Why Conjugate is Superior to Other Programs

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

In the USAPL circle of powerlifting it seems that daily undulating periodization (DUP) is what the majority leans towards for their training with some linear and block periodization sprinkled in.  It seems as if speaking the term “conjugate” aloud will result in some punishment.

 

This is contradictory to the people that I follow outside of the USAPL.  It seems that conjugate is a popular training style.  I find this very interesting as it is all powerlifting.  I am not sure why one group doesn’t utilize it at all, and another group seems to utilize it more.

 

In my previous article I broke down the history of periodization and made arguments against the need for a periodized strength program.  If you have not read that one yet I encourage you to do that first.

 

This is not to say that the coach should not have a plan.  The coach needs to have a plan that is flexible and adaptable to the ever changing needs of the individual.  The plan should also be one that enhances the skills necessary for the sport.

 

Many programs begin with a hypertrophy block.  The reps are usually between 6 and 12 during this block and 65% to 85% of 1RM, roughly.  Interestingly enough the research shows similar muscle growth between higher load and lower load exercises as long as the effort is at or near max.

 

This means that increased workloads to increase muscle size are most likely unnecessary as heavier weights for less reps build muscle size about as well.  This also assumes that increased muscle size increases strength potential of a muscle.  There is nothing that suggests that this is true.

 

Hypertrophy may just be a byproduct of training.  Even if higher rep sets with lower loads built hypertrophy better does it matter?  The difference in muscle size would be very small and more may not be better.  This may be especially true if the other group is lifting at or near 1RM.  The specificity of that training will trump the miniscule difference in muscle size potentially leading to greater gains in strength.

 

The strength increases between periodized and non-periodized training in the literature can oftentimes be attributed to that same specificity.  The periodized groups end up training closer to 1RM than the non-periodized groups.

 

There was a study titled “Reduced Volume ‘Daily Max’ Training Compared to Higher Volume Periodized Training in Powerlifters Preparing for a Competition-A Pilot Study” that showed that hitting a daily max in the lifts around an RPE 9.5 was as effective in training beginner to intermediate powerlifters in a 10 week training program as a standard periodized program.

 

This was interesting to me because the program with singles is what it is in a study.  There are times where I adjust from singles to rep work for my lifters based off of some performance parameters.  We do this for 1 week in place of max effort and then we pick up max effort the following week.

 

The fact that these lifters did daily maxes every training day for 10 weeks is pretty impressive and interesting.  We have 2 to 3 days of max effort per week (it can be less if we have rep work in another spot).  So we have lighter days thrown into our programs.

 

These lighter days allow for recovery and a focus on technical efficiency as well as rate of force development.  Keeping the lifter fresher and improving technical efficiency can lead to even greater success on the max effort days.

 

The variation on the max effort days seems to keep training interesting and fun.  After 2 to 3 weeks of max effort of the same exercise we see a decrease in performance.  This study used the comp lift throughout the whole process.  This had to be done for the sake of research but imagine how much better the daily max group would have done if it could be applied like it would in the real world.

 

The results were comparable, and better in some areas, for the daily max group under those circumstances. This is pretty amazing to me.  It also shows that periodization is not necessary in a strength training program.  I will say, if the daily max group never had a plan to be flexible and adaptable, I think in the long term the periodized group would win out.  However, having a plan on how and when to use those maxes mitigates that piece.

 

When I first started getting into powerlifting, I was definitely against a conjugate style of training.  My main concern was the technique.  Heavy singles will lead to a breakdown in technique.  I wanted every repetition to look the same.

 

However, over time I learned that we can learn more from error than from success.  I also learned about a constraints-led approach.  With this approach I can place lifters in positions that punish that technical inefficiency.  I learned by doing this that the heavy weight is needed to punish these inefficiencies.  Anyone can get away with poor technique with the empty bar, but not 500, 600, or 700lbs.

