Why Westside Barbell kicks ass
In 1985, at the ripe old age of 16, I was already a serious powerlifter. At 5’8”, I weighed in at a rock solid 145lbs. Although small in stature, I could squat and deadlift over 500lbs and bench pressed close to 300lbs. That same year I would go on to win the West Virginia state championships, setting multiple state records and moving on to the USPF (United States Powerlifting Federation) Teenage Nationals where I took gold.
I represented the Mountaineer Barbell Club then coached by Dave Jeffrey, OG Powerlifter and promoter of the Mountaineer Open, one of the biggest powerlifting meets of the year. It routinely headlined world champion lifters from across the Nation. Our club had two world record holders, Mary Ryan Jeffrey (Dave’s wife) and Brett Russell, a 242lb. record holder in the deadlift (850lbs). Long story short, we were a rough and tumble group, well coached and eager to whip anyone’s ass who stepped on the platform. We thought we were untouchable, but I know better now.
I met Louie Simmons that same year at the Mountaineer Open Powerlifting Championships in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Louie is the infamous owner and coach of the West Side Barbell club located in Columbus Ohio. Back in the mid 80’s Louie and Westside weren’t yet the iconic frontrunners of the industry they are now, but his posse of lifters already stood out from the rest.
Westside was and still is a powerlifting juggernaut. That video says it all. The Westside team was jacked, loud and obnoxious. It was like watching a circus act gone wrong. Shit, the ladies from Westside made me look like a freakin’ horse jockey, not a wannabe powerlifter! I was honestly embarrassed to stand beside them. Every time a Westside lifter stepped on the platform it was preceded by a call over the intercom, “and now another World Record attempt”, not two minutes later, “and now another World record attempt”, this pattern went on the entire weekend.
I would go on to compete in many meets over the next two years in which Westside dominated. To say the experience left an indelible mark on me is beyond an understatement. I now knew what it looked like to be the best, and I wanted to taste that. The universe had other plans. When I turned 18, Uncle Sam came knocking and I spent the next four years serving with the 82nd Airborne in Ft. Bragg, NC. It was not until thirty-one years after my first run-in with the Westside Barbell Club that I got the powerlifting itch once again. Difference? This time I was 47 years old.
As I prepared to re-enter the powerlifting arena I knew two things: 1) because I suffer from a combination of a raging ego mixed with a healthy dose of obsessive compulsive disorder, I wanted to compete at a VERY high level. 2) If I was going to compete and be successful, I had to know what Louie Simmons knows about getting strong.
I had been a professional trainer and strength coach for over 25 years. I had worked with a broad range of clientele from US Special Operations soldiers to Ironman athletes, but when it came to the specific sport of powerlifting, I knew I needed to go back and hit the books. I spent a full year watching every video, reading every book and blog Louie published and experimenting in the gym. I wanted to reverse engineer Louie’s process. I needed to better understand how and why Westside Barbell has held over 140 World records over the last four decades and continues to dominate the field. My efforts paid off. With less than 10 months of training under my belt and after a 30-year layoff, I won the bronze medal in the 74kg Masters division at the 2016 USAPL Raw Nationals. Before I started training again I hadn’t squatted or deadlifted more than 250lbs since I was 18 years old. In just 300 days of training I would set an American record of 514lbs in the deadlift (equivalent to a 250lb man deadlifting over 800lbs). I squatted 435lbs wearing only a weightlifting belt and weighing in at a whopping 159lbs. Oh, and less than 5% bodyfat.
I was a little impressed with myself. But the bigger question, and what you want to know is How did I do it, right? I will explain. I did it by dissecting and analyzing, not just “following” the Westside system. Here’s what I mean. It’s common for strength athletes to follow a program they’ve stumbled on in a magazine or video they’ve downloaded from a website. These programs are meant to be a template, an overview, not an individualized program. The map, so to speak, not the territory. Let me clarify, it’s not a good idea to pull up a cookie cutter program and follow it to the letter, it simply does not work that way. Individualized modifications must be made or the program will result in absolute failure and possible injury. This is especially true for the Westside system. Because the Westside system is one of the most popular, and effective, it is also the most followed and scrutinized.
