Originally published in August of 2019
Many people think they have to stay in their old traditional programs even though they know they need to go further to continue development in their training. They have heard about the conjugate method and have seen people who train under the principle and can assume its one of the keys is getting stronger every week.
But since they don’t have different bars, chains, and bands at their old-fashioned gym, they don’t think they can try out the conjugate system. But it’s not about the bars; it’s about how you use them that is the key to the conjugate system.
If you only have a garage gym with one straight bar, a bench, and some dumbbells, and you want to put some variation in your training, you can still do it! Conjugate is about changing the questions for the muscles all the time so they had to find new answers. We don’t need 10 different bars to do that. We can change exercises with one straight bar. What we need is a bigger imagination of what exercises we can do with the bar. Traditionally in the conjugate system, we max out in the squat the first week, deadlift the second week, and get a 3RM good morning the third week.
Let’s start with the squat. How many variations can you figure out in the squat with only a straight bar? Do you have a box to sit on? Good! From there, we have some more variations. We can do squats with a high bar, squats with a low bar, front squats, and Zercher Squats. If you have a rack, you can do Anderson Squats, free-motion squats with pauses at different heights, and overhead squats. You can squat with weights hanging from our belts, squat with different stances, and mixes of the above variations. If you have bands and chains, use them. Just here alone, we probably have 30 to 50 different max effort exercises for squatting with only a straight bar!
How about the deadlift? Most people know the conventional and sumo stances. But we need more variations to make progress. You can do Romanian deadlifts with stiff, slightly bent legs, deadlifts with our legs fully extended, hack deadlifts with the bar behind us, and silver dollar deadlifts with different stands. You can stand on a block and start with the bar closer to the floor. Shifting heights on the block is also a variation, so you have three heights for your silver dollar deadlift and three different heights to stand on its six different lifts. Then you can use the conventional stance, sumo stance, Romanian stance, straight-legged stance, and hack deadlifts at different heights. That makes a total of 30 different max effort exercises. If you add bands and chains to it, variation never ends!
You can also do a lot of variations in your good morning with just a straight bar or with dumbbells. You can do standing good mornings with a bar, seated good mornings at different box heights, good mornings with one leg in front of the other, Zercher Good Mornings, seated good mornings holding a bar under the bench with straight arms (almost like a seated deadlift), and front-loaded good mornings while holding a dumbbell over your chest. You can also use bands attached in different locations to do a great number of good morning variations.
Bench press variations can be tricky. If you only have a regular bar, how can you still do variations? Well, we can execute the bench press with a close grip, a normal grip, a wide grip, and an illegal wide grip (outside the rings). Those are four different variations. Then we can do it with straight legs like they do in para-bench. You can lift your legs up in the air with your feet up. Now we have 12 variations. You could use pins to do pin presses in all of the above variations, and if you do it in three different heights, you have 36 combinations. You can also use hard blocks at three different heights to get more combinations and use soft blocks to get even more. Now we have more than 50 max effort variations in the bench press with just a regular bar. Do the bench in three different incline positions, and we have more than 150 max effort exercises!
I hope you see what I’m after. As long as you change some small variations in your way of executing the exercise, you have a new combination. Every new combination forces your muscles to adapt and become stronger. That’s all training is about: to adapt and become stronger, faster, and better.
But remember: Your main exercises shouldn’t be much more than 20 percent of your total training program. You still have to do around 80 percent of assistance training to build more strength. The good thing about the new knowledge you just learned is that you can use it to get more variations of your assistance training as well as in your main lifts.
The 20 percent versus 80 percent are not exact numbers but guidelines. Sometimes you spend 15 percent on the main lifts and sometimes you spend 30 percent on then. The important thing is that you have a good idea of why you should do different kinds of exercises. I have written articles about the conjugate method and the muscle chain, so if you want to have more insight into how to plan your assistance training, I suggest reading them.
The main reason to do different max effort exercises is the ability to train hard and develop maximum strength without exhausting your nervous system. Without 10 different bars or machines, it looks hard to come up with variations for conjugate training. But after reading this article, I hope you have new ideas that will let your progress continue.