The Light Day
I receive a steady flow of mail from people who want me to check out their programs. Some want specific exercises to help them improve a weak area, while others want my opinions on their exercise selection, exercise sequence and sets and reps. High school coaches are often looking for substitute movements, since they don’t have the necessary equipment for certain exercises.
There seems to be more confusion setting up a light day routine in the weekly program than any other strength-training principle. The problems generally take two forms. Either the poundages are so ridiculously low that the lifter might as well stay home, lie on the couch and watch TV, or he performs far too much work.
The idea of doing a light workout after a heavy one is certainly not a new one. The old-time strongmen used it even if they weren’t aware of it at the time. Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider have both taken credit for formulating the idea, but it was around before either of them got into the publishing business. In the mid-1930’s Mark Berry explained the principle of heavy, light and medium training days in his book Physical Training Simplified. Nevertheless, – and even though it’s been expounded on as one of the Weider Principles as well as one of the York Training Principles – most beginners still overlook its importance.
Strength programs should always include a light day. When you set up a program, it’s important to keep in mind that what constitutes a light day depends to a very large extent on the lifter’s strength level. In other words, a light day for an advanced strength athlete is entirely different from that of a beginner or intermediate. Not only will the exercises be different, but the amount of weight will also vary considerably, as will time spent in the gym.
Usually, ambitious beginners learn about the heavy, light and medium system by chance. Beginners typically go all out at every session, training to the absolute limit on every exercise. For a while that system works nicely, for growing, enthusiastic bodies will respond to the work and be able to recuperate sufficiently. Eventually, however, the weights and the total amount of work being done in a session reach a demanding level. At that point progress grinds to a halt. Trainees plateau on the lifts and/or their numbers drop off. If at that point they don’t learn to incorporate a light day into the total scheme of things, they’ll most likely become discouraged and stop training altogether.
Some stumble onto the idea of having a light workout by accident or due to circumstance. They may or may not have as much time as usual to go through their entire routine, so they cut it short and discover, to their surprise, that the abbreviated session allowed them to rest enough that the following workout was considerably above par. Another frequent scenario is that they start including a light day out of necessity. They’re so tired from the heavy session that they decide to stay with light weights and cut down on the number of movements the next time they go to the gym.
Why is the light workout so critical to long-term success in strength development? Why not train just as hard as possible until overtraining sets in, then take a layoff? Or why not simply rest for extended periods between workouts? That would ensure that you don’t become overtrained and you could push each workout to the limit.
The answer is that neither of these methods of training will lead to a high level of strength fitness. I’m talking about functional strength development, for I deal with athletes. I don’t know of any sport in which participants are allowed to rest extensively during competition. Maybe the field events in track would qualify, but even then the better conditioned athletes will come out on top. Athletes who can come out of the box strongly and sustain that intensity for the duration of the contest are going to emerge as victors. That applies to wrestling, football, basketball and any other sport. In any athletic endeavor the game is usually won or lost at the finish.
While it’s certainly true that people who take five or six days’ rest between workouts will have plenty of energy the next time they go into the gym, it’s also true that they won’t develop the kind of conditioning needed to excel at the athletic arena because they aren’t really building a solid foundation of strength. Their total workloads aren’t expanding enough.
The light day serves several purposes. It allows you to add to your total workload without becoming overtrained. A light workout after a heavy one also facilitates recovery, and, especially in the early stages of strength training, it’s valuable in helping you to learn correct technique on all the exercises.
There are different phases of light days, depending on your strength level. When it comes to beginners, I start all my athletes on the same routine, unless they have some physical problem and cannot do one of the exercises. The workout includes the big three – the bench press, squat and power clean – for 5 sets of 5 reps on all. That not only makes the math easy, but it helps beginners concentrate better on each rep as well. The lower reps will keep them from getting tired and sloppy with their form. That may seem like a trivial point, but for beginners it’s extremely important to keep matters very basic.
