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Conjugate Strength Training
For Athletic Performance
The word "conjugate" means "to join together," and combining multiple methods within a single workout can lead to a stronger, faster, more well-balanced body.

By Greg Werner, M.S., CSCS, SCCC, ACSM-HFI, CSNC

For athletes, performance and the prevention of injury--not aesthetics--should be the motivation for strength training, since a nice-looking physique will come as a by-product of hard work. With this being said, it's upsetting to see how many athletes still refer to the popular body-building magazines for their strength training advice. Strength training for athletic performance needs to be purpose-driven, and that purpose depends upon the needs of the sport, not the desire for a particular body part to look a certain way.

For the majority of sports, I have determined that there are four truths when considering strength training and sports performance:

1) In all sports that involve athleticism (speed, strength, power, agility, mobility) athletes who can produce and reduce high force at high speed are at an advantage.

2) Speed of movement, strength, and explosive power are related; athletes with higher power to body weight ratios execute faster, and dominate athletics.

3) Just building big muscles, lifting heavy weights, or doing Olympic lifts is not good enough; you need to implement several methods of training to optimally develop sports performance.

4) By doing the proper lifts, jumps, and sprints, you will increase the horsepower of your vehicle--which is your body.

From the perspective of these truths we can see that athletes cannot just depend on heavy strength training alone. They need to be involved in a program that implements a complete regimen of muscle actions (concentric, eccentric, isometric), training speeds, and intensities. And that's where conjugate training comes in.

What is conjugate training? Conjugate means to join together. To train using multiple methods within one workout, or over the course of one block of workouts (microcycle). Strength, power, hypertrophy, speed, and agility can be progressively developed simultaneously in a conjugate multi-method program.

The most fundamental components of a strength training program are the amount of weight lifted (overload) and the speed of the repetition (tempo). Vladimir Zatsiorsky, Ph.D.--a world-renowned strength scientist, author, and professor at Penn State University--determined that there are three distinct methods for developing force within skeletal muscle fibers. These three methods are responsible for overloading the fast twitch muscle fibers (type IIa and IIb) innervated by the fast motor units (fast oxidative glycolitic, and fast fatigable). I call this "Targeted Overload," and the methods are:

Maximum Effort:
Maximal Strength (strong reps)
  • Heavy training, using 85-100 percent of a one rep max (1RM)
    Dynamic Effort:
    Explosive Strength (speed reps)
  • Explosive training, using sub-max weights at max speed
  • Plyometrics--stretch shortening cycle (SSC) activities
  • Speed and agility training
    Repetitive Effort:
    Hypertrophy Strength (burn reps)
  • Training to a point of muscular fatigue using sub-max weights
  • Lactate tolerance training
  • Work capacity training

    Max-effort training is used to develop the high threshold fast-twitch muscle fibers. But be careful, attempting to lift weights that are too heavy is counterproductive. Athletes should never attempt to lift weights that are so heavy that someone else has to lift it off of them, or that cause them to use poor technique to force the weight up. Below is a sample max effort cycle:

    The next method of overload--"dynamic effort" training--is used to activate your fast twitch muscle fibers in an explosive manner. When using this method of overload the rate of force development (bar speed) is key. The weight should not be heavy in comparison to the max effort day. Rate of force development, your body's ability to recruit motor units and fire muscles, is what you're training. Below is a sample dynamic effort cycle:

    The last method of overload, "repetitive effort," is used to push the muscles to produce force in a fatigued state. The athlete's muscles should experience a burning on the last few reps of the set. It's important not to take the sets to complete failure, but rather to a point of fatigue, one to two reps short of total failure. When you get to the point of failure, exercise technique generally becomes sloppy. Below is a sample repetitive effort cycle:

    You can't train the same exercises with weights above 90 percent for much longer than three weeks before your nervous system begins to weaken. When this happens strength gains will begin to diminish and accumulative fatigue will cause the athlete to plateau. For this reason training must be cycled with fluctuations in exercise selection, intensity, and volume (periodization). The best way around this three-week barrier is to switch the exercises used for the max effort method every one to three weeks. This keeps the body fresh so the method can be cycled year round. Below are the guidelines for cycling:

  • Keep all workouts between four to six total exercises.
  • Do only one max effort workout per week for the upper body and one for the lower body primary strength exercises (i.e., squat, deadlift, bench press, pull-ups, rows).
  • Do one dynamic effort workout per week for the upper body and one for the lower body primary strength exercises (i.e., squat, power clean, bench press, pull-ups, rows).
  • Use the repetitive effort method for your supplemental and auxiliary exercises every workout (i.e., sled pulls, shoulder and rotator cuff work, triceps, bicep, forearms and abs).
  • Take an active rest week after every three max effort cycles (12 weeks) to allow for complete restoration (i.e., cross train and play another sport, get out of the weight room but don't just sit around).
  • Stop repetitive effort sets one to two reps short of complete muscle failure. This assures the athlete will always use good lifting technique and not overtax the muscles.
    Here's the intensity progression for the three methods together for a four-week period.

    To build their best body, athletes need to do multi-joint strength training exercises with the collective goal of developing muscle mass, strength, and power.

    Multi-Joint Exercises
    The first thing you must help athletes grasp and believe is this; the body is one functional unit. If you isolate and train one muscle group and neglect others you develop imbalances, which can eventually lead to injury. For optimal sport performance the body must be trained as an athletic machine, one that functions as the collective sum of its parts.

    There's a saying in athletic strength and conditioning that it's better to train movements and not just muscles. The nature of most sports is to make ground based, multi-joint movements and not isolated single-joint movements. With this in mind strength training should be specific and follow suit.

    In the weight room isolating your quadriceps (leg extensions), hamstrings (leg curls), glutes (hip extensions), and calves (heel raises) is isolated muscle building, whereas using ground based, multi-joint exercises such as squats, dead lifts, and hang cleans are movement building. Movement building activates the neuromuscular system in similar firing patterns as it's called upon in sport, and therefore has a greater transfer to athletic performance. Below is a list of the most useful multi-joint exercises:

    Upper body:
  • Bench presses (flat, incline, decline)
  • Pull-ups
  • Chin-ups
  • Pulldowns
  • Rows (bent over, seated, and upright)
  • Shoulder presses (military and behind the neck)
    Lower/Total body:
  • Squats (deep, parallel, half squats, front squats, lunges, split squats)
  • Dead lifts (conventional, sumo, Romanian, good morning)
  • Olympic lifts (cleans, jerks, snatches)
    In order to take their performance to the next level, athletes must start by taking their strength training to the next level. Cycle the three methods of overload with multi-joint exercises, and consume the right foods at the right times, followed by adequate rest, and they'll be well on their way to a stronger, more-athletic body. Train them hard, and most importantly train them smart.

    About the author:
    Greg Werner is director of strength and conditioning at James Madison University, and owner of AthElite Strength & Conditioning Academy.
  • References:

  • Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky, 1995, Science and Practice of Strength Training, Human Kinetics.
  • Mel Siff and Yuri V Verkhoshansky, 1999, Super Training: Strength Training for Sporting Excellence. 4th edition, Supertraining International.
  • John Ivy and Robert Portman, 2004, Nutrient Timing System, Basic Health.