Written by: Kevin Cann
I saw a video last week where a coach was taking questions from followers. One of these followers asked about a conjugate program for raw lifting. The coach then said it was not a program that is useful for raw lifting and only one high level lifter uses it.
This statement is incredibly ignorant and incorrect. We need to first identify what the term conjugate means. Conjugate is synonymous with concurrent periodization. This means that we train multiple aspects at the same time.
This is very different from the conjugate sequential system of the USSR. Block periodization falls into the conjugate sequential system. Verkoshansky realized that elite athletes could not handle the workloads required to train all of the aspects they needed for sport at once.
These athletes needed to powerful, strong, agile, fast, quick, and so on. He then developed the block periodization model to address this. The lifter would focus on improving one quality while maintaining the others. This may be more beneficial to filed athletes, but I do not remember the last time a powerlifter needed to be agile.
Westside uses the term “conjugate” to be synonymous with concurrent training. They train strength utilizing the maximal effort method, power using the dynamic effort method, and hypertrophy using the repetition effort method. They combine these into the same training week.
Daily Undulated Periodization (DUP) is all the craze in the raw powerlifting world. Lifters and coaches will argue that Westside does not work for raw lifters and that DUP is the only “scientifically proven” way to train. This again shows ignorance amongst the masses.
DUP is just another form of conjugate or concurrent training. A coach utilizing this type of program may have a strength day, a power day, and a hypertrophy day in a week. Doesn’t this sound a lot like Westside?
Westside has strength and power days with the lifts, but sprinkles in the hypertrophy work throughout the week in terms of special exercises to target weak muscle groups, and those muscle groups utilized heavily within the lifts.
A coach of raw lifters utilizing a DUP program might decide to use higher rep sets of the comp lifts to build hypertrophy. This is not a major difference. This is just the coach administering the principles the best that they see fit.
If your legs are stronger than your low back, squatting is not likely to catch that low back up. Westside uses good mornings in about 7 out of 10 training days. This is much more targeted towards a weakness and where that thinking comes from.
Coaches throw around “self-organization” as a copout to not identify and target weaknesses in training. The body will not figure out the most optimal way to lift. This does not mean we just use lighter weights all of the time to rectify this.
We can still train hard, but the coach should identify the positions of choice for each lifter and strengthen the angles and muscle groups necessary to get them to self-organize into a more optimal technique with a higher ceiling.
For example, a lifter may choose to squat with their feet close. This tells me they need to strengthen their hips and adductors so that we can get them squatting wider with a smaller ROM. Over time if we can shorten that ROM, we can increase our lifts. It is not necessarily about getting stronger.
If the lifter sits straight down in the squat by driving the knees forward, this seconds the insight on the quads, but also tells me they have a weak low back to go with weak hamstrings. Chances are this lifter pulls in a rounded position on a deadlift and actually has a very strong upper and mid-back in a rounded position.
I don’t force them to be flat on a deadlift, or just tell them to squat wider. We drill all of this stuff over time. Lots of wide stance box squats, deadlifts off blocks, good mornings, straight knee deadlift variations, and so on. Over time we should see the lifter choose a wider stance and feel more comfortable initiating the squats by sitting back.
At some point you will hit a ceiling where increasing progress will be difficult. Let’s say you squat 700lbs currently, but with a closer stance making for a larger ROM. If I can cut 6 inches off of that range of motion, that lifter can probably hit a PR with the same strength levels. Like adding blocks to a deadlift. Of course there is still a ceiling to what you can hit, but this gives us the largest ceiling and a goal for long term development.
This is all a huge part of programming. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each lifter and understanding how to target those weaknesses for long term success. “Just letting the body figure out what works best” is not a viable option.
Where every coach falls on these technical heuristics will be a bit different and that is a good thing. Havin multiple perspectives allows us all to continue to learn and to see the blind spots in our own thinking.
If the coach is just concerned with the lifts being by the rules of competition and then writing volumes and intensities in a spreadsheet, that is not coaching, but programming. Coaching is an art where the coach strategizes how to make weaknesses strengths.
This is what Louie does. He has his methods of intensities and volumes that he follows, but he has also created machines to help out his lifters better target weak areas and has a lot of different exercises to address the differences in each lifter. He then lays out a plan for them to execute to get better.
I think when you are inexperienced and you do not know how to do this, it becomes much easier to just stick with the things that you are comfortable with. This usually means addressing volumes, intensities, and even measuring velocity we can throw in here.
I am not saying that these things should not be manipulated or utilized, but instead they are only part of the picture. Louie has done this for 60 years; he just sees more of the picture than the majority of coaches out there.
This does not mean we just follow a Westside template. I think one could attempt to argue that DUP is a better version of conjugate training for raw lifters. I do not agree with this, but there are things that I do differently from Westside because I think there is a better way to fit the lifter that I deal with.
