The Best Way to Get Strong?
Will Westside training really make you stronger than you’ve ever been? Get the answers here.
Here it is, the article that might get me killed!
In this series, I compare the claims of legendary training systems to the scientific knowledge we have now. This time, I’m putting one of the most popular systems of all time to the test: the Westside Conjugate System.
It’s a favorite among humongous behemoths with a long history of strength, a short fuse, and a nasty, territorial attitude… so I had to ask for protection when I started working on this piece.
What You Probably Think It Is
When people think of the Westside Barbell Conjugate system, many things come to mind:
The Max Effort Method: Maxing out twice per week (once on a press exercise and once on a squat, deadlift, or good morning movement).
The Dynamic Effort Method: Doing a high number of sets (8-12) with low reps using “light” weights (relative to the 1RM) with the intent to be violently explosive.
Constant Variation: The assistance work and even the max effort lifts are always changing.
Accommodating Resistance: The addition of chains or bands on the bar that changes the resistance curve.
GPP: Doing lots of low-intensity work to increase fitness and work capacity.
In truth, the Westside system is hard to describe concisely because it has tons of moving parts. And besides the max effort and dynamic effort work, everything is subject to change. But we could describe the system as combining all the types of work that can increase strength in the same training structure.
What It Actually Is
Contrary to traditional periodization, the conjugate system trains all these things at the same time: maximal strength, strength-speed, speed-strength, hypertrophy, and resistance. Specifically, you have two main types of training days:
The Maximum Effort Days – You train a lift that’s similar to the competition lift up to a 1, 2, or 3RM, and then do assistance work for the key muscles involved in that lift (plus some upper back work).
The Dynamic Effort Days – You either do box squats or bench press (some still use the deadlift, too) for multiple sets of 2-3 reps with a “light” weight – the bar weight can be as low as 40%, but the total resistance at the top should be 70-80%. The intent is to be violently explosive. You then perform assistance work for the muscles involved in that lift (plus some upper back work).
There are four main workouts in the week:
- Dynamic Effort Squat
- Dynamic Effort Bench
- Max Effort Squat/Deadlift/Good Morning
- Max Effort Press
While the maximum and dynamic-effort elements are what Westside is best known for, in reality, 80% of the weekly volume is spent on assistance exercises aimed at building muscle (increasing their strength potential), and specifically on correcting weak links.
Most of that assistance work is invested in the posterior chain, upper back, and triceps. Think glute-ham raises, good mornings, reverse hypers, back extensions, inverted leg curls, etc. There’s less direct work for the pecs and quads.
Westside is also known for adding chains or bands to their main lifts. They do it almost all the time on the dynamic effort days and from time to time on the max effort days.
There’s more to it than that. But giving you a complete overview of all the subtleties of the Westside Conjugate System would require a 10-hour seminar. Coincidentally, that’s something Westside offers (the Conjugate U online course).
Louis Simmons developed the Westside Conjugate System after suffering serious injuries. He believed there had to be a better way of training for powerlifting than the methods that led to his injuries. He read the old translated Soviet texts and built his system based on how the Soviets trained.
Here are some of the biggest claims:
Westside is the strongest gym in the world.
The conjugate approach of constantly rotating exercises (both for max effort lifts and assistance work) is a superior way to get stronger and avoid injuries.
The combination of max effort, dynamic effort, and repetition effort methods is necessary to maximize strength.
Using means of accommodating resistance (chains and bands) is optimal for strength development.
The Westside conjugate approach is the optimal way to train for most athletes.
Were these claims correct? Let’s take a look.
Claim 1: The Westside Conjugate System is based on the training of Soviet weightlifters.
Verdict: I do not doubt that Simmons studied the translated Soviet texts (I did too) and developed some methods based on his understanding of what he read. But Westside is almost the polar opposite of how Soviet/Russian weightlifters train, then and now.
Explanation: In the world of strength training, saying that something is based on Soviet methodology gives it an instant aura of power and secrecy. That’s obviously because the Eastern block lifters dominated the world for years. They must have a secret, right?
