What Program Should You Choose?

What Program Should You Choose?

-Matthew Cavalier

One of the most popular debates you’ll see in the strength training realm is the debate about programming. Every strength coach and athlete has a program that they stand by and swear is the best in the world. There are established and reputable strength coaches across the country who will promote their program to the masses and promise that if you follow it, you’ll turn into a beast. So, when you’re searching online for a program to try, you’re going to be hit with an overwhelming amount of results. There are literally thousands of programs to choose from that come from decades of training athletes across the world. So, which program should you choose? To help guide you, it’s probably important to know that proven strength training programs are built around a philosophy. If you understand what that philosophy is, you might be able to better understand what a particular program is designed to do. In general, there are three basic strength training philosophies. They are linear periodization, block periodization and conjugate training. There are other philosophies out there, but I would say most programs you’re going to see more or less fall into one of those three categories.

Linear Periodization

Linear Periodization is one of the most popular styles of training. The concept is simple: add incremental amounts of weights over a long period of time to increase adaptation, thus increasing strength. Generally, these types of programs are broken into four week blocks. Week one, two and three are intense training blocks, and week four is the deload week. Once the next block begins, the trainee will add a small amount of weight to each lift and begin the cycle again. The deload week is built in for a good reason and should not be neglected. The program does not necessarily have to be constructed in that fashion, but it is the most common design. The simplicity and straightforward philosophy of the program is what makes it suitable for beginners in the eyes of many coaches and trainers. It allows them to help the trainee build strength while teaching proper form and movement patterns under minor increases in intensity. There are two ways that I know to decide what intensity to begin with. The trainee will either test for a true one rep max or use the repetitions formula to calculate a close estimate (weight x reps x .0333 + weight = max). The one rep max will give the trainee his true strength level at that time; however, testing for a one rep max is dangerous, especially for a beginner. While not exact, the repetition formula is safer. From there, the trainee will progress by adding small increments every week to increase their maximal strength. I have trained with the linear model for a long time. Two of my favorite programs are 531 by Jim Wendler and the Greyskull LP by Johnny Pain. They are simple, straightforward and effective. It is a philosophy that has been around for many years and has made many people stronger.

Not everyone likes to train using linear programs. Some people complain that it is not suitable for intermediate and advanced lifters. Others complain that many linear programs do not incorporate enough volume. This is just my opinion, but I think many people get bored of training linear before they actually get everything out of it that is possible. The more a trainee progresses, the harder it becomes to push that progress. The trainee will have to resort to using microplates to make tiny increases in intensity over longer periods of time to continue to make gains. I think some lifters want something a little more exciting instead of just grinding out another two and half pound increase. No one says that the programs are set in stone. If you want to increase the volume of the program, just increase the volume. You can add extra sets or reps to satisfy the volume demand and still follow the philosophy of linear progression. Another objection to the linear model is that the increments in weights are too small. If a trainee is capable of lifting more weight, why shouldn’t they? Again, the program is not written in stone. If the trainee can lift more weight while displaying proper form and recover from the stimulation, then that is perfectly acceptable. Adapting the linear model is easy and should be encouraged for someone who has a good understanding of the philosophy, so long as they are recovering from the stimulation.

Block Periodization

Also known as Western Periodization, this style of training has been around for a long time. The philosophy behind block training is to focus on one phase of strength development at a time. Each phase is broken down into four to six week blocks. The first block is generally a hypertrophy phase. The trainee is instructed to perform exercises with lower intensity and higher volume. The higher repetitions, generally in the ten to fifteen range, help the trainee dial in their technique and build some muscle to increase their body mass. This will help prepare them for the next block. The second block is generally a power or strength building phase. The intensity is cranked up and volume is decreased to somewhere in the five to eight rep range. Here, the trainee should experience noticeable increase to strength and power. The final phase is a peaking phase. This is the phase where the trainee is trying to display maximal strength and set personal records. The intensity is cranked up to upwards of 95% and the volume is completed in sets of singles, doubles and triples. In this phase, the risks are high, but so are the rewards. If the trainee has done what was necessary to dial in their technique and take care of their body, he or she will be able to lift some seriously heavy weight.

