Conjugate Method: A Better Way to Plan Your Training Week
Everyone wants it all in terms of his or her fitness plan. They want strength, fitness, low body fat, and flexibility. The problem with the human body, though, is that it only gets good at the things it does repeatedly. So, if you want to get stronger, then you need to lift more weight more often. If you want to get fitter, you need to engage in fitness related activities more often, and so on.
You Can’t Have It All, But You Can Get Closer
The problem is that if you want to lift more often, run more often, and stretch more often, you’re probably going to end up unemployed because of the huge amount of training time required for it all. So, can you have it all? Yes, kind of. Provided you don’t actually have a job to go to, or study to do, or kids to look after. In other words, if you’re a professional athlete, then you can, in fact, have it all. For the rest of us, the likelihood of having it all is slim.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t work multiple facets of fitness into your training at once. I think, for many people, they think of training as a jigsaw puzzle with pieces to put in various spots. They’ll look at Monday and think, “Well, I’m fresh at the start of the week, so strength goes here. Then, because I’ll be sore from Monday, I need an easy day, so maybe an easy run goes on Tuesday.”
From there the week goes back and forth between strength and cardiovascular work. There’s nothing wrong with this simplified approach, and it works for many who simply don’t want to spend the time planning out their week better. But there is a better way.
The Value of Conjugate Planning
If you haven’t heard of conjugate planning by now you must have been living under a rock. Traditional training plans addressed single qualities at a time, like the example above. The start of most plans would begin with moderate intensity, a decent amount of volume, and steady aerobic work before moving onto power, anaerobic fitness, and then the ability to maintain peak power outputs like most sports require.
For most people this is still a solid plan and is easy to implement - just dedicate three to four weeks at a time to a single quality before moving on. The normal flow is to go from general strength (typically sets of ten reps, similar in total reps per exercise to bodybuilding, although with fewer total sets per muscle group), to strength (sets of five to eight reps), power (sets of two to five reps), and finally onto power endurance.
But for high-level athletes, or those who are recreational exercisers who have been training for a long time, when you address single qualities at a time, there is a large drop off in the other fitness qualities. And this is where conjugate planning comes in handy as it allows you to address all these things at once almost like a permanent maintenance training process.
Train Everything a Little Bit
Following a conjugate plan will seem like maintenance training because instead of addressing a quality like strength three to five times in a week, you may only perform a strength session once per week. While it may not seem like one or two strength sessions per week will be adequate for strength maintenance, consider this study from the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology that showed that groups of rowers maintained strength gains on such a small number of sessions per week.
One of the things that often niggles at more experienced trainees is the idea that constant lifelong improvement is possible. It’s not. Everyone has a ceiling for how much strength he or she can gain, and sooner or later everyone tops out. Or rather, for those who are doing anything else in life beyond just lifting, you’ll find that you can get to a certain point and then that’s you.
If you go back to working on a single focus strength plan for a while, and allow the other qualities to detrain while you do so, you may add a little bit of weight to your max efforts. But you’ll probably find that once you come off your single focus plan and go back to having to address multiple fitness qualities all at once that your numbers gradually slide back to where they were.
How to Plan Your Week Using the Conjugate Approach
But if we’re going to only use up one or two sessions per week with a strength focus, then how do we structure the rest of the week? There are two main rules to keep in mind, in my opinion, when laying out your week:
- As the central nervous system (CNS) fatigues you will be less capable of fast movements later in the week. That means that power training needs to go when you’re freshest. That may mean it goes at the start of the week, but it may also mean that it goes after a rest day midweek. It doesn’t matter as long as you work on speed when you’re fresh. The basic order should be speed/power, strength, then either power endurance or general strength (such as hypertrophy work needed that is either sport-specific or anti-aging).
- Regardless of what I just said, your biggest priority needs to go first in the week when you are freshest. For my clients, that means the first session of the week is mobility, because all of them need better range of motion. The rest of the week hinges off that.
Maybe after having assessed yourself or your client, you recognize that strength is a limiting factor. Therefore it goes first in the week. Or perhaps you’re really strong, but slow. Or you have no problem with strength or fitness, but have some movement asymmetries to address (I’d place this in the general strength category as movement issues are typically done with loads in the ten to fifteen rep range as this is ideal for motor learning). Whatever the case, proper planning requires an honest, objective assessment of where an individual is right now and what quality needs addressing as a first priority.
This may also mean that one or more qualities are skipped because there is simply no need for them, or other qualities are a higher priority. My typical client base is middle-aged and needs more mobility and strength. Few are concerned about mass gain or play a sport that requires them to build armor, as Dan John says. So here is our typical week:
- Monday: Mobility
- Tuesday: Max strength - sets of 2-3 reps.
- Wednesday: Max strength - But with slightly higher reps, reflecting that the CNS has fatigued a bit and the athlete is unable to hit the peak of Tuesday. 3-5 reps per set.
- Thursday: General strength - 5-10 reps per set with lots of assistance work thrown in such as core work, specific shoulder work such as overhead walks, and sled work.
- Friday: Power endurance.
- Saturday: Power endurance*
*Most of our clients either come Friday or Saturday, very rarely both, so we tend to double up on these days. The workouts aren’t the same, but their goal is.
The midweek days of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday will have small amounts of anaerobic work to keep that quality ticking along. While strength doesn’t need much to maintain, both aerobic and anaerobic fitness detrain quickly. (After three days your blood volume can already be decreased five to twelve percent, and after six your muscles are becoming less adept at soaking up glycogen to use as fuel. For more read here.)
By the time Friday or Saturday comes around, our clients are generally unable to lift near maximal weights, so the focus shifts to higher reps and less rest. We put the strain on the muscles and cardiovascular system, not the CNS.
While the week is set up for people to train five times per week, it also works well with people who train three or four. With the proviso that everyone needs to come on Monday, a midweek day, and then either Friday or Saturday as this split ensures that all three of our primary pillars - flexibility, strength, endurance - are hit at some point during the week.
Who This Plan Is For
This plan does allow you to have it all, but the downside is that with (usually) only a single session per week addressing a single quality more advanced trainees won’t progress quickly. However, for beginners and general fitness trainees it allows you to genuinely address all your needs each week. And for those who are starting to follow the Freak Level Fitness plan you just slot the easy endurance session onto each day.
1. Bell GJ, Syrotuik DG, Attwood K, Quinney HA., "Maintenance of strength gains while performing endurance training in oarswomen." Can J Appl Physiol. 1993 Mar;18(1):104-15.