If you’re a strength coach or a competitive weightlifter, you’ve probably heard of conjugate periodization. If you’re not a strength coach or competitive weightlifter, you’re probably wondering what the heck a conjugate is. And that’s OK! Conjugate periodization is a plan for multilateral, long-term athletic development. In other words, it’s a long-term plan whose goal is to develop well-rounded athletes.
Those of you who know about conjugate periodization are probably familiar with the work of Louie Simmons and Westside Barbell. The “Westside Method” has produced some of the strongest powerlifters in the world. However, the Westside version of conjugate training is not what I will discuss here (although it does incorporate some things I like, which I will save for later).
Phase 1: General Physical Preparedness (GPP)
The first phase in the Conjugate System focuses on general physical preparedness. In a team sport setting, it can be difficult to determine how long this phase should last. For some coaches, it may last only a few weeks; for others, it may last several months or even an entire year for younger athletes. Some coaches emphasize this phase each year during the post-season, using it as their recovery phase.
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The GPP phase allows athletes to build a base level of fitness and acquire various skills and athletic abilities. This time should be used to improve endurance, flexibility, joint mobility, balance and stability, and establish proper movement patterns. In other words, this is the preparatory phase for the hypertrophy, strength, power and speed development that will follow.
GPP can best be developed through participation in multiple sports. This exposes the athlete to a variety of skills and movement patterns that will help him or her become a better overall athlete. Professional athletes are the prime example. Most professional athletes were involved in multiple sports as a child. They did not specialize in one sport until high school or college. Some didn’t specialize until they made it to the professional level.
Phase 2: Endurance/Hypertrophy
Following the GPP phase come the endurance, hypertrophy and strength phases. Initially, the primary focus is on endurance and hypertrophy, or muscle growth. Exercises are performed in the 8- to 20 -rep range using 2-4 sets per exercise. Conditioning is focused on building aerobic endurance, but coaches should remember to keep it relevant to their sport. Having a football team run laps on a track doesn’t make much sense. Having them perform tempo runs of 50-100 yards does.
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To help with building endurance, the tempo in the weight room should reflect a HIT program. Rest periods should be short—30 seconds to 1 minute between sets—and the weight used should always be as heavy as possible for the prescribed number of reps. This also promotes hypertrophy, which is the other focus of this phase of training. Check out the video player above for an example of a high endurance workout.
Phase 3: Maximum Strength
After about four weeks, the focus begins to shift toward maximum strength development. Primary lifts increase in intensity and decrease in volume. Athletes perform no more than 5 reps per set, with weights ranging from 85 to 100 percent of each athlete’s 1-rep max (1RM) and rest periods of 3-5 minutes between sets. Accessory lifts may focus on hypertrophy and follow a HIT-style program, depending on the sport.
Phase 4: Speed/Power
After a four- to six-week strength period, the focus shifts to speed and power development. This is the phase in which athletes “peak” their performance. Since their maximum strength has already been developed, it’s time to make the athletes fast again. Intensity is reduced to 85-90 percent of each athlete’s 1RM for 4-6 sets of 1-3 reps; and emphasis is placed on moving the weight as fast as possible while maintaining correct form. Rest periods are around 2-3 minutes between sets.
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The best exercises for this phase of training are Olympic lift variations (Cleans, Power Cleans, Hang Cleans, Power Snatch, Snatch from blocks, etc.), plyometric exercises, band-resistance exercises (Bench Press, Squat), and anything that promotes high velocity muscle contractions. Conditioning shifts to more of a speed focus. Shorter distances are used and 100-percent effort is called for. Short-distance agility drills are also used to help promote acceleration and change-of-direction skills.
Phase 5: Recovery/Transition
The end of the speed and power development phase should coincide with the end of the off-season. A one- or two-week recovery phase should then be initiated. The focus can shift back to GPP, and light resistance should be used. The goal is to promote recovery from the last several months of training. After that, it will be time to start the cycle again. However, your athletes should then be well-conditioned, big, strong, powerful and fast. You don’t want to lose any of that.
During the pre-season, three or four weeks long, coaches should reestablish conditioning with a combination of speed drills and short rest periods, closely simulating the demands placed on the athletes during games—precisely the type of conditioning you need to build at this point. In the weight room, the emphasis should be on hypertrophy and strength development.
Beginning Week 1 of the season, the program shifts focus. Do not enter a maintenance period here. Many coaches make this mistake. Instead, focus on trying to improve. There is no reason your athletes cannot get stronger as the season progresses. In fact, they should be getting stronger as the season progresses.
Start with the maximum strength phase of training and progress into your power phase by the end of the season. Plan on having your athletes peak during the playoffs, not during the regular season. If they peak too early, it will show. Your team will slow down and the chances of losing will increase.
How To Program
The Conjugate System uses an undulating block periodization scheme. This means you progress the weight for two weeks, de-load for a week, then load again for another week. Load, load, unload, load. For example, in a four-week maximum strength phase, you may decide to use 90 percent for Week 1, 95 percent for Week 2, 85 percent for Week 3, and 100 percent for Week 4. Load, load, unload, load. The set and rep schemes do not change in Week 3 even though the weight is reduced. The idea is to promote recovery to come back stronger in Week 4.
The best way to plan your periodization scheme is to work backwards. If you know your season is 12 weeks long with a potential four-week playoff season, plan your periodization around peaking at Week 12 or 13, then work backwards from there. With sports such as baseball and soccer, this can be a little more difficult because of the inconsistency of the schedule during the competitive season; but it can still be done.
Regarding my earlier mention of the Westside Barbell conjugate method, I like that it calls for using different variations of primary lifts each week, returning to the main exercise every three or four weeks. For example, in a four-week strength cycle, you may Bench Press Week 1, Incline Press Week 2, Dumbbell Floor Press Week 3, and Bench Press again Week 4. This provides a constant change in stimulus to the muscles and the nervous system, promoting greater adaptation and leading to greater strength gains.
Remember: work in cycles and plan for long-term athletic development. If you do this as a coach, your juniors and seniors will be at the top of their game and you will have no problems winning!