The Legendary Conjugate Method For Strength Development

It’s no mystery that Louie Simmons has produced some of the strongest powerlifters in the world and anyone that has been in the trenches for a decent amount of time has more than likely heard of Westside Barbell.

Many think that Louie Simmons’ Conjugate Method is only for powerlifters and will have little carryover for trainees that simply want to look and feel better, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

I hope to give a complete overview of the Conjugate System and show how it can be applied to your programming. I’ll preface this article by saying this is NOT a system to be used by an inexperienced trainee; you should have at least three years of serious training under your belt; know how to squat, bench, deadlift efficiently, and have some basic knowledge of periodization.

I’ll also say that the basic tenets of the Conjugate System can be used without special equipment. In fact, the basis of all my programming is the Conjugate Method (used in functional fitness facilities all over the world) and we’ve seen amazing results without the use of special equipment. Of course, if you have do access to special equipment like chains, bands, specialty bars, and Reverse Hypers, then you’ll simply have more tools in your toolbox and even more chance of success.

With that said, this system on paper can look confusing and almost overwhelming if you don’t have a bit of experience with training. I’ve even seen experienced coaches have trouble understanding the principles the Conjugate Method is built on, but hopefully, we can delve into the simplicity of the system and how to apply this to your own programming right away.

The Conjugate System was first experimented with by the legendary Y.V. Verkoshansky back in 1972 and later refined by Louie Simmons. The system consisted of: “special exercises” to help raise the classic lifts, a rotation of max-effort work (ME), emphasis on developing rate of force development (RFD) via the dynamic effort method (DE) and an emphasis on building an athletes basis through general physical preparedness (GPP) work in the form of sled work. Of course, this is a very rudimentary overview of what the system is made up of, so let’s take a closer look.

The Repeated Effort Method

The Conjugate Method is actually made up of 80% special exercises, meaning your work with the barbell will only make up 20% of your training volume. This may come as a shock to many, but the logic is pretty simple: spend the bulk of your time working on improving your limitations, and your classic lifts will improve.

Because of this, we can add volume to smaller movements with the overall objective of improving deficiencies. Luckily for you, this may be the easier part of the system to execute in a commercial gym, but this means that you have to be intuitive about where you are weakest. Thus, you must also be innovative and constantly rotate variations to avoid accommodation, while also discovering what works best for individual needs.

Often times trainees fail to take inventory of where they struggle the most and experiment with exercises that will potentially help improve their limiting factors. This is what special exercises are; exercises that are similar in execution the classic lift and are used to increase strength and form (Simmons, 2015).

Of course, improving performance is important to many trainees, but what about for folks that simply want to look better? Special exercise work can be instrumental in helping add lean muscle mass, as rep ranges (6-20) will facilitate muscular hypertrophy where time under tension will be significantly higher than your max effort and dynamic effort work. Remember, the goal here is to improve and isolate lagging muscle-groups so single-joint exercises are a pillar in Conjugate programming.

Let’s talk about the some of the benefits of prioritizing special exercises in your programming:

1. Single Joint Work

Just as a bodybuilder spends a significant amount of time isolating specific muscle groups, the Conjugate Method employs a high volume of hypertrophy work. To target where we may be lacking, we can add a high volume of work without the risk of exacerbating compensation patterns.

2. Added Volume to Small Movements, Not Big Movements

It’s much safer to push the volume of a unilateral movement like a split squat in comparison to a bilateral movement like a back squat. Additionally, pushing the volume on compound movements carries inherent risks of overuse injury.

3. Time Under Tension (TUT)

Because unilateral work requires less skill and neural demand, we can increase loading and volume commensurately, thereby increasing time under tension. This leads to increasing muscular hypertrophy; most trainees that object to using the conjugate method are simply uninformed about its influence on body composition. Let’s be clear, if done correctly you’ll be able to add lean body mass relatively quickly and evenly.

4. Bring Up Other Movements

If you want your sexy movements like squats, pulls, and Olympic lifts to go up, then you have to prioritize where you are weakest. For most, it’s as simple as adding more direct posterior chain work to see noticeable gains in all of the aforementioned lifts. Remember, technique will only take you so far. At some point, you need to get stronger, and we cannot think simply squatting and pulling alone these lifts will continuously go up. (As a side note, WSBB average Deadlift is 860, yet they rarely pull off the floor.)

