hlm bench press

Heavy Light Medium (HLM): A Common-Sense Framework

There is a tension, then between the desire to induce an adaptation training as frequently as possible—so that the lifter can get stronger, faster—and the need to manage fatigue. Managing fatigue is what Bill Starr noted as the common-sense principle that a lower stress workout should follow a bout of high-stress training. The HLM framework recognizes the daily fluctuations in stress that an intermediate lifter will usually require as a means of engaging the adaptive response to training while managing the fatigue of consistent training.

Heavy Light Medium: A Commonsense Framework

“Let’s give a little consideration, for the moment, to the guy who has trained for a sufficient length of time to have a true appreciation of the meaning of the term—monotony. You fellows who are in the preliminary stage have not the slightest idea, and even though at times you may feel that exercise is a monotonous pastime, it takes some years to achieve an honest appreciation of the term. Perhaps this sounds like a queer expression, emanating from one who specializes to a greater or less extent in the dishing out of inspirational stuff in the field of exercise. But, why kid ourselves when all of us reach the point, at one or more times in our experience when training does seem monotonous.” – Mark H. Berry “Physical Training Notes,” (made available at http://hdl.handle.net/11048/3406 through the Stark Center).

Training can be fun; it should be. That doesn’t mean it should be varied day-day-day, surprising, or unexpected. Most of your training should be predictable, changes should be small ones, and progress should be steady. The quote above comes from the prolific strength writer Mark Berry who, in the 1930s, wrote much of the original paradigms on which we base current training and programming practices. He advocated milk and heavy squats to build size and strength. He influenced men like Bill Starr, who credited Berry for the development of the Heavy Light Medium concept of strength training (HLM). What Berry wrote about monotony seems to apply to strength training in general. Nearly ninety years later, a barbell is still a barbell and what works still works. 

Starr believed that HLM tapped into core concepts about training:

Incorporating the heavy, light and medium system into your program isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity for long-term progress. . . .

The system is based on the common-sense idea that a less demanding workout should always follow a strenuous one so your body gets the opportunity to recover properly.” 

–Bill Starr, “Heavy Light, Medium: Taking the Confusion Out of the H-L-M Program” (2006)

It is almost as if the typical trajectory of a lifter’s progress will eventually take them through a program set up that fits the HLM framework. Starr and others mastered the use of this organization to make sound programming decisions for a wide range of lifters.

If we assume that HLM derives from these common-sense principles—that effective training will be somewhat monotonous and that a less demanding workout should always follow a strenuous one—we can hypothesize about why HLM seems to work well for so many lifters. Two intertwined models for training deal with these basic principles: the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) and the Fitness-Fatigue mode (FFM)l.

GAS states that when exposed to a significant but non-excessive stressor, an organism will adapt to survive repeated exposure to that stressor. GAS has been the foundation of most intentional training programs because the adaptation to certain kinds of stress is predictable and beneficial. For strength training, the stress is the program: moving large amounts of weight, over big ranges of motion, at a high enough intensity and for enough sets and repetitions to require recovery and adaptation in response to the training. In response to that stress, the organism (you) adapt to survive repeated bouts of that particular stress; i.e., you get stronger. One tenant of GAS is that you will adapt to the specific demands of the stressor. So, if squatting makes you stronger, it does not make sense to change the exercises that make up your training except as a means to increase the stress and cause a more significant adaptation than you already have. Thus, GAS suggests, as Mark Berry did, that training should be monotonous because the kinds of training that cause strength adaptations are not constantly varied. Instead, the main variables in training are volume and intensity change with fewer changes in exercise selection. 

If we think of GAS as the big picture of training, then FFM helps to describe the immediate response or after-effects to training. GAS suggests a dose-response to training. The more stress we can induce frequently, the more often we engage the adaptive process, and the stronger the lifter gets. But this would ignore the need to recover from training or the reality that you cannot induce as great an amount of stress in a fatigued state as you can when you are not fatigued. FFM describes two after-effects to training, fitness and fatigue. Fatigue can be neural or systemic (called central or peripheral fatigue, respectively). And the accumulation of fatigue will inhibit the longer-term fitness after-effects, meaning chronic or accumulated fatigue can usurp the whole point of your training—getting stronger—by degrading performance in the short term. 