As I began to research to develop my own personal programming, I scoured the web for articles written by lifters who had experienced the Westside system outside of physically training at Westside Barbell Club. I can’t count how many dozens of blogs I pulled up over the last couple of years which take a giant shit all over Westside. Most of these blogs declare the system to be “ineffective, it’s just too hard unless your pumping a laundry list of steroids”. This peaked my curiosity. In the world of powerlifting, and most professional sports whether they admit it or not, steroid use is commonplace. However, whether you choose to believe it, or not, steroids don’t single-handedly make champions or achieve world records. If everyone is taking ‘roids that makes the playing field even, right? If it all comes down to drugs alone and training is irrelevant, then why does Westside still kick everyone’s ass? Do they just get better drugs? If the Westside system is not the determining variable, how in the hell have they produced more world champions than any system in recent history. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Instead of taking anyone’s word for it, including Louie Simmons himself, and blindly making assumptions, I examined the “why”. Why Louie trained the way he trained as opposed to the “what”. Whether you like him or not, Louie knows a shit ton about strength training. He has scoured the planet in his quest for knowledge, leaving no stone unturned. He’s also quite open and speaks regularly about how his theories on strength training have evolved over the years resulting in the current Westside or Conjugate system. What my research has clearly supported is that nothing has inspired Louie, “and myself”, more than the work of Russian exercise physiologists like Yuri Verkhoshonski. This is a brief bio taken from Dr. Verkhoshansky’s website:
Yuri Verkhoshansky is predominantly known to most westerner readers as the Russian researcher who invented plyometric training (Shock Method). Many coaches and sport scientists around the world, however, recognize Y.Verkhoshansky as a prominent figure in the field of explosive strength training, one of the greatest experts in the theory of sports training whose ideas was implemented and expanded as: Methodology of Special Strength Training and Special Physical Preparation, Long Delay Training Effect, Conjugate–Sequence System Training and Block Training System (known in the West as Block Periodization). To a few sport training experts, he is known as the first scientist applied the Physiology of Adaptation in the theoretic analysis of the sport training process. Some training experts also know that more than 20 years ago he introduced the new approach of planned training, “Programming of training”, based upon the innovative, at that time, methodology that is presently known as System Analysis & Design and the structured process modelling.
The methods of Dr. Verkhoshansky and other Russian exercise physiologists like Vladimir Zatsiorsky are literally light years ahead of Western strength training strategies. For this reason, Russia continues to dominate the world of strength sports. In the opening pages of his magnus opus, Supertraining, co-written by Mel Siff ,also a friend of Louie, Dr. Verkhoshansky describes strength as a “phenomenon”. I freakin’ love that. Here is the equivalent of a Russian rocket scientist, who’s life has been spent studying hard data and research calling strength a “phenomenon”, a mystery… Why is this word so intriguing, and so groundbreaking in my own exploration of strength programming? Most people, strength coaches included, see strength as a widget with an on/off switch. Strength is a thing, a noun, a tangible object which can be acquired simply if you pick up heavy shit often enough. In stark contrast, Verkhoshansky sees strength as an intangible, multi-dimensional possibility. This possibility has many dimensions, or layers, like an onion. In Supertraining, Verkhoshansky goes into considerable detail both defining and explaining how one achieves these multiple dimensions of strength, which include:
- Maximum Strength characterizes the athlete’s potential and is a measure of the maximal voluntary isometric muscular force which can be produced without a time limit or a limit to the amount of weight lifted.
- The Relative strength of an athlete (amount of force produced per kilogram of body mass.
- Speed strength characterizes the ability to quickly execute an unloaded movement or a movement against a relatively small external resistance. Speed-strength is assessed in terms of the speed of the movement.
- Explosive strength characterizes the ability to produce maximal force in a minimal time. The index explosive strength is often described roughly by dividing the maximum force by the time taken to produce this level of force.
