It seems that the majority of powerlifters say that conjugate training, or the Westside Barbell system, is hard to understand. I can agree to a certain extent. I remember how overwhelmed I felt trying to understand Louie Simmons’s articles in Powerlifting USA and on Westside Barbell’s website when I first started on this journey. The body of information on conjugate is as vast as the science behind it. My main goal for this article is to make those bodies of work more digestible and more easily applicable to what is popular now: raw powerlifting. I also want to share my ideas of how to approach setting up conjugate training as a raw lifter.

I attest only to that which I have experienced and observed within the scope of my own powerlifting narrative. I don’t claim to fully understand all of the exact science and biomechanics behind the systems like individuals such as Louie Simmons, Matt Wenning, or Nate Harvey. However, I have helped many raw powerlifters add an admirable amount of poundage to their total switching completely to the conjugate system. The truth is, it doesn’t take a fully equipped powerlifting gym if you want to give this stuff a shot. You can do it with what you have, and maybe a couple of bands.

WATCH: Table Talk — How to Run a Three-Day Conjugate Training Split

I feel that the conjugate system, when utilized correctly, can’t be beaten by any other training style. Do take notice I am referring to it as a system, not a program. Conjugate is a way to train from week to week, from month to month, and from year to year. It is not, “Eight Weeks to a Bigger Bench.” It is a switch in mindset, not just following some cookie cutter program. Many find conjugate training refreshing. Many say it has helped fire them up to train again. If you feel you’re in need of a change of pace or find yourself bored in the gym, I’m talking to you.

The gain in strength for the raw lifters I have previously discussed assisting in the past often applied to their next meet, and more importantly the next year. However, I would be naïve if I said I thought conjugate training is the only way. Of course, it is not. There is more than one way to skin a cat. But why use one knife when you could use a set of knives made up of different lengths, blades, and serration edges that skin each part more effectively? A butter knife works great for butter but is a poor choice for steak. You can get stronger by just maxing out, or by just doing reps. However, there are more efficient ways. It behooves a powerlifter greatly to utilize all of the methods that lead to strength. The end point here is that there are more effective ways than just a single approach to training.

I’m not here to educate on what exactly the conjugate method is in itself. There are far better resources on that than any book I could write. I recommend looking to Louie Simmons’ The Westside Barbell Book of Methods. If one starts with that book, Louie references several other works that one can read to learn more than enough information for a lifter about the conjugate system, as well as the science behind it. As stated earlier, the body of literature is vast.

Conjugate is defined as, “to join together.” So you’re joining together different ways to build absolute strength in the most efficient and effective way. No need to overcomplicate this. The different ways to build strength are the maximum effort method, the dynamic effort method, and the repetition effort method. You’re training heavy, for reps, and fast. Simply put:

Maximum Effort Method: Training heavy. Also known as “maxing out.” Weights are at roughly 90% and above.

Dynamic Effort Method: Training fast. Also known as “speed work.” Weights are more variable but range roughly from 30% to 60%.

Repetition Effort Method: Training for hypertrophy, or to increase muscle mass. The percentage used for this method can vary, but the lifter is doing multiple repetitions with a prescribed weight in order to build more muscle to attain strength. You can build muscle with 20% of a one-rep max, and you can build muscle with 75% of a one-rep max.

Conjugate training also involves the rotation of exercises. This also applies to our original conjugate definition, “to bring together.” You are using different exercises to bring together a stronger competition lift of the squat, bench press, or deadlift by means of other exercises, bars, and setups.

Processed with VSCO with 3 preset

A General Consideration of Training Conjugate for the Raw Lifter 

It is hard for me to say that these premises I’m about to discuss apply only to the raw lifter. I use most of them in my own training as an equipped lifter from week to week and month to month. In my experience, I haven’t seen it necessary to take an absolute max every max effort day. This is kind of contradictory to the max effort method, right? It could be, but apply this type of workout to your own numbers and see how you feel after your main movement. Your body will likely feel wrecked, but your central nervous system will feel somewhat stable. Far out from a meet, I stick to what I call “work sets.” What does this mean? It is based around volume. And the bulk of it, for the sake of what I speak about, is typically within the 60% to 80% range. I’ll use myself as an example. I’m an 855-pound multi-ply squatter.

An actual workout used to build strength has looked like this, with cambered bar box squats (using the depth guide method, discussed in the next chapter):

  • Bar x 8 reps
  • 175 x 5 reps
  • 265 x 5 reps
  • 355 x 5 reps
  • Add briefs and belt
  • 405 x 2 x 2 reps
  • 445 x 2 x 2 reps
  • 495 x 2 x 2 reps
  • 535 x 2 x 2 reps
  • 585 x 1
  • 625 x 1
  • 675 x 1

So, as you can see, I am doing eight work sets and three singles. 675 was not an all-out single on this particular day, but it was hard. Doing things this way also saved me from missing, as well as prevented me from running my nervous system into the ground. I have seen this work very well, especially for the raw lifter. One thing a raw lifter may do is add wraps (if the lifter chooses to do meets in wraps) to the last single or singles to maintain bar speed. It is to be noted that this particular workout was one where I was feeling good. If I wasn’t feeling as good, I may have hit the 585 for a double and called it there, or even stopped at 535. I would have been just as confident about my strength with any of these selections.

