Conjugate Training for Strongman
Editors note: You can download the 4 week layout below by filling out the form.
If you’ve been in the world of strength for any period of time, you’ve likely heard the term conjugate training for Strongman thrown around a time or two. Conjugate is a planning model that was created in the former Soviet Union and popularized by Louie Simmons and the athletes of Westside Barbell. Conjugate periodization (also called concurrent) does not use specific training phases to train a single athletic quality at a time.
Such as if you were using a linear periodization approach you would have a phase with the main goal being hypertrophy. Whereas conjugate training for Strongman anchors qualities such as speed, strength, endurance, and hypertrophy in conjunction with one another, hence the name. The conjugate periodization discussed in this article is unlike the conjugate method that is implemented at Westside Barbell.
The same principles are applied, however, there are a few things that we have tweaked for it to work to our advantage.
Let’s dive into it!
Get the 4 week conjugate here
Max Effort Method:
The max effort method is used to improve maximal strength, generally in the 1-5 rep range at or above 90%. An important aspect of the max effort method is to teach a lifter to strain. However, there are a few things to keep in mind when we perform max effort work.
A 1, 3, or 5 rep max is dependent upon the goal of the training cycle. When higher rep max effort work is used, the technique is very important, as it always should be! This is because when you exert yourself maximally and acquire fatigue, the technique can break down opening up the possibility for injury. Once your form begins to breakdown, technical failure has been reached and the lift should be stopped.
The max effort lift is typically rotated every week to avoid accommodation. If the same stimulus is applied at or above 90% for more than three consecutive weeks, performance will decrease. The same exercise can be used week to week, however, the stimulus (foot/hand position, reps, ROM, etc.) should be altered. Since you will be rotating max effort work week to week, it is important to choose exercises that will have the biggest carryover for you. The main events in a strongman competition are generally a deadlift and overhead press.
Choosing variations of these lifts would be best for your max effort work. Choosing 4-6 variations and cycling through them is a great rule of thumb to follow. For upper variations, I’ve found things like log clean and press, axle push press, and a close grip bench press to be very beneficial. Conversely, for lower variations, deficit deadlifts, good morning variations, and sumo deadlifts, have all had great carryover to strongman events.
Autoregulation is very important when it comes to max effort work as well. Autoregulation is adjusting your workload depending upon how you feel that day. For example: If you show up to the gym after a long day of work and are wore out but determined to still lift, you would only work up to a single at 85-90%. The max effort method is meant for you to grit and strain but doing so in a compromised state will inevitably lead to injury.
Never Fail. An important aspect of the max effort method is that you should never fail an attempt at a max effort lift. Completing a grinding max effort lift builds as much mental strength and confidence as it does physical. However, if you continue to fail lifts due to big jumps in weight, your confidence could take a beating.
Max effort lower and upper days should not be back to back. You should give yourself at least 72 hours between the two sessions to ensure that you are fully recovered.
Dynamic Effort Method:
The dynamic effort method is used to improve your rate of force development and explosive power. This is accomplished by lifting a sub-maximal weight at a high velocity. This is great for individuals who compete in strongman that can grind a weight out, but unable to be explosive in a throwing event. A few of the basics of the dynamic effort method are shown below!
Percentages of a 1 rep max are used to calculate the weight for the dynamic work. From my personal experience, 60-80% seems to be the sweet spot for dynamic effort work. For some this may be too heavy, however, when training partners or I have used loads under 55%, there was little carry over to our max effort work. I’ve found that using the 60-80% range allows for a moderate weight to be used while also allowing you to move it quickly. Experimenting with the percentages is the best way to determine what works best for you!
Accommodating resistance (bands and chains) is commonly used with dynamic work to ensure that a lifter is accelerating throughout the entire range of motion (ROM) and not slowing down when an advantageous position is reached. Although it is beneficial to have accommodating resistance, it is not necessary. The point of the dynamic effort work is to move the sub-maximal load with maximal intent, with or without accommodating resistance
Short rest intervals of 45-60 seconds, sometimes even 30 seconds, are used with the dynamic effort method. This drives up the intensity of the lift and allows for the dynamic effort work to be completed quickly.
