Starting Conjugate: Max Effort Walk-Through
Over the past week, I have covered the basics of max-effort training. We have discussed exercise selection and rotation and basic programming strategies to give you a solid foundation to begin your own Conjugate Method training program.
By this point, we understand that proper exercise selection is crucial because it allows an athlete to train using the most optimal movements for their sport. We also understand that without appropriate exercise rotation, we risk accommodating to the exercise, resulting in stagnated development.
To ensure that all we have previously discussed is understood, I will use this article as an opportunity to walk you through what would be considered an optimal max effort upper training day for a powerlifter. For the sake of this article, we will say this individual is a powerlifter who struggles with tricep weakness and has issues locking out heavy presses.
Here is what an optimal max effort upper training day would look like for an individual with the weaknesses and issues listed above:
Tricep weakness is prevalent amongst beginner or intermediate lifters. Many believe that as long as your triceps grow, they become stronger. That is certainly the case if you want normally strong triceps. However, if you want triceps capable of benching 500lbs, it will take more than basic bodybuilding movements and volume.
Our main exercise selection will deliver what is necessary to develop triceps capable of extraordinary strength and power. We want to challenge the lifter at the point we know they are weakest, which would be mid-press or above for a lifter with tricep weakness and lockout issues.
We would choose max effort bench vs. monster minibands for a max single to solve this issue. How should an athlete warm up on the way to a max effort single? Well, that depends on a few things. Number one, what is your current level of recovery? If you feel good, maybe it is wise to take some extra sets during warm-ups to benefit from the added volume.
If you feel like crap, it is best to keep your eyes on the goal of the day and get to your max effort set as safely and quickly as possible. What does safely and quickly mean? It means to work up to your max without taking any extra sets, only doing what is necessary to be safely prepared for a max effort lift.
Here are two examples of how a lifter with a 500lb max bench would warm up depending on recovery level to reach a max effort upper top set while benching against monster minibands:
Optimal Recovery - band weight only x 15-20 / 135lbs + bands x 10 / 225lbs + bands x 5-8 / 255lbs + bands x 3 / 275lbs + bands x 3 / 305lbs + bands x 1 / 325lbs + bands x 1 / 365lbs + bands x 1 / max set
As you can see, the lifter is not only working up to a top set but is also getting a good amount of volume and added experience lifting in intensity ranges 80% and above.
Suboptimal Recovery - band weight only x 15-20 / 135lbs + bands x 10 / 225lbs + bands x 5 / 275lbs + bands x 3 / 315lbs + bands x 1 / 365lbs + bands x 1 / max set
You may be saying, "why would a lifter who is suboptimally recovered take fewer sets? Don't they need to warm up more if they aren't feeling great?" and the answer is no.
Max effort training requires an athlete to lift the heaviest weight possible to achieve maximal motor unit (MU) recruitment and significantly impact absolute strength development. We want to get the athlete to that point with as much gas left in the tank as possible.
As long as the lifter or athlete has warmed up properly there is no need to take additional sets in a suboptimal state. You want to train, not bury yourself.
I am frequently asked how we go about selecting accessory exercises at Westside Barbell. First, the accessory work for each lifter is always dictated based on the weaknesses of the individual.
It makes no sense for an athlete with a strong back and weak triceps to continue prioritizing back exercises while keeping their tricep training volume the same. Think of strength as a boat, the chosen exercise as a bucket, and weakness as water. We are always looking for the right size bucket to throw as much water out of the boat as possible with each workout.
In this article, the individual we are programming for has a boat full of weak triceps, so the accessory exercise selection should follow suit. Here is what accessory selection would look like for an individual with tricep weakness and lockout issues while bench pressing:
Close Grip Bench to 2 Board - 4 x 8-10
Barbell Rows - 4 x 5-8
Rolling DB Tricep Extensions - 3 x 15-20
Hammer Curls - 3 x 12-15
Tricep Band Pressdowns - 4 x AMRAP
DB Lateral Raises - 3 x 15
As you can see, this accessory exercise plan includes a good amount of volume, with a focus on tricep development. What are the recommended training weights for each of the exercises listed? The answer is the heaviest weight you can manage while still completing the prescribed sets and reps with optimal form.
It is a mistake that is commonly made amongst strength athletes, training accessory exercises with inappropriate intensity. It is not enough to go through the motions performing the movement. You are just getting some blood flowing without the correct volume and intensity inputs.
Train your accessory exercises at the proper intensity levels, and make sure you do so with great control and execution. Here's a good rule of thumb; go up if the weight feels light and the form is solid. If the weight feels like shit and you look like an idiot lifting it, lower the weight. Common sense goes a long way in the gym.
Bring The Intensity
In the current world of strength and conditioning, it is popular to inform athletes of all of the risks associated with max effort training, along with a myriad of exercises and strategies you can employ to avoid getting injured. While this may seem benevolent to the average person, this fear is wrong and counterproductive.
Do you know what is dangerous? Unpreparedness. I would argue that many injuries associated with strength training and sports can be attributed to the athlete's level of physical preparedness.
Why are they unprepared? Because they fear high-intensity training (barbell weight 90% or above) and choose to train at lower intensities at higher volume expecting to reach the same level of preparedness as someone who focuses on max effort training.
Motor units are real, and high-intensity training is the key to maximally recruiting them. Without this recruitment, you are not making the improvements in absolute strength necessary to reach optimal levels of sports preparedness and meaningful sports improvement.
Who would you rather attempt to tackle; the running back who squatted 700lbs for triples all offseason or the running back who ran wind sprints and squatted 315lbs for high reps all offseason?
Whether on the platform, on the playing field, or in the gym, the training intensity you have been exposed to dictates the strength, speed, and resiliency you will ultimately display.
Be Aggressive, Be Smart
The plan in the above text explains what would be considered ideal max effort upper training for a powerlifter lacking tricep strength and experiencing issues locking out heavy presses.
We correct this by attacking both positional (band press) and muscular weakness (band press + accessory work). The idea is to train the body to power through the weak point while building the strength and muscle mass necessary to resolve the issue.
None of this is possible without the proper training intensity. Whether you are planning your max effort main exercises or accessory exercises, have a plan that is both smart and aggressive.
You need to have the intelligence to know how much work or weight is too much or too little, and you must have the aggression necessary to take your training to the next level and continue growing as an athlete.
As you progress, the sport you compete in only becomes more competitive, and the training necessary only becomes more difficult. It doesn't matter if you are a beginner, intermediate, or expert; exposure to the proper intensity and volume levels is vital to your success. One without the other is a guaranteed ticket to the land of unpreparedness.