Starting Conjugate: Managing Training Volume
The success of your Conjugate Method programming will depend on your ability to properly regulate three aspects of training: intensity, volume, and frequency. All three play a significant role in deciding whether or not you will attain the training goals you have in mind when designing your programming.
At Westside, we know that for an athlete to succeed, they must train at intensity levels that allow for maximal motor unit recruitment, increase their training volume to influence muscle growth and increase work capacity, and regulate the total amount of training days per week to ensure adequate recovery time between workouts. Failure to properly control these three factors will lead to stagnation in improvement, reduced training effect, and increased levels of fatigue.
As important as all three factors are, your training volume will play a tremendous role in your success with your strength training. Your training volume will directly influence muscle growth while increasing work capacity. As you increase muscle mass and work capacity, you will notice higher quality workouts along with an ability to recover quickly between training days.
This will ultimately lead to higher quality max and dynamic effort training days, which equates to higher strength yields for the athlete. Monitoring and appropriately increasing your training volume is the best way to ensure you are properly conditioned for the demands of a Conjugate Method training program.
Here is how we regulate training volume at Westside Barbell:
Max Effort Training Days
Due to the high-intensity nature of these training days, the overall training volume will be reduced compared to dynamic effort training days. Training energy can be depleted in two ways: the intensity of the exercise or the total volume of the exercise. The focus of a max effort training day is to lift the heaviest weight we can, so it is crucial to keep the main exercise training volume lowered to ensure we have significant amounts of energy for the top set of our max effort lift.
For example, here is how an 800lb squatter would work through sets on the way to a max effort top set:
Set 1 - 135lbs x 10
Set 2 - 225lbs x 8
Set 3 - 315lbs x 5
Set 4 - 405lbs x 3
Set 5 - 500lbs x 3
Set 6 - 600lbs x 1
Set 7 - 700lbs x 1
Set 8 - 750lbs x 1
Set 9 - 815lbs x 1 (PR)
We begin with warm-up sets using low intensity and moderate volume. Realistically, the first four sets will barely sap any energy from a lifter capable of an 800lb squat. These sets serve to help mobilize the joints and get some blood flowing. The following sets are programmed to ensure we take smart jumps while conserving as much energy as possible for the top set.
From set 5, the first meaningful set, we will only perform seven total reps before the exercise ends. This is how the relationship between intensity and volume interacts on a max effort training day during the main exercise. The day's purpose is to lift the heaviest weight we can, and the amount of training volume reflects that goal.
Once the goal of the training day is accomplished, we move on to accessory training. Here is how we would approach accessory training volume on a max effort training day:
Exercise 1 - Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 5-8
Exercise 2 - Inverse Curls: 4 x AMRAP
Exercise 3 - Reverse Hypers: 4 x 15-20
Exercise 4 - Standing Abs: 4 x 20-25
As you can see, even on our max effort day, we still achieve an acceptable amount of accessory training volume. Our strategy is to spend energy where it matters most (main movement), then spend the remainder of our training energy on our accessory work.
Generally speaking, the higher the intensity of the main movement, the less energy will be available for accessory movements. Your level of conditioning will dictate the energy you have left for accessory training after a high-intensity main exercise.
Dynamic Effort Training Days
Dynamic effort training is where the volume begins to add up. We perform dynamic effort training by lifting sub-maximal weights at maximal velocity. Considering this training is performed at a reduced level of intensity, the volume of our main exercise is increased. Instead of conserving our energy to work up to one heavy lift, the training focus is consistent bar speed and form over the course of multiple sets and reps.
For example, here is what the first week of a three-week wave would look like for an 800lb squatter following a 70-75-80% three-week escalation using a 5 x 5 set and rep scheme:
Week 1 Working Weight = 560lbs
Set 1 - 135lbs x 10
Set 2 - 225lbs x 8
Set 3 - 315lbs x 5
Set 4 - 405lbs x 3
Set 5 - 500lbs x 1
Set 1 - 560lbs x 5
Set 2 - 560lbs x 5
Set 3 - 560lbs x 5
Set 4 - 560lbs x 5
Set 5 - 560lbs x 5
As you can see, the training volume has been raised compared to a max effort training day. Our max effort training day described above would be considered a high-intensity day; however, only 10,305lbs total pounds were lifted. This is the first week of our three-week wave, considered the easy week, and we have already lifted a total of 14,000lbs. The second dynamic effort week will feature 15,000lbs of total weight lifted, while the third week will feature 16,000lbs of total weight.
Lou would always say that only lifting heavy is not enough. While max effort training plays a significant role in the development of strength and sports performance, athletes must continuously increase their overall training volume to raise performance levels consistently. This is one reason why our dynamic effort work is essential - volume accumulation.
On top of the main exercise volume featured during a dynamic effort training day, we also perform accessory exercises. Here is what accessory training should look like after the first week's main exercise:
Exercise 1 - Speed Deadlift: 6 x 2 @70%
Exercise 2 - SSB Good Mornings: 4 x 8-10
Exercise 3 - Nordic Curls: 4 x AMRAP
Exercise 4 - Reverse Hypers: 4 x 15-20
Exercise 5 - Standing Abs: 4 x 20-25
Our dynamic effort accessory work will feature speed deadlifts each week, performed for a 70-75-80% escalation. This, along with the rest of the accessory work, will add additional pounds to the total amount lifted each dynamic effort training day.
As the dynamic effort training weeks progress, you may have to reduce your accessory exercise volume slightly. It all depends on how much training energy you have left after completing the main exercise. Like max effort training, we want to have as much energy available for the main exercise as possible and then spend the rest of our energy on accessory exercises.
Successful barbell training depends on a proper relationship between intensity and volume. It is a simple concept; as intensity increases, volume must decrease, and vice versa. For instance, if the athlete described above would perform sets of five with all weights leading up to their max effort attempt, the athlete would likely squat equal or less weight than their previous PR.
Is this because of a lack of strength? Of course not. The culprit is mismanaged volume during a high-intensity training day leading to depleted energy reserves. Success on any training day requires the coach or athlete to understand where and how energy needs to be spent. The most difficult tasks require the most energy, so we want to ensure adequate amounts of energy are in reserve before performing demanding exercises.
If the training day intends to improve max effort strength, we manage our energy accordingly. If it's a dynamic effort training day, we want the highest quality main exercise we can have, then spend the remaining energy on our accessory exercises. Understand the hierarchy of a training day; the main exercise is most important, then multi-joint accessory movements, then single-joint exercises, ending with GPP training. Manage your energy levels accordingly.
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Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.