One of my favourite training articles is Joe DeFranco's Westside for Skinny Bastards. In the article Joe outlines a weekly training program based on the famous and very successful Westside Barbell Clubs version of conjugate training. In fact the article was so popular that it spawned several re-writes and updates.
Inspired by Coach DeFranco's Westside for Skinny Bastards I thought it was time to explore what Westside style conjugate training is and how it can be applied to improving your vertical jump.
Why do I say 'Westside Style' conjugate training? Basically there are a number of different ways to approach and organize conjugate training. I am basing this article on the template used and made popular by Westside Barbell.
For those unfamiliar with the Westside template of conjugate training it is essentially the combination of a speed based workout and maximum strength based workout within the same training week. This combination of fast and heavy lifting varies from a more traditional periodization approach where strength work is usually performed in distinct and separate blocks from speed work, and vice versa.
The strength day is based around what is known as Max Effort (ME) training and the speed day involves a method called Dynamic Effort (DE). ME training sees the you working your way up to attempt a new 1-3RM max on a chosen exercise (hence the name MAX effort). The idea is that if you keep challenging your limits you get stronger quicker than using sub-maximal weights.
As an example if you were using the barbell squat for your lower body exercise on ME day and your previous record for 2 reps was 300 pounds you might work up to an attempt at 305 pounds for 2 reps. You may not always make the 2 reps to set a new PR but the important thing is to keep challenging your body at those levels.
The DE day focus is more about speed and rate of force development. So again using the barbell squat as an example if your 1RM was 300 pounds you might choose a weight that is about 50% of that and you would perform 8-12 sets of 2 reps. Due to the relatively light load those reps would be performed fast and explosively with rest periods of around 30-60 seconds between sets.
Those are the high level basics but there are some other guidelines to follow when using Westside style conjugate training. One of these is the regular rotation of ME exercises (at least every 1-3 weeks).
The idea behind the regular rotation of ME exercises is that by frequently changing the ME exercise you reduce the likelihood of burning out. Constant exposure to very heavy lifting of a particular exercise tends to lead to a lot of fatigue both of the body, and the mind, and after a while progress stalls. By constantly rotating exercises you are able to keep things fresh resulting in higher intensities and faster gains.
Another principle Westside uses is that after working on the main exercise of the day, a number of assistance, or special exercises are done. These are exercises that are designed to break down the training further to ensure you bring up a weakness in a lift.
As an example, if your bench press was weak because you had poorly developed triceps then you might follow your main upper body exercise with some tricep kickbacks. For lower body they might do some specific hamstring, or glute work if they were the weak areas of the lift.
There is no doubt that conjugate training is an excellent and proven training plan that works for a wide variety of power related activities. It develops both strength and RFD which is vital if you want to jump high. However, there are a number of things that need to be considered before you go off and implement a Westside setup into your vertical jump program.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that the conjugate training template used by Westside Barbell has been created with a view to improving performance in the sport of powerlifting. Westside is after all first and foremost a powerlifting club.
This doesn't mean that with a few tweaks the principles can't be applied to jump training, it just means that much of the literature on the subject, and there is plenty, is based on getting really good at deadlifting, squatting and bench pressing, and not necessarily about jumping high.
A good example of this is that it isn't necessarily appropriate for an athlete just wanting to improve their vertical jump to spend two days a week doing upper body work. A big bench press is virtually useless for a jumping athlete.
As such a better split might be a ME day, a DE day, and a day working on your jumping technique. If you need to do some upper body work you could then insert another day of push ups, chin ups, dips, or similar.
Another difference in using conjugate training Westside style for vertical jump training is in the exercise selections. Whilst there are certainly a lot of similarities between the muscles trained in powerlifting and those needed to jump high, the degrees of importance vary.
For example the exercises primarily used by Westside are selected based on their potential to improvethe squat, deadlift and bench press of their athletes. One of the essential elements of the very heavy squats and deadlifts is that you need a strong back. As a result of this requirement one of Westsides favourite exercises is the good morning.
Now a strong back is an excellent thing to have, particularly for a powerlifter, but for an athlete wanting to increase you vertical jump you will probably never need that same degree of back strength. Accordingly lots of good mornings aren't going to provide the same direct benefits to someone wanting to improve their jump.
Also worth considering is that the athletes at Westside are already very, very strong when they start to implement conjugate training. Why is this important? It is important because an athlete's ability to recover doesn't increase at the same magnitude as their ability to get strong. Westside guys lift huge weights compared to your regular jumping athlete. To lift those weights you need to be recruiting a large percentage of your muscle fibers, and those fibers need to be contracting hard to put out some serious force.
This kind of heavy lifting takes some time to bounce back from. It is for this reason that in a Westside conjugate system they only do one ME effort for upper body and lower body per week.
A less experienced trainer by comparison, no matter how hard they try, won't have the ability to tax themselves to the same degree. They simply haven't spent enough time under the bar to know how to efficiently recruit and co-ordinate all their muscles to complete the types of maximum effort lifts that top level powerlifters do.
This raises an important point you should consider. What happens if you have been doing heavy weights for years and already have a 2.5x BW squat but you can't jump over a cup of coffee?
This type of athlete is already very strong but their low jumping ability suggests that they lack the required RFD and explosiveness to apply that strength quickly. It would seem greater benefit would be derived from doing a a higher portion of fast and explosive work rather than spending half training time working at getting even stronger. Strength for jumping (and this goes for most sports) is useless if you can't apply it quickly.
This same argument applies to an athlete that has spent his life jumping and playing sport but has never touched a weight. This kind of athlete is likely to be highly reactive but relatively weak. For these guys it may be initially more beneficial to spend more training time in the weight room building their relative strength.
What really sets Westside Barbell apart form other powerlifting clubs is that Louie Simmons has developed a system of training based on a lot of scientific research and testing of methods that produces extraordinary results for their lifters.
If you are after extraordinary results from your vertical jump training you should check out Game Changers: The Most Powerful Jump Training Methods Known to Man. This groundbreaking book details what the absolute very best ways to increase your vertical jump are and how to incorporate them into your training.
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The last item that you should consider from the Westside template of conjugate training is the frequency at which they rotate their exercises, particularly the ME exercise. As mentioned they switch them up as often as weekly, and rarely any longer than every 2 -3 weeks. The rationale behind this is to avoid burnout, both mental and physical, as well as to allow various weaknesses in a particular lift to be brought up to speed.
For elite level powerlifters who have spent most of their training lives benching, squatting and deadlifting, this might be an appropriate thing to do. However for other types of athletes it is a much wiser piece of programming to select your key strength building lift and stick with it for a while longer.
The reason this is often a better approach is that regardless of training experience, many athletes make good progress for periods of much longer than just 1 to 2 weeks. Beginners for example can often perform the same exercises for months and still manage to add weight to the bar every week.
Why anybody would stop doing something that is still providing results defies logic. Accordingly if you do adopt a Westside system it might be best if you don't change the main exercises around every fortnight.
The Westside system of conjugate training obviously works very well for them. Their athletes are very strong, and as Louie Simmons likes to say, also explosive. If you want to apply it to your vertical jump training then you should consider the points in this article and how they might apply to you.
In Westside Training For Jumping Athletes: Part 2 I will discuss in more detail what a conjugate based jump program might look like and give you some practical ideas about this fun and effective training set up.