How We Differ from Westside: In Fact We are Quite Different

 

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

I got this idea for an article in a conversation with a lifter that trains out of Westside.  I think people confuse what we do with Westside because we use variation and take heavy singles.  Beyond that, there are not a ton of similarities.

 

With that said, I love Westside and what they do.  There are definitely some influences from them with the way that I do things.  I think the similarities that Westside and PPS have in the programs comes from my love and appreciation for the Bulgarian and Greek weightlifting systems as well as my time lifting with Sheiko, a Russian coach.

 

Louie has these same fascinations with the Russians and the Bulgarians.  What I really appreciate about Louie is his willingness to try things and learn from mistakes.  He has truly used his gym as a living lab for over 40 years.

 

Louie did not come up with the “conjugate” system.  In fact, he actually uses the term incorrectly when we look at the Verkoshansky texts.  The Conjugate Sequential System is block periodization.  What Louie uses is concurrent or complex-parallel periodization.

 

Louie instead uses the term conjugate to be synonymous with concurrent, meaning training multiple skills at once.  Again, he did not invent this style of training, he just found a way to practically apply it at a high level.  Just because someone is doing a max effort lift, it is not Westside.

 

The max effort method is discussed in “Supertraining.”  Also, there is a lot of research showing that to increase absolute strength singles at or near maximal are superior than reps.  The SAID principle states that the body will adapt to the demands placed upon it.  If you want to get better at singles, you need to practice singles.

 

Sheiko was not a big proponent of singles and had unparalleled success as a coach.  Sheiko was a proponent for technique first.  Verkoshansky’s Principle of Dynamic Organization states that the body is always looking for a more efficient way to execute a movement.  This supplies the main focus of Sheiko’s coaching style.

 

When we take heavy singles, technique breaks down.  Sheiko does not want to see that.  He described the difference between him and Westside as his focus being on technique first and Westside on strength first.  Better way to think of it is Louie uses the max effort method as the main piece to get stronger and Sheiko uses the Principle of Dynamic Organization.

 

This then comes down to the coach and how they view error.  Is error good or bad?  I coach using a Dynamic Systems Theory approach.  I view error as being a tool to teach the lifter.  Error also allows the coach to assess strengths and weaknesses.

 

I prefer to place the lifter in a position that will punish the technical inefficiency that I see, and we perform this lift with near max or max weights.  The inability to complete the task gives the lifter and the coach feedback on what needs to be improved.

 

In my opinion this is kind of a balance between Sheiko and Louie.  My main focus is on the skill acquisition of the sport.  This includes increasing the abilities of the lifter to produce maximal force while increasing technical efficiency of the lifts.

 

The Principle of Dynamic Organization states that the coach should give the athlete problems to solve and that the solution to those problems is movement.  This is exactly what a Dynamics System Theory/Constraints-Led Approach does.

 

In powerlifting, the coach changes stance width, bar position, grip width, or uses bands, chains, pins, boxes, pauses, and tempos.  This gives the lifter a problem to solve.  They are still performing the lifts within the rules of the sport under these constraints.  The goal is to build a large skill set within the sport.  Variation is key for this.  It may also be important for reducing injury risk, jury is still out.

 

Louie uses specialty bars here.  We primarily use a straight bar.  Louie is a big proponent of the box squat.  His lifters use a wide stance and sit back on the box so that the shins are vertical or even in a position where the knees are behind the ankles.  The hip flexors are relaxed, and the lifter thinks of performing a leg curl to stand up from the box.

 

I do not have my lifters sit on the box.  The box is an external cue to get the lifter to sit back, it lets them know when they are at depth, they pause on the box, and they explode up after the pause.  This is basically a glorified pause squat.  The box does cue them to get less forward knee travel and trains a different position where the low back can be targeted with the hips.

 

The static to dynamic part of the movement builds explosive strength.  I could not adequately coach a Westside style box squat as the lifters would end up rocking off of the box every time.  I thought about what I wanted out of the exercise and made the adjustments.  We have some big squats, so it works.

