I get a lot of questions about the light days in Unf*ck Your Program. To be more accurate, I get asked one question a lot of times: why are the light days so light? And can I go harder on them?
Obviously, it’s your training, and you don’t need my permission to do anything. But I very strongly recommend that you keep the light days exactly as they are. I know light days can be boring, but they’re an incredibly important part of a productive program. Here’s why, and here’s how to use them most effectively.
Why You Need to Lighten Up
The athletes I work with generally fall into two categories. The first are the ones who enjoy training, but they tend to be a little over-conservative in their training (for whatever reason). These people generally benefit less from light training days, as they’re not totally exhausting their recovery resources when they train. They’re also in the minority, at least in my experience.
Most of my lifters — and most of the people I see on social media and in the gym — tend to be overly aggressive. It makes sense: if you care about being strong, you’re going to want to work hard to get there! But the truth is that if you’re beating yourself up every time you walk into the gym, then you’re not giving your body what it needs to improve. You want to do just enough work so that your body can rest and recover after training, not so much that you feel like you got hit by a truck by the time you get home.
This isn’t just a physical thing — it’s mental, too. Mike Tuchscherer has written quite a bit about the effects of psychological arousal on your recovery, and I totally agree with him: getting psyched up is often more exhausting than going really heavy. There’s a balance to be had here, and if you ignore that fact, you’re going to burn out and plateau, or even regress.
That said, I understand that pushing yourself to the limit is fun, it’s challenging, and it’s the whole reason a lot of people lift in the first place. There is nothing wrong with that, and I don’t suggest you change!I do suggest that you not train like that all the time. This is where light training comes in. By offsetting your heavy days with light ones, you can balance your recovery over time — say, over the course of a week — and be able to go balls-out on a regular basis while still getting stronger.
Light training can be used in another way: to increase your training frequency. I talk about this in Unf*ck Your Program, too: frequency is one of the key variables in programming, but it’s difficult to change your training frequency, because you have relatively little wiggle room to work with. If you’re training 4 days a week, adding or subtracting a day is a 25% change. You’d obviously never go from training with 75% 1RM one week to 100% on the next, and, similarly, you don’t want to make huge changes in your frequency. By adding (or dropping) a light day, you can more easily moderate the total impact of a change in frequency.
This, of course, has a lot of benefits in its own right. Even adding a light training day gives you another opportunity to practice your technique, for example, which is especially important if technique is something you struggle with.It also gives you more leeway in your progression schemes. When linear progression get daunting (if, for example, you hit an all-out set of 5 at 85% 1RM and are supposed to do 87% the next), alternating heavy and light days can help you to build some confidence and provide mental variety without slowing you down.
How Light is Light?
The answer to this question is “probably lighter than you think.” In fact — like I mentioned above — light work can be so light that it’s boring.
(Now, I don’t think boring training is optimal, because you’re not going to put 100% into something that isn’t at least somewhat interesting. So make sure to watch the video above for suggestions about how you can spice up your light work. And you can participate in an interesting discussion about enjoying your training on Reddit here.)
That said, light training doesn’t mean a deload, either. In fact, I very rarely deload in the traditional sense, as I prefer to balance my weekly training load in such a way that deloading isn’t necessary. I find that most deload protocols result in a lot of wasted time, anyway — besides the obvious 5-10 days where you’re not training heavy, it usually takes another 5-10 days to get back in the swing of things after a period of sub-60% training. If you’re deloading every 4-6 weeks or so, that’s easily 25% or more of your time that’s not spent productively.
Now, everybody likes a straight answer, but there’s no one hard-and-fast rule for what constitutes light training.For me, a light session means that:
- I don’t have to get psyched up to complete any sets in the workout.
- Even without getting psyched up, I’m always keeping at least 1 rep left in the tank, and usually more.
- The total volume of the session is such that I can complete it in about 2/3 the time of a heavy workout.
Now, I’m a very emotional lifter, in this case meaning that the difference between lifting psyched up and not psyched up can be enormous. If you’re the type of lifter who doesn’t train in quite the same way, I think these rules might be more appropriate:
- Light work is always sub-90% 1RM.
- Light work is always below RPE 9, and usually around RPE 7.5-8.
- Light work uses ½ to ⅔ the volume of a harder training session.
Again, these rules can be really deceptive. A training session of 5 triples at 85% 1RM might well meet the guidelines above, but if you’re really struggling to complete those 5 sets, it ain’t light. If you’re programming for yourself, using light sessions appropriately is probably going to require that you use some type of autoregulation, which can be challenging for beginners. That’s why, if you are a beginner (or intermediate) lifter, I really suggest that you follow a program like Unf*ck Your Program as written.
Unf*cking Your Light Training
In fact, that point is so important that I want to rehash it just a bit. Like I said at the beginning of this article, it’s your training. If you really can’t stand light days, you don’t have to force yourself to do them. But if you are following any of my programs, I strongly, strongly recommend that you keep the light days programmed exactly as they are. When you’re ready to adjust some variables (after running through the full program as written, right?) start with the heavier days. The light days will give you some cushion in case you end up over-reaching on those.
At the very least, I hope this helped y’all understand my reasoning behind UYP a little more, and I hope it encouraged you to give light days a try. No matter what you decide, remember to have fun with your training.At the end of the day, that’s what counts.
And, as always, remember to think strong and train hard!