5. Prehab/Rehab

We can effectively reduce the risk of injury, as well as rehabilitate current injuries, with accessory work. Again, advanced trainees must constantly be assessing where they may be limited. Luckily, the internet is full of great resources that can help regular folks that aren’t necessarily fitness professionals, but if all else fails the guidance of a qualified physical therapist will likely help provide some direction with your accessory work.

Max Effort & Dynamic Effort Training

Lift heavy every day is the last thing you want to do with your training, yet many subscribe to this approach. The model of working harder or going “balls to the wall” to increase your chances of success is incredibly flawed. Instead, having a balance of intensity/volume with your training modalities is a better method for continuous progression and longevity.

Before we break down both the Max Effort Method and Dynamic Effort Method, let’s consider that both methods represent two different objectives, volume prescriptions, and intensity zones. Because of these truisms, there is a synergy between maximal lifting and lifting for bar velocity, both of which are crucial for progression and avoiding overtraining.

Let’s address some of the traits of the Max Effort (ME). Just to be clear I’m referring to 1-Rep maxes, not multiple rep maxes, as the ME method is intended to be a singular effort:

  • Strength-speed work is low velocity. Bar deceleration is inevitable with loads higher than 90% of one’s 1-rep max.
  • Neurological improvements from both a central perspective as well as a movement pattern prospective (intra vs. inter-muscular firing).
  • Intensity = 100% (or more), or maximum
  • Volume is intended to be low (typically 60% or less of our Dynamic Effort Work).
  • Can lead to accommodation if variations are not rotated consistently. Variations must be rotated weekly.
  • Must be separated from DE work by at least 72 hours to allow for proper CNS recovery.
  • Is incredibly safe when used with athletes that already demonstrate proper movement patterns.
  • Follow Prelipins chart performing no more than an optimal number of 4 repetitions with loads that exceed 90%.
  • Retest max effort variations every 12 weeks.

Now let’s compare the Dynamic Effort Method (DE):

  • Speed-strength work is intermediate velocity using loads of 75-85% of one’s 1-rep max (1RM) (50-60% of 1RM if using accommodating resistance).
  • Utilizes high-threshold motor units and facilitates RFD.
  • Volume is high with a moderate level of intensity.
  • Accommodating resistance is recommended to ensure we have proper loading throughout full range-of-motion (ROM)
  • Must be separated from ME Method by at least 72 hours.
  • Can help athletes with higher concentrations of Type 1 muscle-fiber (slow twitch) learn to move faster and be aggressive.
  • Follow Prelipins chart performing the optimal number of repetitions with loads ranging from 50-60% of 1RM using 25% of accommodating resistance in the form of band tension or chains.

As you can see, there is a balance between the two methods that are undeniable, both with unique characteristics that allow for a symbiotic relationship.

How does this apply to athletes that just want to look and feel better? Both modes of training elicit a different hormonal response that can aid in fat-loss and post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) which can elevate one’s basal metabolic rate for 12-24 hours after exercise. Moreover, priority is placed on hypertrophy work following both the ME/DE method which is where trainees will incur gains in lean body mass.

The Use of Accommodating Resistance

Accommodating Resistance refers to the use of chains or bands to develop maximal tension throughout the full range of motion, rather than at your weakest point. While there are a number of benefits to using accommodating resistance, one of the most noteworthy is accommodating the strength curve in which tension is highest where we are strongest, and lowest where we are weakest.

Key Points of Accommodating Resistance:

1. Breaking Through Sticking Points

Allows for greater accountability with bar-speed compared to just straight weight. In description, as tension increases through ROM athletes are forced to accelerate through each repetition and not get complacent.

2. Altering The Strength Curve

Accommodating resistance coincides with the strength curve meaning your band tension will be highest where you are strongest (top of the movement) and lowest where you are weakest (bottom of the movement).

3. Improved Rate of Force Development (RFD)

Provides more resistance without compromising bar speed.

