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The Evolution of Westside Barbell Training

November 28, 2006 02:10 PM

Part I

One of the great joys I have is being able to speak and learn from top coaches and training minds such as Louie Simmons and Pavel Tsatsouline. During one of my conversations with Pavel we were talking training, as usual, and Pavel wanted to know what I thought about the current WSB technologies.

Having learned classic WSB techniques from Louie himself and having started with the classic percentage training I had become fairly disinterested with the advanced training and peaking cycles WSB had come up with of late. The Old School percentage programs/conjugate methods worked fine. They had not stopped delivering progress, but my body just could not keep up. So I knew the loads and tension with the new circa max techniques were too much for this old powerlifter.

In my declining physical state I could barely utilize the techniques and principles of the basic template and felt no desire to try to step up to Circa Max techniques. When I told Pavel this he decided that an article about the basic template and how to best utilize it would be in order, so here it is.

Rif's student and training partner Nick Bruckner. Nick put 133 pounds on his squat last year drug free using the methods from this article. Nick is 30 years old, he took 3rd at the APC Nationals this year in the 90 kg class.

Old School Westside

I studied powerlifting methods, techniques and systems even as a bodybuilder because I was always was looking for techniques and ideas that would make me better. I had a serious interest in powerlifting but never liked the low volume of training the powerlifters of the day used. Two top sets in the main lift and a few assistance exercise and that was it. As an unrepentant over-trainer, I didn't think powerlifting would provide enough sheer volume to exorcise my demons. Little did I know of the sheer ferocity of truly heavy weight!
But then I read Louie's articles in Powerlifting USA. The classic, "Training by Percents" wrote about doing 8-12 sets of the main lifts, albeit with low reps, as well as lots of assistant exercises for shoring up weak points and building new muscle mass. This seemed perfect; heavy weights, lots of volume and bodybuilding. Plus an athletic training pace. Here we go.

This was the very beginning of WSB and box squats, chains and bands and Dynamic effort and Max effort day had not yet been written about. What there was, however, was Prilepin's table of the optimal number of reps to be done at each percentage point of your contest max.

Here it is:

Percent Reps per Set Optimal Total Range
70 and below 3-6 24 18-30
70-80 3-6 18 12-24
80-89 2-4 15 10-20
90+ 1-2 7 4-10

Louie's concept was to keep the reps per set low, 3 and under, so that force production didn't slow down and to do enough sets to hit in the optimal range. Other research by Louie showed that more than 4-6 weeks of heavy training and the lifts went backwards so he set up a very simple linear peaking cycle modified for the powerlifts. It looked like this for the squat and bench:

Week one: 70% 8 sets of 3 one minute rest/sets
Week two: 75% 8 sets of 3 one minute rest/sets
Week four: 80% 6 sets of 2 1.5 minute rest/ sets
Week five: 85% 4 sets of 2 1.5 minutes rest/sets
Week six: 70%x2, 75%x2 80%x2 85%x2, 90% 1-2 sets of 2 - 2 minutes rest/sets

Week seven (contest, new gym max or start over at 70%):
70%x1, 75%x1, 80%x1, 85%x1, 90%x1, 101-105%x1

Since the deadlift is a different animal, with no eccentric contraction before the ascent, Louie ONLY used singles. The cycle looked like this

Week one: 70% 15 sets of 1 one min rest/sets
Week two: 75% 12 sets of 1 one min rest/sets
Week three: 80% 8-10 sets of 1 - 1.5 min rest/sets
Week four: 85% 4-6 sets of 1 1.5 - 2 min rest/sets
Week five: 90% 1-3 singles of 1 - 2 min rest/set
Week six: de load or rest
Week seven: new max at contest or gym or recycle with 70%

Many, many lifters cannot pull well in the gym so the 'test' in the gym was not emphasized. As Louie often said, the dl is a very emotional lift and it helps to be a little 'nuts' to pull well. For example my best pull off the floor in the gym was about 485 and my PR in a three lift meet was 545 with a close miss at 562. Go figure. DL's take everything you've got and more. You have to need to pull it, not just want to.