The credit here goes not to myself; this is essentially how I was taught to train the squat by my peers at Cell Block Gym. The overlying concept here is that you start at a weight that is essentially speed work and push it until you are working pretty hard. If you feel good, you may single. This could be a time, or two, or three. You are expected to use your best judgment in conjugate training, and this is absolutely no different when applied here. You are not smashing your nervous system into the ground by an all-out max, all of the time. There are times for that, yes, but most of the time, it is not that time. I absolutely recommend to hold back to get stronger. That is a personal amendment to the normal conjugate system, there.

As a raw lifter, I would advise sticking to heavy sets of five, triples, and doubles for max effort work. If you feel good, go on and hit a heavier triple or even a strong single. This is with the clause that you got good volume on the way up to that point. I don’t advise you work up to a max effort single on the cambered bar if you squat 855 with your singles starting at 345 pounds, jumping plates at a time, with no meet in sight. We are talking about strength building here, not strength testing. This can be done, even on maximum effort days. I feel a raw lifter gains more benefit from higher volume work with “near” submaximal weights as opposed to lower volume work at “near” heavier weights.

Processed with VSCO with b3 preset

Common Mistakes Raw Lifters Make When Using A Conjugate Training Approach


They train like equipped lifters.

Just because a lot of equipped lifters use the conjugate system doesn't mean it is ineffective for raw lifting. However, if you’re a raw lifter you are not going to train tit for tat as an equipped lifter would. As a raw lifter, you use the same general premises as the equipped lifter: you train where you are weak. You don’t have briefs or a bench shirt to help you out of the bottom of the lift, so why would you train like you do? Of course, some raw lifters need work at the top of the bench, which is largely positioning and triceps. But generally, this isn’t what a raw lifter needs the most of.

They train the shit out of the competition lifts. 

First and foremost, I do think the raw lifter can benefit from a higher level of specificity in conjugate more often than the equipped lifter. I’ve seen a lot of raw lifters change things like percentages, speed, pause length, and so forth. Not changing exercises enough is a conjugate cardinal sin. Plus, if you have a weakness in the mid-range of your bench press, and you do nothing but regular bench press, you are doing nothing to train the weakness of the middle and everything to reinforce being weak in the middle of the bench press. This is also a huge issue I have with programs that don't switch exercises. Unless you are really hitting some specific assistance movements hard, strength is likely going to be a slow mover if you train this way. 

They get TOO far away from the competition lifts. 

Do I sound like Louie Simmons yet with the contradictory lines, even in bold, one after another? I hope so. Louie knows what he’s talking about, and please allow me to make my case here. As stated before, any lifter training conjugate should stay away from only doing the competition lifts in training. However, do you really think as a raw lifter you need to do that reverse green band with 120 pounds of chain bench to a three-board with a Slingshot, which equates to roughly a max competition bench of 97 more pounds than that meet you did last summer? Probably not. It’s just too different. Raw lifters need a more narrow scope of variation than equipped lifters. If you’re using a band, there’s no need to throw two more aspects of variability into the exercise. Do a band bench press, if that is what you need, and move on with your life. You still train conjugate. I will outline later a good “exercise pool” for each of the three competition lifts for a raw lifter training conjugate. But you can bet your ass it’s not going to include the reverse green band with 120 pounds of chain bench to a three-board with a Slingshot. So go ahead and mark that one off your list now. 

They overtrain their central nervous systems (CNS). 

In equipped lifting, especially going into a meet, your CNS needs to be bulletproof. I am by no means saying your CNS is not a player in raw lifting. One must train it. But like before, you don’t need to do a reverse band squat that is 200 pounds over your best meet squat. There is just no reason to have 900 pounds on your back in any scenario when you only squat 700 and wish to squat 715. Your ego may thank you, but your nervous system will not. That is not to say all powerlifters don’t have egos. To quote something Casey Williams said to me, “We all have big egos, or we’d just all opt for therapy over lifting weights.” There are no bonus points or bonus white lights for having an “extra prepared” nervous system. In powerlifting, extra prepared translates into extra fatigued. In fact, a nervous system that is overly fatigued makes for poor meet performance, poor training performance, and will lead you to feeling a general malaise towards life in general.

You can absolutely go too heavy too often in any area of powerlifting. This seems to be a concept that has been forgotten. As a raw powerlifter, you are demanding that your body do things it is not designed to do. We as humans evolved to walk much more than we do now, not train to lift the heaviest weights possible. Equipped powerlifters demand their bodies do the same thing, plus what weight the extra layer(s) of material allow them to move. You should train your nervous system as a raw lifter. You, as a raw powerlifter, do not need to train your nervous system to the same point that a geared lifter does. The added fatigue is not only unnecessary but will hinder you, likely at the very worst time possible (i.e., a powerlifting meet). 

They neglect building muscle. 