4. Optimizes The Force-Velocity Curve

As weight increases, bar speed decreases. Maximal strength force is high, and velocity is low. Accommodating resistance gives you the ability to develop speed-strength where as simply adding straight weight bar velocity will inevitably decline.

5. Re-Educates Ability To Absorb Force

Teaches athletes how to absorb more force which in turn allows them to become more powerful.

6. Expand Movement Acceleration ROM Window

Without bands or chains, bar deceleration is inevitable, and when bar speed is too slow, RFD simply cannot be developed. Accommodating resistance forces you to accelerate through full ROM and becoming more explosive translates to becoming stronger.

7. Reduced Muscular/Articular Wear & Tear

The use of accommodating resistance can also be used for ME work. The advantage here is we will be able to use less straight weight with overload occurring at the top of a given movement. As a result, external loading through ROM is lower which equates to less breakdown and delayed soreness. For a movement like a max effort rack deadlift where loading for some can reach supramaximal levels, being able to use Accommodating Resistance will certainly reduce the amount of wear and tear that would normally occur with just straight weight.

When and WHY To Use Bands vs. Chains

The major difference between bands vs. chains is the phenomenon known as “overspeed eccentric”. Put simply, in the case of a squat, the lowering portion of your lift is greatly increased where the bands actually pull you down, increasing the amount of kinetic energy that is produced.

Because of this, we are able to enhance reversal strength and our ability to absorb force, crucial to any sport. Clearly with chains, the “overspeed eccentric” is not present whereby the resistance does not stay consistent when an athlete is lowering the weight.

“We know the greatest athletes have the highest amount of stored energy where muscles stretch and contract. With band tension, it can force an individual down very compulsorily, causing a strong stretch reflex. How does this work? Think of a basketball. Drop it, and it falls at the speed of gravity near earth of 9.8 m/s. When it recoils, the ball has deformation as it contacts the floor, but if it is thrown downward with great velocity, it bounces up much higher. Why? Greater deformation acts much like the deformation of the tendon and muscle where the energy is stored.”

-Louie Simmons (Simmons, 2015)

Overall, using bands is particularly advantageous to strength athletes who want to become more explosive. These benefits can translate into cracking personal records in the big three.

Building A Base of Fitness

One tenet of the Conjugate Method that I’m almost positive many don’t think of is improving muscular endurance both locally and globally. In fact, by using a sled we can effectively improve aerobic capacity/oxidative qualities as well as bridge the gap between our extreme max effort and dynamic effort training sessions.

I’m always surprised to find out how little coaches prescribe sledwork. Using a sled may be one of the most valuable training tools we have available. Luckily, more and more commercial gyms have things like pulling or pushing sleds and indoor turf. Obviously, this is not the case everywhere, but purchasing your own sled can take your progress and recovery to the next level for around $120 bucks.

The sled is a mainstay in Conjugate Programming and used for strengthening as well as restoration. We can also effectively train all three energy systems with the sled, performing both short and long intervals of work making this tool quite versatile. Moreover, sled work is a great way to unload with little to no external loading. The sled also provides a nice unilateral component which allows us to continuously address asymmetries.

Loaded carries certainly should have a place in any training program, and throughout this programming, we’ll have a rotation of carrying on a regular basis. In addition to improving core stability, we can also use loaded carries coupled with sled work as a high-resistance aerobic method. This combination is a great way to build your resiliency.

The Conjugate Method uses high-volume band work to improve connective tissue quality thereby strengthening ligaments and tendons. This high-volume work also has a profound effect on increasing stored kinetic energy which will be used for A-lactic work max effort work. The good news here is that this work can be done just about anywhere with a few inexpensive bands on hand. Additionally, for the amount of time that’s needed for this work on a daily basis (5-10 minutes), there is a huge return on investment.

The Plyometric Component of Power & Strength

While jumping is an integral part of the Conjugate Method for improving explosive strength, for general population athletes that simply want to look and feel better and hit new personal records from time to time, we don’t dedicate as much time as they do at Westside to the use of plyos. At Westside, they perform anywhere from 40-60 total jumps a week. Take the seated box jump for example:

With our programming for the general population, we’ll sometimes perform less than half of that. Of course, if you’re an athlete and need to get better at your given sport, then we could certainly devote more time to plyometrics. However, the fact of the matter is this article is directed at regular folks that may not play competitive sports anymore, and a lower volume of plyometric work in the form of jumps will suffice.

