Learning About Heavy Light Medium Programming

“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).

Basic Heavy Light Medium Programming

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. He wrote:

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 commonsense 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)

Almost as if those who are paying attention to what works and making individually applicable adjustments to training would end up with a routine that would fit the HLM framework. Starr and others just made it intentional.

HLM Basics

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:

 

Heavy Day 

Light Day

Medium Day

Squat

5×5

Bench Press

5×5

Deadlift 

1×5

Squat

3×5

Press

5×5

Barbell Row

3×8

Squat

3×5

Bench Press

3×5

Deadlift or DL Supplemental

3×5

 

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. And this is why HLM is both extremely versatile and often perplexing. 

Note that this isn’t a beginner routine. Starr wrote about HLM as something he implemented after pushing the lifters main lifts until their progress had begun to “flatten out.” One imagines that this early push in a lifter’s training might look something very much like the current iterations of the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression, from the Book Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe who learned from and trained under Bill Starr. 

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 training decisions you make when you aren’t a novice any longer, including what “Heavy,” “Light,” and “Medium” look like. 

Adjusting 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. One is by changing the numbers, adjusting the volume and intensity to meet the goal for that day. The other is by assigning less or more stressful lifts. Take the above template and add a few hypothetical percentages and assistance lifts: 

Heavy Day 

Light Day

Medium Day

Squat

5×5

Bench Press

5×5

Deadlift 

1×5

Squat

3×5 @ 80% of Monday

Press

5×5

Barbell Row

3×8

Squat

3×5 @ 90% of Monday

Close Grip Bench Press

3×5 @ 90% of Monday

Stiff-Legged Deadlift

3×5

 

With a simple adjustment 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. Exercise selection choices accomplish the same goal: For the pressing movement, the overhead press 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. 

Perhaps now you see the complicating factors even more clearly. If you can vary the sets, reps, intensity, and exercise selection to modify the target stress for each session, then suddenly Berry’s admonition in favor of monotony seems a little bit incongruous with the program he pioneered. Many programs follow the HLM concepts but mix up the work based on each main lift or major muscle group. For example, Monday might be the heavy squat day, the medium bench day, and the light pulling day. Such a program spreads the stress of the heavy work out over the entire week and might be more appropriate for lifters who cannot recover from such a brutal heavy day as the one described above (or the standard version Texas Method for that matter).

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.

How to Learn More

There is too much variation to outline here. If, however, you are wanting to make the most of HLM programming the Barbell Logic Coaching Academy is hosting a Master Class on HLM programming. The HLM Programming: Concepts and Practical Applications course is a 6-week class all about HLM programming:

Learn all the ins and outs of the most versatile of all the Intermediate training programs – Heavy/Light/Medium. This course will teach you how to utilize HLM across a wide variety of client goals and schedules, and achieve steady, long-term progress. Explore how to apply MED principles to detailed HLM progressions and take your clients from Advanced Novice and the way through Intermediate and beyond with simple, intuitive changes – all while getting them massively strong! (Course Description)

This course will be a deep dive into the most versatile programming method for post-novice lifters.

Other sources for learning more about HLM Programming:

Matt and Scott return to the MED toolbox to discuss the importance of PR’s in measuring the success of a program. Of course, PR’s are inherent in the novice linear progression, during which the athlete hits PR’s for 3×5 every workout, or every other workout as an advanced novice.

 

The PR then becomes a weekly occurrence for the early intermediate, then perhaps biweekly for the mid-intermediate. Texas Method, for instance, calls for a 1×5 PR each week on “intensity day.” For athletes more advanced than this, where we begin to enter theoretical programming territory (because, as we have discussed ad nauseam, most people, even athletes, do not advanced beyond this stage), the PR is typically discussed in terms of a 1RM. At some level, this makes sense, as advanced strength athletes are, by definition, competing in strength sports where the 1RM is tested.

 

An advanced athlete may train in a 6,8, or even 12-week blocks to obtain a 1RM PR. However, this does NOT mean that she does not also hit 3RM, 5RM, or sets-across PR’s during the training block. Matt believes this is a crucial and overlooked point when discussing programming, particularly the use of volume. Many of his advanced lifters hit a number of PR’s during their training cycles besides the 1RM. The implication is that, when programming, the focus should be on the PR itself, rather than adding sets. In other words, the number of sets shouldn’t be the goal, the PR for a given rep range or number of sets should be the goal.

 

Therefore, coaches should only prescribe as much volume as needed to continue driving PR’s for the rep ranges being trained during the cycle. For strength athletes, the 1RM remains the gold standard for measuring success, but it does not diminish the importance of other PR’s.

 

Most importantly, focusing on the PR when programming ensures that we are using quantifiable data to determine whether the athlete is getting stronger, instead of subjective measures such as RPE.

 

Got a question for Matt and Scott? Email us at questions@barbell-logic.com and we’ll answer your question on an upcoming Saturday Q&A!

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