The Best System Of Training For The Everyday AthleteAug 01, 2022
After almost 2 decades in the fitness industry, I haven’t come across many programs that blend both strength and conditioning modalities well. In fact, the term ‘strength and conditioning' are, in my humble opinion, misleading in the sense that most coaches and/or facilities tend to leave a lot on the table when it comes to conditioning. Some may even argue that the word ‘conditioning’ simply applies to sport-specific activities with regards to energy demands on the field of play and while I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that I think there is more to the puzzle and this definition is one-dimensional at best.
If we were to continue to subscribe to this way of thinking then we would continue to perpetuate the cycle of avoiding modalities that are dissimilar to on-the-field requirements such as slow steady-state conditioning. And the notion of avoiding the slow steady-state training because it makes you slow is outdated and has been since turned on its head, at least for many coaches I know. Yet we often see training programs on the market that do a decent job of getting people stronger and gaining lean tissue, but completely drop the ball when it comes to the implementation of various conditioning methods.
Let me explain.
For the better part of my early career, I spent an inordinate amount of time looking at other coaches' programs and I firmly believe this is an incredible way to learn how to become a master in program design. From reading articles written by the greats on Elitefts to hiring other coaches I know and respect to personally handle my programming, to haphazardly buying a kettlebell program just to learn about modalities I’m not an expert in. While most of these experiences were positive, they did help me fine-tune my eye when it came to viewing other coaches' programs.
My experience with CrossFit really helped drive the point home on energy systems development as it was made clear that many of the programs I’d followed either completely neglected conditioning or threw in some ‘finishers’ to provide the illusion of ‘conditioning’ the end user. Not only is this form of programming devoid of meaning, but in terms of adaptations, it’s lackluster at best and leaves the programming up to the interpretation of the user.
Truth be told, it’s a skill to be great at programming conditioning work, much like it is with strength work- and the fact of the matter is that coaches simply don’t dedicate time to improving their conditioning program design skills the same way they do their strength programming skills. If this is the case for you, you’ve come to the right place. I don’t believe in using the excuse “I’m a strength guy” anymore. Having a firm grasp on energy systems development is key to becoming an elite coach.
After more than a decade of going down the energy systems rabbit hole, it amazed me to find out that the answer or solution to what I was looking for was right under my nose the entire time: The Conjugate Method.
Of course, when most think of Conjugate they think of max-effort or dynamic effort training. But a little-known fact of the method is that conditioning work is just as much a focus of the system. This was the missing piece of the puzzle even when I was a young athlete, though the coaches I was training under were fully immersed in the conjugate way. So while the answer was right under my nose it was not obvious. It would be a few years until I figured out how to really achieve the best of both worlds with regard to the balance of strength & conditioning modalities.
Refining The System
Over the last 10 years, I’ve constantly looked to refine the way I program. Starting off I was much closer to classic Conjugate, borrowing many key principles from Westside Barbell and Louie Simmons and using all the bells and whistles of that system. I mean you can’t argue with the results that WSBB has produced in the last 30 years. And to its credit, “classic” Conjugate Method training is truly a perfect system for a very particular goal: to build the squat, bench, and deadlift.
But my clients? Well most of them are very similar to myself: over 35, busy professionals, love to train, hate to feel like shit. I like to call these people Everyday Athletes - they still want to scratch the competitive itch, make gains with their lifts, and look like they train when they take their shirts off at the pool. As it became more apparent over the years that these types of everyday athletes were the ones seeking my help, it also became obvious that a more flexible way of training would be much more beneficial to them. Their goals tend to revolve around how they look & feel while still being to feel athletic and hit a few PR’s here and there. Sounds modest right? It certainly is, and getting strong AF without prioritizing maximal effort training is realistic. Let me show you how.