For the first two or three weeks I don’t bother with a light day. The athletes do all three workouts with about the same top-end weights. That’s fine, as beginners haven’t developed their form enough to handle any big weights yet. They can recover easily, for they’re only doing three exercises. I don’t include any auxiliary work during this period; however, I do start adding some after the third week.
That’s also when I have the athletes start using the heavy, light and medium system. Many object to it, for they don’t like the idea of using a much lighter weight than they know they can handle. After all, they ask, what’s the value of handling 50 pounds less on an exercise.
The value is that you prevent overtraining and hone our technique on the exercises – two very important variables in terms of continuous, consistent progress. On the subject of overtraining, it isn’t possible to gain strength without becoming overtrained at some stage of the process. Lifters have to push into some degree of overtraining, or they’ll never be able to push their limits any further or know for certain just how much of a workload they can actually carry. The key is to be able to identify that state of overtraining and pull back on the amount of work being done so that the condition doesn’t become chronic. Long periods of overtraining are detrimental to anyone who’s trying to enhance his overall strength.
How much work should beginners do on their light day? Approximately 60 to 85% of what they handle on their heavy day. Any less is a waste of effort. That means a beginner who has advanced to where he’s squatting 205x5 will use 175x6 on his light day, which is in no way, shape or form taxing. I use a rather simple method of selecting the weights for the light day: The third set on the heavy day becomes the final set on the light day. In the example of the lifter who squats 205, his heavy-day progression looks like this: 135, 155, 15, 195 and 205 for 5 reps. The third set, 175, becomes his final set on the light day. So the progression looks like this: 135, 145, 155, 165 and 175 for 5 reps.
That simple method is most useful for coaches who set up programs for lots of athletes. Once you explain it to them, the athletes can easily determine their weights.
The first time beginners do a light-day routine, they usually feel cheated. They can’t understand the purpose of handling less than maximum weights. Because they don’t feel tired when they finish the workout, they don’t think they did enough. That’s a dangerous stage, for in far too many instances the beginner will then add increasingly more auxiliary work to their routine – so much that it completely destroys the concept of having a light day.
There are ways to make the light day taxing. In fact, it can be the most demanding of all the workouts. You can move especially fast through your session, taking short breaks between sets. For the first three sets you should barely take any rest time at all. Compressing the time spent doing the exercises forces your body to respond in an entirely different way, and it’s beneficial to strength development. Better yet, set up three stations and move through your workouts in a fast circuit.
Once beginners learn correct form and build a firm foundation, they’re ready to do more work and also to start including more exercises in their program. For the back there’s a variety of movements to choose from: deadlifts, bent-over rows, good mornings, stiff-legged deadlifts, snatch- and clean-high pulls and shrugs. The list for the upper body includes inclines, overhead presses ad dips, which complement the flat-bench presses nicely. At this stage of development, however, I don’t let athletes vary from squatting. They need to do it three times a week, period.
With the inclusion of auxiliary exercises, the concept of the light day changes somewhat, as the exercises determine whether it’s a heavy, light or medium day. Squats are the easiest to figure. My basic rule of thumb is to use 50 pounds less on the light day than you used on the heavy day. I make subtle alterations as lifters get stronger. Until they reach the high 300’s, I stay with the 50-pound-less idea, but once they start flirting with 400 for reps, I have them use 315 for their light day. In order to increase the total amount of work for the light day without making it too demanding, I eventually have them do three sets with 315. They do two warmup sets with 135 and 225, then jump to 315 for 3 sets of 5. After that I add a final twist: I have them change their foot positions on each of the heavy sets, performing the first set with a regular stance, the second with an ultrawide stance and the third with a ridiculously close stance. As their squats advance, so do their poundages on the three work sets.
