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Conjugate Training for Bodybuilding and Physique?

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

One of our owners and trainers Tara Green-Webber has been training with the Conjugate Method since 2010, and used it for her entire prep for this 2017 BCABBA Iron Ore showing.

By Jason Cook, BSc, CSCS

Yeah, we said it.

Are we really using a weightlifting and powerlifting training method to train bodybuilding and physique competitors?? Indeed we are, and we have been getting great results with it, too.

It’s no secret that many weightlifters and powerlifters are walking around with a TON of thick, dense muscle on their frames, all the way from the lightweights to the super heavyweights.  These heavily muscled bodies are built with big, basic movements, very few machines, and a lot of heavy training and volume tonnage.

Before we get into how we have been doing it, we want to explain the cliffnotes of the Conjugate Method, compare it to typical bodybuilding programs, and show you how we can get you your biggest and best physique ever!  

Conjugate Method - What is it??

A lot of people (especially in the bodybuilding world) don’t know what the Conjugate Method is, or how it can be applied and adapted to the different needs of an athlete.  The Conjugate Method was originally developed by the Dynamo Club in the old Soviet Union in the early 1970s, and it focused on developing strength through varied percentage-based training, as well as using specialty exercises to build strength.  Since then, it has been adopted, refined, widely researched, and heavily written about by Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell (who is widely regarded as the godfather of powerlifting in North America). At Xconditioning, we have been using the Conjugate Method since the early 2000s with widespread success in both strength sports and physique.

Today, the most common usage of the Conjugate Method includes 4 training sessions per week, with the upper and lower body being trained alternately, and 72 hours between body parts.  The upper and lower body will be trained once with the maximal effort method (heavy training, high percentages, lower volume), and once with the dynamic method (speed training, lower percentages, higher volume), with a mixed in repetition method (high volume, high reps) once a month or so.

On Max Effort days, lifters will work up to and beyond 90%, with low volume.  The goal is finding a max on a given exercise (RM = Rep Max - can be a 5RM, 3RM, 2RM or 1RM).  Finding a 1RM is most common, but this is flexible in the program design - the key to this is to find a max in the given exercise and then move on to your accessory and specialty exercises.  The max effort exercise is rotated each week, with the lifter attempting to set new personal records each time that particular exercise comes around. After maxing out, weak areas are attacked with appropriate exercises to prevent injury and build the components of the main lifts.  

On Dynamic Effort days, lifters will work the main exercises in the 75-85% range (including bands and/or chains) with high volume.  On these days, lifters work quickly, with the goal of the day to build speed and increase force output. After speed work is completed, the lifter will again use accessory exercises to attack areas of need, with higher total volume accumulated on Dynamic Effort days.  

Repetition Effort days are mixed in once a month and the lifters will perform high volume and high repetitions to give the Central Nervous System (CNS) a break from the intensities of speed training.  Again, weak areas are prioritized in the accessory work.

There is also room for specialty training days in between the main training days that can include sled dragging and attacking weak body parts with isolation exercises.

Here is an example of a typical training week with the conjugate method.

Monday - Max Effort Upper Body

Tuesday - Sled Dragging and Recovery/Specialty exercises

Wednesday - Dynamic Effort Lower Body

Thursday - Off

Friday - Dynamic Effort Upper Body

Saturday - Max Effort Lower Body

Sunday - Sled Dragging and Recovery/Specialty exercises

The Conjugate Method is purposefully quite flexible in its design, allowing lifters to attack their personal needs and weak areas.  The rotation of bars and exercises prevents accommodation to the particular exercise and allows the lifter to train harder, more frequently, and with fewer overuse injuries.  

Our client Dan Gillis showing what 1 year of progress with us on the Conjugate Method looks like on stage. Left Pic, 2016 165lbs, Right Pic, 2017, 188lbs

Conjugate Applied to Bodybuilding and Physique

The Conjugate Method is designed to make you stronger.  Getting stronger, with accompanied volume, is going to build muscle.  From the early bodybuilding beginnings with Reg Park and Steve Reeves, to the Golden Era with Arnold and Franco, to Dorian Yates’ HIT Program and Ronnie Coleman’s ridiculous poundages moved - big, compound movements and progressive overload (increasing bar weight over time) has long been a very important part of bodybuilding.  

The Conjugate Method is built around progressive overload. Getting stronger over time is the surest way to build muscle, so why not build muscle using a program that is designed to make you stronger??

Over the years, many powerlifters and weightlifters have dieted down and competed in bodybuilding...just a few names that pop in my head are Matt Kroczaleski, Dmitry Klokov, Dave Tate, Larry Wheels, and of course, Ronnie Coleman...and they all had plenty of stage muscle.

