Starting Conjugate: Standard Bench Variations
The Conjugate Method utilizes two upper body training days, max and dynamic effort upper. The first upper body training day of the week is max effort upper, which features a top set of 1-3 repetitions performed at high or max intensity (90%+). This training day focuses on developing upper body absolute strength, intending to increase the force an athlete can produce.
The second upper body training day is dynamic effort upper, which features multiple sets and reps being performed at a specific velocity. The end goal of this training is to improve the athlete’s rate of force development. This means reducing the time it takes for the athlete to go from zero to max force produced as quickly as possible.
By combining these two specific training days, we create an athlete capable of producing more force in less time, provided the parameters and guidelines of the training are adhered to. However, this is not the only aspect of our programming that affects training quality and effectiveness. Exercise variation is also an essential aspect of the bench press training equation.
If there is one thing the Conjugate Method is known for besides bands and chains, it would be exercise variation. At Westside, we have always used special exercises or exercise variations to enhance the overall training effect and avoid accommodation. Typically, we will rotate max effort main exercises weekly and dynamic effort main exercises every three weeks when beginning a new dynamic effort training wave.
The key to using exercise variation is to select variations that target established weaknesses, develop competition lift prowess, and provide accurate and relevant training data. At Westside, none of our training is done randomly, everything is done for a purpose, and our exercise variation selection is no different. If an athlete chooses only to select exercises they enjoy doing or exercises they are good at, there is no doubt training progress will eventually slow or stall completely.
Exercise Variations for Beginners
If you’re new to Conjugate-style training, you have likely stuck to the basic flat, incline, decline, or close-grip bench press variations. It is also likely that the only variation you trained at high intensity was the flat or close grip bench, with the other variations being relegated to accessory training. However, when using the Conjugate Method, an athlete must perform multiple bench press variations at or above 90% intensity.
What causes beginners to run into issues with exercise variations is the same thing that almost always causes beginners to run into problems; overcomplicating the situation. As a beginner, any new exercise variation will likely trigger newfound strength and ability. For instance, a beginner new to variations who begins using a football bar will likely experience increased tricep strength.
The trick to introducing variations is to keep them simple but effective. We want to include variations that allow us to attack the bench press effectively while ensuring the training is focused and providing useful feedback. This is where the Westside Barbell standard bench press variations enter the equation.
Standard Bench Press Variations
At Westside, our max effort bench training will feature four exercise variations, while our dynamic effort training will feature up to three. Our standard max effort bench press variations will include:
- The competition bench press
- The close-grip bench press
- The floor press
- The incline bench press
We will perform each exercise once per month and then cycle back through the variations.
Our standard dynamic effort bench press variations include close, wide, and competition grip. We will typically perform one grip for an entire three-week wave. However, we have used all three grips in a three-week wave; three sets close, three sets wide, and three sets with competition grip. For beginners, it is best to stick with one grip for an entire three-week wave.
When programming exercise variations, it is crucial to remember that you want to get the most gains out of the least amount of variation. This means sticking to the standard variations without adding further variation to the exercises as long as you continue to PR and make gains. As much as a new exercise variation can be entertaining, don’t trick yourself out of what is currently working just because you are bored or found a new exercise on social media.
Escalating Exercise Variations
Inevitably, there will come a time when the standard bench press variations begin to lose their overall effectiveness, requiring the athlete to adjust the current exercises or select new exercises altogether. Fortunately, this is a relatively simple process, provided you have some understanding of the training effects experienced when using different specialty bars and accommodating resistance setups.
Instead of adding brand new exercises, we recommend adding further variations to your existing exercises. Why? Simple, you will already have some established understanding of and coordination with the standard variations. As specialty bars and chains are added to the mix, you won’t have to worry about learning a new movement pattern. Instead, you will perform a similar movement pattern with new training effects added to the mix.
For example, we will perform the floor press with an axle bar instead of a standard floor press. Instead of a standard close grip bench press, we will perform the close grip bench press against band tension or chain weight. Notice we are not throwing the entire training toolbox into the mix. Instead, we add in as little variation as necessary to kickstart new gains in strength and ability. Additionally, by remaining reserved in our exercise variation creation, we leave plenty of options in the future when training begins to stagnate, and new stimulus is needed. As the old saying goes, less is more. This rings especially true when programming exercise variations.
Keep It Simple
One of the common misconceptions regarding the Conjugate Method is the idea that every week must include a new variation. As mentioned above, we will train using a different max effort variation each week and a different dynamic effort variation every three weeks. However, this does not mean these exercises need to be "new", it just means we rotate exercises week to week or wave to wave.
The trick to successful Conjugate programming is to select basic exercise variations, get the most strength out of them as possible, and add as little additional variation as possible while still keeping the training stimulating and effective. Instead of going from floor press to reverse heavy band axle floor press versus all the chains you can get onto the bar, go from floor press to axle bar floor press.
By controlling our exposure to new exercise variations, we ensure there is always a route to go when a new weakness becomes apparent, or gains begin to slow. Additionally, we reduce our risk of injury by adding variation to already learned movement patterns. Aside from that, maintaining a standard rotation of exercise variations ensures you can track and accurately interpret training data.
Discovering Conjugate can seem like a license to hook bands and chains to any specialty bar and create the powerlifting version of Ninja Warrior. However, you will find that the more reserved you are in your exercise variations and how you escalate those exercises, the more long-lasting gains you will make in strength and ability.
Keep things simple; this strategy works effectively in life and when using the Conjugate Method.