- Starting strength or ability of the muscles to develop force at the beginning of the working contraction before external movement occurs. The ability to generate starting strength rapidly can exert a profound effect on the dynamics of an entire movement not lonely in terms of the magnitude of the impulse, but also regarding the psychological sensation of “lightness” that it creates during the crucial initial stage of a highly resisted movement.
- Acceleration strength or ability over time to quickly achieve maximal external force while developing muscle tension isometrically or at the beginning of a dynamic contraction
- Strength Endurance characterizes the ability to effectively maintain muscular functioning under work conditions of long duration. In sport, this refers to the ability to produce a certain minimum force for a prolonged period. There are different types of muscle functioning associated with this ability, such as holding a given position or posture Static strength-endurance, maintaining cyclic work of various intensities (dynamic strength endurance) or repetitively executing explosive effort (explosive strength endurance).
For the beginning strength athlete, the process of achieving higher levels of strength can come on pretty easily. If consistency is maintained, every time a beginner steps under the bar and performs a squat, they will increase their strength levels from that single session of weight training. This neurological and physical adaptation is NOT as simple for advanced strength athletes. At some point the nervous system begins to accommodate to high levels of volume, intensity, and specific exercises. Accommodation is when the nervous system no longer responds to a certain stimulus or exercise. Accommodation mainly occurs due to the strength athlete performing the same lift too frequently. For this reason, strength training methodologies must change over time as the athlete advances from beginner to advanced. But change to what?
The Birth of the Westside Conjugate System
The harsh realities which govern the laws of accommodation and specificity gave birth to the Westside system. Louie realized that an advanced strength athlete requires a full-on arsenal of weaponry and methodologies (including Western, Bulgarian and Russian). When combined effectively, and consistently the body can continue making performance gains. Unique additions such as accessory and specialty lifts, compensatory acceleration technique, maximum, dynamic and repetitive effort training, as well as use of chains and bands (accommodating resistance) set the Conjugate system apart from Louie’s mentors and predecessors.
Accessory or Specialty Lifts:
For all training sessions within the conjugate system, the main lift is accompanied by accessory exercises which address the weaknesses in the lifters technique. Louie explains the origin and importance of accessory and specialty exercises,
“In the early 1970s, the Dynamo Club in the former Soviet Union had 70 highly skilled Olympic lifters. They were introduced to a system of 20-45 special exercises that were grouped into 2-4 exercises per work-out and were rotated as often as necessary to make continuous progress. They soon found out that as the squat, good morning, back raise, glute/ham raise, or special pulls got stronger, so did their Olympic lifts. When asked about the system, only one lifter was satisfied with the number of special lifts; the rest wanted more to choose from. Thus the conjugate system was originated. When you have a body type that lacks say, the muscles that squat and yet you squat on a regular basis, then a coupling of special exercises for the glutes, hamstrings, hips, and lower back are needed to fortify those areas. These special exercises will enable you to raise your squat once more”.
Specialty exercises could include movements such as the box squat in place of the (low bar squat), floor press (in place of bench press) and good mornings (in place of the deadlift) are trained on specific days with very specific intentions (see below) and are always accompanied by using a technique Louie refers to as the Repetitive Effort Method. This method is just what it sounds like: continue doing reps until you can’t complete an additional rep. Training like this increases hypertrophy, especially of Type I muscle fibers which are incredibly hard to fatigue (See Hacking Strength PART III) and increases strength endurance. Accessory exercises and the repetitive effort method are performed each day the athlete trains, in many ways becoming the foundation for the entire program. It’s also not rare that an athlete performs an additional 3-5 accessory workouts per week on top of their traditional training plan.
**Please note there is no “prescription” for accessory exercises, this is where effective coaching, objective assessment and evaluation of weakness becomes essential in maximizing program design.
A SAMPLE TRAINING PLAN USING THE CONJUGATE SYSTEM.
The plan outline below is NOT a recommended training plan to simply be printed and taken to the gym. This is simply one example of how an athlete might implement the Westside system into their training regimen.
