Conjugate Method for CrossFit
One of the biggest advantages of doing CrossFit is the consistent stream of excitement stemming from a long list of novel exercises. Because of this, accommodation and boredom are less likely. Performing things like the Olympic lifts and compound movements is a lot more fun for most people than performing single-joint exercises. For this reason, I’ve seen many coaches/athletes adopt the model of only using the “sexy variations,” and the less-sexy counterparts are often forgotten about.
More than a decade before CrossFit became mainstream, Louie Simmons developed the “Conjugate Method,” mainly for powerlifters, which is a concurrent system of fitness much like CrossFit. The Conjugate Method successfully helps athletes develop their work capacity and improve their limiting factors and is useful for athletes of all abilities, not just powerlifters. For both novice and competitive CrossFitters, this system of training works wonders. Additionally, this system works incredibly well for regular folks that attend a local box and simply want to look and feel better.
Regardless of what side of the fence you are on in terms of programming methodology, there are a few things that we need to be mindful of:
- Adaptation: How long it takes to adapt to a given system or movement pattern. The answer is individually based, but if we only are squatting to increase leg-strength then we are missing big pieces of the puzzle.
- Accommodation: How long it takes before results stop. Again, an individually based answer, but for most athletes using the same movement patterns and loading schemes over and over will eventually cause you to go backward with your progress.
With so many conflicting viewpoints on the internet, it’s easy to get lost or simply hop from one program to the next. What I’m going to share with you is what I see missing from most CrossFitters’ programming at both the novice and the competitor level, and how to incorporate it into your plan. This is where the Conjugate Method goes above and beyond and emphasizes building an athlete’s base. Most importantly, we are able to avoid things like overtraining and overuse injury. As Tom (Louie’s manager) from Westside Barbell says, “a training program is only as good as its lack of injuries”.
- Single-joint work: Single-joint work is the number one thing missing from most CrossFitters’ programming whether it be a competitive CrossFitter or your regular Joe that attends the local box. Quite frankly, this work is just as IMPORTANT as work with compound movements. Don’t believe me? Answer me this: If your squat is stuck at 400 pounds and all you do is continue to squat to increase your number what is the logic you’re using to think your squat will increase? Chances are your squat is stuck where it is because you haven’t made any attempts to improve the primary movers that assist the movement and by simply squatting more you’ll more than likely regress or incur an overuse injury. Adding single-joint work can help you address your limiting factors whereas, with a bilateral movement, compensation patterns may only be exacerbated. As Louie Simmons says, “you’re only as strong as your weakest link”. Spend the bulk of your time using unilateral exercises to improve your lagging muscle-groups and your bilateral movements will be rewarded. Not to mention, you’ll more than likely improve your body-composition at the same time!
- Aerobic Work: If you’re off the school of thought that aerobic development makes you slower or less athletic, I can understand where you’re coming from because I used to be from this same school of thought. Contrary to what many believe, an efficient aerobic system can actually improve explosive qualities. Put simply, an efficient aerobic system will afford an athlete the ability to replenish ATP at a faster rate. When ATP is needed for more explosive movements like a 1-Rep Max Clean and Jerk, it will be more readily available. In CrossFit, this is a must, as every event is different and requires athletes to not only sustain their efforts for longer durations but also move explosively for maximal variations like 1RM Snatch. Moreover, an efficient aerobic system can effectively improve an athlete’s ability to recover. For athletes of all levels, this is a must as we are only as good as our ability to recover from a training session. Lastly, sustaining higher-levels of aerobic power is key to becoming a better CrossFitter. Being able to stay aerobic and not cross your anaerobic threshold too soon will ensure you’re able to be consistent with a wide array of workouts and thereby improve your overall output.
- Loaded Carries: While I’m starting to see more and more work done with loaded carries, this is still an aspect of most CrossFitters’ training that gets forgotten. Traditional farmer carries are standard at most boxes, but there is a long list of variations that we have at our disposal to change things up. Additionally, if you’ve ever done a loaded carry it’s likely you’ve seen that your heart-rate went through the roof. With that said, loaded carries are a form of high-resistance aerobic work so this work has a long list of benefits that can’t be denied.
- Sledpulls: Sure, we see many athletes pushing sleds, but we see fewer athletes pulling a sled. I’m specifically talking about power-walking with a heavy sled with the sled-straps attached to your weight-belt. We can strategically use sled pulls for strengthening, warm-up and recovery purposes not mention we can use them unconventionally to through a new stimulus in the mix (combined with loaded carries).
- Box Squatting: The importance of the box squat is understated and the fact that it works as a teaching tool for beginners as well as a tool to develop reversal strength for higher-level athletes makes it quite versatile. In description, many newbies to CrossFit don’t know how to hip-hinge properly. By using a tactile cue like a box we can teach these folks how to engage their posterior-chain by sitting back to the box. For advanced athletes, the movement breaks up the eccentric and concentric phase of the squat forcing these athletes to develop reversal strength without the assistance of the stretch-shortening cycle. In addition, loading will be less than a standard back squat making it a more joint-friendly option.
A Week of Programming
So, you’re probably wondering how would I go about incorporating this into a weekly plan. Below I’m going to lay out what a typical week could look like. Of course, your training program may look very different but there are few things that we need to ensure happen, regardless of the methodology you adhere to.
- Recovery between extreme sessions: We need 72 hours recovery between our extreme lifting and conditioning sessions. This ensures we avoid overtraining. You’ll see this done between our upper and lower dominant sessions as well as high-threshold conditioning sessions.