This cycle worked very well for myself and my partners and was always based on a CURRENT max, either in the gym or the meet so the numbers you were doing were real numbers not 'projected' lifts. Since our PR's were done in gear we used gear in the workouts putting on tighter gear and putting straps up as the percentages climbed higher. This also made for some very skill specific work and when you got to the meet there was no problem getting your groove down as you had spend the last five weeks working the exact same groove, with the exact same gear as you would need in the meet.

I was so excited about this new powerlifting method I brought Louie out to my gym in California to do a seminar for us and truly get at the 'guts' of how do things right. Louie had introduced the box squat into the mix and we wanted to make sure we were on track. We got to spend two full days with the Man and he is truly a powerlifter's powerlifter. Louie spent all day with us and never tired of answering question after question. The incredible depth of his knowledge about all things strength and speed related was second to none.

Enter the Box Squat

When Louie came out to California he taught us how to box squat correctly. We had been following the advice in his article, using 65-82% of our best squat at the box's particular height. Louie's advice was to switch box heights every 3-4 weeks and to base the percentages on an actual box max, NOT the contest max. (An early application of wave loading) Each height of the box would strengthen a different segment of your squat and you would have real numbers to work with. You could discern the carryover from your box maxes to your contest squats after going through the cycle.

We were to do 8-12 sets of two reps with one minute rest between sets. This is the type of volume I could get into! (Very similar to a bodybuilding type of workout) Louie admonished us NOT to psych up for any sets but to do them with a workman like approach. He also taught us that skilled lifters will do best (or fastest rep) on their first rep and unskilled lifters on their second as the first rep will "teach" their nervous systems how to do it. Just as with touch and go deadlifts the first rep is the hardest and they get easier until fatigue sets in.

The box squat was perfect for teaching correct squat technique and using the box height where your form DID NOT break down was crucial. If you could hold form on a 14 inch box but rounded your back on a 13" you stayed at 14" until your back or hammies got strong enough to hold position. It also really emphasized the hips and glutes tremendously as you could sit fully back on the box until your shins were not only perpendicular to the ground but PAST vertical. The stretch on the glutes and hammies this was unreal as was the strengthening of the lower back.

Box squatting also turned out to be the perfect assistance exercise for building the deadlift as the static overcome by dynamic nature of getting off the box really trained starting strength, crucial for a strong dl and lacking in many lifters. And, of course, depth is held consistent and you didn't find yourself cutting depth on the squat, as the weights got heavier. With a tight suit on at contest time the free squat should be easier, Louie said, as the stretch reflex would be activated and the weights would fly up. This would turn out to be partially true, as we would find out later, but was generally correct.

The box squat was also perfect for discerning weaknesses as the lower you squat on the box the more the classic squatting muscle come into play and the easier it is to figure out what's weak. Most lose their lumbar arch the deeper they go and fail to continue sitting BACK and squat down instead. For weak hips you used a below parallel box with a wide stance, weak quads- use a parallel box, for lower back power close stance and below parallel, for the typical sticking point a box two inches above parallel.

Louie told us that with consistent box squatting at or below parallel most of these deficiencies would disappear as the box squat transformed them all. He was right. Especially on the unbelievably hard hassock, or soft box squat where you would continue to sink into it after you squatted down. This made it very tough to get started. It also turned us into analytical freaks looking for weak links in the squatting and deadlift chains like crazy. Weaknesses were sought after and immediately addressed with a different height box or another assistance exercise. The goal was perfect squat form for each and every rep. Since you were taking a new max every month or so there was NO hiding from where you failed on your max rep. What was weak became glaringly apparent.

No chains or bands yet, just precise numbers and LOTS of box squats done once a week. We were to JUMP off the box as strongly as possible and our focus was on the hip extensors for squatting, not the quads. We also were introduced to the reverse hyper as THE assistance exercise for squatting and deadlifting. This would build the posterior chain muscles without tearing them down and rehabbing the back in the process. We bought one and it worked great. We only wish we had kettlebells back then, it would have been the other perfect assistance tool.

