One of the biggest training misconceptions using a conjugate program is that you will need five different types of bars, monolifts, bands, chains, and enough ammonia to choke a horse. 

The fact is that conjugate simply means "coupled" and coupled refers to the training of several different qualities during the same training block or phase.

"Conjugate" is not specialty bars.

"Conjugate" is not bands and chains.

"Conjugate" is merely a means of programming that can be done in any gym that has basic barbells, a rack, and a bench.

That is why I wanted to write this article (and make this video) to show that you can run a successful conjugate program at the biggest, bro-iest, box-iest commercial gym you can find and still get strong and make progress.

The Basics of Conjugate

What IS the Conjugate Training System?

Conjugate means coupled, connected, or related. In terms of training, we are putting several different training methods together, either in the same training session or the same training block. This is different from more traditional programming that focuses on one trait or adaptation for each training block.

That is it.

As you can see, there was no mention of boxes, specialty bars, bands, chains, or geared powerlifting.

The conjugate training system was developed for athletes, not powerlifters, not strongmen, but real athletes competing in the Olympics.

Crazy, right?

If you're looking for a deep dive into the true origins of the conjugate sequencing system, this article written by Tom Myslinski is a fantastic history lesson and breakdown of where this system came from.

What Methods are We Combining When We Train Conjugate?

This is a common question when newer lifters and meatheads are introduced to the conjugate system. When a coach is going to explain these training methods to a new client, there will be a discussion of the force-velocity curve and an in-depth breakdown of the specific reasons for each method.

If you're looking for a discussion like that, elitefts coach Nic Bronkell did a fantastic job explaining it.

For the meatheads in the crowd or the members of the Too Long, Didn't Read generation, let's break it down for you in a quick and dirty style. As a bonus, I will be including more detailed resources that will be massively beneficial to you regarding each method used so you have a place to go to get any further answers you may have on the subject.

The three methods are:

  • Max effort method: Moving heavy weight (90% plus)
  • Dynamic effort method: Moving weight fast (~30-80%)
  • Repetition method: Moving weights a lot (bodybuilding parameters)

For a further and more technical breakdown of the conjugate system as a whole, I have included several other elitefts resources that could benefit you in getting started and getting a better understanding of what we are trying to achieve.

Potential Limitations (and Solutions) for Training Commercial Gym Conjugate

You are training in a commercial setting that may frown upon slamming weights, making a mess with chalk, and overall being a jackass. I don't blame them. The key to remember is that no matter the program you are running, you need to respect the equipment, the people, and the surroundings. 

 Find another gym, or don't be a jackass.

Bar Quality and Lack of Variety

Realize the bars you will be using will not be the best, and you will have a very limited variety to choose from. More than likely, you will have a few low-end Olympic bars to use. The knurling is going to suck. They will be most likely bent or a cheap piece of shit. Work with what you have and consider that with exercise selection.

Make sure that you have a nice pair of straps in your gym bag to use for bigger deadlifts, RDLs, block pulls, etc. Straps are a very inexpensive solution to a very common problem. This is not to say that you are going to be ONLY using straps, but if you are finding that the quality of the bar is hindering your heaviest pulls, then I would suggest throwing some chalk/liquid chalk in your bag or getting some straps.

Bench Quality

In a commercial gym, the benches will also be thin and slick, not allowing you to get into the best position when it comes to benching. This is not just a "preference thing" it is a safety thing. The last thing you want to do is start grinding out a rep and feel yourself slipping across the bench pad.

As a solution, grab yourself a pair of light bands and wrap them around the bench pad. It is not going to help when it comes to the width of the pad, but it will allow you to get a better grip and be more stable for your max effort and dynamic effort pressing days.

Valuable Training Solutions

A few inexpensive products will provide you with a tremendous amount of variety for exercise variations. A shameless plug, but at the end of the day, the truth is that these products will help you get more out of the situation you are in. They will help you, and they SHOULD be in your gym bag.

Shoulder Saver Pad

The Shoulder Saver Pad fits on standard barbells and multiplies the amount of movements you can do with the same bar. Plus, it can be used as a great tool to help you take some pressure off your shoulders, or focus more on your triceps of supplemental pressing.

Fat Gripz

Fat Gripz is a cost-effective way to get fat bar/axle/grip training into your program without needing to purchase or have access to a fat bar. The pair is a perfect tool to add variety in a commercial setting.

Band Pack 

As mentioned before, conjugate is not about the bands and chains, but having them does add variety to your dynamic or max effort days. Simply attach them using dumbbells or plates when you are squatting or benching, or simply drape them over the bar if you are pulling. Key Tip, if you pull sumo, grab a pair of the pro short bands and you will be able to go out as wide as you need to.

