Written by: Kevin Cann
The ideal model for the development of athletic skill is usually displayed as a pyramid with GPP (general physical preparedness) being the larger portion making up the base, SPP (Special physical preparedness) being right above, and then our competition specific training making the peak.
This model was created by the Soviets in the 1960s. They even created a school system based off this model that led to domination in the Olympic games. Children between 6-9 would build very general movement skills through activities such as gymnastics, swimming, and climbing. From there, they would be placed into specialized schools for the sport in which they were selected for.
Once in these schools, GPP would stay very high until around 13 years old, where the competition movements would come in with greater frequency, but still only making up a small portion of the overall work. As the athletes grew through the schools, GPP became less of the volume and sport specific work continued to make up greater portions of the overall work. GPP never dropped below 20% of the overall volume in this system and there were periods of time where GPP would again become the primary focus of training.
Once the lifters reached the highest level, training would become very specific with a higher frequency. Top level Russian athletes had been lifting for over a decade by the time they got to this point, but here in America this is where everyone wants to start out. Unfortunately, the only ones that will see long-term success by starting here are the ones that are built for the sport. For example, the ones locking out deadlifts at their knees. Those of us that have to lock out deadlifts by our pants pockets will have a much higher degree of difficulty with this approach. It will work until it doesn’t.
Bulgaria used a very minimal number of exercises for their dominant Olympic teams. However, they are a communist country with a small population. They selected people based off of their proportions and leverages to excel in the sport as well as their mentality and ability to recover (which better leverages helps as well).
Russia is a much larger with a more diverse population. The Dynamo Club used 20 to 45 different exercises to become rivals of the Bulgarians. The changing of leverages, changes the needs of the lifters as leverages will dictate weaknesses. Someone locking out a deadlift at their knees may not need as strong of a lower back as someone that needs to bring the bar further up their body.
All training throughout life matters. Lifters often forget this piece. If they switch programs and see success they are quick to credit the new program and discredit the old one, but it is the combination that led to that success. For many leaving conjugate to a more comp specific program, you are literally running the Russian system and following the pyramid I outlined in the opening paragraph. There is diminishing returns if you do not return to a focus on GPP at some point. The bigger the base, the bigger the pyramid.
A conjugate program follows that pyramid of athletic development. The majority of the volume comes from the accessory work. Our primary accessory tends to be SPP work, and the 3 to 5 exercises that follow are GPP exercises that still target the powerlifting muscles. We do a lot of sled work for building general fitness.
My lifters might get some competition lifts, using the repetition method, one time per month. Personally, I do not do this as I don’t see a need. I went months without a straight bar comp squat and hit a PR. More exposures to the comp lifts may be more appropriate for beginner and some intermediate lifters.
Beginner to intermediate lifters can benefit from using the same exercise for the entire wave alternating between max effort work and repetition effort work. This can help them develop the skills to get the most out of each variation in training. For example, it can look like this:
Week 1: SSB Box Squat with Chains, 2nd attempt intensity
Week 2: SSB Box Squat with Chains, 70% of last week 5×5
Week 3: SSB Box Squat with Chains, beat week 1 by 5lbs
This can give the lower classification lifter more exposure to the exercises to get better at them, more volume to build muscle mass, and it also removes the difficult decisions from the training process. Maxing out every week requires a training skill. As they learn the fundamentals, we can remove that training skill from the program. Over time we need more max effort and dynamic effort exposures.
GPP always makes up most of the volume. Louie would say it is 80% of the total volume and it might be more. This ensures that we are constantly increasing our work capacity, our hypertrophy, our tendon and ligament strength, and our ability to recover. It also helps utilize energy levels appropriate through a training session.
First exercise (ME or DE) highest energy
Primary accessory, high energy
First 2 accessories, medium energy
Last 1 to 2, lower energy
Part of that training skill is knowing how much energy we have and where to put most of it. This is extremely important for those of us with jobs and life stress. It gives us options to figure it out. However, this requires a high level of training skill. One thing that I have done is remove almost all deadlifting except for one time per month. I have hit continuous PRs for the last few months doing that, so it is working. Using the squat to drive the deadlift a bit more has allowed me to save some energy and continue to make progress as life stress has been high.
Flipping that pyramid and making the comp specific movements the base is where the majority of powerlifting sits today. I think a part of it is that it doesn’t require much understanding of the training process at all so anyone can program it. It can be done anywhere because the equipment is simple making it easier for more people to do to grow the sport, but also to find the ones that are built for the sport that can have success in it very quickly. We do not have schools where people spend 10 years, we need to find those built for it so we can win at the world level. I also think that people want to only share comp lifts on Instagram.
In this process we are losing sight of what the training process should be. The golden era of sport science research is not now, it was from the 1970s to the 1990s. To achieve our full potential in the sport, this is where we need to look. Unless you are built for it, getting there is going to take quite some time. In the Soviet system you are looking at 10 to 15 years starting in childhood, where learning happens more rapidly. Variation is probably even more important as you age for the learning process.
If you do this for fun and do not care, then of course do what you have fun doing. However, if you are in this to see how strong you can truly become, there is a formula to follow. That formula is conjugate.