Conjugate for the Masses
A while back I wrote about culling the most effective 20% from Westside’s Conjugate system that could be of most use to the average trainee. Someone like myself. Someone who loves to lift, rock some functional swole while nurturing a high degree of general athleticism, and has enough savvy to navigate the nuances of Max effort, speed and repetition work. Toward that end, I’d like to expand upon that article, Conjugate for the Masses, here.
Let’s make no mistake: the Conjugate system, as created refined and expounded upon by Westside’s Louie Simmons, is damn complicated. Working the conjugate system correctly is not something you’re just going to read a couple of articles about and hope to be proficient in. It’s an intense physical endeavor (obviously), but also an extensive exercise in management. It’s not the intent of this article to be a Dummies Guide to Westside Conjugate. Those abound (Google and thou shalt find). Rather, this is a summation of my own version.
In that sense, this is like a home brewer’s guide. Not all of us are master brewers, but we all like beer. And some of us really get off on the thrill and accomplishment of brewing our own.
Same with the iron game. Some are more than happy with the store offerings and microbrew finds (the 5 x 5 and 5/3/1 templates). And that’s cool.
But other’s of us just love to tinker. Or, we’ve run through the Five Ts enough to know that any one template is just not going to fit our needs. We’ll need to improvise if we want to nestle performance in amongst an otherwise hectic life.
I’m unabashedly citing Westside Conjugate as my inspiration and being completely open about the fact that Conjugate is in no way “my idea”. I’m simply smart enough to recognize a great methodology, and dogged (fuckin’ crazy?) enough to attempt to morph it to fit my own needs and limitations as defined by my ongoing Five Ts process.
Note: for more on that process, see the Five Ts article. Drop an email and get the ebook. It’s the underpinning of my entire training philosophy.
So yeah, without personal experience or hands-on guidance from someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing, it can be challenging to make sense of all of the variables in a conjugate method training program.
But there are nuggets that can be culled. The 20% that can produce 80% of the returns. This is the stuff of n=1 biohacking; garage wrenching and home brewing. And this is what this article is about.
The Conjugate system is a weave of 3 basic methods: max effort work, speed/dynamic work, and repetition work. Each of these methods contributes, due to their unique nature, to the overall process of producing a bigger, stronger, faster trainee.
As Louie Simmons himself says, Conjugate’s efficacy is simply a product of working the system. It’s application of basic sports science, math and sweat. With the emphasis on application. You cannot armchair or buy this shit. You gotta put in the sweat equity.
Here is a good overview of the Conjugate system as it would be used for athletes other than powerlifters. Track and Field athletes, say, or football players. This is pretty damn close to the way I trained as a collegiate football player and it’s the general template we used when I was at East Carolina.
The only trick in a group setting is how to track and personalize when you have like 100 kids rolling through the system. It can be done, but that’s another story for another day.
- Max effort (ME) work: here we’re working up to a max effort single double or triple in a particular compound movement. Think deadlifts or squats or a press of some sort. Some of my favorite methods here are ARXFit work, and autoregulation as applied to heavy loading.
- speed/dynamic effort (DE) work: Here we’re looking for max instantaneous power production. We’re still using compound movements, but they’re done with an eye toward speed (but not sloppy) and power production vs trying to hoist the heaviest load. Think speed deadlifts, banded dips and the like.
- Repetition work: now we’re trying to get SWOLE (and prevent injury). Otherwise known as “assistance work”. Reps in the 5 to 15 zone over multiple sets. Think curls, tri extensions, flyes and such. “Bodybuilding” work. Building a bigger engine.
A word on volume: Make sure to check out my piece on volume, here. Then know that about 65% to 70% of my overall volume is spent in the repetition method.
Know that true Westside Conjugate employes very specific loading and volume targets. As well as specific workout scheduling. But these are competitive athletes who require that kind of precision to be at the top of their game. That’s the other 80% of time and effort required to have a shot at being the best of the best. And that’s not my season of life right now. Not in an athletic endeavor, anyway.
Mine is to learn from the best and glean the 20% that will allow me to remain reasonably swole, healthy and athletic. The Trickle Down Effect, as it were.
With that in mind, let’s look at some 30-thousand-foot-view parameters:
- Max effort work should be curtailed when technique begins to fail. Now, I get that “when technique begins to fail” is highly subjective. The point being here that although you may see *some* technical breakdown in an athlete’s final competition lifts, you rarely see them in training. Competition is where you lay it on the line. If an athlete pushed his luck like that in training, he’d never *get* to the competition due to injury. So be smart and pull the plug before the plug pulls you. This by the way is called a circa (training) max as opposed to a competition max.
