By now you should have a pretty good idea of a few types of periodization, and just general ways to vary your training and keep progress flowing throughout a training cycle. For this article I was planning on explaining another form of periodization called “Conjugate” training, which is based around combining different forms of training (or “biometers”) together over a single training cycle.
Its a pretty different approach to the linear periodization template i talked about a while ago, but its a lot more fun too! Where most other training methods gradually progress between the different biometers (hypertrophy, endurance, power, maximal strength, lactate threshold, conditioning…) conjugate training combines two or more of these training ideas into the same training cycle, or even the same training session!
The whole point to this is simple – if you train one biometer at the expense of all the others, only that one biometer is going to improve while the others get worse – if you don’t use it, you’re gonna lose it. For the average gym rat this might not be a huge problem, but for an athlete or sports person who needs to have a good grounding in everything in their event or sport it’s not such a good way to train. A rugby or american football player needs strength, but if they’re de-conditioned they aren’t gonna last the game to use it.
Now I said I was planning on explaining conjugate periodization but I thought the best way to illustrate how this whole thing works would be to write out a program I recently completed with the goal of increasing my maximal strength on a few big lifts (Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press, Pullups). Hopefully this will show you what this form of training can do for you!
The Basics of Strength
Before we get onto the program itself, I’d better explain a little of the logic behind it’s design. After reading through a lot of articles in journals, books, and websites (and this isn’t my idea by any means!) i noticed that strength has three totally different sides to it, and it’s these components that would go on to form the basis of my program.
Muscle Size (Hypertrophy) – The ability to contract muscle fibres is obviously important to strength, so what if we increase the size of those fibres and the muscle itself? Bingo – more force production! The larger the cross sectional area, the more force you could potentially generate so long as your neural system is efficient enough to use it.
Maximal Effort – This is your body’s ability to recruit the largest possible number of muscle fibres in concert in order to bring about a single powerful contraction. A greater neurological efficiency means a greater percentage of that muscle is able to contract at once. More muscle doesn’t necessarily mean more strength, but it does mean more potential for strength when you train your body to use it.
Power – Power is defined as force over time. In terms of weight lifting, a powerful or “explosive” lift means your muscles generate force through a sudden quick contraction. For example, power cleans and jump squats are power movements as you contract your muscles suddenly and explosively in order to propel the weight through the range of motion in a manner you wouldn’t otherwise be able to accomplish (dont believe me? Try cleaning slowly – it aint happening).
So how do these three things relate to eachother and to increasing strength? Well, if you want to make a cake you wouldn’t leave out the flour, or the icing, so if you want to build strength why would you leave out one of these key ingredients? Or all of them in some cases. A lot of weightlifters out there are eating raw eggs in more ways than one if they’re just plugging away at strength work every day! Before the hunger for cake consumes me, lets move on.
The ability to generate maximal, momentary force using a greater amount of muscle tissue will result in a greater potential load being moved. In other words, if you increase your muscle size, and then teach your body to efficiently use all the new muscle, and you are able to contract all that muscle in an instant – your overall strength will have increased. Its that simple.
The program itself lasted for eight weeks before a week’s layoff, and was split into three workouts per week. If i felt i was able to handle it i trained on consecutive days, but sometimes I left two or three days in between workouts if i didn’t feel 100%. Judge how your body is responding, and adjust the frequency or volume accordingly. Any sort of split can work depending on how you feel you are recovering – 1 on 1 off, 2 on 2 off, 3 on 3 off…or any sort of work/rest configuration you can think of so long as you can recover from it.
Each of the three workouts focused on a different biometer (Maximal Strength, Hypertrophy, Power) with each workout being of a completely different structure to the others. Cardiovascular (low to moderate intensity), grip, and core work was performed at least two days a week on workout days, or at least once a week on a non-workout day.
The two week training split was structured like this:
Hypertrophy (Lower Body Push + Upper Body Pull)
Maximal Strength (Lower Body Pull + Upper Body Push)
Hypertrophy (Lower Body Pull + Upper Body Push)
Maximal Strength (Lower Body Push + Upper Body Pull)
The goal of the hypertrophy sessions is to increase muscular size through a high training volume, with a relatively low intensity so as not to interfere with the maximal strength workouts by over-taxing the CNS. In order to achieve this, and it was a bit of a puzzle at first, I decided on doing many sets of moderately low reps at a sub-maximal load, as well as some accessory work:
x2 Compound Movements = 10 x 5 @ 75% 1RM
x2 Isolation Movements = 1 x 12 @ 65% 1RM, 1×6 @ 80% 1RM
The goal of the power day is to recruit as much skeletal muscle per rep as possible to train explosive power, speed, and maximum velocity. Olympic, plyometric, or kettlebell movements were performed over many sets with very low reps in order to ensure power output could be maintained throughout the session:
x2 Olympic/Plyometric/Kettlebell Movements = 6-12 x 1-3 @ Moderate Load
The goal of the maximal strength day is to drastically increase the training load in order to reach near-maximal intensity on a few large compound movements. Very few sets performed with low reps and a focus on longer rest intervals should make sure you recover between sets and keep the intensity high:
x4 Compound Movements = 3 x 3 @ 90% 1RM
Variations + Tips
In terms of accessory work (Cardiovascular, Grip, Core/Abs) I found Farmer’s Walks fit in really well on the Power Day, as did intense circuit training or sprints. Core work I usually performed on the Maximal Strength Day, as the core muscles were already pretty hot from the heavy compound lifting. The accessory isolation work on the Hypertrophy day usually took the form of Shrugs (to help with heavy Deadlifting) and Curls (to strengthen the bicep tendons…again, heavy Deadlifting!), but hyperextensions are also a great choice.
Once every few weeks, if you are feeling up to it, instead of performing 3×3 for all four movements on the Maximal Strength day choose one movement and work up to a new 1RM attempt with comprehensive warmup sets, and perform 2×3 on the other three movements at a reduced intensity (80-85%). Don’t do this very often – 1RM attempts are very stressful on your muscles, connective tissue, and nervous system and it’s easy to overtrain. Train smart! In an eight week cycle you could test on week two, then test on week seven to gauge improvement on a lift or two. If one of your lifts has improved, chances are the others have aswell.
As you can see from the training plan, each day is completely different and I promise you that each session will make you an entirely different flavour of exhausted! Because you’re training separate biometers there’s less “fatigue-crossover” between workouts than if you took a more traditional approach. Not only that, but this program stays very mentally fresh and each workout is a new and exciting challenge – put simply, its fun.
It won’t be easy but I saw fantastic strength gains, and half a dozen other people i know have used these principles in their own programs with fantastic results. I’d love to hear from anybody who completes the training, whether you saw results or not. This is one of the best programs I’ve ever tried, so if I can make it better for other people as well as myself then everybody wins!
Train safe and I hope you enjoy it!