The Conjugate Method

When lifters repeatedly use the same simple method of training to raise their strength level, they will eventually stall. Like the scholar who must utilize many sources of information to achieve a higher level of knowledge, the lifter must incorporate new and more difficult exercises to raise their standards. Many have the theory that to squat, bench, or deadlift more, you simply have to do the three lifts. If it were that simple no one would need special exercises, machines, or systems of training.

But we know this is not true.

Because lifters have different body types, they may excel at one lift but struggle with another. The great Lamar Gant was the only lifter I have known who held the world record deadlift and bench at the same time. There are men who hold three world records in the deadlift, yet can’t make the top 10 bench list. Their muscles in the upper body are, I’m sure, as strong as anyone’s, but they are limited by body structure, e.g., short torso, long arms. Many of us are affected by this. But is there an answer?

In the early 1970s, the Dynamo Club in the former Soviet Union had 70 highly skilled Olympic lifters. They were introduced to a system of 20-45 special exercises that were grouped into 2-4 exercises per work-out and were rotated as often as necessary to make continuous progress They soon found out that as the squat, good morning, back raise, glute/ham raise, or special pulls got stronger, so did their Olympic lifts. When asked about the system, only one lifter was satisfied with the number of special lifts; the rest wanted more to choose from. And so the conjugate system was originated.

When you have a body type that lacks say, the muscles that squat and yet you squat on a regular basis, then a coupling of special exercises for the glutes, hamstrings, hips, and lower back are needed to fortify those areas. These special exercises will enable you to raise your squat once more.

Think about it: if you read only one book, no matter how many times you read it, you will only learn so much. If you only squat, you will get only so strong because no new stimulus is introduced. This may not happen in the early stages of training, but as you become more advanced, you will need a more strenuous method of training. This training will indeed help your motor potential and help you to perfect your technical skill. Before I present some examples of conjugate training, think about this. How much could you bench press the first time you tried? 200? 300 perhaps? Now how did you achieve that level of strength without ever having benched before? You did it through simplified training such as pushups and pull-ups. Those of you who could bench 300 the first time will never double that amount without doing specialized work to raise your strength, right?

Here are some examples of the conjugate method. Glen Chabot bench presses only twice a month. Both times he uses a close-grip style. He can do 405 for reps in the low teens. His best single close grip is 635 without a shirt. In between each workout, he rotates heavy dumbbell work on a flat or incline bench or very heavy bodybuilding exercises for lats, delts, pecs, and triceps.

This linking of special exercises has given Glen a 705 bench press at 275. Glen does not arch when he benches and has fairly long arms. He realized that he needed a special program to fortify his pressing muscles. This is a simple but very effective training program.

A more complex system is Kenny Patterson’s. He will do floor press, chain press, board press, incline press, and overhead press, just to name a few, rotating to a different exercise each max effort day. On the dynamic day, Kenny uses three different grips on the bench press and uses 60% of his no-shirt max for 8 sets of 3 reps. He adds a lot of triceps extensions with dumbbells or the barbell, rows (one-arm, two-arm, chest-supported), pull downs, delt raises, and forearm work. This is a more complex system than Glen’s, but it suits Kenny’s needs. Kenny is a legitimate 700 bencher, having done it several times across the country.

Mike Ruggiera and myself just made 900 squats. It was a 50-pound increase for him and a 40-pound increase for me, yet we did not do a single regular squat in between meets. We do box squats on speed days with a large amount of bands and weight. We also use the Reverse hyper machine and do glute/ham raises, pull-throughs, and abs. I pull a weighted sled before my squat workouts.

On max effort day, we do good mornings (five varieties), belt squats, speed deadlifts (60% for 6-8 singles), and Safety Power Squat Bar squats to different box heights. Mike also pulled his first 800 deadlift, without having done any conventional squats and no big deadlifts. After squatting he does deadlifts for singles with 60% for speed, and three days later he maxes out on special work: this is the conjugate method.

To push up a squat, heavy good mornings or squatting with different bars is done on max effort day. The different bars make squatting very awkward and extremely hard to do, much harder than a regular squat. (The same is true of box squats; they are harder than competition squats.) On max effort day we may do a type of squat on week 1, a good morning on week 2, and a front squat on week 3, each exercise contributing to the next week’s exercise, which in turn will build a bigger squat by strengthening the weaker muscle group and perfecting form.