The art and science of the light training day
There’s a lot of value to training hard – it’s an absolute necessity for getting better.
Hard training that pushes you to RPE 9 with heavy weights and plenty of reps is the driving force. It’s a necessary way of providing a growth-stimulus and it’s going to make up a lot of the time you spend in the gym.
However, today we’re not talking about that: we’re talking about light days. Why they matter, what you should use them for, and some examples of how to make the most of them.
You might not love going gentle, but today we’re going to discuss how to make the most of it and provide you with a framework for improving even when you’re letting your body recover!
You’ve probably felt why light days are required.
Intense training causes enduring damage to the muscles – often associated with soreness and reduced short-term performance. If you kick ass on Monday, you’re probably going to be less effective on Wednesday.
If you pile the hard training on yourself on Wednesday, too, you’re going to continue to experience significant reductions in performance. The point is to allow recovery so you can do better on Friday than you did on Monday.
Light days allow for muscles to recover and improve, allowing you to feel and perform better.
However, exercise-induced damage also occurs in the connective tissues, such as tendons and ligaments. These tissues also need time to recover and over-training them by going hard every single day is a way to degenerate these key tissues.
This is a common factor in over-use injuries in powerlifters and weightlifters. If you’re damaging your body faster than it can recover, you’re going to run into serious problems down the line.
Light days allow these other tissues to remain strong, stable, and ready for heavy loading in the future. You need to pace your training to allow for this recovery – which means reducing the loads you’re putting through them between heavy training.
Finally, systematic changes in response to training need to take time to act and normalise. The nervous and hormonal systems take strain from training, and too much heavy training without reductions in load or volume can really add up.
These are adaptive and if you push them too hard they’ll reduce performance. They need time off just like muscles and tendons – even if you don’t see/feel the changes in the same way.
Programming: pacing and patience
It’s important for any good program to work around this and manage the load you’re putting your body under. This is a clear principle of getting better.
The sweet spot – between overtraining and under-stimulating the body – is the key point of a light day and it’s important to pace your training to balance technical and strength adaptations.
Time with lighter weights and different focuses allow you to recover, but also to train effectively.
The overall point is that progress comes in waves and requires you to recover beyond where you were. Light days allow you to train effectively and keep moving/active while you recover and improve.
You improve while you’re recovering, so light days are key to balancing out your training and building in sustainable progress.
So what are the differences that define a good light day of training?
Reducing overall training volume
This is the key – your overall volume is going to come down. This is a measure of the amount of physical work you’re doing, and it is going to need to be lower to ensure you’re recovering effectively.
You probably want to work with weights/intensities that are normal for the current stage of your training, just less of them.
For example, dropping to 50% of your 1RM during a peaking block when you’re usually training at 90%+ just wouldn’t make sense. Keeping intensity relevant tot your training and reducing the overall volume is the smartest way to allow tissues to recover without compromising neural changes or de-training.
Providing load: the potential for artificially reducing intensity/volume with variations
One great way of adjusting your training volume/load is to introduce artificial intensity reductions.
Paused squats are a great example of this: they force you to move with lighter loads while keeping your psychological intensity high and allowing you to train different aspects of the lift.
You can also use other forms of increased difficulty to keep actual loading low. Adding pauses isn’t always ideal (e.g. the paused deadlift), as it can introduce greater stress, but smart use is a great way of keeping yourself healthy and strong in key positions.
One alternative is to increase the variety or reduce the ROM of your movements. Pin squats are a good example of using a specific variation in a way that helps develop technique while reducing the loading of passive structures (like tendons).
There are many creative ways to do this, specific to your goals and weaknesses – be honest with yourself and start where you’re worst!
Under-trained muscles/movements: strength, joint conditioning, and prehab
This is key. If you’re training as a powerlifter then you’re going to be very strong in some specific positions and movements – you’ve probably got strong sagittal two-leg strength.
However, during light days there’s a lot of value to adding light variety in movements and muscles you just don’t focus on. These tend to include new movement styles, areas where you’ve identified muscular weakness, or common injury sites like the ankle, hip, knee, shoulder, and lower back.
This is a great way of providing strength and control to both sides of a joint, as well as a chance to condition joints for future loading. It’s also good for balancing up overall body balance and developing a well-rounded physique.
Joint-conditioning and prehab are key to keeping yourself healthy and ensuring you’re ready for the progress in your program. Light days are a great time to work on these areas of fitness and build a strong foundation.
How do you build a good light day? We’re going to outline some basics and then provide example sessions.
Use varieties that address your specific weaknesses or technique flaws. Keep them relatively specific to your movement angles and be sure to focus on control and movement quality.
These include pauses, partials, deficits and more. They also include single-leg movements and other types of under-used movements that provide different stimuli that will carry over to your goal movements.
Planes: uni/rotational, lateral
When you’re doing a light day of training, it’s good to train yourself outside of the traditional forward-backward, or up/down, movements.
You should be working in various planes of movement – specifically the rotational and lateral.
Lateral exercises involve side movement, which is crucial to supporting the health of joints and core stability. This is a key player in the development of 3-dimensional strength and stability.
Equally, rotational work involves anti-rotational work (like deadbugs and bird-dogs) and active rotation like wood chops and rotating lunges.
Combining these types of exercise provide a way of ensuring the strength and stability of your spine. Strength outside of the neutral spine is also crucial for any athletic movement and ensures that you’re healthier when rotating or bending in real life.
This isn’t a plane of movement, but a totally different type of muscular contraction. It’s about holding a position – an easy way to build strength in a position and improve control over the joints and muscles on both sides.
Adding isometrics – from planks to leg extensions – can support better strength and stability. When held for 30-45 seconds, they’re also a great way of strengthening tendons
- Block Power Snatch
- Power Clean + Jerk + Jerk
- Snatch Pull from Blocks
- Deficit Bulgarian Split Squat
- DB Row
- Side Plank rotations
- Pin Squat
- Spoto Press
- Supinated Band Pull Apart
- Good Morning
- Kosack Goblet Squats
- Inverted Row
- Side Plank Rotations
Strength & Conditioning for General Population
- Superset: Reverse Lunge & Kosack Goblet Squat
- Superset: Inverted Row & Seated DB Overhead Press
- Paused Dumbbell RDL
- Superset: Side Plank & Russian Twist (pause at end)
- 4x500m Row
Using light days better is one of the easiest ways to keep yourself healthy and maximise the benefits of your training. Whether you’re an athlete or a fitness enthusiast, it’s about managing your overall training load and getting your body ready for whatever you’re doing next.
With the tips in this article and the huge amount of creative solutions possible, the possibilities are huge. Put your recovery first, work on your technique, and remember those muscle groups you’ve neglected!
How you train on the light days is how you perform on the heavy ones. Build it to last!
About the Auther: Liam Rodgers:
Good coaching and good writing rely on attention to detail, forward planning, and deep knowledge of the technical aspects. As an Olympic weightlifting coach and the director of Apex sport and fitness content, Liam lives these out: he has huge enthusiasm for sports performance, nutrition, narrative and immersive, engaging writing.