In reality, their “secret” was:
Lots of competitive lifters. During the communist era, lifting weights for aesthetic purposes was illegal. It was seen as a vain pursuit that ran counter to the benefit of the state. The only form of weight training allowed was for sport, including weightlifting. Pretty much anybody wanting to lift to get stronger or bigger had to do weightlifting and compete. At some point, there were over 100,000 competitive weightlifters in Russia. With those numbers, you have a much better chance of finding phenomenal lifters.
The best genetics for strength and power were sent to weightlifting (and some to throwing events and wrestling). That was a benefit of the communist system: they could force anyone with potential or a genetic predisposition for a certain sport to train and compete in that sport, for the good of the Motherland. Compare that to the US, where those with the best strength and power genetics typically play football. Take the best genetics in football, make them train as weightlifters exclusively starting at age 12, give them a state salary, and they’ll be just as dominant, if not more, as Soviet lifters were.
Drugs. Yes, athletes from all countries use PEDs. But the Soviets were more organized and systematic about it.
I’m not saying their methods weren’t good. They were and still are. Just not to the degree for which they get credit. But more importantly, the Westside conjugate system isn’t remotely similar to how Russian weightlifters train(ed).
For one thing, Russian weightlifters rarely max out in training. Most of their work (even on strength lifts like squats) is done with weight in the 70-85% range. They also practice the competitive lifts year-round (whereas in the WCS you rotate exercises) and with a high frequency (up to 5 days a week).
Soviet/Russian weightlifters peaked for competitions. They reduced assistance work closer to a competition to increase the amount of work on the competition exercises as well as the load used. Westside keeps training pretty much the same way year-round.
And while it’s true that the Soviets did have a large bank of exercises to draw from, very few coaches used tons of variation. The most notable one was Anatoli Bondarchuk, who did use a rotation of exercise blocks. But he was training hammer throwers, not weightlifters. Weightlifters stuck mostly to the clean & jerk and their variations, snatch and its variations, squats, front squats, pulls, good mornings, back extensions, and some presses.
If you want to see a powerlifting program based on how Russian weightlifters trained, look at programs from guys like Boris Sheiko. He’s a Russian and coached at the highest level in Russia, first as a weightlifting coach and then as a powerlifting coach, transferring the same approach he used with weightlifters to powerlifting.
Sheiko’s programs and Westside Barbell plans couldn’t be further apart!
I don’t doubt that the Soviet texts gave Louie some ideas and influenced his philosophy, but the approaches aren’t anywhere close. The two things most “Sovietized” are the focus on GPP exercises and the use of explosive work.
Claim 2: Westside is the strongest gym in the world.
Verdict: I’ll give that one to Louie. Westside lifters have tons of world records, probably more than any other gym in the world. Naysayers will point out that, in powerlifting, you have tons of opportunities to have a record due to the number of competing federations with their own set of records. They’d also say that few, if any, of those records are in the IPF – the most highly recognized federation. The IPF also has the most severe judging, equipment limitations, and drug testing. Many of the records by Westside lifters were in minor federations.
Explanation: There was a time when Westside dominated the sport of “geared/equipped” powerlifting. They couldn’t be touched. But geared powerlifting is completely different than raw powerlifting (and strongman or weightlifting) because your results depend not only on your strength but your skill at using the equipment.
Raw lifting is a better test of strength, but geared powerlifting is actually harder as a sport. The skill to make the most out of your equipment is very hard to master and requires a lot of specific work. You have guys who can get 300 pounds out of a bench shirt, while others will get 80 pounds from the same shirt.
It’s accurate to say that, at one time, Westside was the most successful gym in geared powerlifting. But that’s not the same as being “the strongest gym in the world.”
Louie was able to do the same thing that Bob Hoffman did in the 40s and 50s with weightlifting and York Barbell: build a gym where there were more dominant lifters than any other gym. Strong lifters flocked to Westside to train with Louie and the crew.
Claim 3: The conjugate method is the best way to get stronger.
Verdict: While Westside has produced a ton of huge totals in the sport of geared powerlifting, contrary to what many people believe, most of the best powerlifters of all time didn’t use the conjugate system.
Similarly, pretty much no world-class Olympic lifters use the conjugate system, same with strongman competitors. The Westside system does create very strong lifters in the sport of geared powerlifting, but you have many more people getting super strong using a different approach.
