Heavy Light Medium Training

Strongest Shall Survive by Bill Starr

Having either depressed or angered folks with last week’s 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.  There’s a lot of this stuff coming in addition to the occasional excerpt from the new mega book project.

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 (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 but I won’t do that (oops).

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 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 play.

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; 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 Point 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.

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 like Layne Norton’s PHAT which do the same albeit a bit differently: with one heavier low-repetition day and one lighter higher-repetition day.  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 system 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).

Heavy Light Medium
225X5X5 145-165X5X5 165-185X5X5

Just do the same exercises on every day but modify the weight (the number of sets can also be adjusted, perhaps 3 sets of 5 on the light and medium days to reduce total stress.  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%.  Same for the medium day, if you still feel fatigued on Monday, cut to 75% on the medium day or reduce sets or both.

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 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.

Heavy Light Medium
Middle Range 5 12-15 8-12
Hypertrophy Focus 8 15-20 10-12
Pure Strength Focus 3 8 5
Ultimate Diet 2.0 3 (Sat) 15-20 (Mon/Tue) 6-8 (Thu)

A final method, and this is good for trainees who aren’t specifically trying to bring up a given lift, may like more variety psychologically, or just want more “Well-rounded” strength is to change the exercises on each day.

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
Back squat Overhead squat Front squat
Bench Press Overhead Press Incline Bench
Deadlift Powerclean RDL
Undergrip Row Pulldown Medium Grip Row
Clean pull Snatch Pull Powerclean
Squat clean Snatch Clean Pull

And I think you get the idea of how this works.  I know there is overlap but a lot of it depends on what the key movement for the heavy day is in terms of how you define the light and medium exercises for this approach.   A typical workout for this type of approach is one leg movement, one push movement and one pull movement.

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) or leg press on light day and front squat on Friday which gives the low back a break middle of the week.  Again, 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 (I doubt many would since this is really a strength oriented approach).  You can also use dumbbells for pressing or pulling work; again the above is just meant to illustrate the concept.

Summing Up the Above

Before addressing a couple of other issues, let me sum up the above, the different ways to implement a heavy/light/medium approach.  Since I’m not sure how many people who read my site do or have the competence to be doing power cleans, I’m going to put rows as the pulling movement here.

Yes, I know, deadlifts, ook, ook, ook, chest thump, quien es mas macho?  Once you’re past a certain point trying to push heavy squats and deads this frequently without a lot of intensity cycling or one hell of a work capacity tends to be a real recipe for disaster; again I’ll give an option at the end of the article that can work.  Here is a summary of the options

Squat Bench Press Row
Same Reps Every Day
Vary %ages
H: 5X5 (100%)
L: 5X5 (65-75%)
M: 5X5 (75-85%)
H: 5X5 (100%)
L: 5X5 (65-75%)
M: 5X5 (75-85%)
H: 5X5 (100%)
L: 5X5 (65-75%)
M: 5X5 (75-85%)
DUP/Vary Reps and %ages H: 5X5 (100%)
L: 4X10-12 (65-75%)
M: 3-4X6-8 (75-85%)
H: 5X5 (100%)
L: 4X10-12 (65-75%)
M: 3-4X6-8 (75-85%)
H: 5X5 (100%)
L: 4X10-12 (65-75%)
M: 3-4X6-8 (75-85%)
Change Exercises H: Squat
L: OH Squat
M: Front Squat
H: Bench Press
L: Overhead Press
M: Incline Bench
H: Undergrip Row
L: Pulldown
M: Overgrip Row

Anybody doing beach/pump work (remember 40 reps total per muscle group so 2X20, 2-3X15 or 4X10) after the heavy stuff can cycle intensity on those movements.  It probably isn’t really necessary, just don’t blow yourself out on it so that fatigue from all of your gunzor work on Monday makes Wednesday suck that much more.

So that’s the basic idea behind the Heavy/Light/Medium but there are a couple of other issues to consider.

Weekly and Workout Sequencing

The typical approach to Heavy/Light/Medium is to put Heavy day on Monday, light day on Wednesday and the Medium day on Friday.  Or whatever sequencing you use.  Basically put the heavy day when you’re most recovered so you can go all out.  However, there is also a certain logic to putting it at the end of the week so that you get more recovery after it.

So the cycle becomes Medium/Light/Heavy (before your two days off).  Some of this depends on the exercises you’re doing.  An Olympic Lifter doing snatches on Wednesday might find that the heavy day wrecks their shoulder girdle so much that it’s better put at the end of the week.  But that’s a very specific example.  My Ultimate Diet 2.0 puts the heavy day on Saturday, light days on Monday/Tuesday and medium on Thursday but that’s for the specific diet.

And the final issue I want to address is another aspect of weekly sequencing and there are sort of two options.  The first is to make the heavy day heavy on everything, the light day light on everything and the medium day medium on everything.  This makes it so the week only has one truly heavy day but that day can get oppressively difficult as folks get strong and the later exercises may suffer.

Another option is to spread the heavy/light/medium days across the week so that each workout has one heavy exercise, one light exercise and one medium exercise.  This makes every day a little bit heavy but means that more focus can be put on the heavy day exercise (it should also be done first).  This option also lets people who really want to squat and deadlift in the same week do it without killing themselves.

Monday Wednesday Friday
Heavy Squat Bench Press Deadlift
Light Speed/Light DL or Row OH Squat Incline Bench
Medium OH Press RDL Front Squat

All I’ve done here is put each movement as the heavy exercise on a given day and then distributed the light and medium days in a H/L/M schedule.  This would allow squats heavy on Monday and DLs heavy on Friday (and this could be switched with DL on Monday and Squat on Friday) for those who want to do both.  Each day has a heavy component but only the one exercise has to be worked hard.

Summing Up

To wrap up, let me point out that I’m not offering this as the best or ideal way to train.  It’s simply that for folks who want to train full body three times per week, once they get strong, doing all out sets every day may be too much.  Varying intensity is a way to maintain that frequency without burning out.  Nothing more, nothing less.

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