Best approach for conjugate: Block periodization

Does conjugate work? Yes. Can you handle Westside’s version year round and break PR’s? Probably not. Here’s why:

  1. You’re a raw lifter and trying to incorporate cookie cutter methods for training

  2. You aren’t a high end athlete AND your work capacity is too low

  3. You don’t understand the conjugate training concepts or when to auto regulate your programming based on your personal needs

First off, what is conjugate? A training concept, which incorporates max effort days, dynamic effort days, the repetition method, GPP, and hypertrophic methods that rotate the modalities used. Louie Simmons’ Westside Conjugate does this all year long for high-end equipped lifters. Does it work for them? Ask his multi-world record members.

You can buy Louie’s book or read any of his articles on Westside Barbell and begin to incorporate this into your training. But if you do not understand these concepts, you are setting yourself up to be over trained and fail on the platform. Let’s dive in to the points listed above.

  1. You’re a raw lifter and trying to incorporate cookie cutter methods for training

I will briefly touch on this, as there are several articles on Elitefts that address Conjugate for raw lifters. You can complete a conjugate program if you are a raw lifter and you can very well have success. But can you take Louie’s Westside version and complete this year round? Most likely not. Most of Louie’s athletes are in gear. Their sticking points and technique are going to be completely different than those that lift raw. If you have trouble off of your chest in the bench, then incorporating a 3-4 board press might not be the best choice for your max effort bench. Most of the technique and cues listed in Louie’s articles and the book of methods is specific to those in gear and his athletes. Ultra wide stance is not the end all be all to engage the posterior chain. Yes, a wide stance squat can be effective in training the hamstrings and glutes. However, if you have an athlete that cannot externally rotate properly, moving their feet further out may not be the best approach. The athlete has to understand mechanics and the technique associated with the squat before they can take a cue that is more suited for someone who understands how to activate the proper muscles. Conjugate works. Louie’s methods and cues work. But they may not work for you. Programs need to be specific to your needs so do not just take advice from Louie’s book and assume that is correct for you or for everyone. I touch more on this in part three.

  1. You aren’t a high end athlete and your work capacity is too low

Do you have several elite totals? Have you been in the sport for several years? Have you been overall consistent in your training and continued to make progress despite setbacks or inevitable walls? Do you have SOLID mechanics down for the squat, bench, and deadlift?  If you can truly reflect and answer honestly, it is most likely a no for one or more. If you can’t answer these then you can’t identify weaknesses, which further indicates you are not ready to program conjugate let alone design any program for yourself. Conjugate programming incorporates movements that not only reveal weaknesses, but also movements that hammer away at them. As should all intelligent programs. 

Would you put a novice or intermediate sprinter through Usain Bolt’s training? Or would you take a swimmer and use the template for Michael Phelps training? I hope that your answer is no. Why not? Three things will happen:

  1. Injury
  2. Abandonment of program
  3. Performance would decline

Potentially all three or any combination could occur. Why? Simply put, the novice to intermediate athlete is not prepared to complete a high-end program. Wouldn’t it make more sense to establish a base for training and THEN incorporate a higher rate of training? That’s exactly what GPP and hypertrophy phases are for.

General Physical Preparedness is a preparatory phase that is designed to increase physical conditioning in strength, speed, endurance, flexibility, structure and skill. GPP increases your work capacity, thus allowing you to handle more volume and loads. The higher your work capacity, the more you can handle. If you think of your training as a pyramid, GPP is the base. In order to build, you have to establish a strong base. If your base is weak, the pyramid will crumble. That is the case with those who do not have a high work capacity and try to incorporate a highly taxing and intricate strength program.  The word “prepare” is literally in the phrase. So it should be a no brainer that this is designed to “get you ready” for future work or building.

Death by GPP:

Death by GPP

Hypertrophy is the onset of muscle growth. Typically a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. Unless you like synthol and look like Popeye with balloon arms. You’ve already built your base, laying the groundwork so we begin to build the pyramid more. We can do that by transitioning into a hypertrophy phase. Granted, you can still incorporate GPP movements with hypertrophy or vice versa.