Conjugate training: The No Deadlift Deadlift

Louie didn't (doesn't) believe in training the deadlift heavy. Unless one was built for deadlifting (short back, long legs and arms) training the dl hard and heavy would soon fry the central nervous system and progress would go backward. So how to build the pull? To begin with, box squats alone would push up the deadlifting muscles so that many make dl pr's while hardly touching the dl bar in the gym. Same for pumping up posterior chain work capacity with the reverse hyper, cable pull-through (an early kb swing variation!) and later, sled dragging. Deads off the floor were done, if they were done at all, with light weights (70%) and for singles only as in a meet you don't get to lower the weight before you lift it.

This is not to say DL movements weren't done. Louie taught us the importance of the conjugate method; a training protocol that had one working on all aspects of your training plan simultaneously as opposed to linear periodization where you devoted say eight weeks to mass training, then eight weeks to strength then eight to peaking, a very typical approach at the time. Conjugate training had one working on max strength, speed, weak points and mass at the same time, by separating the workouts and focusing on just one specific goal at a time using special exercises.
Box squat day became dynamic effort day (still using the box) focusing on moving the weights as fast as possible and lowering the work weights so that optimal power ('fast force') could be used. Deadlift day became max effort day focusing on training the squat/deadlift muscle groups which are basically the same. The focus here was on working up to 100 % effort (going to failure was fine) with NO psych or raise in adrenaline or blood pressure. Volume was still controlled using Prilepins table but the weights were kept around 50% of your best contest squat.

Chains were added to accommodate resistance so that one could really accelerate the squat and not have the bar jump off your back. This worked great. Speed was emphasized and the rest periods were lowered to just 45 seconds/sets. This increased work capacity as well.

BY using exercises similar to the deadlift and squat on ME day one could train at virtually 100% and not burn out or go backwards in 4-6 weeks. Variations of good morning exercises were the mainstay of this approach with round back good mornings, seated good mornings, good morning/squat combinations, safety bar good mornings off the power rack pins, Zercher squats all being regularly rotated through. Squat variations were in the mix as well and squatting close stance to an 8 inch box, high box squats with a Manta ray device that put the bar up higher on your back and many other variations and special bars and boxes were used to overload the squat/deadlift muscles with maximal weights. Heavy deads could be done but you had to pull off a raised box or in the rack. No heavy pulls off the floor.

Still using Prilepins table as a guide you would work up to 1-3 sets of either triples or singles from 90-100% until you missed. Learning to grind was the key here and keeping max force output as long as possible was emphasized. Deadlifts off the floor could still be done and were sometimes included on speed squat day as another speed workout with 65-70% singles with short (30 sec) rest between sets. This was mainly for form and starting strength work.

This worked great for us and really taught you how to keep pushing until the lift was made and my deadlift jumped from a hard 501 to a strong 545 with a close miss at 562.With no heavy pulls in the gym. Of course we were doing close stance, round back good mornings with 365, seated good mornings with 315, manta ray high box squats with 575, zercher squats for 335 for triples and so on. Being able to max out each week but not burn out was great. We found we needed to rotate the exercises weekly to avoid not getting pr's and that not all the exercises had good carryovers to our main lifts and we scaled down our list to just the ones that seemed to work. Experimentation was always encouraged as one learned as much from the failures as the successes.

Conjugate training had us really analyzing our weaknesses and devoting lots of time to triceps, lats and back for bench improvement as well. Chain work really taught you how to keep pushing to the lockout or the weight would crush you down, fast. Floor presses, close grip inclines, board presses, decline benches and numerous other special exercises let us handle close to our goal weights week in and week out in the gym without burning out the competition groove. Being brutally strong was the goal and this was accomplished.

Close track was kept of personal records in EVERY special exercise and you were always trying to beat your old pr, even if just by a few pounds. When you missed it was time to switch exercises and go for a new pr on a new movement. Great mental training as well as you learned to EXPECT PR's every time you touched a bar. This included special assistant exercises as well and pr's were expected from heavy ab, erector and tricep exercises on a regular basis. This kept muscle mass gains coming too.

Finally we had a method, a template that worked. Analyze your weak links, put them at the front of your training program, train all the aspects of strength individually and work the classic lifts for form and acceleration. Louie had repeatedly said he NEVER did any free squats; he went from the box to the meet with no problem. Of course, Louie was using very stiff double ply gear and squatting just to parallel.

