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Article originally posted on EliteFTS.com

The author is Brandon Senn who is a trainer and member of our Coaching Team at my gym Elite Performance Center.  I have worked with Brandon for a number of years and you may find him featured in some of my coaching videos as well.  

Louie Simmons has been without a doubt one of the most iconic (and at times controversial) figures in the strength world over the last 20 years. Louie’s gym (Westside Barbell) has become what many people identify as the conjugate system. Westside may be synonyms with max effort, dynamic effort, repetition effort and a whole host of other special methods but is that what really makes up the conjugate system of training? Should the conjugate system and the conjugate method be used interchangeably and is Westside conjugate and Russian conjugate comparable? If you believe that the conjugate system was meant to revolve around accommodating resistance (bands/chains), a weekly micro cycle of max effort, dynamic effort, and the occasional repetition effort methods this is something you need to read.

The Birth of The Russian Conjugate System

The original conjugate system (referred to then as the coupled sequence system, CSS) was originally developed under the Dynamo umbrella of the Soviet Union in the late 60’s-early 70’s. From a macro view the CSS is a systematic development tool used to organize multi-year training. At that time for the Soviet Union that meant entering youth athletes into schools of physical preparation with the objective of identifying and developing those athletes who had potential through their careers to compete at national, and international levels. By taking a multi-year approach to training, these schools were able to thoroughly develop a general foundation of trainability general physical preparation (*spoiler alert* they didn’t sprint with a prowler until they puked to do this) and prime the adaptive response for future specific physical preparation (SPP) and intensive unidirectional loads.

For youth athletes the physical preparation schools served as a long term development tool that highly discouraged early specialization of any one sporting activity. The primary goal of the early prepatory period of an athletes career was to progressively develop motor skills and movement dynamics while sequentially developing their adaptive levels for later phases. Even though the overarching system used for athletes was the conjugate system (think long term building block development) the actual training programs of youth and lesser qualified athletes through the initial years of training would lend itself to a concurrent (multiple qualities developed at once)  structure.

For qualified athletes (intermediate – advanced) who have successfully fulfilled the requirements of the early prepatory periods, a shift from concurrent training to phases of greater specificity and unidirectional loading (1 or 2 specific qualities) was made. During this period, skills gained from previous prepatory phases were not actively developed but rather maintained with maintenance levels of loading. Instead of attempting to improve the many non-specific abilities gained during the early stages of training, athletes now sought highly specific training organized to maximize competition performance and career potential. Remember, all of this is taking place over the course of many years. Depending on the qualification of the intermediate – advanced athlete they would spend the majority of their training at either end of the specificity continuum. In either instance all athletes regardless of qualification would spend time at both ends of the continuum, the only major difference being those of lesser qualification were allocated more time to developmental exercises while those of higher qualification would spend the majority of their time training highly specific exercises.

Continuum of specificity of the competition style back squat

The “System” vs. The “Method”

Without thought the conjugate system and the conjugate method are terms used to describe training variables almost always interchangeably. This is probably not the biggest issue in everyday talk but for the purposes of this article (and more technical writings in strength and performance) it will be important for us to define the terms as they do not always refer to a uniform tool. A system is a an organizational tool used in the application of training means and methods (applicable in the short and the long term). A training means is the motor ability or quality. A method is the non-motor quality training stimulus.  In layman terms, a system is the overarching organization of training, a means is the specific exercise or modification to an exercise, a method is how the means is applied (sets / reps, specific training protocols, etc..).

We know from above that the intent of the conjugate “system” was to organize an athletes training at a multi-year level. The means (types of exercises)  that were implemented into that system took a sequential building approach at the micro and macro level. In the early stages of training blocks athletes would train non-specific or developmental lifts that had a low-moderate correlation to the competition lifts (we will assume we are talking about lifters here). As the training block advanced and athletes neared competition only the most specific exercises that had the highest correlation to the competition lift were trained. In each exercise classification (non-specific – highly specific and every sub category between) a pool of many different exercises were utilized. This is in essence the original conjugate “method” (remember a method is not a system). The first implementation of the conjugate method was by the Soviet Olympic Weightlifting team in the early 70s. They took 20-45 SPP (specific physical preparation) exercises that were organized sequentially to build off one another towards preparation of the competition lift. These specific exercises rotated both at the micro and macro level while the frequency with which each individual exercise appeared during training was based off coaches evaluations of the athletes needs as well as the overarching continuum of specificity each athlete was placed under.

A Brief View Into The Creation of The Westside Conjugate

Jump across 5,194 miles to Culver City, CA where a young Louie Simmons is starting to make a name for himself at the original Westside Barbell Club. It’s probably not as important to dive into great detail of what Westside is/isn’t as that topic has been beaten nearly to death in the past 10 years or so. Instead we will point out only the finer details of the development of Westside Conjugate (WC). The creation of WC was by in large developed over the course of 10+ years (mid 60s-late 70s) and comprised nearly completely of trial and error. Many of the great lifters of the early 70s (Pacifico, Annelo, Crawford, etc..) have been accredited by Louie as having a major influence on his training philosophy and ultimately the original framework of WC. It wasn’t until the early 80s that Soviet sport science textbooks became available and utilized to further develop the foundation of WC. Louie has described the scope of WC as a combination of the Bulgarian and the Russian systems of training.

So Whats The Difference

Both the Russian Conjugate and Westside Conjugate rotate means (exercises or variations of) very frequently based off lifter needs and the continuum of specificity. The Russian Conjugate system seems to favor rotation of means based off lifter qualification whereas Westside appears to rotate means off immediate needs and best odds of immediate progression….

Continued on EliteFTS.com