Why Westside Didn't Work for You

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Why Westside Didn't Work for You

institute of iron
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Joe Schillero

The current age of internet information has provided many benefits to aspiring powerlifters, one of which is access to some of the top lifters' exact training programs. This is great because you can see what the best powerlifters are doing in their training, and in places like our Q&A, you can ask them questions regarding why they train the way that they do.

The problem is that many beginning lifters never ask the “why” but simply follow what their favorite lifter is doing to the letter, expecting the same results. Many see terms like max effort and dynamic effort and become intrigued with the possibility of using a conjugate (or concurrent) training system. Rotating lifts, circa max, bands, chains, percentages—it can all become overwhelming for someone unfamiliar with the training system and how the principles work. For a lifter without the guidance of an experienced coach or unaware of articles like "The Periodization Bible" and "The Eight Keys: A Complete Guide to Maximal Strength Development" or books like The Science and Practice of Strength Training or Supertraining, the only option available may seem to be typing “Westside training template” into Google.

There a few problems with this approach. The first is the idea that conjugate training equals Westside training. True Westside training is only experienced by the lifters training at Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio. The issue with downloading a random Westside template from a powerlifting forum is that you're using a program that was designed for a specific lifter who has specific needs and has been training for a specific amount of time. I’ve had some great conversations with some of the guys currently training at Westside, and they will be the first to tell you that while their core philosophy remains the same, their exact training is evolving constantly. Part of what makes Westside so successful is the ability of Louie and the lifters to continually adapt and grow in their approach to training.

The second problem with this approach is that most likely, the template you found isn't designed for your goals or weaknesses or your level of strength, experience or skill. These are all variables that are important when using a conjugate system. In a program such as 5/3/1, you can follow the provided template and percentages and it actually works better the less you mess with the program. However, with a training system, customization is crucial and adjustments may even have to be made throughout the training cycle.

ludus magnus conjugate method joe schillero 092314

Unless your program template was designed by an experienced coach, it most likely won’t suit you the way that it should. As you learn more about the methods and principles behind conjugate training, you can also design and modify a program yourself. However, in the beginning stages of learning, training can quickly turn into a mess if you lack experience in how to implement these principles. So while conjugate training can work great for beginning lifters, a basic program is often what’s optimal for success unless you have an experienced coach or training partner to help you. In the meantime, beginning lifters should examine and learn about the methods behind conjugate training.

The Methods

The core methods that are the foundation for conjugate training are the maximal effort method, the dynamic effort method and the repeated effort method. I’ll just provide a summary of these methods, as the resources I listed at the beginning of this article explain them in depth.

The maximal effort method is lifting a maximal load (training against maximal resistance). The dynamic effort method is lifting a non-maximal load with the highest attainable speed, and the repeated effort method is lifting a non-maximal load to failure (Zatsiorsky pg 81). These methods are then broken down into more detail to design a program to enhance maximal strength.

In many conjugate (or Westside) templates, these methods are expressed in a program that rotates the max effort lift with various movements each week and uses barbell movements against accommodating resistance (bands and/or chains) for dynamic effort training. Repeated effort lifts are performed as supplementary and assistance movements to build the competition lifts and correct weaknesses. However, how these methods are implemented will change depending on the individual.

Just a few of the variables that will differ between beginning and advanced lifters include:

Type of Max Effort Lifts
Frequency of Max Effort Lift Rotation
Type of Dynamic Effort Movements
Volume and Type of Repeated Effort Movements
ludus magnus elitefts belt conjugate joe schillero 092314

Variable 1: Type of Max Effort Lift

For advanced lifters, the exact competition lift may be done less often throughout a training cycle. The lifts will often need more variance (sometimes aided by use of specialty bars and/or accommodating resistance) in order to overload the movements and induce adaptation. However, for a beginning lifter, adaptation can be achieved with less initial variance. Because beginning lifters also need more work on technique, the competition lifts can (and in many cases should) be performed more often. How the movements are performed is important as well. Movements like box squats won’t be effective if they aren't being performed correctly.

Variable 2: Frequency of Max Effort Lift Rotation

In addition to more variance in the type of max effort lift, how often these lifts are changed will vary between the beginning and advanced lifter. In a conjugate system, max effort lifts are typically changed every one to three weeks in order to continue overloading without overtraining or reaching a point of diminishing returns. For an advanced lifter, lifts are often rotated every week because they are more skilled and stronger and need more variation to achieve adaptation. Beginning lifters can perform a lift more often because they have more room for learning the motor patterns of the movement and often times still need to learn how to strain and recruit more muscle fibers during a lift.

Variable 3: Type of Dynamic Effort Movement

When most people hear the term “dynamic effort,” they immediately think of a lifter doing squats to a high box against a combination of bands and chains while wearing briefs. While this is the case for many lifters, the principles of dynamic effort can be expressed many different ways in training. Some raw lifters may do dynamic effort squats without a box to mimic their competition lift while other lifters or athletes may use box jumps as a dynamic effort movement instead of barbell squats. The point is that dynamic effort training will vary and will only work when implemented correctly and in the right circumstances. Those who make the assertion that “speed work doesn’t work” often are choosing to examine only one example of dynamic effort training in an attempt to paint it with a broad brush. When and how speed work is implemented will play a large role in determining its effectiveness.