We however were using single ply gear and having to squat well below parallel. This caught up to us and we soon realized we needed to go back to the old percentage cycle
(No box) close to a meet to really hone the squat groove needed for our federation. Squatting off a box is very similar to sitting into a canvas or double ply suit that really stops you. It was not close to a single ply suit that stretched deeply at parallel. In retrospect we probably should have used much deeper boxes closer to the meet as well.

Louie's methods continued to evolve though as he tried to hone the peaking process to a science and he introduced the Circa Max method and discovered using band attached to the squat and deadlift bar. Things went from relatively straightforward to extremely complicated. At the same time my injuries were catching up with me and just being able to use Louie's basic WSB template was becoming more and more challenging. I already knew how to keep getting stronger but my body was protesting the loads even with the old methods. The bands required a monolift which we didn't have as well. I started to feel as if the simplicity of the training was being circumvented by more details than I could absorb and I drifted away from even attempting the circa max methods. My body didn't need new methods of loading, it needed to be able to deal with the old ones first.

The basic principles of training each aspect of strength year round, analyzing and attacking weak points in the lifts and your body with special exercises, training speed and max effort separately, using box squats and controlling volume and the number of lifts, increasing work capacity and GPP through exercises that work the important muscles but don't tear down the body and active recovery workouts have proven themselves over time. The earliest WSB template is one that is easily utilized by most powerlifters, even the most basic version that just uses percentages to guide volume and loads in the classic lifts. Bands, chains and circa max peaking programs are great but probably not necessary except for the most advanced lifters. As Louie loves to say, "train what's weak you and you'll become strong."

Max Effort Madness

Yet one of the problems with using the conjugate method of rotating special exercises is that the list got too big! We had so many variations for each exercise that by the time we got around to using them all, even with rotating them on a weekly basis, that any specific carryover was lost.

Some of the exercises worked very well and gave a great carryover to the classic lift. Others just made you stronger in the special exercise itself but provided no carryover. The solution, as it is with everything strength oriented, is to find out what works for you. This is a time intense activity but hey, if you KNEW there was a $1000 bill lying under a rock in your back yard you wouldn't mind turning over a bunch of them to find the magic rock. Same deal here.

We eventually limited each special exercise rotation to five special movements or less and rotated those. There had to be a definite carryover to keep the movement. And you didn't want the rotation too long or else it was too difficult to continue to make progress in the special exercise itself.

For example, I knew that whatever I could do in the two board close grip press I could do in a single ply shirt with my comp grip. In the squat, wherever I was in the Manta Ray Hi box squat was very close to my max in the competition power squat with full gear. For the deadlift whenever my close stance bent over good morning was up so was my deadlift; same with the zercher squat.

These exercises corresponded to the weak links in my muscular chain or to handling an absolute amount of weight close to my max lift. Pressing 400 pounds or more each week in a bench press special exercise gave me unparalleled confidence when I put on my shirt to take a 400 pound bench press; after all, I had that much or more weight in my hands EVERY week, in extremely similar movements. Talk about nervous system stimulation.

And by switching out the movements every week or two you never burned out the groove. Not psyching or getting the adrenals involved was extremely important as well. Adrenalin surges can takes 4-6 weeks to restore. Not good to show up at the meet flat as a pancake because you wasted it all in the gym.

To Be Continued...

Mark Reifkind, Sr. RKC has been a competitive athlete, coach and student of physical culture for the last 35 years. A former national level gymnast, Mark spent 15 years training,competing in powerlifting,achieving a Masters Rating and a Top 100 ranked bench press.Mark was also Head Coach for Team USA at the IPF World Championship in 1995 as well as the 2000 IPF Pan Am Championships.

A writer for Milo, Ironman, Muscle Mag International as well as a published book author, Mark now owns Girya Kettlebell Training in Palo Alto, Ca. Girya was one of the first studios in the country devoted solely to kettlebell training. Mark works one on one with clients at Girya as well as online; offering instruction for powerlifters,mixed martial artists and kettlebell enthusiasts of all ages. Visit