Explanation: If you look at some of the legends of powerlifting, pretty much none of them used the Westside system. Guys like Ed Coan (the GOAT in powerlifting), Fred Hatfield (who squatted 1014-pounds with a low-tech squat suit at age 45), Kirk Kaworski, Ted Arcidi, Bill Kazmeir, Andrei Malanichev, Alexey Sivokon. Modern powerlifters like John Haack, Yuri Belkin, Chad Penson, Zahir Khudayarov (heaviest raw squat in history), Dan Green, etc. all train(ed) a different way than conjugate.
In fact, among the top 100 raw (or raw + wraps) powerlifters of all time, at least 90 do not train using the conjugate system. In geared powerlifting, you have more conjugate lifters but still less than 40% of the top 100 lifters.
The point? While Westside undoubtedly works at getting you strong, other approaches are just as effective. Furthermore, no world-class weightlifters or strongmen train with the Westside system, and few throwers (who are serious strength athletes) do either.
So I can’t agree that Westside is better than other approaches.
Claim 4: The conjugate system is better at reducing injury risk than other powerlifting programs.
Verdict: Highly doubtful. I don’t see how maxing out on a different lift every week in a highly competitive setting twice a week is safer than using an approach where you gradually increase the weight over time and where most of the year is spent handling manageable but challenging loads.
Explanation: There aren’t any objective numbers about the injury rate among powerlifters using various training systems. But we can pay attention to the programs powerlifters use and look for trends.
To be fair, when your sport requires you to attempt to lift maximal weights, there will be injuries. But when you look at a guy like Dave Tate (who has torn almost every muscle on his body) and listen to the stories, it’s very hard to believe that the Westside conjugate system led to a lower rate of injury than any other powerlifting approach.
But let’s be objective and compare two opposite approaches: The Westside Conjugate System and Boris Sheiko’s system. Both have produced lots of world-class lifters and are equivalent as far as competition results are concerned.
Westside has you max out twice a week, pretty much year-round, often working up until you fail to complete a lift.
Sheiko will test the competition lifts once every 12-14 weeks (and sometimes it’s not a real max, just working up to the pre-cycle 1RM to assess progress), while most of the work on the competition lifts is in the 70-85% range.
Which do you think is more likely to cause injury?
Westside is somewhat of a get-brutally-strong-right-now approach. Several Westside lifters say that once you start powerlifting, you have 3-5 years to hit your best, after which injuries will prevent further progress.
Sheiko is about long-term development – slow and steady progress.
Which one do you think is more likely to increase the likelihood of a serious injury?
Westside rotates the main lifts weekly and only does the competition lifts heavy nearing a competition (if at all).
Sheiko programs include the competition lifts with moderate weights, often and year-round.
Which one, in your opinion, is more likely to get you out of position and injured?
Westside is a load-first approach. When you do the variations of the competition lifts, it’s pretty much always using maximal weights, week in and week out. And you don’t stick to the same exercises long enough to truly master technique.
Sheiko is about technical mastery and volume more than load. The key is ingraining perfect lifting mechanics using loads in the 70-80% range for submaximal reps. Every rep is manageable, and the weight increase is very slow and only used when perfect mechanics can be maintained.
What do you think is more hazardous?
Westside lifters psych themselves up like crazy, some getting into a violent frenzy on max effort day. Their max-effort workouts use aggressiveness and a “take no prisoners” attitude to fuel their max effort workouts.
Sheiko preaches control and being intellectually involved when training to be able to make technical adjustments when lifting.
Which attitude is more likely to lead to injuries?
The one thing I’ll give Westside when it comes to injury prevention is the large amount of assistance work aimed at strengthening all the key muscles involved in the main lifts. It’s kinda like building armor through extensive hypertrophy work. Sheiko’s plan includes some assistance work, but nowhere near what Westside does.
But that’s not enough to compensate for the other factors. As such, it seems ridiculous to claim that Westside is “safer” than other systems.
Claim 5: Combining the max effort, dynamic effort, and repetitive effort methods is necessary to maximize strength.
Verdict: Most of the strongest lifters got there without using the dynamic effort method. And for those for whom it worked, I don’t think it worked for the reason they thought it did. So, I would say “false” on this claim.
Explanation: There’s no doubt that both the maximum effort and repetition effort methods are important for increasing your strength. Here’s the gist of what those are:
The repetition effort method will help your ability to build muscle mass. A muscle’s strength potential is relative to its cross-section – a bigger muscle has more strength potential than a smaller muscle.
