Starting Conjugate: Choosing Your First Max Effort Exercises

Starting Conjugate: Choosing Your First Max Effort Exercises

Anyone who has correctly utilized the Conjugate Method will tell you that there is no superior method. The freedom afforded by the Conjugate Method provides a coach with a wide variety of tools and strategies to improve an athlete's sports performance.

Conjugate programming improves absolute strength, builds explosive power, and adds muscle mass simultaneously. We do not divide this training into phases, as we know that significant detraining occurs between phases. By design, phase training creates a "peaks and valleys" development in strength and athletic ability.

The Conjugate Method identifies the need for an athlete to improve in a stair-step manner, focusing on building all strengths simultaneously to avoid loss of ability caused by detraining. The science is simple; you'll lose it if you don't use it.

Lower the frequency at which you train high intensities, and absolute strength is decreased. Avoid dynamic effort training, bar speed is lost, and your rate of force development is decreased. Lower your volume and GPP work, and muscle mass and overall physical fitness is decreased.

This is not an opinion. It is backed by science and is why Conjugate is superior to any linear training model.

However, we do identify the existence of a barrier of entry when beginning Conjugate-style training. There is a plethora of information on our website regarding how we implement the Conjugate Method when training for various sports. Still, some of this information can be difficult to understand for a person brand new to this training style.

The aim of this article, along with all of the upcoming Starting Conjugate articles, will be to provide lifters new to Conjugate the foundational knowledge necessary to understand the Conjugate Method and implement it successfully into their training.

Below, we will go over options for selecting your initial max effort exercises.

Keep It Basic

Regardless of the training method you use, one thing to always focus on is to get the most out of the basics before you begin to add complexities. This means the first few max effort exercises you choose should be simple forms of the squat, deadlift, good morning, bench, and overhead press.

You don't want your first experience with good mornings to be Anderson good mornings for max effort singles using the giant cambered bar with quad monster minibands attached. The Conjugate Method has occasionally received a bad rap due to coach misinterpretation and athletes thinking Conjugate means to build the craziest exercises you can fathom and attempt to survive.

No matter the training method; poor training choices = poor training outcomes.

At Westside, we have always utilized a controlled approach when building and selecting max effort exercises. The issue is that many of the lifts we record are performed by athletes with advanced training experience, and the exercise selections will reflect that. Beginners, however, should stick to the basics to start and get as much out of those movements before adding in new challenges.

Now, let's go over some initial max effort exercise selections we recommend when beginning a Conjugate-style training program.

Max Effort Lower

Exercise selection for max effort lower will include different variations of squats, deadlifts, and good mornings. For beginners, you want to maximize your returns, so it is vital to get the most out of the basic form of a movement before moving on to an advanced form of the exercise.

Here is what would be considered wise exercise selections for someone just getting started with Conjugate.


  • Competition Squat
  • Box Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Zercher Squat


  • Competition Deadlift
  • Mat or Block Deadlift
  • Deficit Deadlift
  • Opposite Stance Deadlift (pull with form opposite of competition form)

As you can see, the exercises are basic but create a foundation that will build strength and offer the opportunity for modification and optimization in the future to address the athlete's specific needs—starting simple and becoming complex as the training needs of the athlete change.

Max Effort Upper

When programming max effort upper main exercises, you will be choosing between bench exercises and overhead press exercises. Which one you select more frequently will depend on your sport.

Powerlifters benefit from more frequent bench press exercises, while a strongman or CrossFit athlete benefits more by choosing overhead press variations regularly. Athletes or people interested in general fitness benefit from an even amount of bench pressing and overhead pressing.

Here are some initial exercise selections we recommend to get started with max effort upper.


  • Competition Bench
  • Close Grip Bench
  • Incline Bench
  • Floor Press

Overhead Press:

  • Standing Overhead Press
  • Log or Axle Press
  • Seated Overhead Press
  • Standing Overhead Dumbbell Press

Once again, we are starting with very common exercises that offer the ability to be modified in the future to avoid accommodation and continue to improve in a stair-step manner.

It's Only Just Begun

The strategies and exercises above represent what would be considered a solid approach when beginning a Conjugate program. The exercises are pretty standard; aside from the good mornings and Zerchers, most who have trained for at least three months should have some experience with each of the exercises listed.

Realistically, athletes could use these exercises for 12-16 weeks before any substantial modifications would be necessary to avoid accommodation. You can cycle through rep ranges of 1-3 top set reps to start.

After 16 weeks, we would recommend rotating in some specialty barbells and accommodating resistance to avoid accommodation and target specific weaknesses identified in the initial max effort training.

Keep a lookout for more Starting Conjugate blogs in the future. The goal is to use this series of articles to provide a common-sense roadmap for beginners to use the Conjugate Method correctly. You may be asking yourself, "what is the correct way?"—the Westside Barbell way.


Simmons, L. (2015) Special Strength Development for All Sports. Westside Barbell.

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.

Burley Hawk

Burley Hawk

Burley Hawk is the Digital Content Manager at Westside Barbell and a Conjugate Method strength coach. Training and studying under Louie Simmons over the past decade, Burley has attained the experience, knowledge and understanding necessary to master the Conjugate Method.

Read more articles by Burley

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