Sure, this can absolutely apply to equipped powerlifters as well. However, equipped powerlifters have the equipment to create better leverages. The raw powerlifter’s only leverages are the muscle that they have built. If a geared powerlifter gets out of groove on a squat with a max or near max attempt, they are likely done for. A raw powerlifter possesses an interesting premise I’ve heard on occasion called, “muscle fucking.” If a raw lifter has the muscle to fuck with, they are much more likely to save a max or near max squat. Technique is key here, absolutely. But as Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.”

When that moment on the platform comes, and it will, you better be ready for it. Build muscle everywhere, specifically on your weak points. It could be those back raises, those sets of abs, or even those calf raises you did your whole training cycle (or even over the last five years) to save an attempt (not to mention to possibly save you from an injury. A saved lift or a saved injury should be plenty of motivation. There is literally no downside to building muscle as a raw powerlifter, so I advise you do it.

As a raw powerlifter, you’re more likely to get injured. Sure, if an equipped powerlifter falls with 1200 pounds on his back, its very likely it’s going to be terrible news. However, the incidence rate for injury is generally higher for the lifter that chooses not to wear protective equipment. Contrary to popular belief, the equipment is not just to lift more weight, although it is likely the majority of the equipped lifter’s motivation.

They lack accessory work. 

I see this time and time again, so often. You squat and then you go home. Or you get to talking to someone. Or you’re tired. Whatever the reason is, you don’t do any (or enough) accessory work. As stated for the 60th time in this ebook, building muscle is incredibly important for all powerlifters, but specifically raw powerlifters. I am unaware of where the idea started that top-level bodybuilders aren’t strong. Bodybuilders are quite often very strong. And coincidentally, the only purpose of their training is to increase muscle tissue. Go on YouTube and find a professional bodybuilder who can’t bench 500 raw. Yet there are professional powerlifters who can’t bench 500 raw. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together here. Raw powerlifters should spend a large amount of time on accessory work that is intentionally meant to build muscle all over, and specifically in the weak areas of their bodies. This will make you stronger. More muscle means more strength. It takes muscle to muscle-fuck. 

They use a box to squat with too often. 

First off, I believe the box squat is superior to the free squat for building strength. When it comes to leg drive and hip power, I think box squats are an essentially unbeatable exercise. I believe those who want to build strength for performance reasons outside of powerlifting should use a box squat executed in true box squat fashion. This means releasing the hip flexors on the box. This applies to individuals such as the average Joe who wants to get stronger but never do a meet or the athlete who doesn’t compete in powerlifting. I don’t think a raw powerlifter should perform a true box squat for the majority of the total squatting that they do. Too many times have I seen a raw powerlifter perform true box squats too often and lose tightness in the hole of a free squat. I think this even can apply to less advanced equipped lifters. Again, you are seeing my personal amendment to a bigger idea of conjugate.

My suggestion for the raw powerlifter is to free squat a large percentage of the time. I would encourage the use of a box if it is used purely as a depth guide. This means the lifter does not relax onto the box in the bottom position of the squat with the hips. This is NOT a box squat. It is using a box to squat. Why even use it? If the box is set to the correct depth, the lifter receives the benefit of training the squat to the correct depth every rep, while still reinforcing the lifter to maintain tightness in the bottom. Coincidentally, the bottom portion of the squat is the hardest place to keep tightness the majority of the time. Another potential use for the raw lifter to utilize the box squat may be on accessory movements, or speed waves. It is a point to make that an advanced raw lifter may be able to perform a box squat for the majority of their training and be just fine when it comes to maintaining tightness on a free squat. 

They are young in training years. 

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it will pay a lifter down the line to realize this early on. If you are young in powerlifting, or even young in lifting weights in general, it is likely you can still benefit from using a conjugate style approach to your training. However, less variability is needed. Less variability can be used effectively, to be honest. How are you going to bench against 100 pounds of band tension when you only bench 115? Often, lifters young in training years are still in a very excited and intense phase of powerlifting. A lifter that trains conjugate and succeeds must be a cerebral lifter, especially if they train alone. The lifter must be able to think, assess, reassess, and learn from their experiences to better structure their program to tailor to their specific and individual needs. To be honest, I would not suggest a conjugate based training system for someone who just picked up their first dumbbell. It is just not necessary. 

They lack experience. 

A lot of the time, the reason a raw lifter wants to train conjugate is that they see other lifters training with bands and the chains and think it looks cool. While I would agree—those tools of variability do help make training more fun—if you aren’t experienced enough to be able to know where you are weak, it is not likely you are going to be able to effectively construct a personalized conjugate style program and see a great increase in strength. To train conjugate means you can effectively identify your weaknesses, and then program your training to attack those weaknesses based on your history. If you miss in the bench press in the bottom portion of the lift, you would be wise to be sure it is because you need pec work and not because you have, "no idea how to fucking bench,” as Dave Tate says. You could be losing all tightness in the bottom of the bench with the strongest pecs in the state and just happen to miss there.

Processed with VSCO with 1 preset

Suggestions for the Main Movement for Raw Powerlifters Training Conjugate

Raw lifters generally need to focus their main movements on different areas than equipped lifters. A large amount of the literature present regarding conjugate training is catered towards the lifter that wears equipment. As a raw lifter, you should very likely be training different areas of the lifts by way of the same exact conjugate concepts an equipped lifter would use. Here are some quick examples of main movements (and main movement principles) I’ve seen raw lifters have success with.