 “Graph” representation of building a program with no base:

No Base

Case in point, I am currently working with a seasoned raw powerlifter with an 800lb squat, 440lb bench, and 700lb deadlift. He approached me being 16 weeks out from a meet. He was doing conjugate year round, without GPP, very low volume of accessories, and lacking in any proper warm up/mobility exercises. His dynamic days were too heavy, and his max effort days resulted in too many failed attempts. I believe ONE of the main reasons he was unable to have success in his last meet and in his program is due to a low work capacity. So we’ve addressed all of these issues and made changes to his program. We added volume with accessories that combat his weak points, reduced the percentages and band tension for his dynamic days, reduced accommodating resistance on max effort days and emphasized shutting down after a strained effort thus not allowing for misses, added a proper warm up, and included sled drags and variations to increase work capacity. Now, because he currently has a low work capacity we are not able to do a 16-week straight conjugate program. We will implement a 1 week deload every 3 weeks leading up to the meet. This goes against Louie’s Westside version. There is no deload until about 2-3 weeks before meets. However, this is again designed for high-end athletes capable of this type of training. If my client had been incorporating GPP and addressed his issues mentioned above, he may have been able to handle Westside’s version. That’s a big if.  Point being, we have to increase and build his base BEFORE we can begin to tackle a highly skilled and strenuous program. Had he approached me several months away from his meet, we most likely would have started with a GPP/hypertrophy cycle and then began a conjugate cycle.

I’ll also use myself as an example. I have an athletic background in 19 years of soccer, along with weight training. I have been competitively powerlifting (raw) for about 5 years. I have an elite total in both the 132lb and 148lb class and have continued to make progress from meet to meet. I have hit “walls” here and there but I’m fortunate that I have not yet hit a long-term stall, but I know it is coming. I’d say I have fairly solid mechanics, but there is plenty of room for improvement. Could I handle year round conjugate with no real off-season? Hell no.  I know for a fact that I would end up having to use a cane just to get out of my church pew...I kind of already feel that way now. BUT can I run a conjugate form of programming for a 12-16 week peaking program? Yes. I’ve done 5-3-1, triphasic, and a conjuphasic, which is a combination of max effort, dynamic effort and triphasic principles. In each cycle, I’ve improved in strength, mechanics, training knowledge, and in identifying my own weaknesses. How was I able to make such progress? There are several factors but one major key is that I always incorporate a GPP and hypertrophy phase right after a meet. I give myself time off to heal, work on weaknesses, and build a stronger base for my next meet. 

Westside incorporates GPP and hypertrophy into their programming year round. Louie also includes mobility/recovery training. He calls these “extra workouts”. His athletes are to complete at least 10-15 extra workouts per week in addition to max effort days, supplemental work, and dynamic effort days.  While Louie’s conjugate does include GPP and hypertrophy, most athletes are not able to handle the volume or intensity with the addition of these methods. Let alone completing max effort work from week to week year round. Let’s move on to my final point.

  1. You don’t understand the conjugate training concepts or when to auto regulate your programming based on your personal needs

The adjustments I mentioned for my client are forms of autoregulation. This is an individualized approach to making adjustments to your body’s needs. If your dynamic effort squats are slow, then you need to auto-regulate by reducing the bar weight or the accommodating resistance. How can you know to auto-regulate if you do not understand the concepts of conjugate? You can’t. You don’t know what you’re doing. You are just following a standard program assuming you have to complete everything as written for the high-end athlete. This is why it is so important for athletes to understand the WHY behind their programming. Don’t just be a robot and complete an online program as written. Research and learn the reasons behind the methods or ask your coach. If your coach can’t answer, fire them. 

There are several methods to learn how to auto-regulate. Using an RPE scale can be effective. Understanding that you need at least 24-72 hours of recovery between specific training sessions is also important. Most powerlifters have fulltime jobs and other outside responsibilities. Learning to accommodate your training schedule with your work/life is imperative. I’ve seen athletes complete a lower max effort day, then come back the next day for speed work. This will deter performance. Again, this goes back to understanding the why behind each training method.

I’ve mentioned this several times in previous articles: I see so many lifters attempting a heavy max lift right after competing at a meet. I assume they believe they can still hit high numbers either because A. they don’t understand their body or how strength training works or B. they believe it is possible as it is outlined by Louie Simmons. Let me say this again, you are most likely not even close to the type of athletes that Louie Simmons trains. Could you become one? Maybe. That’s for you to honestly evaluate yourself and put in the work to become one. So this article shouldn’t deter you from doing conjugate, Westside conjugate, or doubt yourself. You can incorporate the conjugate method effectively with block periodization and customizing the program to your needs. Athletes who want to succeed should realize where they actually stand in this sport, and evaluate their needs to build a base, as it is vital to becoming a better athlete and lifter.

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