The sequence for the shoulder girdle, or upper-body, exercises is usually the following: flat-bench presses on the heavy day, overhead presses on the light day and inclines on the medium day. The exercises themselves satisfy the principle, since lifters who bench 300 pounds will have their work cut out for them in doing a 200 pound overhead press and a 250 pound incline.
The same idea holds for back work. Schedule the most demanding back exercise on the heavy day. By that I mean the one that ends up producing the most workload. I mention this because the light day back exercise in my program is the good morning, which may be the most demanding exercise in all of strength training. Since the weight used on good mornings or even stiff-legged deadlifts is much lighter than what you use on the heavy day, however, it fulfills the requirements of a light day exercise.
I have my athletes do shrugs on their medium day. Since they handle more weight on shrugs than they do on any other back exercise, it would seem that he exercise violates the conditions of the heavy, light and medium concept. It’s a short-range motion, though, so it’s much less taxing than a great many back movements, such as bent-over rows, high pulls or even power cleans when you work them hard and heavy.
Once lifters start to make progress, you can alter the sets and reps on the various exercises each week. That, too, helps to stimulates strength increases, for it keeps the body from falling into a rut.
I’ve observed that there are two ways in which most people abuse the light day concept. The first is that they run the reps up, thinking that since the bar is relatively light they have to do more reps in order to make gains. So, instead of doing the suggested 80 to 85% on an exercise for 5 reps, they double up and do 10. You can see how that throws the numbers off. Our 205 squatter is scheduled to handle 175x5 on his light day. He feels as if it isn’t enough work, so he knocks out 10 reps. In the process he does a workload of 1,750 pounds total. On his heavy day he only did 1,025. It doesn’t take a genius to see that his light day workload will eventually cause problems.
The other way many disrupt the flow of the heavy, light and medium program is to add increasingly more exercises on the light day. Once again, since the routine is relatively easy, they feel as if they need to do more – and more and more. The extra work is almost always some form of beach work, and their attitude is, “How is working my arms going to hurt me?” The harm is that all those sets and reps add up, just as a runner’s mileage does. If you do too much on the light day, in the middle of the week, it will adversely affect your next session the medium day. Now, the medium day may not seem all that important, but it’s the setup for the upcoming heavy day session. The three workouts serve each other and fit together in an orderly fashion.
The very best way to determine if you’re adhering to the heavy, light and medium principle is to write down your poundages and calculate the amount of work you do at each session. The numbers don’t lie. Naturally, intensity is a factor as well, but a quick check of your workload will give you all the feedback you need.
As you advance to a higher level of strength, you’ll need to make further minor adjustments in your program to satisfy the principle. For example, you may want to increase your weekly workload but know that you cannot carry much more work in the three days, so you add another day. Tuesday fits best, but it has to be a light day, since it comes right on the heels of the heavy day. What does that make Wednesday and Friday? Medium days. Again, the selection of exercises is the determining factor.
Here’s the way that schedule might work. On Mondays you do squats, deadlifts or power cleans and flat-bench presses. On Tuesdays it’s overhead presses, power snatches or high pulls and some auxiliary work. On Wednesdays you do squats as usual or start substituting front squats or lunges, along with inclines and good mornings. On Fridays it’s squats, flat-bench presses and shrugs.Finally, for very advanced lifters there’s a way to use the light day concept with a different angle. Some people find they do well by performing two heavy exercises on Monday and the third with lighter poundages. They hit that third exercise heavy on either Tuesday or Wednesday. For example, there are lifters who don’t find they can get much out of deadlifting when they do it on the same day as they do heavy squats, which is Monday, so they do power cleans on Monday and heavy deadlifts the next day. That lets them handle more weight on the deadlift, which is a plus.
While the above may seem a bit complicated, it really isn’t. All you have to do is keep track of what you did and periodically do some math to figure your workload. If you find that you’re doing more on your light day than you should, cut back, for it will eventually be counterproductive. By constantly monitoring your routine and making adjustments, you’ll be able to consistently add to your overall level of strength fitness.