Death to the Conjugate Method?
by Jason Ferruggia
Over the last few years it seems that just about every "in the know" performance coach has discussed the conjugate method and why they find it to be the most effective way to train an athlete. By now I think we all know the definition of conjugate or concurrent periodization and how it involves simultaneously trying to raise multiple qualities.
Pretty much all of my highly respected colleagues use or have used the conjugate method. I know I have. And without hesitation I'll tell you that in a limited time situation, such as a summer's worth of training for an off-season football player, it's the best way to train. The results you can achieve in three months of training with the conjugate method are outstanding. You can get significantly bigger, stronger, and faster in only twelve weeks.
A large percentage of competitive athletes only have twelve to sixteen weeks of uninterrupted training time per year. The rest of the year they're usually playing one or more sports and have very little time to train. Most of my high school athletes play more than one sport and even college football players play from August until sometimes January. After that they have a short break before spring ball starts and then they finally get eight to twelve weeks off in which they have nothing to do but train.
In those twelve weeks there's a lot to accomplish. The muscle mass that was lost during the season must be regained and new muscle mass must usually be built. We also have to rehab any injuries and work on preventing new ones. Lastly, but most importantly, we need to get stronger and faster.
With only twelve weeks to do all of this, there's definitely not enough time to do any of it in separate phases. The only plausible approach to take in this situation is to just jump into a well-rounded conjugate training template and improve all of these qualities simultaneously.
That is what many successful coaches do in this situation, and to be honest, I don't think you can beat the results. Every summer, my football players go back to camp with several pounds of new muscle, a better forty time, and are significantly stronger than the previous year.
In fact, this summer, with a few minor changes to the lower body training protocol, the average improvement on the squat was just over 80 pounds, with one guy actually adding 110 pounds in sixteen weeks.
It should be noted that these were experienced and strong guys who'd trained with me for at least three years each. With results like these, it's hard to argue. Conjugate periodization is the best system there is for training athletes...
Unless, that is, you have more than twelve to sixteen weeks to train. In this case, the conjugate method may actually be the worst option to choose.
A Time for Old School
Now before you lose your mind and offer your life savings to anyone who'll whack me within the next 48 hours, let me explain.
Even though many athletes end up training for no more than twelve to sixteen weeks per year, there are plenty of other athletes who have a significantly longer amount of time to train. A high school or professional football player is an example of this. College football players don't fall into this category since they have to participate in spring ball. Therefore, we can't count that as uninterrupted training time.
An NFL player, on the other hand, has from January until August to train. With seven months to go before camp, using the conjugate method would be a huge mistake for this athlete. During the beginning of the off-season, there's absolutely no need to jump straight into heavy max effort type training. Nor is there a need to do any form of speed work such as plyos, dynamic box squats, throws, or anything of the sort. After the previous five months of pounding, the last thing this guy needs to be doing (or even feels like doing) is depth jumps and heavy deadlifts.
In this situation, the best model of periodization to follow is... dare I say it? How will people react to this seemingly blasphemous statement? Oh, what the hell, here goes...
In this situation, the best model of periodization to follow is classic, old school Western periodization. There, I said it, and I'm standing by it.
Go Heavy or Go Home? Not Always!
At the onset of a long off-season, the main concern should be rest and recovery. Therefore our hypothetical seven month off-season should really be more like six or even five and a half months. Immediately after the season, guys should just take off for a month or so. If playing the game of football is like being in dozens of car wrecks each week, I certainly think that a month off is more than needed.
Upon returning to training, the first thing that should be addressed is any kind of injuries or imbalances that occurred during the season. Since the athlete has just taken four to eight weeks completely off from any training at all, we also need to reestablish a basic base level of fitness. So, this first block of training would be a GPP/rehab type phase.
During this time there will be no loading of the spine and no heavy bars in the hands. Almost everything will be done unilaterally and with dumbbells or just bodyweight. Rebuilding lost muscle mass will also be stressed during this phase, but if hypertrophy is a very big priority for this particular athlete, the next phase will basically be a hypertrophy-only phase. Each of these phases will last about a month.
After completing those two phases, the athlete can then begin to move into more of a strength phase. We'll assume that he took all of February off and began training in March. So after the first two phases, we'll begin the heavy strength work in May. There's just no reason whatsoever to expose this athlete's body to the stress of extremely heavy weights any sooner than this. Not only is it detrimental to his joints, spine, and CNS, but it's also not possible to make significant strength gains for much more than twelve weeks straight.
