By: Barbell Logic Team

“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:

By: CJ Gotcher, SSC

From day one with a new lifter, I tell them to look at a spot on the ground 5-ish feet in front of them, and once we’ve found the correct gaze that gets the head neutral in the bottom of the squat, “eyes” and “spot” become the cue for the lifter to refocus and look at that point. This eye direction is part of the Starting Strength teaching progression, and it’s one element many people struggle to understand.

If we’re trying to go up, why would we look down?

Image caption

First, in our teaching progression, we start by teaching people the movement without a barbell. Unfortunately, without a weight, there are a wide range of possible positions that will keep the lifter in balance, at depth, with their back in the right place, and we want to teach them the back angle they will best lift heavy weights with. The eye gaze is an elegant solution. By setting the lifter to a point where the imaginary bar is approximately over the midfoot and adjusting the head until it’s neutral at the bottom (5 feet is just a ballpark figure), we have given the lifter visual feedback they can use to find that correct back angle.

More importantly, though, we want to keep the hips and shoulders moving up together out of the hole.

When most new lifters look up, they lift the chest early and the body compensates by bringing the knees forward slightly to keep the weight over the middle of the foot. This is a natural reaction because the cervical spine (the neck) is connected to the thoracic spine (the upper back). However, when the knees go forward, even a little bit, the quads (which are already working their asses off) have to produce more force. Bar speed tanks. The lift feels like death.

No bueno.

It seems simple, then. If looking up brings the chest up too early, just don’t look up. This begs the question: why do some strong squatters look up, usually to horizon but sometimes even higher, when they squat?

Oftentimes, these lifters are front squatting or high bar squatting with limb lengths that favors a more-vertical back angle. In such a case, I would expect the lifter’s eyes to be up at horizon and the exact position will matter less since their head is nearly neutral at horizon anyway. It’s also common to see lifters who are just phenomenally strong, and despite their chest raising slightly, and bar speed visually slowing down, they power through.

Even so, there are some skilled lifters doing low bar squats who can execute excellent hip drive with their eyes up. If someone has an otherwise excellent squat and looks up into the rafters, do we have to fix it? Maybe.

I almost hesitate to mention this because it’s not as big a deal as it sounds, but I think there is a slightly increased risk of injury from looking up, especially in jerking the head up as you drive out of the hole. The spine is meant to extend. We do it all the time without injury, and some have argued that because the barbell is below the neck, the cervical spine isn’t under load and the head position shouldn’t matter. Maybe normally, that would be true, but under a load, things below the spine have an impact upstream.

Specifically, when the weight gets heavy, the traps contract to tighten the supporting frame of the upper back. However, the upper traps connect at the base of the back of the skull. When you reach your neck to look back, there isn’t much pressure on the cervical vertebrae or the muscles surrounding it. If you crunch your neck to do so (think thrusting the chin forward instead of up, which is what we tend to do under the bar), you probably feel discomfort as you reach your end-range-of-motion. Combine that with the downward pull of the contracted traps (especially if you’re ‘whipping’ the neck back in the lift) and you risk going beyond that range and causing injury.

I (sadly) have personal experience giving myself mild neck sprains with pullups and deadlifts during my first 2 years of ‘getting after it,’ and the mechanism was the same: craning the neck with contracted traps.

All that being said, I still hesitate to mention it. First, it’s a minor issue. I’ve never heard of a ruptured cervical disk from squatting. Mostly we’re looking at sprains and strains and, yes, they will definitely put a damper on your dance card for a few days, but you can train through them.

Second, debating this point back and forth, a great question keeps coming up: what does a ‘normal’ or ‘neutral’ head position look like? We know when we’re looking at something that’s just ugly, and most coaches can agree on what neutral looks like (mostly), but when does it become excessive? It’s one of those fuzzy areas- “I know it when I see it”- and that’s just not convincing.

In the end, can I tell you confidently that your neck position will hurt you or that it’ll derail your training? Not confidently. Still, as a coach, I will teach all of my beginner lifters to look down when they squat and emphasize hip drive because among beginners, the reflex is almost universal. If I’m working with an experienced/strong lifter who’s been looking up for years and has excellent hip drive, I’ll work at getting them to lower their gaze, but it’ll be lower on the priority list of issues to correct.

Finally, a disclaimer: if you experience particularly severe neck pain, tingling or numbness in the arms or extremities associated with neck pain, or painful neck stiffness beyond 2 or 3 days after exercise, I recommend you see a doctor.

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