What is the 'Conjugate Training System'?

The conjugate system is great at allowing the coach and athlete to design a program that fits the athlete's specific needs.

What is the conjugate training system?

Also known as the "Westside Method" because it was devised by Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell gym in Columbus, Ohio, the conjugate training system has its roots in powerlifting. However, the effectiveness of this program extends well beyond the world of powerlifting.

I first began training the conjugate method for powerlifting purposes, but quickly saw that it had a great carryover when training youth athletes. Why? Well, beyond the fact that the method gets results, young people have a tendency to get bored. The conjugate system sees you utilize the same movement pattern over and over, but frequently varies how you train that pattern. So while you may know that the "main" lift in a given workout will be a squat, it could be a Front Squat, Zercher Squat, Back Squat, etc. This constant variety keeps things interesting and also allows new PRs to be set quite often (since the more exercises you train, the more chances for PRs you give yourself).

This article is intended to be a basic primer on the conjugate training system. I'd like to outline the basic premise of the program and the reasons I believe it to be beneficial, and if it sounds like something that might intrigue you, I'd encourage you to research it further.

So what exactly separates the conjugate method from any other training system? It's attention to detail and accessory training. The conjugate method breaks training down into 4-5 weekly training sessions:

  • maximum effort upper (Bench Press)
  • maximum effort lower (Squat and Deadlift)
  • dynamic effort upper
  • dynamic effort lower
  • one extra day for posterior chain and weak point training

Let's say you're training the Bench Press for max effort. You'll begin with a quick warm-up routine followed by lifting a Bench Press variation until you reach a one-rep max. As soon as the max is reached (without failing), you'll move on to accessory training. Accessory movements should make up roughly 80% of your session. Here's a quick mock-up of a max effort upper training day in the conjugate training system:

  • Barbell Floor Press x 10/8/6/4/2/1/1
  • Strict Pull-Ups 4x8
  • Rope Face Pulls 4x12
  • Tricep Skull Crushers 4x10
  • Bicep Hammer Curl 3x15

As you can see, only 20% of the workout is barbell-specific work used to train the main lift. The remaining 80% is made of specialty exercises trained for volume to help build the supporting muscles of the main lift. Repeat in similar fashion for the lower body max effort day, remembering to rotate through variations of the main lift and accessory lifts.

So how do I train on the dynamic effort days?

Dynamic effort is essentially training a load that is less than your one-rep max for maximum speed. In similar fashion to the max effort, you'll train a barbell lift followed by accessory movements. The barbell lift will vary similar to max effort, but you'll choose a percentage of your max to train as fast as possible while maintaining good form.

It's important to note that the separation of max effort and dynamic effort should be approximately 72 hours. If you train max effort lower body on Tuesday, the dynamic lower body should be on Friday to allow for adequate recovery. I believe that the dynamic effort is key in building explosive power in athletes, because it forces the athlete to move a sub-maximal weight with the highest rate of force possible. In order to continually progress, the percentage should raise roughly 5-10% each training session until a new max is established.

For example, a person with a 400-pound squat max would squat 50% (200 pounds) week one, 55% (220 pounds) week 2, and 60% (240 pounds) week 3. These percentages can be changed to ensure the athlete is moving the bar with max force. Accommodating resistance can also be added by rotating various bands and chains to the bar. If you decide to add bands or chains, lower the bar weight, but make sure the bar and accommodating resistance don't total more than 60-80% of your max. If you have a 400-pound Squat max, the total weight of the bar and the accommodating resistance should never exceed 320 pounds.

The conjugate training system places a high priority on physical preparedness. Sled Walks, Lunges, Jumps and Carries ensure that the athlete is prepped and ready for their given event. The system is also easy to scale for novice athletes; if you're not able to bench with proper form, Chin-Ups, Push-Ups or dumbbells can replace the barbell lift. For lower body; swings, jumps and bounds can replace the Squat and Deadlift.

The conjugate system is great at allowing the coach and athlete to design a program that fits the athlete's specific needs. Instead of opting for a one-size-fits-all training system, the conjugate method can easily accommodate an athlete who has a weak low back or hips by swapping in exercises to address their individual needs. By changing the variation on max effort days, you allow the athlete to set a new PR each session, allowing them to physically and mentally become a stronger athlete.

Here's a sample week of the conjugate program:

Monday: Max Effort Upper

  • Incline Barbell Bench up to a 1 rep max
  • Lat Pulldowns 4x12
  • Shrugs 4x8
  • Tricep Rollbacks 3x20
  • Planks 3 x 45 seconds

Tuesday: Dynamic Lower Body

  • Box Back Squat (using 50% of Back Squat 1-Rep Max) 8x2
  • DB RDL 3x15
  • Goblet Squat 3x12
  • Box Jump 30 total reps
  • Palof Press 3x10 each side

Wednesday: Off Day

Thursday: Dynamic Upper Body

  • Barbell Bench Press (using 50% of 1-Rep Bench Press max) 6x3
  • DB Floor Press 4x12
  • 1-Arm DB Row 4 x 8 each side
  • DB Hammer Curl 4x12
  • Close Grip Push Up 3 x Failure

Friday: Max Lower Body

  • Sumo Deadlift up to a 1 rep max
  • Heavy DB Lunge 4x8 Each
  • Band Hamstring Curl 4x15
  • GHR 3x10
  • Ab Wheel 3 x Failure

Next time you're searching for a system that'll make training exciting while also catering to the needs of your athletes, consider the tried and true conjugate method!

Photo Credit: milijko/iStock