When to Use the Submax Effort Method in a Conjugate Program

Written by: Kevin Cann

A conjugate program is a thinking man’s game.  I think this fact deters many coaches and lifters from doing I, and in many cases is why certain people do not see success from running this type of program.  It doesn’t take too much knowledge or thought to write a top set followed by some backdowns with all competition lifts in the name of “specificity.”  Throw some cues in a comment thread of the lifters’ videos and you are good to go.

The problem is this will work for a bit and then it won’t.  It is setup and marketed with “specificity” so that coaches can easily coach a lot of people and make money.  You highlight the few freaks that do it and put-up big numbers to show it works and you get a whole culture believing that this is the way to train.

Everyone has a starting point, and some are just a lot closer to the finish line when they start than others.  Those are the ones we see doing well with this style of training on Instagram, but chances are, you are not one of them.  This means that your training methods need to be greater than theirs if you want to see the best results that you are capable of.  This is going to require you to have to learn.  Those mental gains are just as important as the physical.

I have coached and lifted in a high frequency program.  Sheiko was my coach for 3 years.  There are aspects of these programs that can be beneficial to decision making within a conjugate program.  One of these methods that can be beneficial is the use of the submaximal effort method in place of max effort work when needed.

We want to be as close to recovered s possible when we perform our max effort work.  The goal of max effort work is to develop high levels of coordination to move the most weight possible.  Developing this coordination only works if we are recovered.

Charlie Francis, the great Canadian track coach, said that a body in recovery will always be seeking homeostasis.  This is why he would have small, high CNS demand training done between bouts of active recovery.  If a sprinter hit a PR on a given run he was sent home and did not do the rest of the training.  Francis didn’t see the need as each run after would be slower and there was nothing more to be gained from that day. 

The reverse was true too.  If he saw that things were not right in a particular sprinter, things were changed.  A conjugate program is very similar.  We hit a 5lb PR on a max effort variation and we walk away and go hit some accessories.  In the top set method of training, followed by backdowns, we can easily get in a situation where we lose the quality of reps.  At this point we are just digging ourselves a bigger hole.  This is doing reps just for the sake of doing reps.

I am not a big fan of that strategy.  Max effort work gives us good feedback about our recovery each week.  If a PR is not there, we can walk away sooner than later and adjust the training to get more from other exercises.

Utilizing the submax effort method can be another strategy in these situations.  If our recovery has not been great and we aren’t feeling our best, we can substitute the max effort method for some submax work.  We can choose a variation and take around 70% of our most recent max in it and hit it for some sets and reps.  Typically 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps.

This allows the lifter to get some quality work in while focusing on better recovery strategies, or more consistent recovery strategies.  The goal should be to get the most max effort work in that we can, while also allowing us to recover.  However, 52 weeks straight of doing it can be grueling and very difficult.  Sometimes we need to adapt and adjust.  The submax effort method is a good tool in these situations.

We will run blocks of training with the same variation at times.  Week 1 the lifter will take a conservative max effort around a 2nd attempt intensity.  Week 2 they will do submax work based off the week 1 number, and week 3 they beat week 1 by 5lbs.

This puts caps on the week 1 max effort lift, lets them recover, but also lets them compete hard on week 3 if they are feeling good.  Week 4 is a comp lift 3-day week deload.  Ideally, I want every lifter to self-organize into these decisions themselves without me trying to plan it.  Knowing when to pull out these methods and also learning how to be aware as to not rely on those built-in safety nets in training.

This requires the lifters to learn the methods and understand what they trin as well as being honest with themselves and making the right decisions in training.  It is always a work in progress and it is always a learning experience.

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