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Mash Conjugate is Maybe not so Conjugate
Everyone in the strength world knows that I love and respect Louie Simmons. I consider him a mentor and friend. I model my gym after aspects of his. I use some of his principles, but of course there are things that I do that are a little different from him.
Some trainees at Westside will totally change Max Effort Exercises each and every week. On Dynamic Effort Day they will sometimes switch the bars used on squats. The total volume on dynamic day is waved normally in three-week pendulum waves. That’s a lot of change, and this will definitely prevent the body from adapting. Louie’s biggest goal with the conjugate system is to prevent the body from adapting and stalling in progress. Obviously it works for their athletes because results do the talking.
I use the conjugate method, but I am definitely not so varied. My results also speak for themselves. I program in four-week blocks or mesocycles. Each and every exercise that I prescribe is chosen for a reason. I am not just testing the athlete. I am trying to create some adaptation because I want the body to get better at the movement.
I understand that Louie is using max effort movements to test the lifter. He uses 1-3 repetitions, and it’s designed to be completed in 2-3 sets like this: set 1 is 90% of predicted rep max, sets 2 is 5-10lb over past rep max, and set 3 is for breaking the maximum one more time if possible. Obviously he is teaching the athlete to perform under heavy load.
In my experience adaptation isn’t the enemy. Total adaptation is the enemy. I want the body to adapt to the prescribed stimulus, so it will grow bigger, stronger, and neutrally better. The body’s ability to adapt is where programming should revolve. Adaptation is a remarkable function of the body. You throw a stimulus at the body causing muscle breakdown, and the body will adapt by repairing those muscles stronger than ever. That’s the big function of hypertrophy.
It’s not only muscle hypertrophy that is caused by the body’s ability to adapt. The body also becomes more efficient over time, and this is where specificity comes into the picture. This is where I program a little differently than Louie might program.
When you first begin practicing a movement, that movement might seem awkward. I want you to remember back to when you first started playing basketball or throwing a football. The ball probably felt awkward and heavy. Once you practiced for a few weeks, you were able to rain three-pointers and throw the football for days. You became better at the movement.
Snatch, clean & jerk, squat, bench press, and deadlift are no different. They are all movements. There are several ways to alter the stimulus without completely changing out the movement. Let’s look at the ways to vary without changing the movement:
• Load or intensity
• Total Volume
• Time under tension
• Rest between sets
You might say that isn’t a lot of ways to vary, but there are literally hundreds of options with each of them. “Time under tension” and “total volume” can both be used with countless variations. Let’s look at each a little closer.
1. Frequency: I can squat 1-7 days per week. I could possible squat 1-3 times per day in the total volume and load isn’t too taxing on the body. That gives you 23 options.
2. Load or intensity- this is how heavy that you are lifting. You can work to one or two big sets of a 1-3 rep maximum, or you can stay with an average of 80%(percentage of 1RM) for multiple sets. You could even perform multiple sets with an average of 80%, and then work to a maximum. The possibilities are truly endless.
3. Total volume- (poundage x repetition x total sets) it’s absolutely endless in the number of ways that one could vary each of the options.
4. Time under tension- this is my favorite way to vary exercises. You can vary the isometric contraction (contraction where the length of the muscle don’t change) while fully contracted (top of a squat), the speed of the eccentric contraction (the descent of a squat), the isometric contraction fully lengthened (bottom of a squat), or the speed of the concentric contraction (ascent of a squat). I can also program an isometric contraction anywhere along the way up or down. Yes, your options are endless.
5. Rest between sets- this is an aspect of training that a lot of people don’t think about using as a variable. In weightlifting this one is a must. I want my athletes ready if they are getting their warm ups rushed. Not to mention performing sets every minute on the minute helps the athlete shut their brains off and just lift.
As you can see, I can still vary the workouts from week to week without changing the exercises, bars, or adding anything extra. Don’t get me wrong, I like using bands, chains, different bars, boxes, and boards. However, my application might be a little different. I will use specialty bars for assistance work like cambered bar goodmornings for example, and I am comfortable using exercises like that right up to a meet. As far as using specialty bars for the main lifts, I will sparingly use specialty bar 12 or more weeks out from a competition, but I will eliminate using them for a contested lift the closer to a meet that we get. I want some specificity, so the athlete can practice the exact movements of their competition.
I will use bands and chains, and I will use a lot of the sets, reps, and load that Louie prescribes. However I will always end with taking them off and performing some unloaded sets. This is obviously against what he says, but I have found that it works great for eliciting a post activation potentiation response. One more disclaimer is that I use the bands and chains sparingly because they are taxing on the central nervous system especially if you get carried away with them.
I use partial movements and overloading exercises the same way. For example, I will perform board presses during max effort bench press. However I like to end with full range of motion. I warm up with full range of motion as well. I will vary the Olympic lifts with the use of different heights of boxes, but I will eliminate or extremely limit their use the closer to a meet.
As you can see, I love Westside Barbell. I use a lot of Louie’s methods and ideas. I just know that specificity comes into play as well. I want my lifters to be the best at their contested movements. The only way to get good at a movement is through practice. You don’t get good at American football by practicing basketball the week before a game.
I program my accessory work the same way. I program movements where I can quantify that a lifter is weak. If a muscle group is weak, it is going to take some time to improve. If I rotate accessory movement, then the body isn’t going to adapt to anything. Therefore the body won’t improve at anything.
The one place that I feel is ok to be a little more random is in the conditioning/work capacity section. I am not trying to elicit muscle hypertrophy during this phase of the workout. I want the athlete to get more conditioned, so that they can perform more and more work. I won’t use any exercises that require a lot of eccentric loading because I don’t want this section of training to cause further muscle breakdown. If you want variation, this is the time to vary.
I hope that this helps all of you see the way that I use the conjugate method. These principles apply to weightlifting and powerlifting. I have learned so much from Louie Simmons that I could write hundreds of books explaining all the topics. He has mentored me in countless ways over the years, and I appreciate everything that he has done. At the end of the day, it comes down to production of athletes. He has done that. My job as a coach is to improve on the work of others. That’s all that any of us can hope for.
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