The maximum effort method is effective at training you to use a greater percentage of your strength potential. The max effort method works mostly by improving the neurological and psychological aspects of strength performance. It doesn’t build that much strength because of the insignificant impact on muscle growth, but it’s necessary to become good at lifting big weights and using most of your potential.
But the value of the dynamic effort method for maximal strength development is a bit murkier. You even have some former Westside lifters who think that the dynamic effort method on the competition lifts is worthless.
Here are some quotes from Jim Wendler:
“Using the dynamic bench press in my training did nothing for my bar speed and really pushed my bench press poundages back. It wasn’t until I slowed down the eccentric portion, took the bands off, and eventually took the whole movement out of my training that I saw results.” (From the T Nation article, 6 Mistakes I Made So You Don’t Have To).
And these are thoughts he’s shared in the T Nation Community:
“I recommend jumps and throws before you lift. This is “true” speed work, not lifting a light barbell like a spastic, retarded antelope in heat.”
“Not sure why you need dynamic effort to get strong? If you need speed, bar speed on heavier work AND jumps/throws as well as attention to ab/low back work is FAR SUPERIOR…”
This is coming from an elite lifter who not only trained at Westside but also taught the Westside method in seminars.
For sure, explosive work is an effective stimulus for power development. However, it’s debatable whether this transfers to gains in maximal strength. The argument is that dynamic effort work improves neurological factors (fiber recruitment, fiber firing rate, and intra/intermuscular coordination), which can be later used during strength work to create a stronger contraction. This is solid in theory and something I once believed. But the muscle firing pattern is different between high-speed and low-speed maximal force actions.
First, during fast actions, the muscle contraction pattern is triphasic (three phases):
First, the agonists/prime movers fire with a large burst of activation/force production, providing an initial impulse. During that phase, the co-contraction of the antagonists is minimal. Both allow for the creation of maximum acceleration and momentum.
Secondly, there’s a relative relaxation of the agonists/primer movers along with increased activation of the antagonists. This is meant to stabilize the movement.
Thirdly, there’s a second burst of antagonist activation and agonist relaxation, allowing you to reach maximum velocity.
All of that happens in milliseconds. You’re not aware of it, but it looks like this:
During slow actions, the muscle activation pattern is mono-phasic (one phase). It’s a much simpler constant activation of the agonists/prime movers, along with a background co-contraction of the antagonist.
The more advanced you are (and the stronger you are), the smaller that antagonist’s co-contraction. In fact, this is one of the neurological mechanisms of strength gains: the antagonists have a reduced co-contraction, allowing the agonists/prime movers to produce force against less resistance (contraction of the antagonists, which are “opposing” muscles, add to the resistance of the movement).
It looks like this:
This basically means you can become very good at producing force during fast contractions without improving your capacity to produce a lot of force during slower actions and vice-versa. So there isn’t a lot of transfer between improving performance in light fast-lifting movements to heavy lifting.
A second problem, at least for raw lifters, comes with the use of bands or chains during the dynamic effort work. But we’ll cover that in another claim.
Does that mean dynamic effort work is worthless? Not entirely, at least not for everyone. Some do benefit from dynamic effort work, but not for the reason they suspect.
It’s not the focus on power that’s beneficial; it’s the added frequency of practicing a lift that potentially improves lifting performance. The key element of motor learning and technical mastery is the frequency of practice. Quantity of practice is also important but less than frequency.
The dynamic effort method adds one weekly practice for the bench press and squat without being stressful on the muscles (not impacting recovery much). And for the Westside guys who rarely use the competition bench or squat in their rotation of max effort lifts, this is even more crucial since it’s the only time they get some technical practice on the competition lifts.
But there’s nothing special about using dynamic effort here. It would be just as effective if you simply used moderate loads, focusing on technique.
For example, when you look at Russian programs like the 1974 or 1976 squat peaking programs or Fred Hatfield’s 80-day powerlifting peaking cycle, there are “easy” days where you use sets of 2 reps with 80% (which is very manageable since most people can get 6-8 reps with 80%).