The Squat:

  • Pause squats
  • Box squats to a low box (generally using touch-and-go method)
  • Squats paused on pins, chains, or straps below parallel
  • Front squats
  • SS Yoke Bar, cambered bar, and general bar variability
  • Increased volume, in general, on squat movements
  • More speed training

The Bench Press:

  • Buffalo or Duffalo Bar bench press
  • Cambered bench bar bench press (to a one to two-board)
  • Paused bench for various times
  • Wide grip bench variations
  • One-board press or two-board press
  • Increased volume, in general, on bench movements

The Deadlift:

  • Deficit deadlifts (one to three inches)
  • Low rack or block pulls (one to three inches)
  • Opposite stance deadlift training
  • Good morning variations
  • Romanian deadlifts (typically used as a down week for reps)

This is not an exhaustive list for the squat, bench, and deadlift, by any means. There are of course more. It is also to be said if you are pulling 125 pounds over your max from a two-inch block pull, it may not be the best choice for a max effort movement for you.

Suggestions for Assistance Movements for Raw Powerlifters Training Conjugate

First off, do more of it! As stated before, we go back to two related premises:

  1. The only leverages a raw lifter has are the ones built with muscle tissue on their own bodies.
  2. Raw powerlifters need to spend a large amount of time intentionally building muscle on the entirety of the body, especially in the weak areas of their body.

To state one last time, this list of accessories is just general speak. They may not work for all raw lifters, but I have seen them work well for the large percentage of raw lifters that I have worked with in my personal experience. A few suggestions for assistance movements for the raw lifter training conjugate are as follows:

The Squat:

  • Lower back work (45-degree back raise, hyperextensions, reverse hyperextensions)
  • Trunk and abdominal work (ab wheel, rotating abdominal variations, plank variations, standing abdominal work)
  • Hamstring work (glute ham raise, Romanian deadlift with dumbbells, leg curl variations)
  • Quad work (Bulgarian split squats, close stance squats)
  • Hip and glute work (extra wide sumo deadlifts, kneeling squats, kettlebell swings)

The Bench Press:

  • All variations and rep schemes of dumbbell pressing (but generally, I don’t recommend doing anything less than an eight-rep max)
  • Incline bench, for reps
  • Direct pectoral work
  • Extensions (JM press, skullcrusher, Tate press)
  • Row variations (dumbbell, barbell, or seated row)
  • Rear delt work (such as a facepull or reverse pec dec)

The Deadlift:

The deadlift and squat use similar muscles, therefore require some of the same assistance movements. In addition to the squat assistance exercises listed, I would add in more back work if trying to aim the assistance work toward the conventional deadlift. If trying to aim one’s assistance work at the sumo deadlift, I would advise engaging in more hip hinge centered movements. Hamstring and glute work will universally carry over to both styles of pulling. However, as always, work what needs to be worked for yourself.

Processed with VSCO with 1 preset

Structure and Changes to the Conjugate System for Raw Powerlifters

The biggest change I would suggest is to incorporate the repetition effort method more often to increase muscle mass. This will also give a lifter’s joints and nervous system a break. This can be implemented on either max effort day as a break, or on dynamic effort day as a wave. It can be in place of either of these. It should always be used in addition to the other two methods, via secondary exercises and smaller assistance exercises. But the raw lifter that puts stock into doing reps is a raw lifter I’m betting on.

How I train conjugate personally is to always base my training on the general principles of the system. I train all three methods to increase absolute strength, but I wouldn’t say that I train them all equally. As a lifter who has trained conjugate for a decade, I’ve made many changes. Some changes I made stayed because they worked and some were tossed because they didn’t work. Some worked for a while and then stopped. Again, I don’t recommend making changes until after doing the standard conjugate system (or any program at all) for at least six months to a year. This will help familiarize the lifter with the basic principles of the system and learn for themselves. Here are a few suggestions I have for when it does come time to make changes:

  • Substitute max effort or dynamic effort work for repetition work. On max effort day, you might hit reps of three to six. On dynamic effort day, you might hit reps of six to 15.
  • Instead of speed bench, try the volume-heavy repetition effort with a wide grip Louie Simmons recommends. You can find this in his work. Basically, the lifter picks a weight and does six sets of six with a wide grip. The lifter goes up in weight weekly until they can no longer do sets of six. When that happens, the lifter drops back to sets of eight, and then 10. I’ve seen this build a lot of power off the chest with raw lifters.
  • Train the opposite of your competition stance deadlift for a while. I think we should all be training both stances. I don’t think it has to be equally distributed, but if you suck pulling conventional and are great at sumo, there is probably a reason beyond just leverages. If you build up those muscles that are weak, you’ll be stronger all around. It will carry over to your competition stance deadlift and squat. Train the entirety of the body, from neck to ankles.
  • If you have been training really hard for an extended amount of time, pull back. This can be done all together, or in a specific place. Maybe if you don’t take that one last grinder single on floor press, your nervous system won’t be so smashed into the ground. Or maybe you need to lighten your speed work a bit to give your joints a break. If you are feeling overtrained, overworked, or lethargic, my advice is almost always going to be to pull back instead of push forward. Your body, much like an engine, can only take so much before it seizes up.
  • Change up the structure. For example, on max effort day, I like to squat heavy and then do speed pulls. On your speed day, you could squat light and then do good mornings on a three-week wave. You can think of any different way to change conjugate, structurally. If it is appealing to you, and makes sense to you, I suggest you try that. You’re going to make more gains following a system you believe in much more quickly than the one you don’t believe in.

