Training Continuum

Help! How do I Organize a Workout?

The ‘Conjugate Method‘ or ‘Conjugate System’ was popularized by Louie Simmons at the famous Westside Barbell, perhaps the most elite powerlifting gym in the world, way back in the 70’s.

There are roughly three components to his system:

  1. Maximal Effort Day
  2. Dynamic Effort Day
  3. Repeated Effort (Day…?)

Not interested in Powerlifting?Don’t worry, that’s not what this story is really about…

Ultimately, in his system you just cycle between Max Effort and Dynamic Effort, working ultimately on what’s called ‘Strength-Speed’ (Max Effort Day) and ‘Speed-Strength’ (Dynamic Effort Day) and add in repeated effort work immediately following your one or two main lifts for the training session.

This works wonders if your sole purpose is to get really really strong (we’re talking 1000 lbs squat strong…), but not so much if your goals are much more modest, like health, athletic performance or weight loss.

Why the quick history lesson?

Because the word ‘Conjugate’ has nothing to do with this particular powerlifting system by itself — though if you were a powerlifter, I would recommend it…

The Conjugate System or Method really refers to a system of training that is much more encompassing and relevant to you, the weight loss seeker.

Conjugate really means:

To be joined together, acting or operating as if joined.

Having features in common but opposite or inverse in some particular fashion.

Essentially all it means that you can have a pair of things joined together (as Simmons does), but it can also mean a string of things connected together that have some things in common yet may be opposite or inverse to each other in some fashion.

I see a lot of people at the gym, making programming errors that could be significantly limiting their results, so here is a free (and extremely useful) outline for you to follow.

Exhibit A (Image Above):

When you hear me refer to the conjugate method from now on, you’ll know that I don’t mean the system popularized by the legendary Louie Simmons, because it really only works with powerlifters in the way that he’s applied it to strength training.

My view of the Conjugate Method is a little more encompassing, though still a reflection of russian programming methodology, particularly inspired by the work of the brilliant Dr. Yuri Verkoshansky and the late, great, Dr. Mel Siff.

Anyways, above (NSD I’ve sometimes used synonymously with NMSD) is my chart of the conjugate method of training, what you see is basically an continuum outlying an order of exercise selection mostly for use within a session.

I’ll repeat that:

This is a model for optimal placement of work/exercise WITHIN a workout session.

It does not necessarily apply to training blocks, nor a weekly schedule, or anything else for that matter, though I suppose you could probably use it for something else, I do not necessarily recommend it.

How to Organize A Training Session

In the most  basic terms you are always trying to develop the most neurally demanding aspects — strength should always therefore come before conditioning in a workout.

Or put another way, the highest stress on the body (nervous system) always comes first.

So if you warm-up for 20 minutes on the treadmill, before hitting the weights, then I highly recommend you take this training recommendations into account for future workouts, because that approach is counter-productive.

This is by far the best method I’ve adopted for training within a giving training session, though there may be some occasional grey areas (if you have questions, please leave them in the comments below) from time to time, for the most part this method stands up to any desired outcome.

I use it with my athletes, I use it with my weight loss clients, and I use it with my weight gain clients — though that weight-gain program may look a little more like this…

I change the approach a little for each, but ultimately they almost entirely follow this sequence of the most technical stuff done first and the least technical stuff done last.

If you want to squeeze the most out of an hour do the following:

  1. Do a Dynamic Warm-Up (skip the treadmill, bike, or any other kind of cardiovascular warm-up, as this reduces your ability to produce force later in the workout, limiting results)
  2. Do any speed, explosive or ballistic movements next (jumps, quick sprints, other plyometrics, olympic lifting if applicable, explosive throws, etc…)
  3. Do any high intensity (low repetition) strength work next (deadlifts, squats, bench press, chin-ups, etc… typically 6 reps or less) 
  4. Do any medium intensity (6-12 repetition) strength work after that (can include/could be the lifts above in some cases, or here is where you put things in any accessory movements)
  5. Do any low intensity, high repetition, fatigue resistance after that (push-ups to failure, body weight rows, lightly loaded squats, KB swings, etc… for anything 12+ reps)
  6. Do any energy system work, ‘cardio’ or ‘conditioning’ after that (place emphasis on short duration intervals first, then medium distance (15-90 or 120 seconds) before getting to any long-slow aerobic work)
  7. Stretch (well waiting 3 hours is more ideal so the muscle tissues can return to a normal length, but if you know you’re not going to stretch before bed or 3 hours later, may as well stretch after your workout)

Now, you’re probably NOT going to do all of that in one session, but if you were, that’s how I would organize it.

You’ll get the most bang for buck using full range of motion compound exercises, bodyweight, cable/band work and free weights.

A Weight Loss Example

So lets say you wanted to focus on weight loss, how would a single session look?

  1. Dynamic Warm-Up
  2. Lift 6-12 repetition
  3. 5-20 Minutes of Interval (Energy System Work)
  4. Stretch

Maybe another is:

  1. Dynamic Warm-Up
  2. Plyometrics (typically less than 6 reps)
  3. High Repetition Work (bodyweight max reps)
  4. Stretch

Ideally I like to 2-3 of the 7 options you have, or so, within any given session — warm-up is ALWAYS included, while the post-workout stretching component is optional depending on the situation.

Then maybe I’ll combine them into 1-3 workouts for the week, assuming that you don’t have much time — the above example is 2 workouts, that could be done every other day for instance.

Typically though, I’ll break ESD free of NMSD and do it on alternate days, for a total workout load of 3-6 times a week, like this:

Monday: NMSD

Tuesday: ESD

Wednesday: NMSD

Thursday: OFF

Friday: ESD

Saturday: NMSD

Sunday: OFF

OFF days are programmed around people’s schedules.

Maybe one ESD is focused on recovery, so longer and slower work for 20 minutes, maybe another is glycolytic work, and I alternate between the two of them with the other workouts I mention above.

For more info on the other components of workouts check out these articles:

Help! When Should I Workout?

Help! How often Should I Workout?

Neuromuscular System Development

Energy System Development

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