There is a tension, then between the desire to induce an adaptation training as frequently as possible—so that the lifter can get stronger, faster—and the need to manage fatigue. Managing fatigue is what Bill Starr noted as the common-sense principle that a lower stress workout should follow a bout of high-stress training. The more advanced a lifter, the more fatigue he or she will induce by the stress required for adaptation. The HLM framework recognizes the daily fluctuations in stress that an intermediate lifter will usually require as a means of engaging the adaptive response to training while managing the fatigue of consistent training. 

HLM Basics

HLM is neither a template nor even really a method of programming (as we define a method here). It is an organizing principle with many permutations.

The original outline, as described by Starr, was necessarily an open and bare-bones structure:

Day 1 (Monday)- Heavy Day

“Monday is the heavy day, which means they go to limit on all three primary exercises.”

For Starr, the Big Three exercises were the bench press, the power clean, and the squat. Though he noted that other primary movements work fine as well as long as you are training the full body.

Day 2 (Wednesday) – Light Day

“Wednesday is the light day, where they do less than what they did on Monday.”

The vagueness of this statement is intentional. As Starr also notes, this system of training applies to the lifter on an individual basis, meaning “light” is somewhat relative.

Day 3 (Friday) – Medium Day

“Friday they will handle a load somewhere in between what they lifted on Monday and Wednesday.” 

A basic HLM template using the Squat, Press, Deadlift, and Bench Press as the main lifts might look something like the following:

The confusing part of this outline is understanding what constitutes the “light” work of the light day and what constitutes the “in-between” work of the medium day. The ambiguity makes the HLM framework both versatile and (often) perplexing.

Note that HLM is not a beginner routine. Starr wrote about HLM as something he implemented after he had pushed the lifters’ main lifts to the point at which their progress had begun to “flatten out.” One imagines that this early push in a lifter’s training might look something very much like a typical novice linear progression program. 

HLM requires some training history. Every lifter is different, and your training log tells the story of those differences. How you progressed as a novice informs the training decisions you make when you aren’t a novice any longer, including what “Heavy,” “Light,” and “Medium” look like. 

But from Starr’s descriptions, we can take a few organizing points as the general framework:

  • HLM is typically a three-day per week, full-body program.
  • HLM refers to varying the stress of the work throughout the week, not necessarily the weight on the bar. This requires some knowledge of the relative stress of the different lifts and the lifter’s reactions to different lifts, reps, and set ranges.

The above basic template fits these points, as does the basic Texas Method:

The volume of the Texas Method makes up a high-stress day, followed by a light day for recovery and in preparation for the high-intensity day. Even though the weight on the bar is heavier on the intensity day, the stress falls into the “Medium” range because of the low volume.

A third basic HLM program might use supplemental lifts to vary the stress of the week.

Varying the Stress

“Heavy,” “light,” and “medium” speak to the relative stress imposed during each workout or each lift within a workout. There are two basic ways to vary the stress of the work for each lift. Consider the varied stress as the after-effects of a lift or training day. Each lift-related stress is defined by the lift itself, the volume, and the intensity of that lift. 

There are two obvious ways to vary the stress throughout the week. One is by changing the numbers, adjusting the volume and intensity to meet the goal for that lift on that day. Looking at the basic HLM above, by adjusting of intensity for the squat, the light day is now lighter than the heavy day and the medium day is now somewhere in between, meeting Starr’s basic outline. 

The second means of modifying the stress is with our selection of exercises. There are certain criteria that can help you determine the relative stress of different lifts: In general, the more muscle mass a lift uses, the bigger the range of motion, and the more weight it allows you to lift the more stressful the lift is for the lifter. Compare, for example, the squat and the tempo squat. These lifts use the same amount of muscle mass over the same range of motion, but the tempo squat requires a reduced load and volume because it is much more difficult to perform. Generally, the tempo squat will be a less stressful lift, meaning it will garner less fatigue as an after effect. 