Bands and Chains in a Raw Powerlifter's Conjugate System

I think where bands are often utilized effectively in the case of the raw lifter is for dynamic/speed work. Louie Simmons talks extensively about using accommodating resistance for speed work because it is something for the lifter to push against in addition to gravity. Bands do make the load heavier at the top portion of the movement; that doesn’t mean they don’t help train the bottom portion of the lift. They improve the bottom portion of the lift by increasing force production from the millisecond the lifter starts pushing. I have seen speed work with bands completely change the way a lifter executes a lift after being implemented for a span of time. The increased force production can breed a very violent and explosive lifting style that carries over beautifully to an all-out max when it is necessary. When you can make a PR look like 80%, you are at a good place in this sport. And you will last much longer than the guy pulling ten second deadlifts, if you choose.

The place accommodating resistance has in a raw powerlifter’s conjugate setup is just the same as anything else within conjugate: it should be used if the lifter needs it. In general, I recommend chain and band usage mostly for speed work when it comes to raw lifter’s arsenal of exercises. Accommodating resistance can have its place in max effort work for the raw lifter as well, but it is probably not going to be the “go-to” the majority of the time for heavy work. The majority of the raw lifter’s max effort work should be straight weight. The raw lifter should choose movements that are full range more often than equipped lifters as well.

WATCH: Cambered Bar Band Setup with Tension at the Bottom

When it comes to setting up bands or chains, my advice for the raw lifter is the same as the equipped lifter. But, the same advice is even more pertinent for the raw lifter. When setting these up, you want to have a good bit of tension in the bottom of the lift. Sure, you can set up a deadlift with bands and have no tension at all in the bottom of the lift and still train the lockout with results. But as a raw lifter, you want to begin generating a large amount of force (and in this case, against the band tension or chain weight) as you start the concentric portion of the lift. You have no gear to help you in these areas.

This explanation is all to express, please educate and check yourself. If your bands are flapping in the breeze of your gym’s fan in the bottom of your bench press, you probably have them set up wrong. Choke them or double them around a larger base. If this makes the lift much harder for you, I suggest using a smaller band and more bar weight. Don't fall into the trap. Always have more bar weight in the end than you do band tension. Don’t bench 80 pounds with 90 pounds (a doubled mini) of tension. Bench 135 pounds plus 30 pounds (a doubled micro mini) of band tension. You will have much more effective strength gains when going about training with bands or chains in this fashion. A lot of the “band tension to weight ratios” on the internet come from Louie. If you look at Louie’s monolift, he doesn’t have bands choked around just the base. He uses wood blocks to make the base bigger, which creates more tension. The tension is almost always less than you think, and doesn’t need to be calculated.

A purple band attached from the sleeve of the bar and looped around one band peg is probably going to lead to the old, “band windsock phenomenon.” Use multiple pegs, or choke the band around the base of the rack as well as one to two dumbbells per side to make what you are doing more effective. Many of the videos I see involving band setups on social media are setup poorly. A tiny bit of tension at the very top of your squat is going to do nothing for you. So please, don’t even bother if you aren’t willing to do it correctly.

Processed with VSCO with 1 preset

Structuring Training Going into a Meet

I’ve had a lot of raw lifters say they have read articles on conjugate and maybe even applying conjugate training to the raw lifter (like Burley Hawk’s “Westside for Raw Lifters Made Easy” article). But they then often ask how to make a meet preparation cycle. Outside of the work of Louie Simmons, I don’t know that anyone has covered this in depth. In short, I don’t advise the training change a whole hell of a lot. But the aspects that I do like to change are important. To paraphrase the Godfather, you should pretty much be able to do a meet at any time in three week’s notice. I’ve had some of my best meets deciding to do a meet two weeks out from it, or even a week out from it. This is not optimal, but it illustrates that a lifter should be ready at nearly a couple of week’s notice.

Let’s return back to the squat workout I discussed earlier. If I am five weeks out from a meet and choose to squat with the cambered squat bar (and am choosing to go heavy with it) here’s what a sample workout looked like for me in the past (using the depth guide method as previously discussed):

  • Bar x 8 reps
  • 175 x 5 reps
  • 265 x 5 reps
  • 355 x 5 reps
  • Add briefs and belt
  • 405 x 2 reps
  • 445 x 2 reps
  • 495 x 2 reps
  • 535 x 2 reps
  • 585 x 2 reps
  • 625 x 2 reps
  • 675 x 1 rep
  • 715 x 1 rep
  • 755 x 1 rep with knee wraps (new personal record)

As you can see, I am still getting six good work sets on my way up to a new personal record. The volume is very often still present. With a powerlifting meet in mind, I am intentionally pushing harder and asking my body to do a little more work. This is mostly in the name of preparing one’s nervous system. Adding in heavier singles and pushing a little bit does not mean I think you should grind your ass off every single workout. But it goes without saying that you should be pushing harder as a meet draws closer (with enough time to heal up for the meet, of course).