Finally, you will be potentially surrounded by people who may or may not like what you are doing. That is the joy of commercial gyms. Some people are cool and think it's awesome to have people lifting heavy weights and training hard, and other gyms frown upon it and might even threaten to kick you out. This point needs to be made and you need to understand what type of gym you are going to be working with, or simply find a better location where you can train as you want.

Know what you are working with and have a backup plan if you are unable to train the way you want in the location you are currently at.

How to Do Max Effort Work in a Commercial Gym

Implementing max effort work in a commercial gym setting is easy. You simply pick an exercise variation, work up in weight over 90% and make sure you are straining. This being said, there are some considerations that I would like you to have that would benefit someone who is looking to implement max effort training for the first time.

Form Over Everything

It does not matter to me if you are looking to hit a max single or you are doing a set of 20, your goal on any movement should be to perfect the form and maintain that form throughout the set. Now, this gets fuzzy for some people when it comes to training utilizing the max effort method but it shouldn’t. Your goal should be to work up to a weight that is a struggle but does not compromise your positioning and technique TOO MUCH. When talking about maximal weights there will always be some sort of breakdown, but the key is to not push that line too much and either complete the rep with atrocious technique (because you are muddying the neurological waters) and to not fail. Not saying that you will never fail during a ME day, but that is never the goal.

Practice Before Maxes

One of the best ways to learn the ins and outs of ME work is to take a few sessions and build up and not just throw yourself into the waters of an exercise variation you might not have a ton of practice with. This is not traditional max effort work due to the fact that it is more than one effort, but that does not matter because you will be getting stronger and more confident from week to week. The idea is that you are hitting two weeks of submaximal work working up to a heavy 5 and a heavy 3 before taking the real jump into a 1RM for the selected movement.

Rotation Example

  • Week 1: Heavy 5
  • Week 2: Heavy 3
  • Week 3: 1RM
  • Week 4: Rotate exercise

Below are some guidelines I would suggest for ME work in a commercial gym along with variations you can pick utilizing only one bar. Pick 3-6 exercises.

Upper Body Max Effort

  • Flat Barbell Bench (Wide, Close, Competition, shoulder saver)
  • Incline Barbell Bench (Wide, Close, normal, Shoulder saver)
  • Floor Press (Wide, Close, Normal)
  • Add Bands
  • Add Shoulder Saver
  • Add Fat Gripz

Lower Body Max Effort

  • Back Squat
  • High Bar Back Squat
  • Front Squat
  • Deadlift (Conventional, Sumo)
  • Block Pulls
  • Deficit
  • To a box (to a bench)
  • Paused
  • Add Bands

The goal should be to keep a record for each of the lifts that you pick and try and beat them the next round through with that exercise.

How to Do Dynamic Effort Work in a Commercial Gym

Dynamic work should be considered technique work and a means of practicing quality form as you produce large amounts of force. You are not just wildly throwing the bar and dive-bombing squats here. You are working on producing the most force you can within the confines of maintaining quality technique. This gets overshadowed by the fact that people are just trying to move as fast as possible and each rep looks like garbage and will not provide any carry over to the main movements.

This is where the debate of bands and chains comes into play. Do you NEED bands to do speed work? Absolutely not. You do need to make sure you pick a weight that is providing you with enough resistance that you are able to move fast while still putting effort into it. This amount of resistance will vary from person to person but the speed of the bar and the level or resistance should mimic that of bands.

Example Rotation with Bands

  • Week 1 DE Bench with Bands 10x2 w/40% Bar weight and 25% Band Tension 
  • Week 2 DE Bench with Bands 10x2 w/45% Bar weight and 25% Band Tension
  • Week 3 DE Bench with Bands 10x2 w/50% Bar weight and 25% Band Tension 

Example Rotation without Bands

  • Week 1 DE Bench 10x2 w/65% bar weight
  • Week 2 DE Bench 10x2 w/70% bar weight
  • Week 3 DE Bench 10x2 w/75% bar weight

A Different Spin on Dynamic Effort

If you don't want to implement traditional speed work, if you're not interested in that aspect of conjugate training or simply want to feel more like an athlete, then you may want to take a new route on your DE days. You can implement jumps and throws into your program. You see, medicine ball throws, plyometrics, and explosive jumps can be a great way for you to develop and maintain explosive power in your lifts, without having to deal with remembering percentages, messing with bands, or just hitting the same movement patterns over and over.

The cool part is that most gyms nowadays have access to medicine balls, boxes to jump on, and even med ball walls. These can be amazing tools not just for DE days but also to add into your programming for conditioning, work capacity, and general athleticism.

Not only can you add jumps and throws, but kettlebell swings are a great alternative if you have access to a heavy enough kettlebell and your form is competent enough to not jack yourself up. Sometimes you just need to realize what you are trying to improve on and utilize different tools to reach that goal.

