In Defense of Westside for Raw Lifters

TAGS: pause squats, In Defense of Westside for Raw Lifters, concurrent system, application of a training system, bands and chains, force-velocity curve, raw lifter, speed work, Jennifer Petrosino, conjugated system, form, box squat, technique, board, Louie, westside

How do you like your protein powder? I like mine chunky, peanut butter flavored, and with a tablespoon of flax seeds. But then there is my girl Courtney...she likes hers watery, chocolate flavored, and mixed with peanut butter.  And what about my Big Bro Paul? He likes his mixed with his coffee and chugged with a side of steak. What I'm getting at here is that with protein shakes—and with life and training—there are no absolutes when it comes to what is right and wrong.  Instead, it's about finding what's right for each person. So, while this article is about raw powerlifting—which has recently gained attention in some circles, it's more about a training system that has come under a lot of scrutiny. For those who don't know, I'm talking about what some call the conjugate system (or what should be correctly referred to as the concurrent system from a textbook stand point), and what the general population knows as the Westside style of training.

For the record, what I'm about to state is just my reflections as a raw lifter who uses the concurrent system. I will never claim that what I have done training-wise up to this point is Westside because, well, I'm not training at Westside. Oftentimes, when I hear or read why people believe Westside doesn't work, I understand where they are coming from. I listen to their reasons and understand because there were times when it didn't work for me. However, like them, it didn't work for me because I didn't understand the system. For myself, and for many others, there was a time when I just read the book and executed the movements without understanding the "why."  I followed the form that I thought was suggested. Yet, at that time, I never went to Westside and asked if I was doing things correctly. Instead I just assumed, and it was this assumption habit—something many lifters do when they are new to the system—that created the issues mentioned by lifters who say that the conjugate system only works for geared lifters.

Unfortunately, it is easy for one—one who is outside the walls of the Westside gym—not to truly look at the system and the principles upon which the Westside system of conjugate training was founded. In turn, it's also easy for one to fail to correctly apply the scientific principles that make the program successful. When I look around at my peers, I realize that the norm for most raw lifters is to default to the system as it should be used for multi-ply lifting. However, while this does seem to be the norm, it does not mean that it is the optimal application of the system.

So, back to my reflections...I felt the need to write this because there have recently been many articles written by raw powerlifters explaining why Westside doesn't work for raw powerlifting. So, as someone who always tries to look at things from every point of view, I felt that perhaps I should share how it does work for the raw lifter. However, let me preface this before I start: no one is right or wrong here. To be honest, everything works when it comes to training. The question is not "does your training program work" because as long as the concept of progress overload and Hans Sayle's theory of general adaptation syndrome are in place, then almost any program will. Instead, the question should be: "Is your program optimal?"

1. Executing form exactly how the lifters do in multi-ply gear when you are a raw lifter

I've been to Westside and had Louie yell at me for over tucking my elbows. He's actually said that I needed to stop tucking so much and start flaring my elbows since I was raw.  He's also told me that I need more pec and lat work since these will contribute more as a wide raw lifter. I bet that wasn't what you were expecting, huh? At Westside, I was told to start benching with no arch and with my feet up (like a bodybuilder) so that I could build upper body strength. This all happened last November, and at that time my bench was 90 percent leg drive and 10 percent upper body.

However, by March—after about four months of following Louie's instructions, my bench was up 20 pounds. For the record, I compete at 105 pounds. So a 20-pound increase for a small female on the bench is huge. On the other hand, let's compare that to when I followed what I thought was the  concurrent system (without actually realizing I was so far away from what it really was): my bench stayed the same for two years. So yeah...it was not that the program didn't work, it was that I didn't know how to apply it.

Then there's the squat...Everyone says that Louie wants people to squat ultra wide, but once again, these people haven't talked to Louie. I was at the Women's Pro Am this year, and I watched Louie pull aside my old training partner and tell her that, as a raw lifter, she was squatting too wide. Shocked? I'm not. Lou knows lifting, and he knows that squatting too wide with no gear and with weak abductors won't work out for a big raw squat. He knows that quads play a huge role for raw lifters, and he will tell you that you have to have strong quads if raw is the path you choose to follow. Anyways, back to the story...She listened to him, pulled her stance in, and went from almost getting crushed on a second attempt to smoking a third.

2. Box squats and board presses—misuse and abuse

People always say that these don't work well for raw lifting. Well, I won't lie—I don't use box squats or boards in my training (like people think they are meant to do when correctly following the program). For the record, the box squat does help build a big squat, but in the hundreds of lifters I've watched execute them, I can count on my hand how many do them right...and I'm not one of them.

No one really stays right on that box, sits back far enough, or sets it to the right at depth height.

