Base Building: Upper Body Main Exercises
The Conjugate Method is often categorized as a beneficial method for advanced athletes, with many believing that our training style is more challenging to plan or execute than more simplistic methods. This leads many beginners to run less optimal methods to keep things simple and avoid potential misunderstandings.
While it is true that mastering the Conjugate Method from a programming/coaching perspective can take many years and calls for the individual to understand the theory and application along with all of the nuances involved, proper execution of the methods is a relatively easy task to accomplish. As much as a beginner can benefit from traditional linear-style periodization, they can benefit even more from a Conjugate Method program.
Why? Because a Conjugate Method program accounts for and addresses weaknesses as they arise, improves special strengths directly related to improvements in sports performance, increases muscle mass, improves conditioning, and completely avoids detraining by abandoning long-term phase training.
So, as a beginner, you must ask yourself do you want to start on the most efficient path to your goal or do you want to follow the same old tired programming everyone else follows, only to be forced into finding a better way to train when the eventual plateaus and overuse injuries begin to set in? If you are wise, you choose the most direct path to your destination.
Upper body base building for a new lifter will follow the same programming structure as we did with our lower body base building plan. The idea is to eliminate the dynamic effort method from the programming for the first 8-12 weeks of training to allow an athlete time to build baseline strength and muscle mass.
Would I have a beginner use the dynamic effort method if I were training them myself? Yes. However, this is because I can explain the correct execution of the methods and monitor the athlete set by set to ensure the programming and movement are appropriately executed.
If the athlete runs the programming independently, we want to reduce the risk of failure as much as possible. So, we focus on two methods that will deliver a beginner to the point where they can move onto a complete Conjugate Method training program; the maximal effort and repeated effort methods.
Here is how we suggest someone new to barbell training develop their upper body strength and muscle mass:
Max Effort Upper
As mentioned in the lower body base building article, we typically avoid training to all-out max-effort singles when programming for a beginner. However, we must train at particular intensity levels to allow the body to improve strength, muscle mass, and durability substantially. We do this by programming top sets of three or five reps for our max effort upper movements.
It's simple, each week, we will rotate max effort variations as we would typically, except we will perform a set of 3 or 5 reps aiming to establish or break a current 3 or 5 rep PR for whichever variation we are currently training.
We want to choose basic exercise variations for the first 8-12 weeks, considering a beginner will benefit from simply starting to train with a barbell. There is no need to add advanced variations at this point; a beginner will not have enough accrued training time or data to identify weaknesses that warrant a special exercise variation.
We want to start with the basics. I recommend beginning with bench press, incline bench press, floor press, and overhead press. These movements are all relatively simple to learn and will add substantial strength and size to the arms and torso. The goal is simple; familiarize the beginner with basic upper body strength training movements while adding size and strength.
The time it takes for someone to feel ready to advance in training will vary from athlete to athlete. It is important to go at your own pace and to build confidence in executing the basic lifts. However, do not let fear take over and limit your ability to improve. Basic exercises will only provide beneficial training adaptations for so long; you must introduce new stimuli at some point.
Does this mean we will completely abandon the movements listed above? Absolutely not. What it means is we will begin modifying the exercises by adding accommodating resistance, changing the barbell, or increasing the intensity by adding max effort singles into the programming.
Repeated Effort Upper
In place of conventional dynamic effort training days, we will utilize the 5 x 5 set and rep scheme for controlled repetitions when training beginners. The objective here is simple, accumulate as much volume as possible while developing the technical skills necessary to continue to more advanced training methods.
Similar to how we programmed the max effort training, we will begin our repeated effort training by sticking to simple bench press movements without any specialty bars or accommodating resistance. For a beginner, we will focus primarily on the bench press and close grip bench press on our repeated effort training days. The same strategy is at play here as it was with the max effort training; maximal improvement with minimal variation.
Repeated effort training will allow a beginner to get a significant amount of reps in each session, leading to greater control and confidence over the barbell. Additionally, the volume accumulated each training session will rapidly improve size and strength. To improve conditioning, you can lower the rest periods between each set. However, as a beginner, make sure you are getting the right amount of rest between sets to allow for the safe execution of each rep, each set.
We will still use a three-week wave format. However, we do not escalate based on percentages, considering a beginner will not have the experience or max lifts established to ensure the percentages make the training worthwhile.
The first-week training weight will be a weight we know the athlete will have no problem moving. Then, when the next week rolls around, we will add another 5-15lbs to the barbell depending on what we decide is tolerable. Once one three-week wave is completed, we will begin the next three-week wave using the second week's weight from the previous three-week wave.
Choosing to begin training for strength is one of the best choices any individual can make. A multitude of health and athletic performance benefits can be had when the training is safely executed with a properly organized program in place. The trick is to choose a methodology that can address all of the strengths and traits an individual must possess to improve their strength and athletic capabilities maximally.
Linear periodization will only take an athlete so far down the path. At some point, all linear periodization loyalists will reach the same fork in the road; either they are unable to improve due to performance plateaus, or they are too beat up due to mismanaged levels of volume and intensity.
Why start off using a less-than-effective method? Why not begin using a method that a coach or athlete can quickly modify to improve any athlete for any sport regardless of experience level? The Conjugate Method is the best choice for anyone choosing to train with a barbell. Getting bigger, stronger, and faster should be a weekly pursuit, not just a phase.
Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.