Variable 4: Volume and Type of Repeated Effort Movement

While there are a common set of movements used for assistance work to build the main lifts (outlined in the resources listed in the beginning of this article), these lifts will vary depending on the lifter. A beginning lifter may have a glaring weakness in an area such as the lower back that will prevent him from making progress until it is corrected. This lifter may need to focus on multiple low weight exercises to build strength and stability in the trunk before he is able to make progress on other supplemental movements. His ability to adapt to volume may also differ from an advanced lifter. This is another area that will differ between lifters in a conjugate program.

ludus magnus bench sugar bear joe schillero 092314

A Tale of Two Lifters

To paint a picture of the points discussed above, below is a comparison of the squat/deadlift movement rotations of two lifters both utilizing a conjugate system during a six-week period (this is just a summary of the movements).

Lifter A

Lifter A is a beginning powerlifter who is preparing for his first raw competition. He is extremely weak in the posterior chain and trunk and is still acclimating himself to the competition lifts.

Week 1

Max effort (ME): Competition squat against chains up to 3RM
Dynamic effort (DE): Box jumps, 3 X 5
Repeated effort (RE): Deadlift variations, box squats, glute ham raises, pull-thrus, weighted abs, leg raises
Week 2

ME: Competition squat against chains up to 3RM (beat old 3RM)
DE: Box jumps, 4 X 4 (increase height)
RE: Deadlift variations, box squats, glute ham raises, pull-thrus, weighted abs, leg raises
Week 3

ME: Competition squat against chains up to 1RM
DE: Box jumps, 5 X 3 (increase height)
RE: Deadlift variations, box squats, glute ham raises, pull-thrus, weighted abs, leg raises
Week 4

ME: Competition deadlift up to 3RM
DE: Competition style squats against bands, 10 X 2
RE: Pause squats in competition stance, box squats, glute ham raises, pull-thrus, weighted abs, leg raises
Week 5

ME: Competition deadlift up to 3RM (beat old 3RM)
DE: Competition style squats against bands, 10 X 2 (increase percentage)
RE: Pause squats in competition stance, box squats, glute ham raises, pull-thrus, weighted abs, leg raises
Week 6

ME: Competition deadlift up to 1RM
DE: Competition style squats against bands, 10 X 2 (increase percentage)
RE: Pause squats in competition stance, box squats, glute ham raises, pull-thrus, weighted abs, leg raises
ludus magnus joe schillero matt wenning lifter a 092314

Lifter B

Lifter B is an advanced powerlifter who is preparing for his fifteenth equipped competition. His squat is his strongest lift, but he struggles with recurring knee injuries when performing his competition squat too often.

Week 1

ME: Box squat against bands up to 1RM
DE: Box squats against chains, 10 X 2
RE: Good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, reverse hyperextensions, weighted abs, leg raises
Week 2

ME: Deficit deadlift up to 1RM
DE: Box squats against chains, 10 X 2 (increase percentage)
RE: Good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, reverse hyperextensions, weighted abs, spread eagle sit-ups
Week 3

ME: Box squat against chains up to 1RM
DE: Box squats against chains, 10 X 2 (increase percentage)
RE: Good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, reverse hyperextensions, weighted abs, spread eagle sit-ups
Week 4

ME: Box squat with cambered bar up to 1RM
DE: Box squats with yoke bar against bands, 10 X 2
RE: Good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, reverse hyperextensions, weighted abs, spread eagle sit-ups
Week 5

ME: Deadlift off blocks against chains up to 1RM
DE: Box squats with yoke bar against bands, 10 X 2 (increase percentage)
RE: Good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, reverse hyperextensions, weighted abs, spread eagle sit-ups
Week 6

ME: Box squat with yoke bar against bands up to 1RM
DE: Box squats with yoke bar against bands, 10 X 2 (increase percentage)
RE: Good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, glute ham raises, reverse hyperextensions, weighted abs, spread eagle sit-ups
The examples above are just some of many possible combinations that can make up a conjugate program. The purpose of this is to show that while the core principles are similar, the movements and implementation of them will differ depending on the lifter. This is why as a beginning lifter (or any lifter for that matter), we should be hesitant to try a program template and then declare it ineffective after a few short weeks or months. It can be easy to take a zealous stance against a particular training method (I’ve done it as a beginning lifter), but we should be hesitant to do so before taking the time to learn about all the methods at our disposal.

In many cases, conjugate training may not be the right training system for your goals at this time, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work for other lifters in similar situations. We should focus on learning as opposed to chomping at the bit for something to follow and then judging it before gaining enough experience. Training is a life-long learning process, and we should do everything we can to grow in our knowledge as lifters and coaches every single day.
"Building Better Athletes"
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