While one adage says, “Train heavy or go home,” there’s another one, perhaps a lot more accurate, that says, “You can’t train heavy all the time.” Just as a discus thrower can not throw for distance each workout, neither can a weightlifter or bodybuilder train at a maximum 100% of the time (despite what some pie-in-the-sky, perpetual skinny goobers would have you believe).
Some of you may have heard of the heavy/light training principle, first developed by Bob Hoffman of the famous York Barbell club about 50 years ago. Bob Hoffman was an amazing pioneer. He was an Olympic-style weightlifter and coach, who developed two magazines: Strength and Health and Muscular Development.
Hoffman’s heavy and light system was really an early form of mini-periodization (varying workouts), where one would do some sets of very heavy weights, and consequently lower reps, followed by a couple of lighter sets with higher repetitions. All sets were maximum effort and weight, only the repetitions varied and the use of “heavy and light” was relative. Usually, there was nothing light about any of it.
Low rep/high rep training was originally developed to unload and de-stress tired weightlifters’ muscles and reduce shearing forces on joints. For example, a lifter would do very heavy sets of squats with low repetitions. Then, with leg extensions, he would do lighter weights for higher reps to pump the quads, but unload his spine.
Soon enough bodybuilders also latched onto the heavy/light, low/high rep system, especially when Joe Weider began promoting an adaptation of it known as Holistic Muscle Training — the ultimate way to total muscle growth.
The low and high repetition (within body part, or within exercise) system is one that has worked for everyone at every level.
To those not yet enlightened, heavy/light, low/high rep training is just what it sounds like. You first train a muscle at the start of a workout with heavy weights, low reps (4-8), and long rest periods between sets (2-5 minutes, depending on the exercise). Then finish off the muscle with lighter, higher-rep sets, (10-20), with shorter rest periods to pump and totally exhaust the muscle.
The lighter portion of the workout can include conventional high-rep sets, supersets, trisets, giant sets, (four or more exercises grouped in a row) and even extended sets.
Using the heavy/light principle, you can tax all the different muscle-fiber types for maximum growth stimulation. You can also build size and strength with endurance and muscularity (along with your nutritional plan) at the same time.
We KNOW heavy/light, low/high rep training is the most effective way to train.
BIGGER MUSCLES FASTER: IN 120 DAYS
Just to clarify what heavy/light training is, let us outline some possible heavy/light routines for a couple of muscle groups. A good heavy/light pectoral routine for an intermediate bodybuilder, for instance, might be as follows:
- Heavy (low reps): Bench presses: 1 x 10 reps, 8 reps, 6 reps and 1 x 4 reps. (Rest 3-4 min. between those sets). Incline presses: 1 x 8 reps, 6 reps, and 4 reps. (Rest 3 min. between those sets).
- Light A (higher reps): Incline dumbbell presses: 3 x 12-15 reps. Low-incline dumbbell flyes: 2 x 15 reps. Or –
- Light B: Incline Smith-machine presses: 3 x 15 reps. Super-setted with: Low-incline dumbbell flyes: 3 x 15 reps.
In the above example you do your benches and inclines very controlled which means slow and heavy, while the second two exercises can be super-setted (light B) or, if you prefer, do them in straight sets but for higher reps (light A). You take less rest between sets in the light higher rep category as the idea is to really pump the muscle through and through.
For someone less advanced, a suitable one exercise, heavy/light chest routine might be the following:
- Bench presses: 1 x 10 reps, 8 reps, 2 x 6 reps (the heavy stuff), and then 2 sets of 15 reps as pump sets.
An example of a heavy/light triceps routine for an advanced bodybuilder might be the following:
- Heavy (low reps): Heavy triceps pushdowns: 1 x 10 reps, 8 reps, 6 reps and 1 x 4 reps. Close-grip bench presses: 1 x 8-10, 2 x 4-6 reps. Light (high reps): Dips: 3 – 4 sets x max reps with bodyweight (rep out each set until complete failure).
In the triceps routine, take a three-minute rest between each heavy set, but only about a minute rest for the light dip sets. With your dips, doing these 3-4 sets to failure with little rest between sets will blow your triceps up out of this world.
And again, a heavy/light routine for a less advanced bodybuilder could be:
- Heavy: Close-grip bench presses: 1 x 10 reps, 8 reps, 6 reps. Light: Triceps dips between benches: 2 x 15-20 reps.
These are examples of how to set up your own heavy/light routines for any body part.
LOW/HIGH REP TRAINING EVERY OTHER WORKOUT
There are other ways to use the heavy/light system. The most obvious way is to break up your workouts so that you alternate heavy and light training on an every-other-workout basis.
You would do only heavy-weight, low-rep sets during the first workout of a cycle and only lighter-weight, higher-rep work for the second session. This allows you to fully concentrate on power and strength during the heavy workout and really go for the pump and burn during the light workout.
To use the heavy/light principle in this instance, you might do the following workouts for chest:
First Heavy Workout: Bench presses: 1 x 10 reps, 8 reps, 2 x 6 reps, and 2 x 4 reps. Incline barbell presses: 1 x 8 reps, 2 x 6 reps, and 1 x 4 reps. Triceps Pushdowns: 4 x 8 reps.
Second Light Workout: Flat dumbbell presses: 1 x 20 reps, 15 reps, 12 reps, and 2 x 10 reps. Incline dumbbell presses: 1 x 20 reps, 15 reps, and 10 reps. Dips: 3 x max reps. own bodyweight.
During the heavy day, rest a good 3-5 minutes between all sets – even more on the last maximum set. On the light day, keep your rest periods between sets to about a minute. For the light workout you could either do all the exercises in straight-set fashion or tri-set them, or even superset the last two. Perhaps you might use the supersets on an every-other-light workout schedule for variability.