These types of workouts help prime your body and nervous system to get used to heavier weights. When training in this fashion, for me, a new PR still often isn’t an absolute balls-to-the-wall max. I prefer to train and have my lifters train, volume all the way up to the meet. It does taper off, but not to the extent most lifters tend to do as a meet draws near.

With this being said, a raw lifter, as well as a geared lifter, should utilize the straight bar more often the closer a meet approaches to increase the specificity and to be more comfortable under what will be used at the meet. I am the last person you will find to advocate for squatting with the straight bar. The straight bar has caused my elbows and shoulders more pain than benching ever thought about. However, as a meet draws closer, it is necessary to the straight bar more often for the sake of specificity and getting used to. An experienced lifter can get by with using the straight bar less often. As a meet gets closer, it is a smart idea to start using it. A cambered bar or a safety bar is a different movement than the competition straight bar squat. A less experienced lifter (especially one that has major mechanical and technical issues in the squat) should use the straight bar every other week, even far out from a meet. A buffalo bar or Duffalo Bar is a great alternative if you have access to one. This option provides relief to the joints of the upper body while keeping mechanics more similar to the straight bar. However, do be aware a buffalo bar is not a straight bar, and things can still differ. Don’t misuse these bars if your straight bar squat mechanics need work.

When you pick a meet, I advise to start adding in harder singles, but slowly. The time at which I would advise a raw lifter to start deliberately adding in heavier singles is about 12 weeks out, after volume work. A “meet prep” phase would normally start at eight weeks out from the meet. At most, this could be stretched to ten weeks out. Bashing one’s body and nervous system into the ground for 15 weeks before a meet is something I’ve done in the past. And by the time the meet comes, I am overtrained and do not perform well.

I really haven’t seen good outcomes having a raw lifter executing a circa max phase, or anything resembling one. That is something I don’t have a lot of experience with, though. Doing things the way that I am describing has treated lifters I’ve worked with well. As stated before, the nervous system just isn’t as big of a player in raw lifting as it is equipped lifting. I have had raw lifters do some very light reverse band work (such as a doubled micro mini, a doubled mini, or at most choked light band, based on strength levels) less than six weeks out from a meet if it is needed. I have seen this bode well for a raw lifter, but still, I don’t feel it is absolutely necessary. “Peak” strength is almost always there when training this way. It just may be beneficial to a lifter to get used to the weight, psychologically, and to prime the nervous system to fire.

Conjugate Training for the Raw Powerlifter Sample Program

I stress that this is a general program, written to show structure. This is not a custom-made program for all lifters. However, it does include some of my favorite main movements and assistance exercises that will definitely help most get stronger.

Week 1

Max Effort Upper

  • Duffalo or Buffalo Bar Bench — Work up to 3RM. Work up slowly aiming to hit 6-8 triples in the 60-80% range
  • Incline Dumbbell Press — Work up to a moderately hard set of 15 to 20 reps
  • JM Press — Work up to a moderately hard set of 10
  • Band or Cable Pressdowns — 150 to 200 reps
  • One-Arm Dumbbell Rows — Work up to a moderately hard set of 10
  • Pull-Ups or Pulldowns — 4 sets of as many as you can, or 4 sets of 15
  • Face Pulls — Work up to a moderately hard set of 20
  • Hammer Curls — 4 sets of 10 reps

Dynamic Effort Upper

  • Speed Bench — With three grips (index on smooth, thumb length from smooth, and pinky on ring) for 9 triples, use 45% of your max with roughly 25% band tension
  • Z Press from Pins at Mouth Height — Work up to a moderately hard set of 10 reps
  • Tate Press — 4 sets of 10 reps
  • Band or Cable Pressdowns — 150 to 200 reps
  • Seated Cable Row — 6 sets of 10 reps
  • Reverse Pec Dec — 4 sets of 15 reps
  • Barbell Shrugs — 3 sets of 20 reps
  • Hammer Curls — 4 sets of 10 reps

Max Effort Lower

  • Two-Inch Deficit Deadlifts — Work up to a max effort double with 4 to 6 work sets of triples in the 60-80% range on the way up.
  • Speed Pulls — Use 45% of your max and doubled mini bands for 12 singles with 30-second rest periods
  • Kettlebell Swings with Band Around Waist —4 sets of 15 reps.
  • Glute Ham Raise — 4 sets of 8 reps
  • Bulgarian Split Squats — 4 sets of 10 reps per leg
  • 45-Degree Back Raise — 100 reps in as few sets as possible
  • Weighted Planks — 4 sets for time
  • Calves — 3 sets of 20 reps