The lifters that I see tend to have very little experience when they start. You could argue that more repetitions here are more beneficial to learning the lifts and building the base. I tend to agree with Louie here when he says, “Why would you start someone off on a different program only to switch him to a better one later on?”
In terms of strength, I believe that nothing is better for powerlifting than using heavy singles. Doubles and triples are not the same thing. This does not mean that they do not have their place. Some research suggests that the sweet spot for both strength and hypertrophy lies within that 3 to 6 rep range. This is why Sheiko’s programs were laid out the way that they were.
We do not need to utilize the comp lifts here in those rep ranges. I think if we do this, we never really target the weak areas. The lifter will always lift how they lift under those loads. Yes, the Principle of Dynamic Organization states that the body will always look for a more efficient way to do something. This only covers the technical, and not the physical. Sometimes physical limitations within the body disallows a lifter from utilizing a more optimal technique.
We can utilize that 3 to 6 rep range with good mornings. That same research suggests that we should be within 4 reps to failure for training loads. Other research suggests that the closer we are to failure the greater the hypertrophy and strength gains. These exercises should be trained hard. We can train a good morning hard and not care as much if technique breaks down. I don’t want shitty looking squats in this rep range so it would need to be lighter.
We use a lot of variation on our max effort lifts. This controls the absolute load for recovery, but also, if technique falls apart, it will not necessarily have a negative impact on the competition lifts themselves. When we perform the competition lifts, we tend to keep them much more submaximal and far from failure, as we are addressing the technical components of the lifts. The variations tend to be a lot less here too. Much more like how Sheiko used variation and intensities.
Westside sets up their week the same way every week. Max effort lower, max effort upper, dynamic effort lower, and dynamic effort upper. The hypertrophy work is sprinkled in throughout the week. A DUP program might have a strength day on day 1, power day on day 2, hypertrophy day 3, and another strength day on day 4. The sets and reps may change week to week, but it is probably laid out in a very similar way.
Instead of viewing it as strength, power, and hypertrophy, I view it as high, medium, and low stress training days. This is a method that I learned from Sheiko. Max effort work is high psychological stress, and high volume is high physiological stress. We need to blend these two together in a way that allows the lifter to stress one system, while another system recovers.
High stress days stress adaptation, medium stress days maintain adaptation, and low days allow for recovery. Each day has a psychological and physiological stress to recover from. Having high volume squats the day after a max effort squat is not the best idea.
We do our max effort squats on day 1 and then 48 hours later, max effort bench. Day 3 can be a high volume squat and deadlift training day, but it is 96 hours removed from the max effort lift, and 72 hours away from the next potential max effort squat.
We actually change frequencies based off of the phase in training. So the setup of our weeks actually change. As we get closer to a competition, day 1 and day 2 are always max effort lifts and the deadlift rotates every other week on day 3 as a max effort lift. This means that sometimes we get 3 max effort lifts in one week.
Earlier phases we will not max out a deadlift, just a squat on day 1. The deadlifts are performed for reps on day 3 after squats. As the phases move along day 3 becomes bench and deadlifts, and day 4 becomes squats and deadlifts (day 4 is a second bench day in early phases). I think this altering of frequencies addresses the importance of load variability that Sheiko instilled in me.
We get a lot more comp lifts in training than Westside and our weeks can look very different from week to week. In one week we may have 3 max effort lifts on 3 separate days. The following week may have zero max effort lifts.
We get 50 to 70 lifts of bench, and 50 to 70 lifts of squats + deadlifts at 70% of 1RM and higher on average each week. This totals 500 to 600 lifts per month. This means an average or medium volume day is between 30 and 40 lifts at 70% or higher.
If we have a week of mostly max effort lifts, it means our volume is very low. The following week we will probably get 2 higher volume days (approx. 50 lifts), which will make for a higher volume week. At the end of the month we will fall within the range we are looking for.
This was a system of load variability developed by Arkady Vorobyov. The Russians found this strategy to be 61% more effective than a traditional approach to training. I find it as a way to keep training fresh, keep the lifter healthy, and stress them just enough to have steady and stable incremental progress.
Oftentimes a DUP program will utilize very high volumes and very high frequencies. This is a lot of stimulus thrown at a lifter. Many will see some very fast results, but they tend to not be very stable. I also believe that these sprint methods come with a much lower ceiling.
The Russians studies this stuff through 4 Olympic training cycles with thousands of athletes. I do not think that this information should be ignored. Raw powerlifting has not even really been around for 2 Olympic training cycles.
The argument of “Well this person does this, and they are really strong” is not in the best interest of 99% of the lifters out there. We need systems in place to address that 99% and allow them to achieve their best individual results. This is not a sprint to those results, but a calculated effort over a long period of time that leads to the highest amount of success.
I truly believe that we have the best system in place for this and we will keep experimenting and moving forward.