Dynamic Effort Upper
Main exercises: Bench Press
- Sets = 8-10
- Reps/Set = 3
- Intensity = 40%-65% of 1 Repetition Max (RM) in bar weight and 35% from tension (See Below, Tension comes from bands and chains).
- This load goes up 5% in intensity each week for 3 weeks and then starts over (this is referred to as a wave).
- On dynamic effort day, the main exercises will be performed using bands or chains. This addition is called accommodating resistance.
The use of bands and chains will allow an athlete the opportunity to work with a relatively light weight (55%-65% 1RM) which they will then attempt to move as fast as possible (compensatory acceleration technique). The bands and chains simply act as brakes, slowing the movement down as the athlete completes the lift. This process develops explosive and acceleration strength of Type II muscle fiber (SEE PART III for more on Fiber Type).
** Include accessory exercises using the Repetitive Effort Method
Dynamic Effort Lower
Main exercises: Squat and Deadlift:
- Sets = 10-12
- Reps = 2
- Intensity = 40%-65% 1RM in bar weight and 35% accommodating resistance
- Sets = 6-10
- Reps = 1
- Intensity = 40%-65% 1RM in bar weight and 35% accommodating resistance
**Include accessory exercises using Repetitive Effort Method.
Maximum Effort Upper
Main exercises: Variations of bench press
- Sets = 8-12
- Reps = 1-3
- Intensity = Progressing from light to a very heavy weight (90-100 1RM for the last 3-5 sets).
- The use of weights at or above 90% 1RM increases the strength athlete’s maximum strength capabilities as well as potential for hypertrophy or size of type II muscle fiber. The use of rep ranges (2-3) while under this amount of tension also increases the athlete’s levels strength endurance.
** Include accessory Exercises using Repetitive Effort Method
Maximum Effort Lower:
Main Lifts: Variations of Squat and Deadlift
- Sets = 8-12
- Reps = 1-3
- Intensity ranges from 90-100 1RM for the last 3-5 sets.
**Include accessory exercises using Repetitive Effort Method.
Recapping the Westside Way:
- Strength is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. An advanced strength athlete must train all dimensions of strength to maximize individual potential.
Westside is a comprehensive approach. Westside uses numerous methods including:
- Conjugate method
- Maximum effort method
- Dynamic effort method
- Repetitive effort method
- Multiple methods of accommodating resistance and
- Compensatory acceleration techniques
- Hypertrophy: Hypertrophy training should be a consistent focus for ALL strength athletes. This is unfortunately not the case for many popular methods of strength training. The incorporation of the repetitive effort method creates hypertrophy in type I muscle fiber, targets the breaking point in the lifters technique and neuromuscular development, conditions connective tissue, increases GPP (general physical preparedness, SWC (special work capacity) and serves as an active recovery strategy.
- Westside addresses accommodation and Specificity: For the strength athlete to excel at any individual lift they must become technically proficient in that specific exercise. Strength development (outside of increasing hypertrophy) is by and large a product of continued neuromuscular adaptations. The best way to increase this neuromuscular adaptation is by mastering the nuances found within varying exercises. This is known as specificity. In laymen’s terms “if you want to get better at something, you must practice it, a lot”. The underlying issue for the advanced athlete is at some point the nervous system will accommodate to the exercise and the stimulus which was once significant enough to cause adaptation (ie getting stronger) is no longer responsive. At this point the athlete must incorporate specialty exercises which are still specific enough to affect the main lift but prevents accommodation.
If you are an aspiring competitive strength athlete, or just a serious athlete at any level, if strength is a goal, there is no substitute for the Westside system. There are pitfalls in the Westside system like any strength training program. The tendency to overtrain, reliance on equipment (bench shirts, multi-ply power suits, etc.) being another. But, it is important we appreciate the Westside conjugate training system for what it is; a non-specific template or overview which addresses the reality that strength training is an incredibly comprehensive practice and must be approached through multiple modalities of development. You simply cannot get under a bar and do sets of 5 without ever needing to shake things up. For those of you who want quick and easy, the Westside system is not for you. But, for those of us who are striving to suck every pound of potential out of our bodies, Westside is the only place to start.