A simple and foolproof way to organize your training
Periodization is really a double-edged sword. Clever changes in the program can make adaptation move along the way it should, while getting ”too clever” with the changes can make a mess of everything and ensure that no progress is made whatsoever. Let’s dig into the simplest and most bulletproof way to approach it: the heavy/medium/light concept.
First let us define periodization. In the context we’re talking about here it simply means the organization of training on larger scales than a training day. Common terminology states that a number of days is referred to as a microcycle (typically a week), a number of which makes up a mesocycle (typically a month), which in turn will add up to a macrocycle (for instance half a year or a year). It’s common knowledge that doing the same thing every day will quickly lead to no further adaptations. This need for changes in training created the concept of periodization, a long-term planning of training. The basis which can be said to be that someone believes he or she can accurately predict adaptations.
The concept of heavy/medium/light
An old way of organizing the week is by the use of heavy-, medium- and light days. The concept has been around for a long time but it’s certainly not out of date. I would go as far as saying that it’s one of the more bulletproof ways to organize your training. The concept of heavy, medium and light can apply to intensity, volume or both. Meaning that the load can stay constant but you do less repetitions or sets, the repetitions and sets stay the same but with less weight, or all factors are changed. How much is heavy and how much is medium and light? A simple way of planning it is by using 100%, 80% and 60% respectively, not necessarily meaning the percentages of your absolute max but rather that the light day is about 60% of your heavy day, whether it be in volume or intensity, and the medium day is about 80% of your heavy day.
Consider you want to do your squats three times per week. On Monday you do a medium load training session. On Wednesday you do a heavy load training and on Friday a light load training. This allows you to train heavy one day and while the effect of the training might not be as productive in a direct way on the medium and light days due to a number of factors, it will be productive in an indirect way due to allowing sufficient recovery for your next heavy day while still allowing some practice of the lift without taxing the system too much.
As you can see from the above example, this way of programming allows you to use a fairly high frequency if you want. When combining with other exercises there are a few ways you can do it. Let’s use an example where we don’t only want to squat but also bench press.
Variation 1: squat and bench press are both heavy on heavy days, medium on medium days, and light on light days.
Variation 2: squat is heavy and bench press is light on one day, bench press is heavy and squat is light on one day, both squat and bench press are medium on one day.
There are pros and cons to both variations. In the first variation you will have truly light days, a concept that should not be underestimated to assure adequate recovery. The downside is that it might be very heavy on the heavy day, which means whatever exercise you do as the second one might suffer. For variation 2 the opposite is true. You get to really focus on one lift on the heavy day but on the other hand it’s never really light. Either way can work.
Heavy/medium/light in long-term planning
I didn’t come up with the percentages of 100%, 80% and 60%, they’ve stood the test of time. Prof. Zatsiorsky mentions the empirical 60% rule, which states just that, that the lightest period should be around 60% of the heaviest. This is not only applied to individual workouts but also to larger cycles. The 80% is simply used because it lies in the middle of the heaviest and the lightest – thus medium. There are several ways this can be implemented in longer term planning, here are a few.
You can use heavy, medium and light weeks. Again, the medium week has 80% the load of the heavy week, the light week 60% the load of the heavy week. I find it most useful to not vary the intensity (weight lifted) too much between the three and instead apply it to overall volume. For this concept to work well the heavy week needs to be really heavy. After all, there’s no point in using light weeks unless you have put in some serious effort to recover from.
60% weeks can serve as ”deloads”. The term deload is used to describe a backoff after a period of strenuous training. While it can at times be necessary, many times I see people not putting in the amount of work for it to be. In this example several medium weeks and one or two heavy weeks can be used after which fatigue has accumulated enough to warrant a deload. Notice that medium weeks are the ones most common here and the heavy weeks are used as so called stress microcycles, periods where training is essentially ”too much”.
You can use heavy, medium and light mesocycles. Up until now we have talked about heavy, medium, light in terms of days or weeks. In this example we’re talking months or mesocycles. The overall load can be similar in all weeks for an entire mesocycle but backed off with a lighter period. In this case I find it best to apply more complex methods. For instance a medium mesocycle will be more volume focused while a heavy is more focused on heavy weights, that is to say that the difference is not only in volume but also in intensity. After a high intensity mesocycle, perhaps leading up to a competition, a light mesocycle is then used for recovery purposes. The length of the light mesocycle is decided in proportion to the length of the heavy mesocycle – the longer the heavy mesocycle, the longer the light mesocycle. Don’t take that as equal in length however. A two week high intensity heavy mesocycle might only need a one week light mesocycle for recovery (if even that). Even a full month of heavy might only need one week of light. An intense 6-8 week heavy cycle is a different story, and two or more weeks might be necessary for recovery.
The heavy, medium, light concept keeps showing up in different forms in different systems, which is why I want you to familiarize yourself with it before we start looking into other forms of planning. It’s also one of the most foolproof ways to organize your training once you’re past the stage where you can add weight to the barbell every training session.
You don’t have to use all the concept in this article. To begin with I advice you to simply make use of heavy, medium and light days during the training week and don’t think too much about long term planning. You can make gains on that for a long time, in fact it might be all that you ever need! If you want to expand it start with doing heavier and lighter weeks. Only after significant experience have been gained should you think about longer term planning.
There are many ways to organize your training, this is just one. One so simple that it’s often overlooked even if it’s something that many would make better gains with than complicated computerized charts with odd percentages and exercises for the medial deltoids.