Training

Your Guide To Heavy-Light Training

The Path To High Performance Mass

by Eric Bach T-Nation

Look Great, Perform Even Better

People that look and perform like muscular athletes usually do two things in the gym:

  1. They train to improve performance by driving up strength, speed, and conditioning.
  2. They use specific hypertrophy work to attack weak points and, ultimately, build a balanced physique.

But the problem among most people is that they treat aesthetics (looking good) and athleticism (performing well) as mutually exclusive training goals.

Fortunately, they don’t have to be – especially when you use and adjust the training methods of the late Olympic sprint coach, Charlie Francis. While Francis wasn’t programming workouts to help his athletes look better naked or bust a deadlift PR, his high-low principle is what kept them progressing without burning out.

We can use the same idea to increase both performance and hypertrophy. Here’s an overview of what that looks like before I get into the details.

Heavy-Light Training Overview

It’s also called an “intensive-extensive” or a “high-low” training split. It bases workouts on the neurological demand of training. It places the highest-demand work on nonconsecutive days.

The “heavy” or intensive days are when you do exercises that are more demanding on the central nervous system. For lifting, this can mean that the work is greater in complexity, has greater explosive demands, or requires max strength.

The “light” or extensive training days are based on a higher volume and less weight. To keep the workout challenging without such extreme neural demands, this will mean creating more metabolic stress within your muscles.

Bench Press

Four Benefits Of Heavy-Light Training

1. You get stronger and look better at the same time.

This programming allows you to train muscles and movement patterns more frequently. For many lifters, this results in improved technique and, as a result, faster gains in strength compared to training a muscle or movement pattern once per week.

You also get the bonus of consistency. Organizing workouts in a way that keeps you from digging yourself into a recovery hole will allow you to keep training and keep challenging your body without burning out.

You can’t change your body composition or gain strength without consistent effort and that’s what this type of training guarantees.

2. You feel good and stay fresh from workout to workout.

The reason this type of program works is because of its varying neurological demands, which keep systemic stress in check. You’ll be able to squat, deadlift, etc. more often, but you must vary the loading and volume to prevent excess fatigue.

To understand it better you’ll need to know a couple things about the nervous system. Let’s cover that…

Your nervous system has two parts:

  1. The central nervous system (CNS), composed of the brain and the spinal cord.
  2. The peripheral nervous system (PNS), all the remaining nerves and ganglia outside of the brain and spinal cord.

Motor units consist of one motor neuron and all the muscle fibers it stimulates. When a signal is sent from the nervous system, it activates the motor unit. Then all the muscle fibers innervated by the motor unit are stimulated and contract.

Each motor unit consists of a bundle of muscle fibers and a motor neuron. Small fibers are in small bundles and in control of smaller, finite movements. Large muscle fibers are in bigger bundles to generate maximum power and strength.

So when you unrack a weight at 95% of your 1RM, your nervous system goes into overdrive, sending massive signals to your body to increase muscular recruitment.

Motor neurons, and virtually every other nerve in your body, are constantly receiving information from other nerves. As a result, it becomes supercharged, recruiting more muscle fibers to execute the near-max squat, along with improving muscle fiber recruitment on subsequent exercises, making them more effective.

That means lifting heavy all the time is best, right? Nope. If you lifted heavy every workout, your nervous system, joints, and tissues would start screaming at you before too long.

That’s where this programming shines. It limits the overall stress you’re placing on your body by adjusting the demands on your CNS by varying load, speed, and intent of exercises.

3. You improve your technique.

With heavy-light training you do each movement pattern more often than most training splits.

When it comes to maximizing your performance, the more often you do a movement correctly, the more proficient you’ll become. Once a movement becomes more naturally and technically precise, your strength numbers can improve, driving up work capacity, which will lead to improvements in your physique.

Remember when you first started deadlifting and you had to learn the mechanics of the movement? While you were deadlifting you’d think things like, “Don’t round your back and pull the slack out of the bar.”

But with lots of repetition using good technique, you get the movement down pat. Reaching this state of “unconscious competence” in the gym allows you narrow your focus and maximize performance.

Heavy-light training can help lifters of all levels become more proficient at the highly technical lifts by increasing the training frequency of each one.

4. You gain more muscle.

The more often you train a muscle the more protein synthesis you’ll trigger. Protein synthesis is the fundamental biological process by which cells build their specific proteins, and your muscles grow through this process.

Studies have shown protein synthesis responds to resistance training and lasts about 24-48 hours after a workout (1, 2). The more often you train a muscle – with adequate recovery time – the more consistent protein synthesis will be.

With heavy-light training, you can actually vary the loading and train muscles on back-to-back days. You can hit heavy squats on your intensive day and follow up with high-rep goblet squats the following day.