- The flipside of this is that you really do need to push the hairy edge in your ME work. You can be too conservative. Again, I realize this is subjective, but you get what I mean.
- As far as ME *volume* goes, we’re looking for in the neighborhood of between 3 and 6 total reps at greater than 90% max in that particular lift. This could be a combo of singles, sets of two, triples, whatever. You want to stay in that range but don’t exceed it. If you’re feeling froggy, increase the load, but don’t increase the overall reps at > 90%. We’re in this for the long haul, and recovery matters.
- Shifting to dynamic effort (DE) or speed work – the emphasis here is creating as much power as possible. In the simplest of terms, power = work (or force x distance) /time. And force = mass x acceleration. So we want to be fast, yes… but we still need to develop adequate force. Which means we need to dial-in the mass lifted. Think of the difference between throwing a wiffle ball vs a baseball. Now, which one hurts a hell of a lot more when it strikes you in the noggin? Yes, there’s more to the story here (air friction, etc.), but the point stands. A big part of being athletic (and even building additional musculature) is being able to develop force quickly, as well as follow through to the end of the movement. And that’s what we’re training with this methodology.
- With the DE/speed method, start with about 50% or 60% of your one-rep max. Increase loading so long as you can maintain bar speed. If the bar slows down, you’ve added too much load (or augmenting chains, bands, etc.). Note: see this post on Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT).
- Don’t slack on the repetition method work. Everybody loves to hate on bodybuilding, but this is truly the work — if done correctly — that will ensure your ass can stay in the game for the long haul. Assess and shore up your weaknesses with this work. You only have so much time in the day (and gas in the tank) so be judicious here. Bowling ball shoulders and a birdcage chest? You’re going to be doing a hell of a lot more assistance work on your chest: all manner of flyes for example – anything that will hit the chest in that 7 to 15 rep range per set. And you’re going to want to really accumulate the volume here.
- Remember, this program is a weave of attributes meant to enhance athleticism as well as musculature. If you’re seriously not concerned with performance, you’re probably better off just focusing on the repetition method. In other words, stick to bodybuilding. No shame in that. Just be honest with yourself and acknowledge your wants and goals.
Note: I get asked this question a lot: what’s the best program for me? 5 x 5? Autoregulation? Conjugate?
All things being equal, I’d say for the beginning and intermediate trainee, you can’t go wrong with 5 x 5 and Autoregulation. Throw in some assistance work – bis, tris, core, etc (as you would for Conjugate) – and you’re good to go. You can live a normal life, and still be swole.
Note: for more on this, check out my post, How to get Big, Strong and Powerful – Fast
If you’re leaning more toward the competitive side – or you simply (like me) enjoy geeking-out in the gym, AND you’re beyond the intermediate years (think 3-ish years in or so), then go ahead and dive into Conjugate. Start with a modified Conjugate system like what I’ve laid out here, then deep-dive into Westside’s version (a good place to start is Westside Barbell Book of Methods) if you’re so inclined. But be forewarned: it is a deep, DEEP dive indeed.
Oh, and one other point (because this is often a point of confusion): a modified Conjugate is my overriding training schema. My training philosophy, or archetype. Other schemas or philosophies might be Linear Progression, for example, or Block P
Training Philosophy – Conjugate
DE: 10 sets of 2 or 8 sets of 3 using bands. But I also roll jumps (box jumps,
Repetition (assistance / bodybuilding work): Escalating density training (EDT), 5 x 5, German volume training (GVT), J-reps, Dog Crap training (21s). The list here goes on and on. The focus is on building lots of volume over a greater frequency of “looks” to shore up weaknesses. Check out this post.
A Deeper Dive
Remember, if you’re a student of the Conjugate system, the first thing you’re going to want to say is “that’s not Conjugate!” And you’re right – it’s not. This is *my* version of the system. We can call it the TTP system, modified Conjugate, or whatever. I simply like to keep the term “conjugate” in there so we know what the genesis of this program is.
Also, I think it’s important to understand that I weave methodologies and systems. That is to say that the Conjugate system forms the overarching platform for my training, but within that overarching system, I employ such methodologies as 5 x 5, Autoregulation, and Escalating Density, and German Volume Training.
Also, too: I bike; A LOT. And that figures into my programming. From an overall fatigue standpoint and from a lower body specific standpoint.