In the above example, the overhead press occupies the light pressing day as it is inherently less stressful than the bench press, making it an appropriate light day lift, and the close grip bench press more stressful than an overhead press but less stressful than the bench press, making it a useful medium day supplemental lift. You have a similar relationship between the deadlift, barbell row, and SLDL lifts and the squat, front squat, and tempo squat.

A third and less obvious way to modify the stress each day is to treat each lift individually. This means that instead of grouping heavy stresses together in one day, followed by a light day, followed by a medium stress day that each lift is organized with varying stress. This means that Monday might be your heavy squat day, medium pressing day, and light pulling day; Wednesday a light squat day, heavy pressing day, and heavy pulling day; and Friday your medium squat, light press, and medium pulling day. Your week might look like the following:

Though this bends some of the basic principles of the HLM organization that we laid out earlier, it tends to work well as an organizing option. We have found it useful, however, to stick with the standard organization—Day 1=Heavy, Day2=Light, Day 3=Medium—when it comes to the squat, as it tends to be the most fatigue-inducing, systemic stressor, and driver of progress.

Perhaps now the complicating factors are stark and clear. If you can vary the sets, reps, intensity, and exercise selection to modify the target stress for each session, then suddenly Mark Berry’s admonition in favor of monotony seems a little bit incongruous with the program he pioneered. To help keep from overcomplicating any program, keep in mind that simple > complicated. The four main lifts should make up the bulk of your heavy work. And, improving those lifts is the constant goal of the strength program.  

HLM makes use of the science of training, varied stress driving predictable adaptations. The art of HLM programming comes in the form of knowing how to implement minimum effective dose changes and preserve simplicity for those monotonous but consistent gains that are the mark of a long-term lifter.

Running It Out

A useful programming framework will give you a long-term plan for your program. Without more, HLM doesn’t give you a whole plan. It is different in this respect from a specific programming method like the Texas Method. One method of using HLM is to run the program out by allowing the volume to dissipate over time as the intensity of the heavy day goes ever upward. To demonstrate what we mean by that, let’s take the most basic version of HLM we have presented thus far:

Now, the first step to running this out is the week-to-week standard changes. For this, plan to add weight to the bar each week for each of the lifts. Assuming five pound jumps in weight is appropriate for the lower body lifts and 2.5 pounds for the upper body lifts, we would add that weight to the bar each week for as long as the lifter is able to do so. 

Adding weight to the bar will continue to be the focus of the heavy day for the duration of running the program out. When the lifter can long longer add weight to his 5×5 work, the sets and reps will shift to five sets of three repetitions (5×3), and the weight one the bar will continue to increase in five-pound increments. When the lifter can no longer add weight to the bar for his five sets of three, the sets and reps will again shift to five singles (5×1), and the lifter will continue to add weight to the bar. In this way, the heavy, high-stress day will end up being a low volume, high-intensity day. This plan, however, gives both a goal and a focus for the heavy day of the week, not dissimilar to the way in which the Texas Method focuses the week around the intensity day.

As the heavy day runs up from 5×5 to 5×3 to 5×1, the focus of the medium day will be to add stress to the day continually. First, this will be the standard increase in weight: five pounds each week, for example. Then, when the lifter can no longer add five pounds to three sets of five reps (3×5), the lifter will add a set of volume while reducing the weight on the bar by 5-10%—3×5 becomes 4×5—then the process starts again. Eventually, as the heavy day is reducing down to 5×1, the medium day will increase in volume and stress to 5×5. The light day should stay light with the load resetting as needed to maintain the status quo. 

This organization leads to a kind of pyramiding shape of the lifter’s heavy day. It can be used as a general plan that should take most lifters a few months to complete. Or, it can be implemented with a specific cycle, say 12 weeks, in which the changes in volume and intensity are planned. An artificial vs. holistic timeline for running out the HLM program is up to the lifter and may depend on sport or competition calendars.

Ultimately, you should approach HLM programming as an organizational framework. It can help you decide where a needed supplemental lift should fit into your program. And it can help you troubleshoot problems you may be having if your training does not seem to be following the results anticipated by the General Adaptation Syndrome and you are fighting fatigue without the subsequent gains. Keeping your programming in an HLM framework is not the only way to approach intermediate training, but it can help you organize your training for a long time to come.



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