Here's how I would implement jumps and throws into a commercial gym conjugate program for DE upper and lower:

DE Upper Progression

  • Week 1: Med Ball Chest pass 2x5 @ 12 Lbs
  • Week 2: Med Ball Chest pass 3x5 @ 12 Lbs
  • Week 3: Med Ball Chest pass 4x5 @ 12 Lbs

The focus should be on trying to either throw that med ball THROUGH the wall or making it explode. The focus and force being used should require you to rest for several minutes between each set to make sure you are keeping force production and skill high with each throw.

DE Lower Progression

  • Week 1: Weighted Box Jump to 16 Inch Box (Holding 20 Lbs DBs) 2x5 
  • Week 2: Weighted Box Jump to 16 Inch Box (Holding 20 Lbs DBs) 3x5 
  • Week 3: Weighted Box Jump to 16 Inch Box (Holding 20 Lbs DBs) 4x5 

As with the throws, you need to make sure that you are completing each jump with proper form as you explode off the ground. More importantly, make sure you're properly landing on top of the box. Sloppy jumps not only do not help you get better, but they can also increase your risk of landing weird and getting injured. If you are new to jumping in training, I would ditch the added weight and focus more on the technique. 

Below are some guidelines I would suggest for DE work in a commercial gym along with variations you can pick utilizing only one bar.

  • 3-week waves focusing on technique and producing force.
  • Can be more traditional with banded pulls and box squats.
  • Can be modified with jumps, med ball throws/slams, and KB swings

Traditional Dynamic Effort Upper

3 Week Waves 40-75% if no bands

  • Flat bench
  • Incline bench
  • Floor Press
  • Dumbbells
  • Add Bands
  • Add Shoulder Saver

Alternative DE Upper Exercises

  • Med Ball Throws
  • Explosive Push-ups
  • KB Swings

Traditional Dynamic Effort Lower

  • Speed Pulls 
  • Box Squat (use a bench)

Alternative DE Lower Methods

  • Jumps
  • Bounds
  • Sprints
  • KB Swings

How to Implement the Repetition Method in a Commercial Conjugate Program

This is where the commercial gym space actually benefits you the most. Commercial gyms tend to have a wider variety of machines, cables, attachments, and all the more traditional bodybuilding equipment than you can find at most powerlifting-focused gyms. The purpose of the repetition method is to make sure you are doing enough work to build some muscle as well as building up the weaknesses of your main movements.

This can be seen as the secondary or supplemental lifts, those done right after the main work for the day in order to help build up the weaknesses of the main movement, along with accessories which are usually single-joint movements designed to build up the weaknesses of the supplemental movements. Sounds complicated, but once you see it laid out, it makes a lot of sense. 

Below you'll see how I'd implement the repetition method in a commercial conjugate program for a ME lower body day and a dynamic effort upper body day.

Max Effort Lower Body

  • Main Movement: Deficit Deadlift Heavy 3
  • Supplemental Lift: Front Squat 3x6
  • Accessories: Leg Press 4x12, DB RDLs 4x12, Suitcase Carry 4x down and back, Ab Roll Outs 4x fail

Dynamic Effort Upper Body 

  • Main Movement:10x2 Barbell bench Press @ 65%
  • Supplemental Lift: Close Grip Incline Press 3x8
  • Accessories: Chest Supported Row 4x12, Db Flys 3x12, Rolling Tricep Ext 3x10, Lateral Raise 3x 12, Hanging Leg Raise 3xfail

Conclusion and Full Program

As you can see, in order to get a full conjugate program in a commercial setting, you do not need to worry about anything other than what is offered to you at your gym of choice. Yes, you can supplement your training with a few various purchases for quality of life, but the fact remains that you do not have to and you will still get great progress and strength gains.

Implementing a conjugate program is more about understanding the PURPOSE of each day as well as understanding how best to execute each of the methods described above. Once you understand why they are included as well as how they should be executed, you will start to see how little equipment you actually need to follow this sort of program.

12-Week Commercial Conjugate Program

Here's an outline of a 12-week Commercial Conjugate Program that you can implement at your local big box and find yourself breaking PRs and getting stronger without any of the cool stuff that we have here at the compound.  

If you enjoy It, please let me know and make sure you share it with your training partners so that they can get on the right path and we can cut the confusion that comes with the conjugate training system.

Feel free to modify this program to fit your specific needs.  It is designed as a foundation for you to get a better understanding of the basics that you then can grow and develop through your own training and experiences.

Sam Brown is a coach at elitefts, developing the next generation of coaches and athletes. Owner of Practice Movement and Recovery LLC, he consults clients to get out of pain and boost performance—one of the few McGill Method Practitioners in the United States. He’s a strongman and competes in the 198- to 200-pound weight class.