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The Heavy-Light-Medium System for Strength and Power

March 11, 2009 04:28 PM


For many years now, I've felt that the best all-around system of training is the heavy/light/medium system. It's great for beginning strength athletes since it teaches them how to properly regulate intensity and volume (and how to handle 3 full-body workouts in a training week). It's also great for anyone interested in not just developing strength and power, but also developing the muscle mass to go along with it. Add in the fact that it's capable of getting lifters in great condition, and I think it's hard to argue against its effectiveness.

The best-known advocate for this style of training is probably Bill Starr, who made the system popular through his classic book "The Strongest Shall Survive" (published in the '70s), and in many subsequent articles for Iron Man Magazine. Of course, Starr didn't invent the program. Before his book was published, many bodybuilders and powerlifters from the '60s and '70s used it. (Some of these lifters did prefer a medium/light/heavy system of training, however, thinking it best to save the heavy stuff for the last training day of the week.)

The purpose of the article is to show how to properly use a heavy/light/medium system. Although many people advocate this program as a good means for gaining both size and strength (a search of the many internet forums should attest to this fact), I have found that many lifters don't understand how to utilize it correctly. Since I have trained many others and myself?usually either powerlifters or football players?using the system, I believe I understand its nuances better than most. I have also used this system for extended periods of time (as long as six months), which is something that needs to be done in order to really understand any training methodology.

What follows is a week of workouts designed for anyone that's new to this style of training. Pay close attention to all of the details, and read the training plan several times before you attempt the program. After I have finished going over the program in detail, I will offer a few pointers so that you can properly tweak the system based on your goals and your level of strength fitness.


Day One ? Heavy Day

The first training day of each week is the "heavy" day. Remember?and this is an aspect of the program that many lifters don't "get"?that "heavy" refers to the total workload for a session; workload being weight lifted times number of sets times number of repetitions. It does not mean that you simply train with heavier weights on this day compared to the other days.

Squats ? 5 sets of 5 reps. The cornerstone of the heavy/light/medium system is usually the squat. This is for good reason; the squat is an exercise that you can train 3 days a week and not overtrain the movement pattern. Being capable of utilizing the same exercise on all three training days makes it easy for a lifter to calculate workload for each training day; a big plus with this system. It's also the cornerstone of the system because of the size and strength benefits of squats. Doing squats not only makes your squat numbers go up, but it increases the strength of other exercises, as well, and doing it often also makes gaining muscle mass a lot easier.

On this day you will perform 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps. The last set should be all-out, or very close to it. Let's say that your maximum on the squat for 5 reps is approximately 315 pounds. Your 5 sets should look something like this: 135x5, 205x5, 225x5, 275x5, and 315x5. Your total workload for the lift: 5,775 pounds.

Bench Presses ? 5 sets of 5 reps. Your second exercise for the heavy day will be flat barbell bench presses. This is a good exercise to use on heavy day because it allows you to utilize more weight than other upper body pressing movements, pushing your workload up more on this day. Unlike the squats, however, you will not use this exercise for all 3 training days, only 2.

As with the squats, 5 sets of 5 reps means 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 repetitions. For a lifter whose maximum on the bench press for 5 reps is approximately 250 pounds, your 5 sets should look something like this: 135x5, 175x5, 205x5, 225x5, 250x5. Total workload for the lift: 4,950 pounds.

Deadlifts ? 5 sets of 5 reps. Once again, you will be utilizing a 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 approach. If your max on the deadlift is 300 pounds for 5 reps, then your sets should look something like this: 135x5, 205x5, 225x5, 250x5, and 300x5. Total workload for the lift: 5,575 pounds.

Weighted Dips ? 3 to 5 sets of 8 reps. This will be your final exercise of the heavy day. For this exercise, you will once again use a progressive approach to all of your sets, but you will increase your repetitions to 8. For a 200 pound lifter who can perform 8 reps with approximately 80 lbs strapped to a weight belt, 5 progressively heavier sets of 8 reps should look something like this: bodyweight x8, bodyweight+30lbsx8, bodyweight+45lbsx8, bodyweight+60lbsx8, bodyweight+80lbsx8. Total workload for the lift: 9,720 pounds.

Once the workout is over with, it's important to calculate the workload for the entire session, keeping in mind that this is what will determine the difference between the heavy, the light, and the medium days. The total workload for this heavy day is 26,020 pounds.

Day Two ? Light Day

Squats ? 5 sets of 5 reps. For the light day, your heaviest weight used on squats will be the weight you used for your 3rd set on the heavy day. This weight will constitute your 3rd, 4th, and 5th set. Using the weight progression from the heavy day as our example, the light day sets should look like this: 135x5, 205x5, and 225x5x3 sets. Total workload for the lift: 5,075 pounds.