To clarify again, remember when we say “light,” don’t get the impression that we invite you to take it easy or to slack off. (Leave that for Everson when he trains.) Always note that the weights you use during the light portion should be as heavy as you can handle, but light enough to allow the reps.
So, just because we say 20 reps, we don’t mean you should use a weight that you could actually do 35 with. The weight should be heavy enough that your muscles are burning and in discomfort at 20 and theoretically you could not actually make 22-23! Thus, it takes experimenting, like anything!
In terms of hard work, you may discover that the light workout is actually more “intense” than your heavy one. Light workouts can give you some heavy results if you do them properly.
Of course, you can also do heavy/light cycles. For example, you might do all heavy weights and low reps every workout for the first 60 days – say, 4 to 8 reps a set and 3-5 minutes rest between sets – and then switch over to higher-rep workouts for the remaining 60 days, doing all your light exercises for 12 to 20 reps and keeping rest periods to 60 seconds.
You might also incorporate some supersets and extended sets during your light workouts. By switching off to “light” training every six or eight weeks, not only do you give your joints and connective tissues a break from the pounding of using heavy, maximum weights, but you also give your brain a break too. And, the higher reps may greatly increase your ability to pump a muscle and increase the blood and neuromuscular pathways to a muscle. When you return to heavy training again, your muscles will be more receptive and responsive and you should experience a new growth cycle.
HALF-REPS OR BURNS?
One interesting sidelight to the low and high rep system is the use of half-reps.
Some believe that half-reps may recruit additional growth by increasing retention of local wastes, lactic acid and “damage” as it were, and this may trigger more of an inflammation-growth response. It’s the theory of partials or burns as Joe Weider called it. Lots of bodybuilders do them.
This principle is to do a set of very heavy 6-8 half-reps, followed by 6-8 full-reps with light weight!
It can be used on any exercise, but for practical considerations it’s best done with dumbbells and machines. Just keep in mind that it’s always heavy half-reps followed by strict full-reps, so you would do 6-8 half-reps of bench presses followed by 6-12 full ones, (lighter weights), or 6-8 heavy half leg presses followed by 6-15 full leg presses.
On more dangerous movements like the bench press and squat, where there is the possibility of getting stuck with a weight, always have a spotter. Never use this heavy/light half system application on those exercises when training alone!
On machines with weight stacks it’s a simple matter of dropping the pin to a lighter weight after the 6-8 half-reps are completed. And using dumbbells is easier to do than setting up two barbells. These heavy/light compounds can be super for creating intensity and stimulating muscle growth.
Just make sure you are well warmed up before handling heavy weights in the cheating/half-rep portion of the set or you might injure yourself and certainly use them somewhat sparingly!
SHAPE AND ISOLATE? OR MULTIPLE JOINT EXERCISES
Another more unusual way of applying heavy/light training is to do your shaping and isolation movements FIRST in your workout, and FINISH with your heavy compound movements. We admit that this is unusual and considered backwards, but hey, giving you a magazine this good free, is also backwards. At any rate, you are using heavier weights now on typical isolation exercises and this can create a nice pre-exhaust effect for the compound movement exercise.
Again, we are not recommending that you train like this every workout. Try an every-other-workout format. Let’s use the chest as an example. Most people would begin their workout with the heavy compound exercise like the bench or incline press. Then, they finish with flyes, cable crossovers, pec-dek flyes and dips. Instead, START with an isolation movement, so your chest routine might look more light-heavy, like this:
- Pec-deck machine flyes: 1 x 12 reps, 2 x 8 reps. Low-incline dumbbell flyes: 1 x 12 reps, 10 reps, and 8 reps. Dips: 1-2 sets x max-out reps. Bench presses: 1 x 12 reps, 8 reps and 6 reps. Or –
- High incline dumbbell presses: 1 x 12 reps, 10 reps, and 6 reps. Bench presses: 1 x 12 reps, 10 reps, and 2 x 6 reps.
A light-heavy routine for your shoulders might look like this:
- Lateral dumbbell raises: 2-3 sets x 10 reps. Bent-over lateral raises: 2-3 x 10-12 reps. Front dumbbell raises: 2-3 x 10-12 Behind-the-neck presses: 1 x 12 reps, 10 reps, and 2 x 6 reps.
A good light-heavy routine for your legs could be:
- Leg extensions: 3-4 x 10-15 reps. Leg curls: 1 x 12 reps, 10 reps, and 6 reps. 45-degree leg presses: 1 x 15 reps, 12 reps, and 10 reps. Squats: 1 x 12 reps, 8 reps, and 2 x 6 reps.
Bodybuilders who are less advanced could choose only two exercises per muscle group and do them in a similar heavy/light format. For example, for the biceps you might do:
- Concentration curls: 3 x 10 reps. Barbell curls: 3 x 6-8 reps. For your legs you might do: Leg extensions: 3 x 15-20 reps. Squats: 1 x 10 reps, 8 reps, and 6 reps.
Training in this light/heavy, isolation, then compound manner, perhaps on an every-other-workout basis, may help prevent your muscles from getting used to one style and may allow you to stimulate muscles in a different way.
Consider that some bodybuilders believe strongly that, by doing pec-deck flyes and dumbbell flyes BEFORE bench presses and inclines, they pre-exhaust their pectorals and they can then really “feel their pecs” more or working better on the basic exercises. Besides, you can always go back to the conventional heavy-then-light workout any time where you go back to beginning with bench presses and basic exercises etc.
Remember muscle growth is what this whole game is all about!
So, variants of, heavy/light, low/high rep training accomplishes muscle growth best! If you’ve reached a sticking point in your training, and you’re not growing as fast as you’d like, give these heavy/light variations a try.
We fully expect you to add up to 10 pounds of muscle in just 120 days!