Think about this for a second. I have athletes adding 100 pounds to their squats in twelve weeks of the summer. Several of my colleagues have achieved the same results in this timeframe. Now if the athlete trained for 52 weeks versus twelve, how much greater do you think his improvement would be? An extra 20 pounds maybe? What does that tell us?
That right there proves that conjugate periodization isn't the most effective method for those with extended periods of time to train. Maybe taking significant periods of time away from heavy training is a very good thing. In fact, I know it is. How else can the gains that most athletes make during twelve to sixteen weeks of off-season training be explained?
The abuse the body takes from heavy squatting, benching, and deadlifting is immeasurable. There's no way this can be good for anyone to do year round. The body needs a chance to repair and recover, and that's where old school Western periodization comes in.
Beyond Conjugate Periodization
Okay, with that rant out of the way let's get back to our hypothetical NFL player and his off-season training. After the GPP/rehab phase and the hypertrophy phase, we then move into the maximal strength phase.
During this phase we'll also introduce some dynamic effort training as well, but no extreme training methods like depth jumps will be needed yet. Since you can only make gains from extreme shock training methods like depth jumps for a very limited time and the gains are only truly realized after cessation of the stimulus, it's better to save this type of training for the following month (if you even want to use these methods at all). Doing depth jumps for the month of June followed by eliminating them in July will allow the athlete to realize the delayed transformation effect in August when they enter camp.
Depending on the particular athlete and his individual needs, there are a few ways we can approach the final few months of off-season training. We could focus on maximal strength in May and early June and then switch over to a conversion to power type phase from late June to August in which we focus more on speed training methods with only a maintenance level of maximal strength work. Another option would be to alternate back and forth with three week blocks of each method, i.e. speed and maximal strength.
Finally, we could opt to go with the conjugate method for the last one to two months. Whatever method is employed, there must be some maintenance hypertrophy work included throughout and calories must remain high. If the athlete really needs to gain size above all else, we'd be better off lowering or eliminating most of the speed work and instead focusing only on strength and hypertrophy.
As you can see, there are many ways to skin a cat, and they all result in you having a bloody pile of fur in your hands and a screaming feline trying to rip your eyes out... Wait, wrong cliché. I never understood that one anyway.
The point is that if you look beyond conjugate periodization, you'll find many other options that will help you achieve your goals — many times more efficiently.
Average Guy Periodization
The average reader of T-Nation is probably not someone who competes in bodybuilding or powerlifting, but rather someone who trains twelve months a year in an effort to get bigger, stronger, leaner, and more athletic. If that describes you, then a form of Western or alternating periodization is probably a better choice than the conjugate method.
As I pointed out earlier, it's difficult to significantly increase any one quality for much longer than twelve weeks. So why pound yourself into the ground 52 weeks a year with heavy weights, or end up frustrating yourself to the point of insanity when your mass building cycle stops working?
Instead, we could all benefit from picking one of these qualities and focusing on it for a given timeframe. Just like it's never recommended to attempt to simultaneously lose fat and gain muscle, it isn't the best choice to try to improve speed, strength, size, and conditioning all at the same time either. Therefore, for the average lifter I'd suggest the following periodization plan:
1) GPP / Conditioning / Unilateral Phase
2) Hypertrophy Phase
3) Maximal Strength Phase
4) Speed / Power Phase
The length of these phases is really up to you. Phase 1 could be done only once or twice a year if you wanted. Phases 2 and 3 could be alternated for most of the year in one month blocks or for longer periods of up to twelve weeks. (This is also known as intensification and accumulation.)
From what I've seen with my off-season athletes, I might tend to lean toward longer phases of each. I think it takes a bit longer than a month to get your strength levels up significantly, and I think the longer break from heavy training could do a body a world of good. The conversion to power phase might not be necessary for all athletes and probably isn't needed for most recreational lifters. However, I do recommend that you at least include some speed work in the maximal strength phase.
Out with the BS!
Now, just in case you all thought I forgot the number one argument against Western or linear periodization, I'll present it right now:
"When you go longer than two to three weeks without training any one particular quality, you lose it."