Dynamic Effort Lower

  • Speed Squats — Use a box below parallel but only touch the box. Don’t release the hips. Use 45% of your max and roughly 25% band tension for 10 sets of 2 reps
  • Concentric Good Mornings with SS Yoke Bar — Work up to a moderately hard set of 8 reps
  • 45-Degree Back Raise Deadlifts — Work up to a challenging set of 10, and aim to repeat this weight for 3 sets total
  • Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift — Work up to a moderately hard set of 15
  • Cable Pull-Throughs — 4 sets of 20 reps
  • Band Leg Curls — Aim for 100 reps in as few sets as possible
  • Rotation Abs with Barbell — 3 sets of 20 each side
  • Calves — 4 sets of 20 reps

Week 2

Max Effort Upper

  • Pin Press — Set pins just below your weak point in the bench. Take the bar from the j-cups, and pause each rep on the pins. Work up to a hard triple, with 6 to 8 triples in the 60-80% range on the way up.
  • Isometric Bench Press — Set pins just below your weak point in the bench. Press the bar into the pins for 5 seconds as hard as you can. Repeat for four sets total
  • JM Press with SS Yoke Bar — Work up to a hard set of 8
  • Band or Cable Pressdowns — 150 to 200 reps
  • Chest Supported Rows — 5 moderately hard sets of 10 reps
  • Band Pull-Aparts — 100 reps in as few sets as possible
  • H-Rolls — 3 sets of 25 reps
  • Hammer Curls — 4 sets of 10

Dynamic Effort Upper

  • Speed Bench — With three grips (index on smooth, thumb length from smooth, and pinky on ring) for 9 triples. Use 50% of your max with roughly 25% band tension
  • Push-Ups — Lay a barbell in the bottom of a power rack, and grab it. Touch your chest to the bar in a similar spot as where you touch in the bench press. Do 5 sets as many reps as you can, without failing. Raise the bar up two pegs each set
  • EZ Bar Extensions — Work up to 5 moderate sets of 10 reps
  • Band or Cable Pressdowns — 150 to 200 reps
  • Chest Supported Rows — 5 sets of 10 reps
  • Wide Grip Pulldowns — 4 sets of 20 reps
  • H-Rolls — 3 sets of 20 reps
  • Hammer Curls — 4 sets of 10 reps

Max Effort Lower

  • Squats Paused on Pins — Set the pins below parallel. Pause on them in the bottom
  • Speed Pulls — Use 50% of your max and doubled mini bands for 12 singles with 30-second rest periods
  • Belt Squats — Work up to 5 hard sets of 10 reps
  • Reverse Hypers — 3 sets of 10 reps
  • Glute Ham Raises — 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Weighted Planks — 3 sets for time
  • Sled Drags — Moderate weight

Dynamic Effort Lower

  • Speed Squats — Use a box below parallel, but only touch the box. Don’t release the hips. Use 50% of your max and roughly 25% band tension for 10 sets of 2 reps
  • Seated Good Morning — Use the SS Yoke Bar and work up to a moderate set of 10 reps
  • Pull-Throughs — 4 sets of 15 reps
  • Dumbbell Lunges — 3 sets of 15 each leg
  • Kneeling Squats — Use a band and do 4 sets of 20 reps
  • Leg Curls — 5 sets of 10
  • Standing Cable Abdominals — 4 sets of 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Side Bends — 5 sets of 15 reps
  • Calves — 4 sets of 20 reps

Week 3

Max Effort Upper

  • Floor Press — Use pinky on the ring grip. Work up to a max effort single
  • Seated Overhead Press — Work up to a moderate weight for 5 sets of 10 reps
  • Dumbbell Rollbacks — Work up to a moderate weight for 5 sets of 10 reps
  • Band or Cable Pressdowns — 150 to 200 reps
  • Barbell Rows — Work up to a moderate weight for 5 sets of 10 reps
  • V-Bar Lat Pulldowns — 4 sets of 15 reps
  • Face Pulls — 4 sets of 20 reps
  • Band Pull-Aparts — 100 reps in as few sets as possible
  • Hammer Curls — 4 sets of 10 reps

Dynamic Effort Upper

  • Speed Bench — With three grips (index on smooth, thumb length from smooth, and pinky on ring) for 9 triples. Use 55% of your max with roughly 25% band tension
  • Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press — 4 sets of 15 reps
  • Kettlebell/Fatbell Extension — 5 sets of 10 reps
  • Band or Cable Pressdowns — 150 to 200 reps
  • Barbell Rows — 4 sets of 15-20 reps
  • Close Grip Pulldowns — 4 sets of 10 reps
  • Band Pull-Aparts — 100 reps in as few sets as possible
  • Hammer Curls — 4 sets of 10

Max Effort Lower

  • Low Block Pulls — Work up to a max effort set of 5 reps. Focus on getting 5 quality work sets in the 60-80% range on the way up
  • Speed Pulls — Use 50% of your max and doubled mini bands for 12 singles with 30-second rest periods
  • Belt Squats — 5 sets of 10 at a moderate weight, using a box.
  • Barbell Lunges — 5 sets of 10 each leg with weight
  • Kneeling Squats — Use a band around the waist for 4 sets of 20 reps
  • Band Leg Curls —100 reps in as few sets as possible.
  • Spread Eagle Sit-Ups — 5 sets of 10 reps with weight
  • Calves — 4 sets of 20 reps