 

The majority of the volume in a Westside program comes from the GPP work.  Ours comes from the variations of the main lifts.  We do not have comp lifts until we have a comp coming up.  A medium stance low bar squat is the comp squat of over 80% of lifters.  So how we break up variations and comp lifts is very different from the norm.  Do we use more comp lifts?  I don’t know because we do not know where we will be strongest at the time of the meet.

 

Perhaps the lifter has a big improvement in conventional and decides to pull with that style instead of sumo.  Perhaps wider stance squats feel better, so they move their feet out a bit and compete there.  Strengths and weaknesses are always changing.  This is a key component of a Dynamic Systems Theory approach.

 

We actually perform backdown work after the max effort lift.  We will take a percentage of the max effort lift and perform a few sets working on the technique breakdown that we saw on the heavy single.

 

As most are aware, I am not a huge fan of accessory work.  I do not think it increases 1RM, and if it does somehow indirectly, it is so minimal.  Doesn’t mean that it does not have a place.  It can help build up weak areas and improve recovery by increasing work capacity.  However, I believe it is best to target the weak areas with appropriate variations and angles within the main lifts.

 

We do not rotate the max effort lifts weekly.  Bonderchuk discussed the importance of variability, and not having the variation in the program long enough to get a training effect from it.  I keep an exercise in for 3 weeks.

 

If a lifter hits a true max on one of the weeks, we just do sets and reps the following week to really hone in on technical mastery so that we can add 5lbs the following week.  I may decide to leave a variation in there, but just make subtle changes to it every 3 weeks.

 

For example, Kerry is only hitting 240lbs on an SSB low box squat.  Her best comp squat is 305lbs at 52kg bodyweight.  We will keep this variation in for a longer period.  I will just add chains to it, maybe bands, change the box to pins, and even remove the box, no box with bands or chains.  We will build up this lift because it is highlighting a weakness.

 

Alyssa performed sumo deadlifts for 40 of the 52 weeks last year because of how large of a discrepancy there was.  She saw incredible progress on her conventional deadlift in competitions from doing this.  80% of the year we focused on building up a stance she is weaker in and does not compete in.

 

We perform max effort squats and max effort deadlifts in the same week.  The deadlifts rotate weekly between max effort work and rep/dynamic effort work.  Westside uses an either or approach.  The lifters at Westside are lifting far greater absolute loads and that may be required to allow them to recover.

 

We bench before our deadlifts.  This is something I did with Sheiko.  Also, Vince Anello was a big proponent of doing something to tire you out a little before you pull.  He is one of the greatest deadlifters of all time so I will listen to him.

 

We do not do dynamic effort work like Westside does.  Sometimes we do, but it is pretty rare.  What I did steal from Westside was the set and rep schemes.  Instead of doing 5 sets of 4 at 70%, we will do 10 sets of 2 at 70%.  Total volume is the same, but we get more first reps, better looking technique for all 20 reps, and faster execution for an increase in rate of force development.

 

We need sport specific speed.  Lighter loads may be more appropriate for team and field sport athletes to increase power.  Not sure they are necessary for powerlifting.  Even Louie seems to use enough accommodating resistance to be sure the top weight is 70% to 80% of 1RM.

 

I also like to use time limits on the sessions like Westside does.  At a meet you do not take an attempt when you want.  You go when you are told.  Also, fatigue makes technique more difficult.  It raises the stakes and the necessary skill level.  A newer lifter gets more time between sets.  As they get better, we can decrease that time between sets.  This increases the skill level of the lifter.

 

Sometimes I still use 70% for 5 sets of 4.  Sheiko taught me that load variability is important.  So our later week training sessions may be rep work that looks very similar to the way our programs looked when we were doing a more Sheiko-like format.  It also may not look like that.

 

Our frequency is lower than it was when we were running a more Sheiko-like program, but higher than a Westside program.  We squat 2 times per week, bench 2 times per week, and deadlift 1 to 2 times, per week (2nd deadlift session is very light).

 

On a Sheiko program we would squat 2 to 3 times, bench 3 to 4 times, and deadlift 1 to 2 times.  We utilize similar frequency as Westside, but a little more.  We split up the max effort squats on its own day and bench on its own day, but we do rep/dynamic bench work before max effort or rep/dynamic deadlifts.  Day 4 is usually rep/dynamic squats and light deadlifts.