This is supposedly why it's necessary to always use conjugate periodization and nothing but. This is complete bullshit.
While it may be true that you might regress slightly, let me ask you what happens when you take a layoff from training. I'll tell you what happens in nearly every single case: you come back and within no time you're stronger than ever!
That's why this is the most idiotic argument ever. The people who make this argument will also tell you about muscle memory and how when you come back from training your gains in size and strength will be rapid. Then what the fuck am I missing here? Who cares if you detrain slightly if you'll gain it back and then some within two weeks of training that quality again?
Now that we've addressed the issue of periodization, there are a few other issues I have with the conjugate method that need to be looked at. When a coach says that he uses a form of conjugate training, that usually means he's incorporating some of the Westside techniques.
Before I get to that, I must point out that I don't train powerlifters, nor have I ever been a powerlifter myself. I wouldn't know the difference between a squat suit and a wetsuit. The fact is that I know next to nothing about powerlifting and would never claim to. It's just not my world.
When it comes to powerlifting, Louie Simmons is the master and has produced more champions than just about anyone on the planet. I've learned an infinite amount from Louie and would never challenge anything he had to say about training for powerlifting.
But like I said, this has nothing to do with powerlifting and powerlifters. While there's much to be learned from the Westside methods, you can't blindly take a system designed for powerlifters and use it to train athletes. There are too many differences between the two groups for this to be a good idea. While I've learned an infinite amount from Louie and the Westside methods, I still modify much of the information based on the needs of my athletes.
The first mistake many coaches make usually begins with the speed work. Powerlifters usually use a day of dynamic effort benching and a day of dynamic effort box squats with 50-60% of 1RM. With all of the athletes I've ever worked with, those percentages are usually too high. I've worked with hundreds of athletes and have consulted with many colleagues who have done the same, and we all came to that same conclusion.
As an athlete, if you're going to include speed work in your training, it had better be fast. That is the name of the game, my friends. I've rarely seen anyone that's fast with 60%. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but this is usually the case. Lower the percentages and move faster even if that means 40%.
For most athletes, speed work at 60% is about the equivalent of doing cardio at the typical 70% of max heart rate for fat loss. Why waste your time and risk muscle loss when intervals will get the job done much faster and more efficiently?
Secondly, this choice of exercises is actually far from the best for many athletes. Light speed work with a bar actually teaches deceleration, the opposite of what an athlete wants to do. You don't want to explosively hit your opponent and then immediately decelerate upon contact. Quite the contrary, you want to accelerate all the way through and try to blast him across the field.
The reason speed work like this teaches deceleration is because the weight will always be too light at the top. While you can add bands and chains to correct this problem, I'd have to argue that, for athletes, jump squats are superior to box squats and heavy explosive medicine ball throws or plyo push-ups are far superior to dynamic bench presses.
Some of the "Westside or die" strength coaches out there denounce the value of Olympic lifting and state that any lift can be done explosively and that box squats are the dominant lower body speed exercise. Yes, if you're a powerlifter, Olympic lifts suck.
But one of the most important things to realize when training an athlete such as a football player or wrestler is that it's of the utmost importance that they not only be able to produce force, but be able to absorb it. You might be able to dish it out, but can you take it?
For this reason, the full catch variations of the Olympic lifts are of the utmost benefit to these athletes. Along with drop and catch type exercises such as depth jumps or depth push-ups, the Olympic lifts teach the body to absorb force. This effect can't be achieved with a box squat.
As far as producing force goes, the argument by the anti-Olympic lifting / pro-box squatting group is the following:
"Let's assume you can squat 500 pounds and power clean 350 pounds. Well, 60% of 500 is 300 pounds and 60% of 350 is only 210, so therefore the box squat is obviously more effective for power development. After all, who's going to be able to produce more force, the athlete who trains all off-season with 300 pounds or the athlete who trains all off-season with 210 pounds?"
Great point. Hard to argue with that. Except for just one thing there, sweetie pie: the power clean and all Olympic lifts are explosive lifts by nature, so you'd never use 60%!
In fact, when you use 100% you're moving explosively; you simply have no choice. There's no such thing as a slow power clean. A power clean at 100% is probably more explosive than most box squats at 60%. So, in actuality, the question should really be this:
"Who do you think is going to be able to produce more force, the athlete who trains all off-season using 300 pounds or the athlete who trains all off-season with 350 pounds?"