Dynamic Effort Lower

  • Speed Squats — Use a box below parallel, but only touch the box. Don’t release the hips. Use 55% of your max and roughly 25% band tension for 10 sets of 2 reps
  • Wide Stance Pause Squats — Work up doing sets of 8 reps to a moderately hard set of 8 reps
  • 45-Degree Back Raises — Add weight behind head each set, doing 4 sets of 15 reps
  • Band Good Morning — 4 sets of 20 reps
  • Hip Abduction — Use a band for 100 reps in as few sets as possible
  • Front Squat Holds — Use the SS Yoke Bar turned around backwards. Stand up with a moderately heavy weight for 3 sets of 60 seconds
  • Calves — 4 sets of 20 reps

Week 4

Max Effort Upper

  • Close Grip Bench, Two-Second Pause — Work up to a max effort triple. Try your best to get 6 to 8 work sets in the 60-80% range on the way up
  • Flat Dumbbell Press — Use a neutral grip. Work up to 5 moderately hard sets of 10
  • Three-Board Press — Work up to around 80% of your max and hit this for 4 sets as many reps as possible, without failing
  • Band or Cable Pressdowns — 150 to 200 reps
  • One-Arm Dumbbell Rows — 4 sets of 10
  • Seated Row Variation — 4 sets of 15 reps
  • Scapular Retraction with Dumbells — Do 4 sets of 20 reps
  • Hammer Curl — 4 sets of 10 reps

Dynamic Effort Upper

  • Flat Dumbbell Press — Up to a 20-rep max
  • One-Board Bench Paused — Work up to 65% of your max for as many reps as possible without failing for 4 sets
  • Band or Cable Pressdowns — 150 to 200 reps
  • Barbell Rows — Work up to a moderate weight for 4 sets of 10 reps
  • Hammer Strength Row Machine — 4 sets of 10-15 reps
  • Rear Delt Raise — 4 sets of 15 reps
  • Hammer Curls — 4 sets of 10 reps

Max Effort Lower

  • SS Yoke Bar Squats — Work up to a heavy set of 5 reps. Aim to get 5 good working sets in the 60-80% range on the way up
  • Speed Pulls — Use 50% straight weight for 10 singles
  • Kettlebell Swings with Band Around Waist — 4 sets of 15 reps
  • Step-Ups — Hold weight for 3 sets of 10 reps per side
  • One-Leg Reverse Hypers — 4 sets of 10, each leg
  • Farmer’s Walks — 3 sets of 30 yards, as heavy as possible
  • Rotation Abs — Use a barbell, and do 4 sets of 10 each side
  • Calves — 4 sets of 20 reps

Dynamic Effort Lower

  • Front Squats, Paused — Work up to a moderately hard set of 8
  • Extra Wide Sumo Pulls — Work up to a moderate weight for 4 sets of 8
  • Reverse Hypers — 4 x 10 with 50% of your max squat
  • Leg Curls — 3 sets of 20 reps
  • Leg Extensions — 3 sets of 20 reps
  • Standing Cable Abs — 5 sets of 20 reps
  • Calves — 4 sets of 20 reps

In Closing

General conjugate principles are essentially the same for the raw lifter as they are the equipped lifter. It simply just comes down to selecting the right exercises to work where the lifter is weak. A raw lifter is often weak in the bottom portion and middle range of the lift. The equipped lifter is often the top portion of the lift. Don’t make the mistake of training like an equipped lifter as a raw lifter, just because you train conjugate.

Very respectable and consistent strength gains can come from training conjugate as a raw lifter. And more importantly, respectable and consistent gains can come from training conjugate as a raw lifter five years from now. I reiterate that I feel the conjugate system is one that can’t be beaten with all variables considered. It allows a lifter to progress consistently and steadily, and minimizes boredom in training.

We are at an interesting place in powerlifting. Powerlifting is bigger than I ever expected to see it become 10 years ago. With all of the federations, lifting styles, ultra-specific and meaningless records, and gigantic egos, what we are in need of is unification. We as a powerlifting community need to unite and help each other regardless of federation, lifting style, training style, race, or gender. Please help me spread this word.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and please pass it along to someone you think you might benefit from it. Help me spread the word of Calloused Hands, and if this article helped you in any way, tag me on Instagram (@callousedhandspower) in what you are doing or with any questions. I always respond. Please feel free to follow, like, comment, or share. And as always, don’t take powerlifting advice from someone who doesn’t even have callouses on their hands yet. Have Calloused Hands, fellow lifter.

Images courtesy of Yessica Martinez

Lones Green resides in State College, Pennsylvania. Lones signed up for his first meet in November of 2007 and has lifted in nearly 20 powerlifting meets since. Lones has trained conjugate for over ten years and is the founder of Calloused Hands Powerlifting. Lones has best lifts of an 855-pound squat, 575-pound bench press, and 690-pound deadlift in the 308-pound and super heavyweight classes.