What is Conjugate Style Programming, and Can It Benefit You?

Note from Jason Kanzler and Alex Simone:  This article is a guest post from Gerry DeFilippo, who was kind enough to write an extensive piece on his experiences with conjugate style programming.  We hope you enjoy this fresh perspective, and we encourage you to check out more of his publications.  When you are done, please feel free to reach out to him on his social media or through email and ask questions, give feedback, or just say hey!

As a trainer I have had a good deal of success with a particular method of programming that allows you to focus on multiple modalities at once and can greatly increase flexibility when it comes to working with the chaotic nature of an athlete’s schedule and the differing needs of an athlete or client.  This method is known as the conjugate method, and I think it is important to get a full understanding of what it involves in order to see why it could be beneficial to adapt into your training (if you are an athlete), or into the programming of your athletes (if you are a coach).

Once we understand what it involves we can discuss the benefits, drawbacks, and possible areas of modification and how you can potentially improve and maximize the conjugate style with some small tweaks and adjustments!

What is Conjugate Style Programming?

Conjugate programming (sometimes known as the “Westside” method) was first popularized and utilized extensively at Westside Barbell with legendary powerlifting coach Louie Simmons.  I began to adopt this method of programming due to inspiration from a mentor of mine Joe Defranco, who rose to legendary status in New Jersey and around the world due to his massive success with his athletes via this style.

Essentially, conjugate style programming involves the coupling of several abilities in programming.  Basically, you “work on everything” and make tweaks based on any particular needs of an athlete.

With that being said, you may be asking yourself, “well that sounds incredibly complicated… how do you go about training for multiple abilities without sacrificing one of those abilities?”  I am going to share how I blend those abilities into multiple training days, and the best way to structure conjugate programming based on the needs of these abilities.

So, before we get into structure, let us go over some basic conjugate/Westside lingo.  This is how we go about labeling our training days and what each one involves.

Dynamic Effort Day

Dynamic effort day involves training for speed and power.  Sometimes known as speed-strength (moving weight fast to build power) or velocity (pure speed work).

On this day you perform your sprints, jumps, speed barbell exercises (loading lesser percentages of your one rep max on the bar and moving it as fast as possible for a few explosive repetitions), and any other speed or power exercises.  Since these movements are the most taxing on the central nervous system and require the nervous system to be fresh, we perform it at the beginning of the week.

Maximum Effort Day

“Maximum” says it all.  Moving heavy weight for less reps to build strength!

This is a day where you are performing your primary movements (bench, squat, deadlift, etc) at high percentages of your one rep max with lower volume (repetitions) to work on strength.

Your accessories (back exercises, grip work, unilateral work like split squats and sled drags, core, etc) may also be focused on heavy weights to build brute strength and develop max force production!

Repetition Effort Day

Simple.  Our repetition day involves performing slow movements for higher reps to build muscle.  We think of this as our bodybuilding style day and use it to build lean muscle mass to support our big lifts.  After all, as my man Joe D says, “bigger muscles have more potential to be strong!”

I made this simple for you.  The way I just ordered those specific days is exactly how I would go about ordering them in my programming!  Perform explosive movements first to ensure they are done with a fully rested nervous system, heavier movements next (with a day or two in between), and then perform your rep day last as it requires the least amount of engagement from your nervous system (which will probably be fried).

Benefits of Conjugate Style Programming

First and foremost, conjugate style programming provides great flexibility.  Think about it: in season, athletes’ schedules are random, chaotic, and rarely ever stay the same.  The beauty of conjugate style programming lies in the ability to adapt to these changes easily and still work on all abilities.  Did an extra practice limit your athlete from seeing you for his rep day?  No problem!  You can still go heavy on maximum effort day, but just add higher repetition accessories so he does not miss his hypertrophy work.

In addition to this, conjugate style programming allows you to always maintain each attribute and let them work off one another.  With linear programming (working on one ability at a time for a cycle and then switching to another), you can potentially “lose” another ability.  For example, if you only work on strength for an extended period of time you may lose muscle mass or explosiveness.  In addition, working hypertrophy alongside strength can greatly aide in your strength training (think back to bigger muscles being stronger).

Drawbacks and Needed Areas of Modification / Improvement

There are two specific areas that could cause problems when it comes to the conjugate style of programming, and they lie in two completely opposite ends of the training spectrum.  Athletes with very low training ages (have not spent much time training), and athletes with very high training ages (have spent a great number of years training.

Stemming off that, problems can also arise if, in a particular case, your athlete is extremely proficient in one area.  Let’s say they are very strong, but lack explosiveness.  It would then be foolish to equally balance their training schedule to work on both in the same volume as they most likely need more speed and power work to improve.

In my experience I have found the best way to deal with cases where certain abilities need more focus than others is to treat the conjugate style of programming as a sliding scale.  Basically, think of it as the sound system settings on your car stereo.  Do you hear too much vibration and can barely hear the words of a song when you listen to music?  Fine, then lower the bass and up the treble.

Essentially, you can modify the programming in any way you see fit so that it leans more towards the ability that most needs to be worked on, but also still keeps the other areas “fresh.”

Modification for athlete with low training age:

Area that needs most improvement: strength and hypertrophy

Normal split: dynamic effort (day 1), maximum effort (day 2), repetition effort (day 3)

Modified split: maximum effort lower body with high rep hypertrophy focused accessories (day 1), maximum effort upper body with high rep hypertrophy focused accessories (day 2)

Modifications for athlete with high training age:

This particular athlete has developed tremendous strength.  For this case, let’s say they have improved their trap bar deadlift one rep max from 365 to 530, and by doing so with other speed work their sprint times have improved greatly.

However, you realize that each incremental increase from 530 to 600 pounds may not yield the same improvements.  So to speak, the gains or overall returns they can experience from strength may be diminishing (law of diminishing returns), and it would be foolish to keep taxing them with strength work.

Instead of the normal split, they may incorporate two full speed days.  One could focus on one area (let’s say vertical/linear power) and the other could focus on lateral and rotational power.  Their third day would be a “maintenance” strength day to maintain that ability.  It would also involve some hypertrophy work to maintain lean muscle mass.

Moving Forward

Overall, the best way to maximize conjugate programming comes with understanding the importance of flexibility.  Be able to adjust to the needs of an athlete and you can really tailor the conjugate style to what best suits them and you.

Ultimately, never be married to one particular modality (strength versus speed etc).  Make necessary changes on a case-by-case basis and understand that everyone is different and may need more work with a particular ability.

To summarize one final time: use a moderate style of conjugate programming for the average athlete and be able to adjust that moderate style based on a novice or advanced athlete or the time of year in which you are training and your ultimate goals!

Gerry DeFilippo is the owner and head trainer of Challenger Strength in Wayne, NJ.  Challenger Strength is the strength and speed training provider for the USPHL New Jersey Hitmen, Gamers Baseball Academy, and Caldwell University Baseball.  In addition to having his Bachelor of Science degree in Business, Gerry is a strength and speed specialist, and certified physical preparation specialist by Joe DeFranco and Jim Smith.  Gerry works with multi-level athletes from the youth to college level in a variety of sports helping enhance on-field performance and injury prevention via strength, speed, and mobilization-based programming.

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