With that said, you’ll see planned jumping on dynamic effort lower days only in this template. Furthermore, I’m not debating the value of plyometrics, but this programming is simply keeping in mind the “biggest bang for the buck” for trainees that have modest goals and limited training schedules.

The Functional Conjugate Methods System

Just to recap, we’ve covered that the Conjugate Method is made up of 80% of special accessory work via the Repeated Effort (RE) Method. This work will not only improve your classic lifts but also elicit gains in muscular hypertrophy. The other 20% of Conjugate Programming is delivered via the Max Effort (ME) Method, in which intensity is the highest but there is the lowest amount of volume, and the Dynamic Effort (DE) Method, which uses a moderate level of intensity and submaximal weights where the objective is bar velocity.

With the Dynamic Effort Method, the volume is significantly higher than that of the Max Effort Method where both methods correspond with each other to optimize gains in both speed-strength and strength-speed and to prevent overtraining. Lastly, you’ll have the opportunity to build your base of fitness by using General Physical Preparedness (GPP) based measures that will not only improve your aerobic capacity and your ability to recover between sessions, but also allow you to minimize the risk of injury.

Reviewing The Basics of The Conjugate Method

  1. Max Effort and Dynamic Work are separated by 72 hours
  2. Smaller workouts can occur every 12-24 hours, i.e., sled work, band work
  3. Prelipin’s Chart is adhered to for all volume prescriptions. If you’re not familiar with Prelipins chart I suggest you familiarize yourself beforehand.
  4. Max Effort variations are rotated each week and retested every 12 weeks. Westside recommends retesting your classic lifts every 8 weeks, but for most folks that have unpredictable lives outside the gym, I’ve found every 12 weeks to be a bit more practical.
  5. Special exercises can be rotated every 1-3 weeks. If you’re like me and have training ADHD, you’ll want to rotate variations weekly (as folks like us love novelty) but for most, 2-3 weeks is enough to evaluate the efficacy of a particular variation for your individual needs.
  6. Dynamic Effort variations will be rotated every three weeks done as a pendulum wave. After three weeks time, new variations will be chosen, and new wave will begin.
  7. Think outside the box! Don’t get pigeonholed into doing the same variations or what you’re good at; constantly evaluate your weaknesses.

Programming Template Using The Functional Conjugate Method

Below is a base template that athletes, coaches and lifters can utilizing the functional conjugate method of training in a more customizable format. While the programming is broken down in a Monday-Sunday format, the same block of training can be used for 3 weeks based on accommodation to the chosen movements and lifts, and of course the athlete’s training age and unique history. Lets break this down further and put the system into action:

DAY 1 – MONDAY – Max-Effort Lower

Week 1: Rack Deadlift just below the Knee 1-Rep Max. Use chains if available.
Week 2: High Box Squat 1-Rep Max. Use a 15-17″ Box.
Week 3: Sumo Deadlift off 2″ mats 1-Rep Max. Use bands if possible.

Key Coaching Notes:

  • Build to a 1-Rep max in 6-8 sets. Your sets should look something like 3,3,2,1,1,1,1,1…
  • Have a plan in place to break a personal record by 5#s.
  • There should NOT be more than 4 singles over 90% of your 1RM.
  • Rest 2-3 minutes between sets

Special Exercises – Choose 2-3 From The List Below:

  • Sledpull: 5 x 60 yards using a heavy load. Powerwalk using a heel-to-toe fashion
  • Glute Ham Raises: 3-4 x 5-10 Reps.
  • Single Leg Variations: 3-4 x 8-10 ea.
  • RDL Variation: 3-4 x 8-10.
  • Goodmorning Variation: 3-4 x 8-10
  • Reverse Hyper: 4 x 10-20.

Abs – Choose 1 From The List Below:

  • Standing Abs: 3 x 25.
  • Heavy Farmer Carry: 4 x 100 ft.
  • Single Arm Farmer Carry: 4 x 100 ft.
  • Asymmetrical Carry: 4 x 100 ft.
  • Farmer Carry w. trap bar: 4 x 100 ft.