Granted, the athlete won't always be working at 100%, but even if he goes down to 300 pounds it's still just as effective as the box squat at improving force production, with the added benefit being that it actually teaches the athlete the all-important aspect of absorbing force. On top of that, there's no deceleration component to the power clean like there is with the box squat.
So much for that argument.
What about the argument that Olympic lifts are dangerous? Maybe, but so is having a barbell of any weight at all on your spine, and I'm guessing that running full speed into Warren Sapp and having him plant you on the back of your neck is probably not the safest thing in the world either. There are risks in everything an athlete does. Deal with it.
The next problem associated with using a powerlifting system to train athletes is the overuse of max effort training. Working up to a one or three rep max is a lot more dangerous than doing five singles at 90% or three triples at a slightly lower percentage.
This is a risk that athletes simply can't afford to take on a weekly basis. On top of this, working up to a true max is quite taxing to the central nervous system and may actually delay your recovery and thus your rate of progress. Most athletes need to include speed work such as sprints and plyos in their programs along with the heavy lifting. All of these are CNS intensive and too much of any of these stressors can quickly lead to overtraining.
Not only this, but true max attempts are stressful on the entire body, and most athletes are beat up enough. For this reason, it's probably better to limit true all-out, max effort attempts to no more than one per month.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from max effort training lays the repetition method. It was once written that several lifters at Westside Barbell Club did three sets of twenty plus reps on a stability ball dumbbell press one particular workout day. This one story somehow led to the new definition of the repetition method in many peoples' minds.
Several coaches, including myself, don't find a need for a dynamic upper body day with many athletes. For this reason, the dynamic effort bench press has been dropped by many coaches (although I think there's some benefit to some of the catch and release type exercises I detailed earlier).
Replacing an upper body speed day with good old-fashioned repetition work in the range of six to ten reps is a great idea for a lot of athletes. Going higher than this and trying to use the "what they did one day at Westside" definition of repetition work isn't a good idea at all.
It's well known and well documented that conditioning / endurance work has a negative effect on power. Pull out any of the old Eastern European training manuals and you'll find this information everywhere. Simultaneously trying to improve endurance and power significantly reduces the effectiveness of your power training. Yet that's what some coaches are advocating by utilizing extremely high reps on a repetition day.
For those that don't know, there's some question as to whether any sets at all above six reps (that's right, six reps) will negatively affect an athlete's power output. Let me state that again and in a different way so that you can fully appreciate what I'm saying. Doing any set above six reps could actually be making you slower and less explosive!
The proper hypertrophy range for athletes and the effect it has on muscle fibers is another article in itself, but for now let's just address the problems associated with super high reps. The advocates of high rep training state that this method builds muscle. No, it doesn't. Unless I missed the scene in Pumping Iron where Arnold did 30 rep sets on the bench press or missed a chapter in Yates's Blood and Guts, I can pretty safely say that no one has ever successfully built an ample amount of muscle with high rep training. Beyond your first year as a beginner, high reps are largely useless for building muscle.
High reps are for endurance training, nothing more and nothing less. Endurance training makes your fast twitch fibers take on the characteristics of slow twitch fibers, or more simply put, it makes you slow and weak.
Not only that, but I think endurance training in the weightroom is a waste of time. If you need to bring up your conditioning, do it on the field, the ice, the mat, or the court, not in the weightroom. That's where you get big and strong.
There's really not much more to say about that; the fact that endurance training causes losses in strength, speed, and size makes for a pretty good argument against super high rep training.
Although I've successfully used the conjugate method with countless athletes and will continue to do so with many more in the future, I hope I've opened your eyes to some other methods available. Remember, nothing is the be-all and end-all of training.
If you have more than twelve to sixteen weeks a year to train, I highly recommend that you give Western periodization a second look or opt for some sort of alternating periodization model. You won't be disappointed.
About the Author
Jason Ferruggia is one of the most highly sought after professional fitness coaches in the industry. For over a decade he has provided hundreds of clients with cutting edge training programs that never fail to produce outstanding results in record time. Jason has trained over 500 athletes from nearly 20 different sports and is renowned for his ability to rapidly increase speed, strength, and overall performance. He has also mastered the art of physique enhancement and has helped countless clients ranging from business men to fashion models lose fat and build muscle at astounding rates.
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