The Heavy, Light and Medium System
by Bill Starr
One of the basic principles of strength training is the heavy, light and medium system. Like all the other concepts used int this physical science, it's not a new development. The old-time strongmen incorporated into their routines the idea of doing a less-than-strenuous workout after a difficult one, but it wasn't actually pout into a definite usable system until the mid 1930's, when Mark Berry wrote about it in his book Physical Training Simplified. From that point on aware strength athletes not only used the heavy, light and medium system, but they also understood why it was so beneficial.
In a great many cases, though, a person who's just starting out on the quest for greater strength learns about this principle from the road of hard knocks. That's exactly how I learned it. When I first started lifting weights, all I really understood was that I enjoyed the results of getting bigger and stronger. I believed that I had to work at 100 percent every time I went to the gym or I wouldn't achieve the desired improvement. Each time I left the gym I was completely spent. Anything less and I figured I'd wasted my time. I was aware enough to recognize that my workouts were becoming more difficult as the week progressed, but I thought that was natural.
My first inkling that I needed a less-than-all-out workout came when I was stationed at West Palm Beach Air Force Base. This was in 1955, and the fitness movement hadn't yet come to South Florida. The gym closed at 4 p.m., so I trained on my lunch hour three days a week. My equipment consisted of some dumbbells, a standard bar and enough 25-pound plates to end up with 175 on the bar.
I did basic exercises, one of which was the clean and jerk. One day I was feeling especially perky and managed to put the 175 over my head. I was elated and left the loaded barbell right on the mat where I had dropped it. It was a monument to my amazing accomplishment. When I showed up for my next workout two days later, the loaded barbell was right where I'd left it. I had to admit, it did look impressive with all those plates. I was doing some situps and noticed a youngster ride into the gym on his bike. The loaded barbell caught his attention, as I hoped it would.
"Who lifted that?" he asked with admiration.
"I did," I informed him proudly.
He studied me for a long moment, obviously not very impressed with what he saw. "Let me see you do it," he challenged.
With complete confidence I walked over to the mat, set myself and pulled on the bar. It felt like a ton. After a dozen attempts I did finally manage to clean the weight to my shoulders, but I was never able to lock it out overhead. Finally, I had to give up, for I was completely worn out.
The brat never said another word. He only chuckled and rode out of the gym.
Totally humiliated and confused, I left the gym as well. This very abbreviated session afforded me the rest I needed so that the next time I came to the gym I could lift the 175 rather easily. Naturally, no one was around to see me. I still didn't understand what had happened, but from then on I started training on a more intuitive level. On Mondays I always felt stronger and had more energy, so I did more exercises and lifted a bit longer than I did on the other days, when I felt more tired. Still, I didn't have any system, which is still true for most beginners.
Sid Henry of Dallas was my first coach, and I've always felt fortunate in that, because he was excellent. He instilled consistency of training and discipline. He was the one who explained exactly why we did certain exercises on specific days of the week. He introduced me to the heavy, light and medium system, and it has proven to be one of the most beneficial ideas I've ever come across in strength training.
By using this principle properly, you can become stronger by slowly increasing your workload and intensity - without becoming chronically overtrained.
The principle is relevant to beginners, intermediates and advanced strength trainers, but each applies it in a slightly different manner.
For beginners the amount of weight used on the various days is based on the top weights lifted on the heavy day. For intermediate and advanced lifters the guidelines depend on total workload, intensity and the severity of the exercises.
Most beginners do as I did, training just as hard as they can at every workout. Progress does come from this charge-ahead tactic, at least for a time, because all the exercises are new and the muscles respond to the stimulation. In most cases beginners are also putting on bodyweight, and that’s the very best way to add some quick strength. In addition, the weight work increases blood testosterone levels, which also promotes muscular growth. Beginners’ enthusiasm is generally enough to carry them along for several months of productive workouts, but eventually their going balls-out at every session becomes a detriment.