Band Work, Choose 2 From The List Below:

  • Double Leg Banded Leg Curls x 100 Reps
  • Banded Pull-through x 75-100 reps
  • Single Leg Banded Leg Curls x 100 reps each
  • Prone Banded Leg Curls x 100 Reps
  • Prone Ankle Weight leg Curls x 100-200 reps

DAY 2 – TUESDAY – Dynamic Effort Upper

Week 1-3: Speed Bench Press against bands: 9 x 3 @40-50%, every 45s.

  • Change grip every 3 sets ie. close, medium, wide grip
  • Keep your percentage at 40-50% for all three weeks to ensure maximal bar velocity.

Key Coaching Notes:

  • Each set should be explosive where you’re able to deliberately accelerate the bar through eccentric and concentric ROM (compensatory acceleration).

Special Exercises – Choose 3-4 From The List Below:

  • Chest Supported Rows: 3-4 x 8-10
  • Rollback DB Tricep Extensions: 3-4 x 10-15
  • JM Presses: 3-4 x 10-12
  • Barbell Row variation: 4 x 6-8.
  • Lat Pulldown variation: 3 x 12-15
  • Incline DB Bench: 2 x 60s max reps
  • 1-Arm DB Rows: 3-4 x 10-15 ea.
  • Seated Rope Facepulls: 3 x 15.
  • Seated Incline DB Curls: 3 x 10-12
  • DB Shrugs: 3-4 x 12-15

Abs – Choose 1 From The List Below:

  • Cable Side Bends: 4 x 10 ea.
  • Stir the Pot: 4 x 20s Max Reps each direction
  • Cable High to Low Woodchop: 3-4 x 10-15 ea.

Band Work – Choose 2 you did not perform Tuesday:

  • Banded Pull-aparts x 100 reps
  • Banded Pulldowns x 100 reps
  • Banded Pushdowns x 100 reps
  • Banded Facepull-aparts x 100 reps

*For your special exercise work you have the freedom to superset antagonistic supersets or use compound sets for lagging muscle groups, but keep this work fast resting only 30-60s between sets.


*For all weeks, heart-rate should not exceed 130 BPM.

Examples of this include:

  • 30-60 minute walk with a weighted vest or ankle weights.
  • 30 minute light sledpull powerwalk
  • Light loaded carry for up to 30 minutes

DAY 4 – THURSDAY – Dynamic Effort Lower

Sledpull Powerwalk: Perform 200 meters as a warm-up and 200 meters a finisher

Week 1:

  • Wide Stance Box Squat: 8 x 3 @50% + 25% chain weight (or 60% of 1RM).
    • Use your Back Squat 1RM. Perform a set every 60s.
  • Speed Pull Sumo Deadlift: 10 x 2 @50% + 30% band tension (or 70% straight weight).
    • Perform a set every 60s. Reset on each rep.

Week 2:

  • Wide Stance Box Squat: 8 x 3 @55% + 25% chain weight (or 65% of 1RM).
    • Use your Back Squat 1RM. Perform a set every 60s.
  • Speed Pull Sumo Deadlift: 10 x 2 @55% + 30% band tension (or 75% straight weight).
    • Perform a set every 60s. Reset on each rep.

Week 3:

  • Wide Stance Box Squat: 6 x 3 @60% + 25% chain weight (or 60% of 1RM).
    • Use your Back Squat 1RM. Perform a set every 60s.
  • Speed Pull Sumo Deadlift: 8 x 2 @60% + 30% band tension (or 80% straight weight).
    • Perform a set every 60s. Reset on each rep.

Key Coaching Notes:

*This session should be fast and not take longer than 25 minutes including your warm-up sets.
Warm-up your box squat and speed pulls before starting so you can proceed right from box squats to speed pulls.