For the record again, athletes who don't compete in the squat, bench, and dead can greatly benefit from setting the box at the joint angle relative to sport transfer, but we are taking about powerlifters. So, in my opinion, if your box is high at a meet and you miss a squat in the hole, you failed to use the box squat correctly because when executed correctly, you should build the same power out of the hole as you would with 2-count pause squats.  However, no one really sets the box below parallel...or stays right...or pauses instead of rocking...and this is why it doesn't work. I mean, if it did, everyone using them would be able to do Russian hamstring curls in sets of 20 and well, you see that as much as you see a unicorn running down the freeway...unless you are at Westside. In that case, you see 300-pound guys banging out sets of 20.

As for me, I know that I don't always use them correctly, and since I train alone, I choose to use two-count pause squats when training. Therefore, on speed days, whether I'm using straight weight, bands, chains, or nothing, I pause squat. The pause squat forces me to stay tight in the hole and do what the box squat would do if I always executed it correctly.  And, if  I use the box squat, I use it as an overload technique to get my body used to more weight.

For me, it's like the same concept I use with boards—I use them for an overload but not as my bread and butter. On the other hand, when you are in a shirt, using boards when you train raw makes total sense. Yet, as a raw lifter, if your not using them to get your CNS accustomed to heavier weight or using them to learn to build starting strength under your weak point (by placing them an inch below your sticking point and pausing the pressing), then they don't make sense. When used incorrectly they are just building your ego...and sadly not much more.

3. Incorrect understanding of bands and chains

This is my favorite. Speed work is in the conjugate system because if you think about the force velocity curve (basically the concept that governs strength development), one must train both traits to continue to build strength. You see, once you tap out max strength (aka: force), one can only continue to get stronger by addressing speed on the curve (velocity), which will, in turn, cause the curve to shift and allow you to once again have room to increase force. In this concept, of course, is the beauty of concurrent training. It addresses both aspects in a week of training, thus allowing one to continue the shift and avoid a plateau.

Unfortunately, it's when people apply speed work incorrectly that issues develop. Speed work can be trained in a range as large as 30 to 60 percent because, well, everyone is different and not everyone moves a weight at .7 meters per second squared—so there is the issue! Everyone is worried about percents, yet they should really be worried about moving the weight at the percent that equates to them moving the weight at .7 m/s/s. Otherwise, what you are doing is not accomplishing what your intention was.

I understand that some believe that peak force output is not maximized during speed work. I also understand that with speed work we are after maximal acceleration—because if force is mass times acceleration, then the purpose of a speed day is to maximize accretion. Finally, I understand that some believe that you can't maximize peak force with speed work the way you can with a max lift. But then here's the issue: perhaps the speed work is implemented incorrectly and this is the reason why the speed work is failing to achieve the training effect it was intended to elicit.

Let's say we go back to the velocity of .7 m/s/s concept. While speed percents are often assigned between the 50- to 60-percent range (or even the 60- to 75-percent range when using straight weight), the more important idea is to find the percent where you can accomplish this acceleration, regardless of whether the percent of weight on the bar is 40 or 80!  Truly, if one is doing speed work correctly, another rep could not be completed by maintaining that .7 acceleration regardless of the fact that one is moving a sub-maximal weight.

When done correctly, the RPE of a set of speed work should be a 9 or a 10 (meaning that you couldn't do another rep). And if it's not? Well, then you are doing speed work incorrectly and probably shouldn't be using a concurrent system because you are not achieving the purpose of the dynamic day—achieving maximal acceleration. If that's the case, don't stress. Either get with lifters who can get you to implement speed work correctly or pick a different training system. Honestly, lifters should choose training programs that they can execute correctly, and if speed work is being more of a hassle than a help, well no harm there. At the end of the day, one would probably benefit more from training with heavier weights more often so that max force can be achieved via attacking the mass portion of the Force = Mass x Acceleration equation. And if you're worried that you are neglecting acceleration and are not okay with it, don't worry—just add ploys, Olympic lifts, or jumps to your training because in those situations, you have no choice but to be fast and accelerate.

4. Using the future method for the irrelevant future, not the future you wish to be a part of

This one gets me going. How often do you hear a 400-pound squatter talk about killing a 600-pound reverse strong band squat? I hear it often. Also, how often do you hear a 300-pound bencher talk about hitting a 405-pound reverse average band bench? Once again, I hear it a lot. And while that's awesome, it's also an irrelevant use of the future method. In my mind, when I use the future method, it's with the intention that my reverse band work is something I will achieve in the near future. As a mid-plus 200-pound squatter, I only use micro bands and maybe the occasional mini reverse band on the squat, but I only use micros on bench.

To be honest, since I started doing this, I have (knock on wood) always been able to hit that reverse micro squat eight weeks later, but that's only with straight weight. So to take home, use the tool for what it's intended. That way, you can benefit from its awesomeness and not suffer from its potent ego-building side effects .

Like I said, there is no best program. There is no right or wrong program. What there is, however, is the concept of finding the right program for you. At the end of the day, finding that program is largely determined by finding a program that you can execute correctly and that allows you to actually train the traits you are attempting to develop while on your quest to maximal strength.

Remember, guys: there is no one best protein powder—just the one that best leaves your roommates' noses in peace, and the same could be said about different training programs!

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