- Strength work should not impair conditioning work: If you don’t have the ability to perform multiple sessions, then you’ll need to be smart about the combination of your strength and conditioning work. These two elements should coincide with one another.
- Volume Prescriptions: I adhere very close to Prelipins chart and have found this chart to be useful for heavier barbell conditioning pieces in addition to speed-strength work and strength-speed work.
A) Max Effort Lower Focus
– Warm-up 200 Meter Sledpull Powerwalk @light
1) Power Clean + Front Squat: Work up to a max of 1 + 2 in 8:00.
2) Wide Stance High Box Squat w. heavy chains: 4 x 5, up to a moderately heavy set. Rest 2:00
B) Alactic Conditioning
Every 5:00 x 5 sets:
4 Touch n Go Power Cleans @70% of #1
12 Lateral Burpees Over the Bar
*Goal each set is 90-95% effort. Your work output should be same throughout otherwise increase the interval to every 6 minutes if needed.
C) Accessory Work
1) Sledpull Powerwalk: 5 x 60 yards @heavy. Rest 60s.
2) Half-Kneeling Banded Rotations: 4 x 10 ea. Rest 60s.
A) Max Effort Upper Focus
1) Medium Grip Floor Press: 1RM. Rest 2:00
– Build to a max in 8-10 sets
2a) 1-Arm DB Rows: 4 x 10 ea. Rest 30s.
2b) Side-to-Side Landmine Press: 4 x 12 (total). Rest 30s.
B) Local Endurance Conditioning
Minute 1: 10 Push Press (moderate load)
Minute 2: 10 Neutral Grip Chin-ups
Minute 3: 10-15 Ring Dips
Minute 4: 15 T2B
Minute 5: 60s Active Recovery Bike at Zone 1
*Goal is 75-80% effort. All sets should be sustainable and should be completed unbroken.
8:00 of Max Distance Overhead Double KB Carry with a light sled attached to your weight-belt. Go for max distance and only move forward with KBs overhead.
Day 3 (Active Recovery)
3-4 Rounds of:
5 Minute Bike
5 Minute Row
5 Minute Jog (or powerwalk with a light sled attached to your belt)
*All done at 130-150 BPM
*Goal for today is low-effort, almost conversational (60-70% effort)
A) Dynamic Effort Lower
1) KB Squat Jumps: 3 x 5 for maximal height. Rest 60s.
2) Wide Stance Safety Squat Bar Box Squat against bands: 5 x 5 @50% + 25% band tension, every 60s.
– Use a 13-14″ Box.
3) Conventional Rack Deadlift against bands below knee: 5 x 3 @50% + 30% band tension, every 60s.
*Warm-up both box squats and deadlifts so you can proceed right from #2 to #3. This work should NOT take longer than 20 minutes.
4 Rounds of:
Double Kettlebell Front Rack Walking Lunges x 20 steps
Heavy Kettlebell Farmer Carry x 100 Meters
Low-handle Sledpush x 50 Meters
*All sets should be completed in the same timeframe, 80% effort.
Reverse Hyper: 4 x 25. Rest 90s.
A) Dynamic Effort upper
1) Jerks: 6 x 3 @70%, every 60s.
2) Speed Bench Press against bands: 9 x 3 @50%
– change grip every 3 sets ie. close, medium, wide.
3) Barbell JM Presses: 4 x 10. Rest 60s.
B) Aerobic Power Work
30 Double Unders
10 Kettlebell Swings (light)
Rest 30s between rounds
30 Double Unders
Rest 30s between rounds
*Goal today is to stay just below your anaerobic threshold. Effort should be around 80%.
1a) Banded Pull-apart: 3 x 30-50. No rest.
1b) Banded Alphabets: 1 sets on each side. Rest 30s.
2a) Fat Grip DB Hammer Curls: 3 x 10-12. No rest.
2b) Banded Pushdowns: 3 x 30-50. Rest 30s.
With a partner and a running clock:
From minutes 0:00-10:00 Max Rounds of:
800 Meter Run
20 Alternating DB Snatches from the Floor (light)
*Each athlete runs 400 meters each and completes 10 alt. DB Snatches each
From Minutes 12:00-22:00 Max Rounds of:
20 DB Thrusters (same weight as snatches)
*Each athlete rows 500m each and completes 10 DB Thrusters each
From Minutes 24:00-34:00 Max Distance of:
ODD Object Carry
*Use a heavy d-ball, heavy sandbag, or partner buddy-carry
*Goal today is to have fun!
Day 7 (OFF)
In short, it’s possible to mix elements of strength and conditioning and CrossFit while still getting the best of both worlds. In fact, if you want to look good, feel good, and be consistent in terms of improving your performance, addressing your limiting factors and recovery is paramount.
The more tools you have in your toolbox, the better chance you have for success.
–Jason Brown – guest author
Jason has been involved with the fitness industry for close to 15 years working with athletes from all walks of life including soccer moms, professional athletes, and military personnel almost exclusively using the Conjugate Method as the basis of all his programming. After owning his own facility for six years, he started Box Programming, an online programming business that provides programming to CrossFit Affiliates and Strength and Conditioning facilities all over the world. In addition to having a BA in Psychology with honors, Jason is a CSCS, Westside Barbell Special Strength Coach, CrossFit Level 2 coach, and a Combat Veteran who is passionate about helping other coaches improve their programming as well as programming for the general population in a group setting.