Progress not only comes to a standstill, it starts going in the other direction. The next step in this downward spiral is some kind of injury, and there’s nothing in strength training that deters progress as much as an injury. Beginners, not knowing how to cope with an injury or how to work around it, often get so discouraged they quit training altogether. By using the heavy, light and medium system, however, they can avoid falling into this trap.
I explained in an earlier article that I believe beginners should limit their routines to core exercises for the three major muscle groups, then add a couple of auxiliary movements for the smaller muscles. A core exercise for the shoulder girdle, back and legs at each session, along with exercises for the triceps, biceps, deltoids, calves and abs is enough.
I start beginners on the big three: bench press, squat and power clean. If someone is unable to perform any of these exercises, I substitute. The incline bench is as good as or better than the flat bench. Power snatches, high pulls or deadlifts will work the back if a person can’t do power cleans. The one exercise that I never use a substitute for unless there’s an injury is the full squat. Squats are the keystone of any strength program.
The value of using the heavy, light and medium system becomes evident when you build a program around the big three. All have a purpose in the grand plan. The heavy day is rather obvious, as it allows you to handle the heavy weights and increase your workload. The medium day is really a setup for the next heavy day, but it also helps add to the weekly workload. Later on it gives you more variety in the program.
Of the three days the light day is the least appreciated, and it’s the one most abused by beginners. They cannot understand the rationale behind handling such light weights. To many who are anxious to get strong fast, it seems a waste of time, but that’s far from the truth. The light day is, in fact, the hub of the heavy, light and medium principle.
For beginners the light day serves two necessary purposes. It gives their bodies the chance to recuperate after the heavy day, and it gives them the opportunity to perfect their technique on the exercises. One of the basic truisms of strength training is that you’ll improve much faster on any exercise once you master it. This is always the case with the core exercises, but it’s also true for the auxiliary movements such as upright rows, straight-arm pullovers and even curls.
On the heavy day, typically Monday, beginners do all the core exercises for five sets of five, using max poundage on the final set. Five sets of five is the basic strength formula for all beginners on all the core exercises. On the light day, which always follows the heavy day, the top-end weights for the primary exercises are 80 percent of what was used on Monday. The medium day, which follows the light day, calls for 90 percent of what was used on the heavy day.
Here’s how a weekly program for the squat works out. Let’s say a beginner can squat 225 for five reps on his final set of his heavy day. That would make his top-end set on his light day 180 pounds and his medium day, 203. Sometimes, though, the math gets to be a problem. That’s certainly the case for coaches who are setting up programs for a sports team and may have 50 or 60 kids to consider.
So I use a simplified system. In out example the beginner does sets with 135, 165, 185, 205 and ends with 225 for five on his heavy day. Instead of figuring percentages, I merely have him use the third set of the sequence for the top weight on his light day, and the fourth set for his medium-day top weight, which are 185 and 205, respectively. This trick comes out very close to the actual percentages and can be calculated by the dullest of minds.
After people have been training for a few months, they often find that they can’t move all their lifts up on their heavy day. They get fatigued after the second core exercise, and the third gets the short end of the stick.
An effective way to overcome this problem is to alternate the heavy light and medium exercises for he different bodyparts and work them on different days. That lets trainees work harder on just one core exercise per workout and hit the other two in a light or medium fashion.
Using this idea, our example lifter works the squat heavy on Monday, when he also goes light on his back exercise and medium on his shoulder girdle work. On Wednesday he hits the squats light, works his back medium and his shoulder girdle heavy; and on Friday he squats medium, hits his back heavy works shoulder girdle light.
Most beginners, however, can handle two heavy lifts on Monday and do the others on either Wednesday or Friday, filling in the light and medium sequence accordingly. That’s the next step in the progression – to do at least two heavy movements in one workout. Once our trainee’s strength base gets wide enough, he’ll be able to handle three lifts in one session.