Choose 1 Plyo-exercise and perform 25 total reps

  • Seated Dynamic Box Jumps
  • Standing Box Jumps w. ankle weights
  • Seated Box Jumps with a weight vest
  • Kneeling Jumps
  • Kneeling Jump + Vertical Jump with a weighted vest

Special Exercises – Choose 2-3 From The List Below:

  • Glute Bridge: 4 x 5-10
  • Glute Ham Raises: 4 x 5-10
  • Single-limb variation: 3-4 x 8-12 each.
  • Reverse Hypers: 2-3 x 25-30
  • 45 Degree Back Raises: 3 x 20-30.
  • DB RDLs: 4 x 8-10

Abs – Choose 1 From The List Below:

  • Barbell Rollouts: 4 x 10
  • Banded Pallof Press: 4 x 8-10 ea. side
  • Banded Alphabet: 3 sets each side
  • Decline Zercher Sit-ups: 4-5 x 10-15.

Band Work –  Choose 2 that you did not do on Monday:

  • Double Leg Banded Leg Curls x 100 Reps
  • Banded Pull-through x 75-100 reps
  • Single Leg Banded Leg Curls x 100 reps each
  • Prone Banded Leg Curls x 100 Reps
  • Prone Ankle Weight leg Curls x 100-200 reps

DAY 5 – FRIDAY – Max Effort Upper

Week 1: Floor Press 1-Rep Max
Week 2: Seated Shoulder Press 1-Rep Max
Week 3: Dead Press off pins, medium grip 1-Rep Max

Key Coaching Notes:

  • Build to a 1-Rep max in 6-8 sets. Your sets should look something like 3,3,2,1,1,1,1,1..
  • Have a plan in place to break a personal record by 5#s.
  • There should NOT be more than 3 singles over 90% of your 1RM.
  • Rest 2 minutes between sets

Special Exercises – Choose 3-4 From The List Below: 

  • Chest Supported Rows: 3-4 x 8-10
  • Rollback DB Tricep Extensions: 3-4 x 10-15
  • JM Presses: 3-4 x 10-12
  • Barbell Row variation: 4 x 6-8.
  • Lat Pulldown variation: 3 x 12-15
  • Incline DB Bench: 2 x 60s max reps
  • 1-Arm DB Rows: 3-4 x 10-15 ea.
  • Seated Rope Facepulls: 3 x 15.
  • DB Hammer Curls: 3 x 10-12
  • DB Lateral Raises: 3 x 12-15

Abs – Choose 1 From The List Below:

  • Cable Side Bends: 4 x 10 ea.
  • Stir the Pot: 4 x 20s Max Reps each direction
  • Cable High to Low Woodchop: 3-4 x 10-15 ea.

Band Work – Choose 2 From The List Below:

  • Banded Pull-aparts x 100 reps
  • Banded Pulldowns x 100 reps
  • Banded Pushdowns x 100 reps
  • Banded Facepull-aparts x 100 reps

Day 6 + Day 7 – Saturday & Sunday – OFF

*Spend time with your family and get outside the gym!

The key thing to remember is that we should constantly be challenging ourselves in a new way to avoid the biological law of accommodation. Overall, this template should give you plenty of options to play with, but make sure the key points that were discussed stay intact.

Bring Together The Functional Conjugate Training System

I feel the Conjugate Method is quite possibly the most well-rounded and effective concurrent system of training we have available to us. Many strength and conditioning coaches will tell you that you cannot train multiple qualities effectively at the same time, but I’m going to tell you that this is simply untrue.

The Conjugate Method allows us to consistently evaluate our weaknesses, improve strength-speed, explosive strength, and speed-strength, improve endurance qualities and our ability to recover, and most importantly our longevity in the gym.

We’ll also be able to stay engaged in our training process as the rotation of work provides new challenges on a weekly basis.

Being willing to train hard in the gym is important, but being open-minded and willing to train smarter may be even more important. I cannot even quantify how many times I’ve had athletes tell me they feel the best they’ve ever felt on this system, and I’m confident the same could be said for those that are willing to go outside their comfort zone and give the Conjugate Method a try.

About The Author

jason brown box programming

My name is Jason Brown and I have been fitness professional for nearly 15 years. I have owned my own facility, trained a wide-range of clients ranging from soccer moms, military personnel, law enforcement, CrossFitters, Powerlifters, and professional athletes. My area of specialization is providing a system of concurrent fitness geared toward the general population in a group setting. Currently, I own and write programming for over 200 facilities world-wide.