Incline Bench Presses ? 5 sets of 5 reps. Here, you will perform 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps the same as you did on the exercises for the heavy day. The nature of this exercise?the fact that you can't use as much weight on inclines as on flat bench presses?makes it ideal for light days. Our hypothetical lifter who could bench press 250 pounds for 5 reps on his/her heavy day should have sets on this exercise that look something like this: 135x5, 150x5, 175x5, 205x5, 220x5. Total workload for the lift: 4,425 pounds.

Wide-Grip Chins ? 5 sets of 5 reps. This is a good exercise to use on light day. For one, it's not easy to overwork your nervous system?allowing your body to recover from the deadlifts on the heavy day?and, two, the nature of it makes it hard to use a lot of weight.

Do not use a progressively heavier series of sets. Instead, just use your bodyweight or whatever added weight you need to make the exercise hard. Now, do not take this exercise to failure. Your sets should be tough, but not all-out.

If we use our hypothetical 200-pound lifter and he performs 5 sets of 5 reps, then the total workload for the lift is 5,000 pounds.

Three exercises are plenty for the light day. The total workload of this light day is 14,500 pounds.

Day Three ? Medium Day

Squats ? 4 sets of 5 reps, 1 set of 3 reps. Here is where some of the confusion sets in with this program. On the medium day, you will actually handle more weight on your core exercises than on your heavy day. However, total workload for each exercise will be less.

For the squats, you will use 4 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps, followed by a triple with more weight than you used on your last set of 5 from your heavy day. Our squatter's set progression should look like this: 135x5, 205x5, 225x5, 295x5, and 325x3. Total workload for the lift: 5,295 pounds.

Our lifter's goal for the next heavy day should be to use the same set progression as the squats here, performing 325 for a set of 5 instead of a set of 3, however.

Bench Presses ? 4 sets of 5 reps, 1 set of 3 reps. Use the same set progression that was used on the squats. The bench press progression for this day should look something like this: 135x5, 175x5, 205x5, 230x5, and 255x3. Total workload for the lift: 4,490 pounds.

Our lifter's goal for the next heavy day will be to use the same bench press progression as this workout, but he/she should perform 255 for a set of 5 instead of a set of 3.

Deadlifts ? 4 sets of 5 reps, 1 set of 3 reps. Use the same set/rep progression as the squats and the bench presses. Our lifter's set progression on deadlifts should look something like this: 135x5, 205x5, 225x5, 270x5, and 310x3. Total workload for the lift: 5,105 pounds.

Barbell Curls ? 3 to 5 sets of 5 reps. This will be your final exercise for the medium day. A good set progression over the course of 5 sets should look something like this: 65x5, 75x5, 95x5, 105x5, and 115x5. Total workload for the lift: 2,275 pounds.

Our total workload for this medium day is 17,165 pounds.

Closing Pointers

Now I would like to offer a few pointers to help you get the most out of this workout, and to allow you to tweak it to suit your level of strength fitness and how your body responds to progressively heavier sets.

First things first, don't make the mistake of adding extra sets of various assistance exercises to this program. The workload, as it is, is fine for the week, especially if you're new to this kind of training.

You don't have to follow a set progression exactly as I describe for all of the core exercises. Some lifters, for instance, find that they do better if their 4th set is closer in weight to their 5th set than what I have listed. For instance, on the heavy squat day our hypothetical 315 pounds squatter might want to follow a set progression that looks something like this: 135x5, 205x5, 225x5, 300x5, and then 315x5. Now, it could be that the opposite is true. Our squatter might do better with a set progression that allows him/her to be more rested for the final set of 5. In this case, the set progression might look something like this: 135x5, 205x5, 225x5, 260x5, and 315x5.

As you get more advanced, you will probably want to add some more sets to your workouts. In this case, you have a couple of options. The first option is to simply add more top-end sets. Our above squatter, might do 2 or even 3 sets with 315x5. (Maybe?as a potential scenario?he/she gets 315 for 5 on the first top-end set, and then follows this with 2 sets of 4.) The other option?and I believe this is more viable at first?is to add some back-off sets. After our squatter is finished with his set of 315, he would drop the weight back down to the weight he used for his 3rd set (225 pounds) and perform 1 or 2 sets of 8 reps. Doing a back-off set on all of your "core" exercises will easily push up your workload to where you need it to be.

Finally, be careful about doing workouts that revolve around a lot of repetition work. When you begin substituting sets of 10 for the sets 5, you start to push your workload to levels that it can't easily recover from on a weekly basis. Now, there is nothing wrong with cycling weeks of higher-repetition work; you just don't want to make high reps a constant.


C.S. Sloan is a freelance writer, martial artist, and powerlifter. He is a contributing editor for Ironman Magazine, and holds a 3rd degree black belt in Isshin-Ryu Karate-Do. You can visit his website at web.mac.com/cssloan, where he discusses strength training, martial arts, and spirituality. If you have any more questions regarding program design, feel free to e-mail him at cssloan@mac.com. Good luck and good training.
 

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