Note that on those days, Hatfield recommends doing the concentric portion of the lifts as fast as possible. This is called “compensatory acceleration training” or CAT. It’s essentially dynamic effort work but with a load that’s heavy enough to keep the same recruitment pattern as you would during heavier lifts.
So if your goal is maximal strength development, lifting light weights really fast isn’t necessary. But it can be beneficial simply by being additional practice on your lifts. But you’d get similar or even better results by doing technique sessions with heavier loads (70-80%).
Claim 6: Accommodating resistance (chains and bands) is one of the best methods to improve lifting performance.
Verdict: Accommodating resistance is very effective at improving performance in geared powerlifting, and it might have some limited applications in athletic training. But it isn’t a very effective method to improve lifting performance without supportive gear. (See my whole article on chains and bands HERE.)
Explanation: The brilliance of the accommodating resistance method is that it changes the resistance curve/profile of the lifts on which it’s used. And it changes it to match the resistance curve of geared powerlifting.
In the bench or squat, without supporting gear, you’re stronger in the top half of the lift (you’ll always squat more in a partial squat than a full squat). In geared powerlifting, the bench shirt, squat suit, and knee wraps change that. These provide dramatic help in the bottom half of the movement, making the top half the hardest part of the lift – the opposite resistance profile as raw lifting.
The chains or bands add resistance in the second half of the movement, making these lifts easier at the bottom and harder at the top. In fact, at the bottom, chains or bands provide little, if any, added resistance.
Lifts with chains or bands mimic the resistance profile of geared lifting and do the opposite for raw lifting. So it’s a great tool to improve geared powerlifting performance without having to always wear a bench shirt/squat suit in training.
But it doesn’t transfer well to raw lifting performance because:
It does not strengthen the weak range in the lift, which will be your limiting factor.
If you overdo it, it can change your motor pattern. Your nervous system “learns” to produce less force at the beginning of the movement, potentially making you weaker.
The only real potential benefit of using chains or bands for a raw lifter is psychological: it allows you to practice handling weights that feel a lot heavier when you unrack the bar. But that’s not something that needs to be done frequently, only when you’re preparing yourself to lift maximal weights in the near future.
Some will argue that chains and bands are effective if your sticking point is at the top of the lift. That sounds good in theory. But when your sticking point is at the top half of the lift, it’s often because you simply couldn’t produce enough bar speed in the bottom/weak half, and you ran out of steam before the completion of the lift.
By the way, that doesn’t make the dynamic effort effective: gaining barbell speed against light weights won’t transfer to adding barbell speed against heavy weights. To improve that, you need to work on creating more bar speed against fairly heavy weights (80% or so). That’s also the opinion of Jim Wendler.
With athletes, there’s a potential benefit to using chains and bands, but it’s not what you think. Typically, athletes use light weights on the bar and add chains. They do this to work on explosiveness and use the bands or chains to decelerate the weight at the top to make accelerative lifting “safer” (less ballistic shock at the top) and more effective (by allowing you to keep trying to accelerate for longer).
In reality, this has limited value in improving speed, agility, and even jumping. Despite “lifting fast,” the speed of movement and speed of contraction is nowhere near fast enough to transfer to truly explosive actions like sprinting, jumping, or changing direction. If you want to improve that, jumps, plyometrics, and throws are much better tools.
To me, the potential benefit of chains and bands for athletes lies elsewhere: something called the accentuation method.
Accentuation training refers to overloading the range of motion used in sporting movements. For example, when you’re sprinting or jumping, you typically don’t go lower than a 90-100 degree knee angle. Therefore, an “accentuated method squat” would create the greatest overload in that specific range.
This can be done by using partial movements like 90-degree squats, top-half squats from pins, top-half split squats, rack pulls from the knees, or power clean/snatches from the hang or blocks just above the knees. But you can also decide to add chains or bands to the bar and keep performing full squats. You’d use a moderate (or even light) barbell weight and lots of chains/bands resistance, making the top half of the lift an overload (very heavy). But that’s an advanced method only athletes with a lot of experience under the bar should consider.
A lot more strong people got that way without using chains or bands than those who used them extensively. So, no, chains and bands aren’t necessary for getting strong. And depending on your situation, the addition might even be a poor method.
Claim 7: The Westside Conjugate System is optimal for athletes.