This plan also works well for intermediate and advanced strength athletes and for trainees who are rushed for time. If you concentrate on doing well on two core exercises, it’s permissible to hurry through the third. It doesn’t really matter in what order you do the various core exercises just so long as you follow a heavy day with a light one.
Working only two lifts heavy in a session lets you add to your workload on those lifts. You can also add a back-off set of eight along with three sets of calf raises.
Once people find that they can recover from the above routine, they’re ready for a more advanced level of training. Now the game changes drastically. The heavy, light and medium system is still very valid, but it’s approached in a different manner.
Instead of doing the same exercises three times a week, lifters now do different exercises for the various bodyparts. The exercises themselves determine whether they’re used on the heavy, light or medium days. For exercises that are performed more than once, such as the squat, the variations depend on workload, intensity and severity.
This may seem a bit confusing, so I’ll explain, using back exercises as my example. For the advanced program our lifter chooses to do deadlifts, good mornings and shrugs. His best deadlift is 225 for 5 reps, but he can shrug 405 for five. He’s just started doing good mornings, so he only uses 125 pounds for eight reps. The first step is to figure the workload. The five sets of five in the deadlift – 135, 185, 205, 235 and 255 – result in a total workload of 5,575 pounds. The shrugs, also done for five sets of five – with 135, 225, 315, 365 and 405 – produce a yield of 7,225 pounds.
Since the intensity and workload of the shrug are much higher than those of the deadlift, our lifter is tempted to make shrugs his heavy day exercise, but he quickly realizes that it’s the wrong move. This is a case where the severity of the exercises is the deciding factor. Deadlifts are much more demanding than shrugs, so even though the workload and top-end weights are lower, they belong on the heavy day.
When it comes to intensity, good mornings are very high on the scale, but because the relative weight used is so much lower, they’ll always remain a light-day exercise.
That brings us to the next important point concerning the heavy, light and medium system. For advanced lifters there’s really no such thing as an easy day, as there is in the beginning and intermediate stages. All the exercises in the program are demanding, even though the amount of weight used is often considerably less than what’s used on the heavy day.
On the light day, Wednesday, for example, our lifter substitutes inclines for the flat-bench press. He can bench 245 for five reps but has to struggle with 175 for five on the incline. That makes the incline the perfect light day shoulder girdle exercise. He still has to work at 100 percent to improve his numbers on the incline, so it’s not the least bit easy, but the weights used and total workload are much less than what he handles on the heavy day.
He can substitute lunges or leg presses for squats, but with those movements he must be very careful to work them lightly compared to his heavy day. Doing too many sets and handling too much weight will throw the sequence out of sync.
At some point our advanced strength trainer will have to add a fourth training day so he can increase his weekly workload. Trying to do too much in three days makes the workouts too long, and that’s counterproductive. Tuesday is the best day for the extra day. This is a light day, since it follows Monday, the heavy day. So what should Wednesday be? Another light day? It’s not beneficial for advanced lifters to have too many light days. The sequence for a four-day routine is as follows: heavy, light, medium, medium.
Overhead presses and/or dips fit nicely into this extra day. Our lifter still has to work them hard, but the weights are considerably lighter than what he used on Monday. Power snatches or high pulls satisfy the back, and calf raises add a bit of workload to the legs. None of these movements is demanding, but the numbers start adding up.
Another way for very advanced lifters to use the heavy, light and medium principle is to alternate heavy and medium weeks. I don’t advocate doing a light week unless a person is on the move or has some good reason for not training regularly. On the heavy week our trainee can do more sets and reps and also the more difficult exercises. Then the next week he can pull back slightly on his workload and switch to a few exercises that are not quite as demanding; for example, he can substitute high pulls for deadlifts or dumbbell bench presses for barbell benches. This system helps build more variety into the program, and the change in total workload gives his body a certain degree of rest.
The heavy, light and medium principle of strength training is a tried-and-true concept. Incorporate it into your program and it will bring you to a much higher level of strength fitness. Leave it out, and you’re bound to have problems.