Conjugate Training vs. Concurrent Training
Let me preface this by saying that while ‘concurrent’ and ‘conjugate’ are closely related if you were to look at wide-range of studies (such as this), you’d notice that most of the information out there would say that strength training and conditioning work interfere with each other. This is very different from what I’m proposing. To be clear, what I’m proposing is:
- Maximal Strength Development Methods that train both the force & velocity portion of the force-velocity curve.
- High-Intensity Aerobic Methods using mixed modality methods with roughly 1:1 - 1:3 work/rest ratios.
- Low-Intensity Aerobic Methods that trains contractility of the heart and seeks to improve things like your resting heart rate (which in turn has a number of positive benefits.)
- Hypertrophy work was performed with both bilateral and unilateral movements in the 8-15 rep range.
- A week of training is organized with more hours of recovery between higher-threshold training days.
- Training is organized in three-week blocks - the same variations are run for three weeks with adjustments in volume & intensity each subsequent week (I’ve given you a three-week guide for cluster training & dynamic effort work)
- The dose of conditioning needs to be monitored, optimal being between 2-3x per week x 30-50 minutes to avoid interference, as well as the level of intensity - too close to one’s VO2 max will indeed result in an interference effect - optimal being under 80% of one’s V02 Max.
Why is this different from a classic Conjugate split?
Well for starters, the max effort will NOT be utilized weekly (more on that in a minute). Second, the conditioning work has one overarching goal: to improve aerobic function which we know will carry over to gains in strength & body composition by having a large impact on our ability to recover between sets and sessions (this is KEY). Third, plyometrics are used daily during phase 6 of our 6-Phase Dynamic Warm-up. And finally, this programming is organized with three main strength sessions vs. the traditional four in a classic Conjugate split.
The reason for this is I’ve found it to be more reasonable to ask people to adhere to 3 strength sessions per week vs. four (however at certain times of the year I do still cycle in the four-strength-session x 2 conditioning sessions split). I’ve also found stress management to be more of a factor for the guys I work with. I’ve noted that the balance of having both strength and conditioning modalities is a great strategy to minimize stress.
There are a lot of different directions we can go with regards to the choice of methods, but to keep things concise I’ve narrowed it down to what I feel is the best beneficial and logical methods to utilize if your goals are like mine and my clients’ - be strong, look great naked, all while feeling as good as they look. If of course your goals do in fact revolve around the big three, then you could certainly plug in different methods into this format.
This is a method I’ve since revisited and one I’ve found to be successful for a few reasons. First, it’s easy to understand with regards to using waves to ‘prime’ subsequent heavier sets. Second, because you’re priming later sets there are benefits from both neural drive & psychological perspectives.
While I’ve used other methods like cluster sets, I find the biggest limiting factor to be in the confusion that takes place, and delivering my programming 100% online I prefer to remove any confusion (I do still program cluster work though in case you’re wondering.)
An example of wave loading could look like this:
Front Box Squat Wave
6-4-2-6-4-2. Rest 2-3:00
5-3-1-5-3-1. Rest 2-3:00
3-2-1-3-2-1. Rest 2-3:00
An example of sets:
6 at 225
4 at 275
2 at 315
6 at 275
4 at 315
2 at 365
With that said, when using wave loading I tend to bias using the same pattern for THREE WEEKS at a time using a progression similar to what’s mentioned above. The RPE for the FINAL set would increase each subsequent week going from 8, 8.5, 9.
The Repeated Effort Method
The repeated effort method is a premier method of improving muscular imbalance and muscular hypertrophy and providing rehabilitative or prehabilitative work to ensure you’re constantly improving symmetry. This work is typically done through single-joint exercises and isolation work to target musculature limitations but is not limited to solely single-joint exercises. It’s important to prioritize unilateral assistance exercises because you can dedicate time to improving limitations, and classic lifts such as the squat, press, and deadlift will improve by establishing symmetry and strength in lagging muscle groups. Because unilateral exercises are less demanding on the nervous system, you are able to add volume and frequency with the overall objective of improving deficiencies.