In Powerlifting, specialty exercises are used to bring up weak points in lifts and to help reinforce areas of need.  Think of breaking lifts down into components, and then attacking the weakest links - a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  In bodybuilding, the same thing happens, only athletes are focused on actual body parts. It is essentially the same thing, just with slightly different focus and approach.  

Training explosively, like we do with the Conjugate Method, increases the size of our Type II muscle fibres (the big, round ones).  You ever look at a sprinter’s muscularity compared to a marathon runner’s?? They look vastly different, with the sprinter looking alot like a bodybuilder.  

The benefits of using the Conjugate Method include:

  • Increased Motor Unit Output (which leads to more explosiveness and bar speed)

  • Increased Motor Unit Control (which leads to better bar control and more bar consistency)

  • Increased Force Output (i.e., getting more out of your muscles)

  • Progressive Overload (getting stronger over time)

  • Increased General Physical Preparedness (GPP)

So how do we adapt the Conjugate Method to meet the needs of a physique athlete??  

On Max Effort Days:

  • Athletes are always going to start their training day with a big, compound movement, and they are going heavy on it.  Squat, deadlift, good morning, bench press, incline bench press or military press or one of many variations of the above.  Variety is KEY here so specialty bars and accommodating resistance (bands, chains) will be used regularly and rotated.

  • We will typically use slightly higher rep ranges for Max Effort training for bodybuilding and physique (3-5 reps instead of 1 or 2, although we will still do singles, just not as often).  This gets the lifter higher total volume and increases the time under tension, while still working in the high percentage ranges.

  • Accessory work will be designed to first address weak body parts as they pertain to the lifts, and will move on to meet the needs of lagging body parts.  The back, glutes, and hamstrings are almost always weak areas of athletes and will almost always be on the training menu.

On Dynamic Effort Days:

  • Athletes are going to start with again a big, compound movement, and they are going to train it in the 70-85% range (This includes the weight of bands or chains).  They will be moving submaximal weights with maximal speed, working hard to increase their force output. Rest is much shorter on this day and training at a hard pace is necessary.

  • We will typically prescribe the same total volume (total number of reps at a prescribed weight), but will often change the rep range so there are more reps per set.  In a powerlifting program, we might do 12 sets of 2 reps for 24 total reps at 75%, and for bodybuilding we would do 5 sets of 5 reps for 25 total reps at the same weight.  A little more time under tension and a little more time to build muscle.

  • Accessory work will again be designed to first address weak body parts as they pertain to the lifts, and will move on to meet the needs of lagging body parts.   By addressing the weak components of a lift, we decrease the chance of injury and increase the athletes ability to move more weight on the big, compound lifts. More weight lifted = more muscle.

On Repetition Effort Days:

  • These are mixed in once a month or so, and are very similar to what a typical bodybuilding day would look like.  Lots of sets, lots of reps, and a ton of volume. Again, we are looking to address areas of need with our exercise prescription, as it’s not a day to mess around but it’s a day to get A LOT of total tonnage in.

Nutrition and Cardio:

As with all athletics (particularly those in strength and physique sports), nutrition is numero uno.  You can not outtrain bad nutrition, and your performance and progress will be GREATLY diminished without feeding your body properly.

As with all nutrition and cardio plans, it should be catered to the athlete’s needs, and adjusted accordingly.  Those athletes looking to add size to their next show will need a caloric surplus and will limit (but not avoid) offseason cardio, while those looking to come in tighter at their next show will eat around maintenance calories and do low-moderate cardio in the offseason.  

For cardio, we typically do that explosively as well.  Instead of steady-state or machine-based cardio, we drag sleds, do sprints, and do cross-training circuits.  This keeps our training base wide and our athletic tools sharp. If you don’t have many athletic tools to begin with, this is your chance to make some and widen your training base.  Again, cardio will be adjusted and catered directly to the athlete’s needs.

Xconditioning Conjugate and your New Physique

We are not reinventing the wheel here - we just have a well-oiled wheel and we know how to use it.  Our extensive and extremely accomplished backgrounds in strength and performance are at your physique’s fingertips.  One thing that smaller and novice competitors often miss is the importance of maximal strength training to progress and improve their physique’s muscularity.  When your max strength improves, so do all of your accessory lifts. With the increase in both your body has no choice but to grow.

Our facility is designed for the Conjugate Method - from our specialty bars aplenty to our reverse hyper and belt squat machine, we have you covered.  Everything we program and teach our clients is with intent and purpose.

Isn’t it time you took your physique to the next level?? With our Personalized Programs, we design your training with your specific needs in mind - no cookie cutter, repetitive BS.  You get your own workout written for you every training day, and we are always on the floor to coach you. Be your best with the best - remember, the first week of training is always FREE to try...what are you waiting for?

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