The result is increased protein synthesis while adding enough variation to allow muscles to recover and mitigate overuse injuries, which leads to more muscle growth and better performance in the gym.

Box Jump

Heavy-Light Training Split Example

It works best with a four to six day training split. Obviously, as training frequency increases, your focus on recovery must too. Otherwise you’ll be working harder with less to show for it.

Here’s a sample split for six days per week.

  • Monday: Intensive – Compound Lifts
  • Tuesday: Extensive – Back and Biceps
  • Wednesday: Intensive – Compounds Lifts
  • Thursday: Extensive – Chest and Triceps
  • Friday: Intensive – Compound Lifts
  • Saturday: Extensive – Legs and Shoulders

Sample Workout

Monday (Intensive)

 ExerciseSetsRepsRest
A1Box Jump431 min.
A2Power Clean422 min.
BFront Squat452 min.
CIncline Barbell Press552 min.
DChin-Up46-890 sec.

Tuesday (Extensive, Back and Bi’s)

 ExerciseSetsRepsRest
A1Cable Face-Pull with External Rotation41215 sec.
A2Dumbbell Y-Raise41215 sec.
BSingle-Arm Dumbbell Row58-10/side45 sec.
C1Lat Pulldown or Wide Grip Pull-Up4830 sec.
C2Dumbbell Alternating Biceps Curl48-101 min.
DWide Grip Seated Cable Row41290 sec.
EAlternating Dumbbell Hammer Curl48-10/side1 min.

Wednesday (Intensive)

 ExerciseSetsRepsRest
A1Broad Jump4245 sec.
A2Single Leg Hip Thrust48/leg45 sec.
BDeadlift51-33 min.
CClose-Grip Bench Press55/4/3/2/13 min.
DPendlay Row4690 sec.

Thursday (Extensive, Chest and Tris)

 ExerciseSetsRepsRest
A1Cable Chest Flye31245 sec.
A2Subscap Push-Up31230 sec.
BOne-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press26/side90 sec.
CDumbbell Incline Bench Press410/8/6/201 min.
After the set of six, just cut the weight in half and bang out 20 reps.
DDumbbell Pullover312-1545 sec.
E1Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension31230 sec.
E2Feet Elevated Push-up2failure1 min.
FCable Straight-Arm Pushdown2201 min.

Friday (Intensive)

 ExerciseSetsRepsRest
ADumbbell Squat Jump3490 sec.
BBack Squat or Trap Bar Deadlift46/4/2/22 min.
CBarbell Military Press552 min.
DTRX Inverted Row4121 min.
EHanging Leg Raise4101 min.

Saturday (Extensive Legs, shoulders)

 ExerciseSetsRepsRest
A1Stability Ball Hamstring Curl38-1045 sec.
A2Stability Ball Lockout31 min.45 sec.
BDumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat36/leg90 sec.
CSingle-Arm Dumbbell Shoulder Press38/arm90 sec.
D1Dumbbell Single-Leg RDL310/leg1 min.
D2Skater Squat310/leg1 min.
E1Dumbbell Lean-Away Lateral Raise28 
E2Dumbbell Lateral Raise210 
E3Overhead Plate Raise (25 pound plate)2151 min.
FGoblet Squat (Use half your bodyweight)125 

Go home, you’re done.

Goblet Squat

Adjustments

For Athletes

For those athletically inclined who want a bit more, any speed work or specific technical work you want to add would go on the intensive days before lifting to preserve technique. You may do better to limit your training to five days and allow adequate recovery.

Cardio Additions

Daily 30-minute walks are a failsafe method to burn a few extra calories and provide a low-stress cardiovascular training method. Should you want to add more, keep it low volume and do it on the intensive day at least six hours after your lifting session. Beware though, you’ll likely need to decrease your training volume to fit this in, both from a time and recovery perspective.

For the Beaten-Up Lifter

Feel free to switch out Olympic lifting variations for an additional jump or medicine ball throw, like a medicine ball back toss. In all cases, find the lifts that best fit your body without beating the snot out of your joints.Related:  Activate Your CNS, Then Lift HeavyRelated:  Lift Hard. Lift Smart. Recover Faster.

References

  1. Damas, Felipe, et al. “Resistance Training-Induced Changes in Integrated Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis Are Related to Hypertrophy Only after Attenuation of Muscle Damage – Damas – 2016 – The Journal of Physiology – Wiley Online Library.” The Journal of Physiology, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 9 July 2016, physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1113/JP272472.
  2. Brook, Matthew S, et al. “Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Adaptations Predominate in the Early Stages of Resistance Exercise Training, Matching Deuterium Oxide-Derived Measures of Muscle Protein Synthesis and Mechanistic Target of Rapamycin Complex 1 Signaling.” FASEB Journal : Official Publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26169934.

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