Explosive Strength Method
While jumping is an integral part of improving explosive strength for athletics, even for people that simply want to look and feel better and hit new personal records from time to time there is a value if you’re considering the physiology and type 2 fibers. The question comes down to using proper volume prescriptions and plyometric variations for those that don’t have any interest in actual competition in athletes or powerlifting. In terms of programming for general fitness, performing 20-25 jumps twice a week is more than sufficient to prime the sympathetic nervous system prior to a training session or as a stand-alone movement for explosive strength work.
The benefits span beyond improving power and rate of force development as we know that Type 2 fibers deteriorate as folks age - this can be a powerful catalyst for maintaining those type 2 fibers and for a small investment of time the return on investment is significant (Potach, 2016).
Dynamic Effort Method
The common misconception of lifting heavy in every workout is usually one novice coaches make thinking that the effectiveness of their programming is judged by how hard it is but the human body isn’t a gumball machine and doesn’t spit out candy every time you put a quarter in (hard training.) See, there is a point of diminishing returns and if you’re not allowing for proper recovery in between higher threshold sessions (maximal lifting) - these are the sessions that are more demanding on the central nervous system, you’ll eventually overtrain and start going backward with your progress.
Or get injured. The reality is that hard training sessions need to be interspersed with ‘easier’ training sessions. Another component of this is utilizing strength methods that differ with regard to bar velocity.
When different methods have been utilized the potential of altering the force-velocity curve is realistic. The force-velocity curve examines the interactions between force and velocity and suggests there is an inverse relationship where external resistance increases the movement velocity decreases (cluster work) and where external resistance decreases (explosive strength work) movement velocity increases respectively (Bomba 2009.)
What does this mean to the average person that wants to get stronger? It means that there is low-hanging fruit with using methods such as the dynamic effort method that aims to improve the rate of force development (RFD). This method of using non-maximal loads with the highest attainable velocity. The primary objective is to improve RFD and increase the corridor of recruited and trained motor units (Zatsiorsky & Kraemer, 2006.) And even for this less concerned with gaining strength, I’ve found the change of pace is often well-received, and changing the emphasis on movement speed vs. movement loading is just the change of pace most people need.
Dynamic Effort Training Guidelines:
- Utilizes high-threshold motor units and facilitates RFD.
- High-intensity method that’s demanding on the nervous system
- There should be zero ‘grinding’ or reps - each rep should be explosive/smooth with zero hesitation
- Works the velocity portion of the force-velocity curve
In short, speed work can facilitate bridging the gap between utilizing the velocity component of the force-velocity curve while creating balance within your programming to ensure things boredom and overtraining are prevented.
Maximal Effort Method
The major difference between how I program now vs. then is the usage of the ME Method. Being fully aware of the benefits with regards to maximal strength development as well as how safe it can be when someone has great movement patterns and keeps the volume where it should be (3-4 singles over 90%), I still only program the ME method every 12-16 weeks testing key indicator exercises like the Anderson Squat, Floor Press, High Handle Trap Bar Deadlift to name a few.
Depending on the individual this method could certainly be used weekly assuming you rotate the variations you’re utilizing each week. While I don’t use the ME method as much now as I used it I still have tremendous respect for it and would argue it’s an irreplaceable method for the right person. Keeping ME variations in the rotation though is a great way to ensure your programming is going in the right direction as well as keep things interesting.
The use of accommodating-based resistance (AR) is a mainstay in my programming, but probably not for the reason you think it is. I don’t have to educate you about the volume or science of it (you can read about that here), but an understated reason for using AR is for its longevity abilities and keeping wear & tear on the body low. Not to take away from the benefits of using straight way through a full ROM, but the majority of the guys I work with have a few bumps & bruises, and using AR allows us to still train but with less overall load through a full ROM. With that said though, I do tend to bias using bands for speed work as the energy storage capabilities are clearly higher and chains for maximal barbell work.