Verdict: There are some elements of the Westside Conjugate System that are effective for athletes. But the system applied, as is, isn’t optimal. It can be adapted, but few coaches have a good enough understanding of training to do that.
Explanation: Let’s go over the good stuff first. Here are the things I like about the Westside Conjugate System for athletes:
The extensive use of the reverse hyper and glute ham raise. While not exclusive to Westside, they did originate the reverse hyper and used the GHR more than anyone else.
The emphasis on GPP. Any athlete can benefit from being in shape. And sled work, farmer’s walk, etc., which were popularized by Westside, are great tools.
The use of heavy and explosive work. Westside athletes do a lot of jumps, not just dynamic effort lifting, to get more powerful. If there’s one thing that athletes will always benefit from, it’s jumping. And typically, athletes (except for football players and throwers) tend to be afraid of heavy weights. Just getting them to lift heavy and improve the strength of the central drive to the muscles is beneficial.
The use of very high reps (repetition method) to prevent injuries. This is something also promoted by sport-scientist Thomas Kurz: doing sets of 50+ reps to improve tendon resiliency. Westside does a lot of that, often with bands which are easier to recover from. I can attest that it works if you do it diligently. I’ve trained athletes who kept pulling hamstrings until we added in high-rep banded leg curls almost daily.
Now, most of these things don’t seem extraordinary because lots of athletes are already doing that. But the reason they’re doing it is because of Westside’s influence.
Now for things that I don’t like about the Westside system for athletes:
- The max effort method. While I believe in including heavy work for athletes, I feel it’s unnecessary and potentially dangerous to work up to a maximum on 1, 2, or even 3 reps. If fact, with athletes, I don’t see a reason to go below 5 reps per set.
This is heavy enough to get the neurological benefits of heavy lifting, it’s safer, and will also help build muscle. If I’m going to include sets of 2-3 reps in the training of an athlete, it will not be maximal work. We’ll keep 1-2 reps in the tank. And an athlete is not a powerlifter.
- The excessive exercise variation. There’s a time for exercise variation in an athlete’s program, mostly in the early off-season period, where you want to increase muscle mass and develop your motor-skill toolbox. But the closer you get to the season, the less variation you should include. This is for three reasons:
Reason 1: To reduce the risk of injuries. The more you master a lift, the less likely you are to injure yourself on that lift. If you constantly change lifts, your technical mastery never improves and the risk is higher.
Reason 2: To minimize neurological fatigue. Every time you change to a new lift, you increase neurological activity to perform that new lift. The more you practice a lift, the less neural drive is necessary to produce the same amount of force. This means that by sticking to the same lifts for longer, they become a lot easier to recover from (that’s why Olympic lifters can snatch, clean & jerk, and squat daily). By constantly changing lifts, you always require more neural drive and recovery time. This isn’t a big issue for powerlifters, but it can be problematic for athletes who have other things to do than lift (sprint, conditioning, agility, sport practices, etc.)
Reason 3: To decrease soreness. You’re more likely to get sore from doing a new exercise. Getting sore isn’t going to be a big issue if you’re a powerlifter. But as an athlete, soreness can really hurt your sport practice sessions.
- The dynamic effort lifting: It’s not that it’s ineffective for developing power, but other methods are superior. Jumps, plyometrics, throws, sprints, loaded sprints, and loaded jumps are all better options.
Why not use dynamic effort on top of that stuff? Because the body has a limited capacity to recover, and doing too much is the worst mistake you can make as an athlete.
You want to avoid chronic fatigue and under-recovery at all costs. So you should perform as little work as possible, which means sticking to the best options for each training goal. And for the goal of improving power, jumps, plyos, throws, loaded sprints, and jumps are all better than dynamic effort lifting. That said, you can (and should) attempt to create as much acceleration as possible when lifting, regardless of the load. So, in a sense, the warm-up sets to your big lifts become your “dynamic effort” lifting.
My Final Verdict
The Westside Conjugate System is one of the best (if not the best) approaches for geared powerlifting performance… although I’d personally change the dynamic effort day to a technique or barbell speed using fairly heavy loads day. But, as is, it’s not the best approach for getting strong without supportive gear like a bench shirt, squat suit, and knee wraps.
If you don’t hear from me in the next week, I might be dead. Hope to see you again!