And again, the brewing analogy applies. Take a classic recipe for a stout, say, and put your own twist on it. Is the end result still a stout? Who knows. And who cares, really, so long as it tastes great?
Basic programming parameters
- I attempt to program two max effort (ME) days and two dynamic effort (DE) days per week (1 upper and 1 lower of each ME and DE). Sometimes the upper and lower ME work happens on the same day – for instance, when I utilize the ARXFit machines for a “Big 3” workout: leg press, chest press and row; 2 sets of 3 on all.
- My traditional (barbell) lower body go-to exercise for ME work (other than ARXFit) is the trap bar deadlift. I’ll sometimes throw in some front squats or box squats to spice things up, but the TBDL is my bread-and-butter. This is just a personal preference thing. And since I’m not competing, I’m not obligated to maintain a great squat. That said, from an evolutionary anatomy perspective, I believe the deadlift should be favored. We are, in general, designed to pull heavy things rather than squat or push them. Just my opinion, and I do understand there are valid opinions to the contrary. At the end of the day though, whether you squat or deadlift is fine with me. Just so long as you lift something heavy!
- Another personal preference: dips and overhead presses vs the the bench press for ME upper body work. Again, I’m not competing, so I have no obligation to be a great bencher. Of course, I do like the ARXFit press (which more so mimics a decline press vs a traditional flat bench), and I do like to floor press now and again, usually under the 5 x 5 or 6RM Autoregulation modalities.
- For the most part, I *do not* shoot for single rep maxes on ME day. Opting, instead, for 2s and 3s…sometimes up to 6s. And a note here: this is where you’re likely to see a lot of Autoregulation in the way of working up to those maxes.
- Also, for me, opportunity trumps scheduling perfection. That is to say, if by “schedule” it’s a DE day, but all I have time or access to is ARXFit equipment, then I’m hitting another ME day. I do the best I can with the situation and circumstance at hand. On the other hand, if I haven’t worked out in a couple of days, and I have a perfect opportunity in front of me, but I feel like shit, I might just get some light movement or assistance work in. Live to fight another day. As the 4th century BC Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi states: “Flow with whatever may happen, and let your mind be free: Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.”
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the repetition method (i.e., assistance work, i.e., “bodybuidling”) here. It’s such a major portion of my overall workout plan (comprising about 70% of my overall training volume), yet it doesn’t get much press. Why? Because it’s not flashy. It’s just WORK. Rep after rep. Nothing fancy and it doesn’t grab any Youtube attention. But it IS the mainstay of any successful training program.
- Any training day is fair game for assistance work. In fact, it has to be that way. Some days are all assistance work, and other days that work will follow ME or DE work.
- Ideally ME and DE work for the same movement pattern should be separated by 72 hours. Ideally. Now, how often does “ideally” work out for me? Not often. Go with the flow. It’s my Five Ts way.
Max Effort Training
- As stated prior, Your ME work should be targeting training maxes (“circa” maxes) vs meet maxes. This is true whether or not you’re a competitive lifter following true Conjugate, or a normal dude or dudette following my version. What this means is that you should refrain from undue mental psych during your ME lifts. No big-ass bro hype, smelling salts, ammonia hits, face slaps or whatever. I mean, I get it – and I dig the enthusiasm. And there’s a time and place for that for sure. Just not with circa maxes. If you’re not competitive, but you want to have a mini-meet with the boys a couple of times a year, then yeah, go for it – blow the carbon out of the injectors and see whatcha got. Note the maxes (they will be higher, of course), then get back to improving circa maxes.
- Don’t forget to use various exercises and grips for your ME training. Just don’t get stupid, here. Pick a few sure-fire upper and lower body compound movements and work them. Rotate through a few grips and stances for each. The key is to keep things fresh (both mentally AND physically), and not to stagnate. On the flipside, though, you don’t want like 50 different friggin’ exercises to rotate through. You’ll never come close to mastering any single one of them if you do that. Balance, muh ninjas; balance.
Dynamic Effort Training
- Because the loads are lighter, people assume DE is an “easy” modality. Not so, if done correctly. Remember, the intent here is to move the weight FAST. Not sloppy, but snappy. If you’re grinding or slowing at the apex of the movement, even in the later sets, the weight is too heavy. Remember the intent of the modality, which is speed-strength, or the ability to develop force rapidly. And to maintain that over the entire range of motion.
