Heavy-Light-Medium for Strength Gains

Our Barbell Club coaches are often asked to program custom strength workouts for our athletes, as many people need to get stronger for CrossFit. Many of these athletes are no longer ‘novices’ in the traditional sense, so we have to get creative. Heavy-Light-Medium is a training methodology that you can use to get additional strength gains for a considerable amount of time!

First, let’s define what a ‘novice’ trainee is and how he or she should approach training. A novice trainee is defined by their ability to recover and adapt between each session. So, if that trainee squats on Monday, he or she can recover and add more weight to the bar on Wednesday, and again on Friday. This is a GREAT time in an athletes training cycle, because they PR each and every session! But like all good things, novices gains will eventually slow and the trainee will need to ‘graduate’ to something more nuanced.

For novice barbell trainees, we recommend a linear progression (LP) program like Starting Strength, which uses progressively heavier weights each session to drive results. An example of this program in action (squats only) would look something like this:

Monday - Back Squat three sets of five reps @ 150lbs
Wednesday - Back Squat three sets of five reps @ 155lbs
Friday - Back Squat three sets of five reps @ 160lbs

We repeat this pattern until the trainee can’t continue adding weight to the bar. It’s really simple, but it won’t work forever, as the stress of the workout cannot be recovered from in time for the next session. And this style of linear progression is very mentally and emotionally challenging, trying to get psyched up to go heavy EVERY session. Linear progression programs like this only last for about 2-3 months before a switch is required.

This is where Heavy-Light-Medium comes in. HLM allows us to arrange stress across a full week, instead of session-to-session. This allows the trainee to deliver enough stress to push progress, and allows enough time between hard workouts so as to adequately recover.

Here’s an example of HLM, again for squats:

Monday - Back Squat FIVE sets of five reps @ 150lbs
Wednesday - Back Squat TWO sets of five reps @ 135lbs
Friday - Back Squat FOUR sets of THREE reps @ 165lbs

Compare the total number of sets for this example: LP uses nine while HLM uses eleven. And while Monday is REALLY hard, Wednesday is less volume and less weight (a light day). Friday, while overall the heaviest weight of the week, is a ‘medium’ stressor because we’re only asking the athlete to do triples, instead of fives. Another nice thing about Friday is that the athlete gets a chance to push the relative intensity on the bar with a heavier squat. The total WEEKLY stress is still high enough to drive progress, but the only crazy day is Monday.

Another way to program HLM involves the use of movement varieties on the light or medium days, as a way to tease out different (i.e. lower) levels of stress. Consider the overall stress of a front squat or a pause squat.. Those movement varieties force the athlete to use less weight, because of less muscle mass involved (front squat) or via the removal of the bounce (pause squat). An athlete could simply program those movements in place of the big scary back squat and instantly have a lower stress day.

Oh, by the way: this is very similar to the way that we program for our CrossFit athletes. In CrossFit, the palette of movements and implements is bigger, but it’s basically the same principle - constantly vary sets, reps, loading and density while increasing the stress gradually. The interplay between training volume (i.e. sets and reps) and intensity (i.e. weight on the bar) is often the critical factor that allows for continued progress. Athletes need BOTH, and management of these variables becomes more nuanced as training age progresses.

Want to play around with HLM? Andy Baker has written a lot of good info on this topic. Need more help? Talk to a Barbell Club Coach (Amy, Justin or Rob) and we’ll give you a hand.