 

What PPS does is not Westside.  I love Westside, but I am not Louie and my lifters are not his lifters.  What we do is unique to us and our journey of figuring this shit out.  We are not a copy of someone else.  We do not follow a simple structure laid out by anyone else.  We have our own structure.

 

We are PPS, not anyone else.  We want to be PPS and no one else.

Why Conjugate is Superior to Other Programs

Written by: Kevin Cann

 

In the USAPL circle of powerlifting it seems that daily undulating periodization (DUP) is what the majority leans towards for their training with some linear and block periodization sprinkled in.  It seems as if speaking the term “conjugate” aloud will result in some punishment.

 

This is contradictory to the people that I follow outside of the USAPL.  It seems that conjugate is a popular training style.  I find this very interesting as it is all powerlifting.  I am not sure why one group doesn’t utilize it at all, and another group seems to utilize it more.

 

In my previous article I broke down the history of periodization and made arguments against the need for a periodized strength program.  If you have not read that one yet I encourage you to do that first.

 

This is not to say that the coach should not have a plan.  The coach needs to have a plan that is flexible and adaptable to the ever changing needs of the individual.  The plan should also be one that enhances the skills necessary for the sport.

 

Many programs begin with a hypertrophy block.  The reps are usually between 6 and 12 during this block and 65% to 85% of 1RM, roughly.  Interestingly enough the research shows similar muscle growth between higher load and lower load exercises as long as the effort is at or near max.

 

This means that increased workloads to increase muscle size are most likely unnecessary as heavier weights for less reps build muscle size about as well.  This also assumes that increased muscle size increases strength potential of a muscle.  There is nothing that suggests that this is true.

 

Hypertrophy may just be a byproduct of training.  Even if higher rep sets with lower loads built hypertrophy better does it matter?  The difference in muscle size would be very small and more may not be better.  This may be especially true if the other group is lifting at or near 1RM.  The specificity of that training will trump the miniscule difference in muscle size potentially leading to greater gains in strength.

 

The strength increases between periodized and non-periodized training in the literature can oftentimes be attributed to that same specificity.  The periodized groups end up training closer to 1RM than the non-periodized groups.

 

There was a study titled “Reduced Volume ‘Daily Max’ Training Compared to Higher Volume Periodized Training in Powerlifters Preparing for a Competition-A Pilot Study” that showed that hitting a daily max in the lifts around an RPE 9.5 was as effective in training beginner to intermediate powerlifters in a 10 week training program as a standard periodized program.

 

This was interesting to me because the program with singles is what it is in a study.  There are times where I adjust from singles to rep work for my lifters based off of some performance parameters.  We do this for 1 week in place of max effort and then we pick up max effort the following week.

 

The fact that these lifters did daily maxes every training day for 10 weeks is pretty impressive and interesting.  We have 2 to 3 days of max effort per week (it can be less if we have rep work in another spot).  So we have lighter days thrown into our programs.

 

These lighter days allow for recovery and a focus on technical efficiency as well as rate of force development.  Keeping the lifter fresher and improving technical efficiency can lead to even greater success on the max effort days.

 

The variation on the max effort days seems to keep training interesting and fun.  After 2 to 3 weeks of max effort of the same exercise we see a decrease in performance.  This study used the comp lift throughout the whole process.  This had to be done for the sake of research but imagine how much better the daily max group would have done if it could be applied like it would in the real world.

 

The results were comparable, and better in some areas, for the daily max group under those circumstances. This is pretty amazing to me.  It also shows that periodization is not necessary in a strength training program.  I will say, if the daily max group never had a plan to be flexible and adaptable, I think in the long term the periodized group would win out.  However, having a plan on how and when to use those maxes mitigates that piece.

 

When I first started getting into powerlifting, I was definitely against a conjugate style of training.  My main concern was the technique.  Heavy singles will lead to a breakdown in technique.  I wanted every repetition to look the same.

 

However, over time I learned that we can learn more from error than from success.  I also learned about a constraints-led approach.  With this approach I can place lifters in positions that punish that technical inefficiency.  I learned by doing this that the heavy weight is needed to punish these inefficiencies.  Anyone can get away with poor technique with the empty bar, but not 500, 600, or 700lbs.