 

Putting the lifters in those positions that disallow completion of the task under heavier weights, removes that negative of lifting heavy singles.  Also, those singles make up a small percentage (7-10%) of our total volume.  The other 90+% of our training is performed with submaximal weights.

 

When I was less experienced, I would argue that accommodating resistance used like it is used in Westside does not match the strength curve of the raw squat.  We always used accommodating resistance on bench and deadlifts.  However, we used just a small amount of accommodating resistance.  There was nothing wrong with this, but I now feel like heavy bands and chains have a place in training.  I have seen firsthand how squats have blown up with them, mine included.

 

I think one big reason is for the overloaded eccentric.  Controlling the tension on the way down and beating it on the way up has a lot of carryover to straight weight.  It teaches constant acceleration of the weight, something you can’t learn with straight weight.

 

Hatfield preached about compensatory acceleration, moving lighter weights as fast as possible having the same effect as moving heavy weights.  Straight weight needs to have deceleration to reach the top because the end speed is 0.  The bands and chains force the lifter to keep accelerating due to the increase in load as the bar approaches lockout.

 

Light bands and chains do not have this same effect as the initial drive out of the hole still carries the lifter through to the top.  I have found that the accommodating resistance needs to be close to 100% of 1RM or higher at the top on max effort days.  On the dynamic days, it needs to make up 20% to 35% of the total weight being lifted.  It needs to be heavy enough to punish the lifter if they explode and coast in the squat, but not so heavy that the bar weight is too light.

 

Another major argument against conjugate is the lack of specificity.  First, we need to identify what is specific.  This is a sport where the lifter takes max singles of a squat, bench press, and deadlift.  What is more specific?  A squat at 75% for a set of 6, or a squat where we move the feet out 2 inches and hit a heavy single?  It is the heavy single.

 

Max effort attempts require a different motor unit response than submax reps.  You need to train that ability in the gym to have it on the platform.  Submax work increases technical efficiency, which is also important.  Also, max weights train the mind to handle heavy weights and to not be scared.

 

Our volumes tend to remain about the same week to week with little fluctuations.  There is very small incremental increases in the workload as the lifter increases their strength.  That is all that is needed.  We have this belief that every week something needs to increase.  Why every week?  It is made up to fit a calendar.  Same with 4 week blocks, it is just 1 month.  They are random time frames.

 

In Russia a lifter may go from 800 lifts to 1300 lifts in a 5 year period of time.  This would be an increase of 100 lifts per year (these numbers are made up and it probably takes even longer to make those increases).  That means the lifter will perform 8 more repetitions per month each year.  That is 2 more reps per week each year.  That is a really small increase.

 

Often in a linear program or a DUP program you will see way more than that increased each week.  That increase in workload can lead to increases in nagging issues.  Keep increasing and those nagging issues can turn into something bigger.

 

Inexperience is a big issue in powerlifting.  You can throw a ton of volume on a lifter at one time to be sure you get enough of a stimulus to see results.  In some cases you will see remarkable results right away.  However, we need to look at the long term.

 

A conjugate training program is more of a long term strategy.  Volumes rise very incrementally over time as the lifter gets stronger.  This is exactly what Sheiko did with me for 3 years.  My number of lifts remained the same, but as I got stronger each percentage was a heavier weight and my workload increased.  I drove the increases in workload, not the program.

 

A conjugate program requires the coach to actually coach.  The coach needs to be able to identify the weaknesses of the lifter and put that lifter in positions to strengthen those weaknesses.  The coach also needs to guide the program to fit the needs of each individual.

 

Each individual comes with different genetics, motivational factors, and outside stressors.  Helping them make the right choices on each training day is the job of the coach.  Anyone can make a fancy Excel spreadsheet to do all of the work.

 

I encourage everyone to read Dr. Loenneke’s new paper titled “The Basics of Training for Muscle Size and Strength: A Brief Review on the Theory.”  Him and his colleagues breakdown the literature.  Seems more is based on dogma than science in the world of powerlifting.

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