Block training is popular in the powerlifting world. It is a proven template that gets results. Just like anything else, there are people who do not like block training. Some people complain that the process takes too long. Strength training takes a long time, and in the competitive powerlifting world, meets are several months apart. Competitive lifters need that time to prepare for the meet. Block periodization allows them to effectively schedule and plan their training. Rushing strength training can lead to missed lifts or worse, injuries. So, take some good advice, and don’t try to rush things. Be patient, and the results will show.

Conjugate Training

Originally designed with Olympic weightlifters in mind, conjugate training is designed to train multiple phases of strength training simultaneously. In a conjugate style of training, the trainee will work on strength, power and speed. The intensity and volume of the training sessions change daily instead of weekly or monthly. For example, a trainee could train squats on Monday for max effort using high weights and low reps, train bench press on Wednesday for speed and hypertrophy using lower weights and higher reps and train deadlifts on Friday for power with maybe some kind of dynamic training using bands or chains. Each week, each session rotates its intensity and training goal. By the end of the month, the trainee should have trained each lift for speed, power and strength at least once. Conjugate training is used by Olympic lifters, powerlifters, strongmen and athletes of various sports. It is great for athletes who need to be trained in multiple types of physical activities, and it is great for athletes who need to get in as much training as possible in a finite amount of time. For example, Joe Defranco loves to use the conjugate style of training. Many of his athletes might only be available for eight weeks at a time. He needs to be able to effectively train for all the physical demands for their respective sports in a short amount of time.

Some people are turned off by conjugate training. For one, it is thought as overly complex and does not have enough specificity for a long enough time to make real progress. At first glance, the conjugate can seem complex. There are a lot of moving parts and a lot to work on. However, if you just schedule it out and put it on paper in the form of a plan, it is not nearly as complicated as you might think. Follow the plan day by day, and you will get better. As for the lack of specificity, athletes of many sports have trained using conjugate for a long time. If it didn’t lead to results, I highly doubt someone like Joe Deferanco would use it for his athletes. Most sports require their athletes to be proficient with multiple physical abilities. For example, a football player can’t only be strong or only be fast or only be explosive. A football player needs to be strong, fast and explosive. Using a conjugate training method allows football players to train for all aspects of their sports simultaneously. More coaches and athletes use that style of training than you might realize. They may not call it a conjugate program by name, but if you break down the overall design, it’s essentially a conjugate philosophy.

One of the most popular conjugate programs you will probably hear of is the Westside Barbell conjugate training program. Some people are actually turned off from conjugate training because they think of Westside. Westside uses its own program that was designed for a very specific reason. The goal of the creator of Westside, Louie Simmons, was to find a way to push elite level powerlifters to new heights. So, unless you’re a powerlifter with an elite level total, you don’t have to look at a program like that. There are many conjugate style programs out there for beginners, intermediate and advanced lifters. A good place to look would be Joe Defranco’s programs.

So, which style is best? Which program should you use? Is one really better than the other? The truth is, it doesn’t necessarily matter which one you choose. So long as the program is built using a proven philosophy, and it helps you train what you want to train, it will work. In the end, it’s on you to put in the work and learn the technique to get stronger. The best way to know if your program is working is to answer one question: are you getting better at what you need to improve? If the answer is yes, then you’ve chosen a good program. If the answer is no, then you might need an evaluation to see what can be done to get you better. Whether you choose linear, block or conjugate, it’s up to you to commit to the plan, eat properly and recover to make them work. Choose a program that looks like something you would want to do, work your ass off and you will see results.

I understand that sometimes choosing a proper strength program can be a little overwhelming. If you’re not sure which program fits your needs and you need help, send an email to cameron@atlasstrengthshop.com. If you want to keep up with all the happenings at the Atlas Strength Shop, you can follow us on Facebook here and like us on Instagram here. If you need some high quality energy supplements to fuel your next training session, visit strikeforceenergy.com and use promo code ATLASTRENGTH to get 20% off of your order.

On October 30, 2021, the Atlas Strength Shop will be hosting its second annual strongman competition, the Rougarou Classic. If you’re interested in competing, check out the Facebook page here, or you can visit ironpodium.com for more information.

“Don’t have $100 shoes and a 10 cent squat.” -Louie Simmons