 

Putting the lifters in those positions that disallow completion of the task under heavier weights, removes that negative of lifting heavy singles.  Also, those singles make up a small percentage (7-10%) of our total volume.  The other 90+% of our training is performed with submaximal weights.

 

When I was less experienced, I would argue that accommodating resistance used like it is used in Westside does not match the strength curve of the raw squat.  We always used accommodating resistance on bench and deadlifts.  However, we used just a small amount of accommodating resistance.  There was nothing wrong with this, but I now feel like heavy bands and chains have a place in training.  I have seen firsthand how squats have blown up with them, mine included.

 

I think one big reason is for the overloaded eccentric.  Controlling the tension on the way down and beating it on the way up has a lot of carryover to straight weight.  It teaches constant acceleration of the weight, something you can’t learn with straight weight.

 

Hatfield preached about compensatory acceleration, moving lighter weights as fast as possible having the same effect as moving heavy weights.  Straight weight needs to have deceleration to reach the top because the end speed is 0.  The bands and chains force the lifter to keep accelerating due to the increase in load as the bar approaches lockout.

 

Light bands and chains do not have this same effect as the initial drive out of the hole still carries the lifter through to the top.  I have found that the accommodating resistance needs to be close to 100% of 1RM or higher at the top on max effort days.  On the dynamic days, it needs to make up 20% to 35% of the total weight being lifted.  It needs to be heavy enough to punish the lifter if they explode and coast in the squat, but not so heavy that the bar weight is too light.

 

Another major argument against conjugate is the lack of specificity.  First, we need to identify what is specific.  This is a sport where the lifter takes max singles of a squat, bench press, and deadlift.  What is more specific?  A squat at 75% for a set of 6, or a squat where we move the feet out 2 inches and hit a heavy single?  It is the heavy single.

 

Max effort attempts require a different motor unit response than submax reps.  You need to train that ability in the gym to have it on the platform.  Submax work increases technical efficiency, which is also important.  Also, max weights train the mind to handle heavy weights and to not be scared.

 

Our volumes tend to remain about the same week to week with little fluctuations.  There is very small incremental increases in the workload as the lifter increases their strength.  That is all that is needed.  We have this belief that every week something needs to increase.  Why every week?  It is made up to fit a calendar.  Same with 4 week blocks, it is just 1 month.  They are random time frames.

 

In Russia a lifter may go from 800 lifts to 1300 lifts in a 5 year period of time.  This would be an increase of 100 lifts per year (these numbers are made up and it probably takes even longer to make those increases).  That means the lifter will perform 8 more repetitions per month each year.  That is 2 more reps per week each year.  That is a really small increase.

 

Often in a linear program or a DUP program you will see way more than that increased each week.  That increase in workload can lead to increases in nagging issues.  Keep increasing and those nagging issues can turn into something bigger.

 

Inexperience is a big issue in powerlifting.  You can throw a ton of volume on a lifter at one time to be sure you get enough of a stimulus to see results.  In some cases you will see remarkable results right away.  However, we need to look at the long term.

 

A conjugate training program is more of a long term strategy.  Volumes rise very incrementally over time as the lifter gets stronger.  This is exactly what Sheiko did with me for 3 years.  My number of lifts remained the same, but as I got stronger each percentage was a heavier weight and my workload increased.  I drove the increases in workload, not the program.

 

A conjugate program requires the coach to actually coach.  The coach needs to be able to identify the weaknesses of the lifter and put that lifter in positions to strengthen those weaknesses.  The coach also needs to guide the program to fit the needs of each individual.

 

Each individual comes with different genetics, motivational factors, and outside stressors.  Helping them make the right choices on each training day is the job of the coach.  Anyone can make a fancy Excel spreadsheet to do all of the work.

 

I encourage everyone to read Dr. Loenneke’s new paper titled “The Basics of Training for Muscle Size and Strength: A Brief Review on the Theory.”  Him and his colleagues breakdown the literature.  Seems more is based on dogma than science in the world of powerlifting.