- Loading: between 50 and 60% of your circa max bar weight. To this (if you have access to such) we’ll add chains and/or bands to approximate another 20-ish percent. The chains and bands are called “accommodating resistance”. They’re not have-to-haves, but definitely nice-to-haves.
- The rep range I use is is 8 sets of 3. And the reps should be done rapid fire. No pause between reps. If you get winded or have to pause between reps the load is too heavy for this modality. Make note and reduce the weight or accommodating resistance a bit.
- Shoot for between-set rest periods of between 30 and 45 seconds. Yeah, that’s short. And you’re gonna be sucking wind toward the later sets.
- Why bands? Consider this: you approach a loaded barbell for a deadlift. Maybe it’s in the latter rounds of a 5 x 5, or maybe it’s during a Autoreg ME day. If you can just get the bar past your knees, it’s easy going the rest of the way. Well, you could say that’s just the nature of the lift. But what if we changed the dynamics a bit. What if we lighten the load so as to insure we get the damn thing off the floor, AND we put band tension around the bar so as to make it a bit more work to go from knee to lockout. Boom. Now we’re working the body over the full range of motion. And that’s a beautiful (and efficient!) way to train.
- Another very important aspect of using bands is speed — more accurately, the elimination of deceleration. As you approach lockout of, for example, a deadlift, dip, or squat, you naturally slow down and the force developed drops off dramatically. This is natural, of course, to keep you from blowing up your joints. But it’s a shitty circumstance as far as training goes. The use of bands helps eliminate that problem as the required force to move the barbell (or your body) *increases* over the range of motion. Fooking brilliant!
Note: the ability to increase force up to the point of lockout is also one benefit of the ARXFit equipment. For more on the idea of eliminating deceleration at the top of the lift, see my post on Compensatory Acceleration Training.
Assistance work (i.e., the repetition method). Bodybuidling, yo.
- This is real simple: what lifts are stalling? When you look in the mirror, what body parts are lagging (and don’t forget the backside!)? This is where we’ll begin to focus our time and attention.
- As noted prior, about 65 to 70% of my overall training volume is spent using this method. And though I’ve never done the study, I’d say it’s safe to assume 65 to 70% of my gym time is spent here as well. And I don’t even consider myself a “bodybuilder”. So even for athletes, this methodology is highly important.
- What methodology should you choose for assistance work? Doesn’t really matter, so long as you do the work. 5 x 5, German Volume Training, Escalating Density… in the end, volume is what we’re chasing here. For more on that, see this post.
What about High Intensity Interval Resistance Training (HIIRT)? Or HIT-style workouts? Where does that fit in?
For me, these types of workouts are wildcards. To be done when traveling, or just when I want something different to break me out of a rut.
For others – especially those pressed for time – they’re the mainstay, the go-to workout methodology. Which is why it’s imperative you know both what your goals are, and how much investment you’re willing to pony up and, if need be, what sacrifices you’re willing to make to free up the requisite time to pursue whatever scheme or goal you’re attracted to.
I hate to harp on it, but this is why dialing-in and understanding your Five Ts is so very important.
You do a lot of various forms of jumping. What gives? And is this considered DE, or “speed work”?
I consider the various forms of jumps as I would assistance work. But I also consider the more intense sessions as DE work. In other words, you can do them every day at lower intensity. Or, you can dial-up the intensity and use them as a sub for lower body DE work.
In reality I probably do some variation of jumps 4 days per week. Roughly 25 to 40 (depending on the variety) per session. I don’t even track them as part of my normal workout (unless they’re integral to that particular workout), but rather treat them as I would foam rolling, or between set pull aparts or calf raises. They’re just something I DO… a lot of.
Now, why: because they work the same motor-neurological pathways as sprints. With (if done correctly) less stress on the body. In essence, you’re getting a mini sprint session in each time you do jumps. And yes, this includes old school plyometric work as well.
The beauty of the Conjugate system – and a point I’ve made sure to capture with my system – is that these 3 methodologies (ME, DE and repetition), enhance one another. It’s a hackneyed cliche, yeah – but goddamn if the whole enchilada here isn’t greater than the sum of its individual parts.
So is the Conjugate system (or my modified Conjugate) more effective than linear periodization? Better than block periodization?
I can only report from my own experience. And in my experience (personal, and with untold numbers of trainees) it has been.
But, as the Dalai Lama famously said of religion, you have to just pick a pony and ride. Choose the system that feels right for you and your circumstance, and roll on. The only wrong answer is not to lift. To get hung up on the “which is best” question and program hop.
Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world ~