The dynamic effort method uses a barbell or similar implement for the required work. However, this doesn’t always have to be the case. Coming off of a contest, things like med ball throws, dynamic prowler pushes, and even box jumps can be used in place to give the body a break from a bar.
The repetition method is used to increase muscle mass. It uses a typical bodybuilding rep scheme and is what most cookie-cutter programs are based around. The repetition method is defined as lifting a submaximal load until muscular failure is reached. However, I prefer not to do that because doing so increases your risk of injury. A great rule of thumb is to leave one to two reps in the tank when utilizing this method. A common alteration that I make to the repetition method is using timed sets as opposed to a traditional rep scheme. Since some strongman events are timed or max distance, these are a great way to add variation and increase muscular endurance.
Now that you are familiar with the methods that the conjugate system uses, there are a few additional tweaks that we can implement to make running a conjugate training for Strongman program geared toward strongman, that much easier. The first would be the addition of supplemental workouts. These workouts will essentially be small accessory workouts geared toward improving weak body parts, conditioning, and technique. These workouts should be based on individual weaknesses and tailored to you. I’ve had great success using these workouts to target areas that are commonly used in strongman such as the upper back, grip, and technique for various implements.
These workouts shouldn’t make you look for a trash can but rather make you feel better when you leave the gym than when you came in. Most periodization models use a de-load to give the body a break. However, when implementing conjugate periodization there is no de-load. This is because the fourth week of every cycle the intensity of the dynamic work is reduced giving your body a break. This is also a great opportunity to give your body a break with the max effort work as well by using a movement that you suck at.
It’s a simple concept that I stole from Dave Tate of Elite FTS. By choosing a movement that you suck at, the maximum amount of load you would be able to handle would be lower than something you are great at.
Pro’s and Con’s of the Conjugate Training Method
Like all methods of periodization, the conjugate training for Strongman method has its benefits and shortcomings. Many of the shortcomings that are commonly touted refer to the conjugate method meant for geared lifters at Westside Barbell. These shortcomings commonly come from raw powerlifters attempting to use the method as performed by geared powerlifters.
You can see how this could be an issue right? That doesn’t mean there are no cons to this periodization model. Check out the list below for some pro’s and con’s that I’ve encountered with the conjugate method.
The max effort method is not ideal for beginners. If you are just getting into strength training and have chosen to follow a conjugate training for Strongman plan, the max effort method may need to take the back seat until you are technically proficient in the lifts. Hopping under a max load the second time you are under a barbell isn’t a great idea.
Variation is key while using conjugate periodization. This means you may have to get a little creative if you only have access to a barbell and some weights. This isn’t necessarily a con, just inconvenient.
When bands are used with accommodating resistance work, they have the potential to beat you up a bit. This is because the band is providing an “Overspeed eccentric” essentially pulling you into the ground. This plus gravity has the potential to beat you up if you are not prepared for it.
Constant variation keeps training interesting. If you’ve ever followed a linear program for an extended period of time, you’ll know that it can be monotonous at times. With the conjugate method, volume, intensity, and even the exercises that are used are constantly varied. This keeps the training interesting and excited to train.
Unlike powerlifting, strongman isn’t specific to only three lifts. This means that strongman athletes need to be just that, athletes. Training with a conjugate plan allows for all the qualities that make a great athlete to be trained at the same time.
Hitting a personal record each week on both an upper and lower lift is great for building confidence. This has been especially true for individuals who mentally break down when they reach a certain weight. Consistently hitting PR’s on a variation of a lift does wonders for confidence when you finally perform that lift.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of the conjugate method, let’s take a look at how a four-week cycle could be set up.
The template above is how I typically set up a conjugate template if I don’t have a scheduled contest coming up. If you are closing in on the competition, you will need to be more specific on what exercises and events you choose to use as accessories and events.
I included the type of accessory exercise that I have used, however, this may not be ideal for everyone. The best thing to do is to tailor your accessory exercises to your weaknesses.
If you struggle to think of any weaknesses you may have, look back at old training footage or ask your training partners their opinion.
Utilizing the conjugate method can take time to fine-tune to see what works best for you, but once you do, the sky’s the limit!