Written by: Kevin Cann
Ever since I became involved in powerlifting about 5 years ago, this has been the theme, “Conjugate does not work for raw lifting.” I must admit, I bought into it for a period of time, although my reasons may have been different from the internet’s.
My biggest issue was with technique. Technique will break down at the higher intensities. This is absolutely true. Working with Sheiko, I was mimicking what he did in making every repetition in training look the same.
My other argument was more against heavy bands and chains. We used accommodating resistance, but we used a much smaller amount than most conjugate training programs. This was due to the changing of the strength curve.
The more accommodating resistance, the lower the weight at the difficult parts of the lift and the higher the weight during the more biomechanically efficient parts of the lift. I would argue that a lifter is only as strong as they are in their weakest positions. This is also true. However, heavy accommodating resistance has a place for CAT (compensatory acceleration training) and it helps strengthen certain technical inefficiencies.
The internet will tell you that conjugate is not specific enough. This has really never made much sense to me. Aren’t heavy singles the actual sport? To my knowledge it was the only powerlifting program that was actually very specific to the sport. The amount of variation in a Sheiko program was very similar to a Westside program, so the variability of training was something that I was accustomed to.
5 years ago was the start of the rise of popularity for DUP (daily undulating periodization). DUP was well researched, and Dr. Mike Zourdos made it much more accessible for powerlifters. Now every powerlifter could go on IG and yell their training was better because of #science.
Over the years I have found my way to a conjugate training system. I realized that following a Sheiko program that we were not lifting heavy enough and lifters were getting nervous to attempt heavier weights.
A Sheiko program did not allow the lifters to explore positions either. All variations were done in comp stance and with comp grip. This makes sense for the Russians that had all those years of GPP work before being coached by Sheiko.
In America, many lifters do not have that same base. They start the sport later in life and come with a lot of weaknesses and lower skill levels within the lifts. Variability is important to increase that skill level while simultaneously bringing up weaker areas.
Raw lifting is a relatively new thing. I believe the first IPF raw world championships was in 2013. The first raw nationals was just a couple years prior to that. This leads to a lot of inexperience in the sport.
It also seems to attract the younger demographics that grew up with technology. A DUP program is easy to make on an Excel spreadsheet and really does not require a whole lot of coaching. In fact, I would argue that this is writing programs and not coaching at all.
So what is a conjugate program? A conjugate program is a method of training where multiple methods are trained at the same time. DUP, has some similarities here. A DUP program may have a hypertrophy day, strength day, and power day. Each week the program may call for adding a set, or increasing weight, so there are some linear components to it as well.
A conjugate program will look to build absolute strength (max effort method), rate of force development (dynamic effort method), technical efficiency (dynamic effort method/repetition effort method), and mental toughness (max effort method).
At the end of the day, powerlifting is about displaying absolute strength. There is no better way to increase maximal strength than taking heavy singles. Singles over 90% increase motor unit recruitment better than lighter weights, and it develops the ability to strain under heavy weights.
Sets of greater than one rep do not do that. One, the lifter, will conserve as much energy as needed to finish the set. This is even true for doubles and triples. This also trains strength endurance and not absolute strength. Singles also build mental toughness to handle heavier weights.
Technique does break down at these heavier weights. When I first started, I viewed this as a negative. However, now I view it as a positive. Error teaches us. The max effort singles allow us to easily analyze the lifter and build a program around attacking weaknesses.
We can alter the angles of the max effort lifts to punish technical inefficiency and strengthen any lagging areas. It seems like everyone needs stronger hips, hamstrings, and low back. This is why the majority of lifters lean towards lifting in a raised heel. It allows them to stay more upright and use more quads. A very simple fix to this, is we now do the majority of our training in flats.
A lifter cannot have as much of a positive shin angle in flats as compared to a raised heel. This decreases the ability to use more quads and forces the lifter to use a bit more hips and hamstrings. On top of that we do a lot more wider stance squat work. This emphasizes those areas even more. Increasing toe flail can limit the forward travel of the knee as well.
This allows the lifter to build technical efficiency under maximal loads, where it actually matters in this sport. These positions can also target weaknesses in a sport specific manner. If a wide stance squat in flats is 10% lower for a 1RM than a comp stance in heels, we got a weakness to work on. We can build up those angles, and when we do that, we will see an increase in the competition lift itself. Sometimes the lifter will prefer the new positions. Now, our strengths and weaknesses have shifted, and the process continues.
We cannot just do heavy singles every day in the gym. This is for recovery for one. Psychological burnout can become high if we just perform heavy singles. I also think there are some positives to repeated practice.
Singles do not give the lifter a lot of practice. This is where the dynamic effort and repetition effort methods come into play. The coach can use lighter weights and higher volumes to get the lifter more practice and to continue to work on weaknesses.
Weaknesses can be technical, mental, and physical. If a lifter is slow, work on getting faster, if a lifter has poor technique maybe slowing them down and teaching control is more appropriate than speeding them up. We can always speed them up later on, when the control is there. This is a long term process. The coach can choose the angles of the lift to also work on weaknesses. If the lifter needs more hips and hamstrings, the box squat is good here.
How is this not for raw lifters? A DUP program may have a block of 8/6/4 reps and then a block of 5/3/1 reps. Sometimes singles are included but done at an RPE 8. A rep at that intensity is not maximal effort and will not build absolute strength.
It may allow the lifter to maintain strength while they wait for the program to get more specific. The closer to a single that the lifter gets, the more specific. Let us look at the efficiency of each program.
A conjugate program takes no more than an hour to hour and a half to complete. Performing multiple higher rep sets of all 3 lifts each day, takes far longer. My lifters have jobs and lives outside of the gym. The less time they spend in the gym the more time they can recover and manage their lives outside of the gym.
This is not to rip on those that use a DUP program. If you enjoy doing that, by all means keep doing it. It also works for a lot of lifters out there. I will just argue that it is not the best. Long term training requires a continual analysis of weaknesses and a program that targets those weaknesses.