavy day weight and medium as the 75-85% day weight.

Varied Repetition H/L/M Examples

Varied Exercises

A final method to consider and one that Starr wrote about extensively was altering the exercises done on any given day to adjust the intensity.  Heavy, light and medium here were based mostly on the absolute poundages that could be used.

This is a good option for those who enjoy more variety in their training as it is possible to set up three completely different workouts.  This may also provide a bit more “well rounded” strength in the sense of hitting muscles and movement in different angles, directions and planes of movement.

This can even be done with intensity or repetition variations but let’s just pretend now that the trainee will do 5X5 heavy at each day but change exercises for each day.  The key is to pick movements for the light and medium days that require/permit lighter loads than on the heavy day.  I’ve given some examples in the chart below.

Heavy/Light/Medium Exercise Variations

And I think you can see how this works.  You’ll note that there is some overlap and repetition.  For example the power clean shows up as a light day exercise for deadlifts but a medium day exercise for the squat clean.  Basically, whether any given exercise is classified as a light or medium movement depends on what the heavy day exercise is.

Starr used back squat, bench press and powerclean but not everyone is competent enough at cleans to do them well.  Deadlifts can be done as a pull but doing them after heavy squats can be a losing proposition depending.  I’ll give an option at the end of the article that can allow trainees who simply must do squats and deads an option that won’t murder them.

The heavy day should be the exercise choice that allows you to move the heaviest absolute weight, lightest should only permit the lightest weight and medium between the two.  The above isn’t meant to be comprehensive.

You could put front squat on the light day and leg press on the medium day to save the low back (and I know at least one commenter will bitch about how leg presses suck but whatever).  Alternately you could put leg press as the light day exercise and front squats as the medium day.  This is nice since it gives the low back a rest.  I think you get the idea.

What exercises are chosen really just depends on goal.  What an OL’er or PL’er might choose would be different than a bodybuilder using this type of approach.  Mind you, I tend to doubt most bodybuilders would use this type of approach although see my comments above on DUP.  You can also use dumbbells for pressing or pulling work which will tend to further lighten the load due to the balance component.

Honesty you can make this as simple or as complex as you need it but you will need to adapt any program you set up to your needs.

Summarizing So Far

Before addressing a couple of other issues, I want to summarize the various ways to implement a heavy, light, medium approach to training.   Since I have no clue how many of the people who read my site want or even can do power cleans, I’m going to use rows as the primary pulling movement.

Yes, yes, I know.  Deadlifts, ook, ook, ook, chest thump.  I get it.   The reality is that beyond a certain point trying to push heavy squats and deadlifts up is a recipe for disaster unless someone uses a lot of intensity cycling or has a huge work capacity.  Though, I will offer an option later in the article that can make this work.

Summary of Heavy/Light/Medium Approaches

Again, the above is just for the primary movements.  That could be followed by additional general training or hypertrophy work.  Starr’s beach work was generally 40 reps per exercise so you could do 2X20, 2-3X15 or 4X10 for delts, arms, etc.).   Just don’t blow yourself out doing it so that fatigue from Monday impacts the Wednesday workout negatively.

While the above summarizes the primary approach to Heavy/Light/Medium training, there are a few other issues I want to address.

Weekly and Workout Sequencing

The final two issues I want to address both have to do with how the heavy, light and medium days are scheduled.

Weekly Sequencing Issue 1

The typical approach to Heavy/Light/Medium is to put Heavy day on Monday, Light day on Wednesday and the Medium day on Friday.     That is, all exercises are worked Heavy on Monday, Light on Wednesday and Medium on Friday.  The logic here is that you do the heaviest day on Monday when you’ve had the full weekend to recover.  So you come in and hit it hard when you’re freshest.

However, there is some logic to doing the heavy workout on Friday before you have two days to recover.  This would make the cycle Medium/Light/Heavy.     Mind you, which is better depends on the exercises being done and the goals.

An Olympic lifter might find that doing heavy clean and jerk and snatches on Monday wrecks their shoulder girdle so much that it’s better to move it to the end of the week.  There are older school patterns of training where more moderate weekly workouts were followed by a max-out workout (a truly heavy workout) on Saturday which fits this pattern.

Then again, that same lifter might find that even a very heavy Monday workout could be followed by lighter work on Wednesday, perhaps lighter power cleans and push jerks and power snatches.  Of course, OL’ing is its own sport and recovery is often not as big of an issue as in other weight room activities.

An argument could also be made for Light/Medium/Heavy, which also keeps the workout order the same.   This might work for a lifter that finds that they are a little bit “stale” after 2 days of rest.  That they just aren’t clicking technically or neurally.  A light Monday workout gets the system running again which leads into a bit harder Medium workout which leads to the Heavy workout where they can really hammer it.

Weekly Sequencing Issue 2

Throughout this article I have assumed that all exercises are worked at the same intensity no on each day.  If Monday is the heavy day, all movements are worked heavy.  If Wednesday is the light day, all movements are light.  This has the advantage of giving the week only one truly heavy day per week.

But this can become oppressively difficult as people get stronger.  Trying to work heavy squats and heavy bench and heavy rows (or a pull) in the same workout just may not be doable without killing the person.    Even if it’s doable, invariably later exercises suffer.

But there is another option that can avoid that particular problem which is to spread the heavy, light and medium days for each exercise across the week.  So Monday might be heavy squats, Wednesday might be heavy bench press and Friday might be the heavy pull movement.  The light and medium days get spread out such that any given training day has one exercise done heavy, one light and one medium.

The disadvantage to this is now every workout has a heavy exercise so there are no truly light days in the sense of everything being light.  But at more advanced levels I think this is offset by being able to really focus on the single heavy day exercise, which should always be done first in the workout by the way.  This option also lets people who want to or must squat and deadlift in the same week do it without killing themselves.

I’ve shown an example of this below using exercise variation to alter the intensity of each workout.  The other options such as percentage variations or repetition variations could also be used.

Daily Heavy/Light/Medium Variation

All I did here was choose the heavy day exercise and put on one each day.  Monday is heavy legs, Wednesday is heavy push and Friday is heavy pull and I choose this to put the biggest break between squats and deadlifts.

And you can come up with your own variations on the above.  It would be easy to set it up using the same three exercises but with varying percentages or repetitions.  Though I’d recommend against trying to work deadlifts in the 10-12 repetition range.  Just keep it 5X5 or what have you and set percentages across days in a similar fashion.

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