Why do you need to improve your aerobic abilities? A couple of major reasons: without an efficient aerobic system, your ability to recover between sessions and between working sets will not be what it could be. And, improving your aerobic system can literally extend how long you live (with numerous studies to back it up like this one here). Interestingly enough you’ll probably never see someone market a training program with the words “extend your life!” or “get a healthier heart!” but honestly, is there any goal more important than long, high-quality life?
In my experience adding aerobic conditioning to my own training was the single most beneficial method and it took my conditioning to a level I didn’t know existed.
The hardest part for most is that it’s too easy (yes, it’s easy to do), and it can be somewhat boring, but how we customize these sessions while still keeping the intent intact is key.
First off, let’s discuss what cardiac output is. Cardiac output is the amount of blood the heart pumps through the circulatory system in one minute. In layman’s terms, it’s a product of heart rate and stroke volume, so this training style influences the heart’s ability to pump blood to the extremities. More importantly, it can increase the cavity volume known as ‘eccentric hypertrophy,’ particularly in the heart's left ventricle. You can read all about the ‘Lost Art Of Conditioning” and additional aerobic methods here.
Let’s put it all together. Below I’ve provided you with a training template, training methods, as well as sample programming. The great part about having a training template is that you could easily plug & play and customize this for yourself or your clients. For instance, let's say this training schedule does not work for you, you can easily reorganize it to fit your own while still keeping the necessary recovery between high-threshold training days, ie. your main strength days.
Second, you may have a client that is not ready to perform any of the prescribed methods. No problem! For example, let’s say you have a client that is still learning how to move with their foundational movement patterns. You could easily adjust the programming to match their needs. The same can be done with conditioning work - if an individual is not ready for mixed modality training another cardiac output method session could be added, ect.
Monday: Heavy Lower
Wednesday: Heavy Upper
Friday: Speed Lower
Saturday: Speed Upper
Sunday: Active Recovery
Sample Week Of Programming
Day 1: Heavy Lower
2. Front Squat Wave
3. Glute Ham Raises
4. Single Leg
Day 2: Conditioning
Minute 1: 30s Loaded Carry
Minute 2: 15s Heavy Sledpush
Minute 3: 30s KB Cleans
Minute 4: 15s Heavy Sledpush
Day 3: Heavy Upper
1. Landmine Rotation to Press
2. Floor Press Wave
3a. Upper Pull
4. Bamboo Bar Work
Day 4: Conditioning
40, 30, 20, 10:
Day 5: Speed Lower
1. Seated Jumps
2. Hybrid Stance Speed Pulls
3. Glute Hip Thrusts
4. Single Leg
5. Anti-lateral Flexion
Day 6: Speed Upper
1. Plyo Push-ups
2. Close Grip Bench Wave
4. Overhead Carry
Day 7: Conditioning
20-30 minutes of Zone 2 cyclical work
A Middle Ground
Whenever people hear the word ‘conjugate’ it immediately conjures up images of huge, sweaty powerlifters. Conversely, when people hear the word ‘concurrent’ they think of endurance athletes doing a few squats here and there. But there is a middle ground here. Strength and endurance training can coexist and not interfere with each other. Now, I’m not telling you to go run a half-marathon on your conditioning days– quite the opposite actually. What I’m talking about is strategically-used methods with the correct exercises, for the correct durations, to ensure you improve recoverability while still getting jacked and strong AF. The best part is that this style of training produces real-world results every single time because it’s dynamic and allows for variable change.
Variable changes such as your kids' daycare being shut down without any notice, or if you had a terrible night of sleep last night and aren’t feeling like doing doubles at 90% of your 1RM is feasible. At the end of the day, the style of training must align with the lifestyle, and far too often I see coaches trying to force-feed a style of training down their clients' throats that is misaligned. Not only will that not produce the long-term results your clients are looking for but it will leave you client-less. Remember that results are king and if you can produce that long-term, you’re already way ahead of the game.