Written by Adam Fisher
Last year in February, I pulled a personal best 535 deadlift at about 190 lbs. In the months immediately following, I tried out the Smolov squat program for the first time. This had the disappointing effect of adding exactly (0) pounds to my squat while also causing my deadlift to suffer (500ish) due to lack of training. (This is in large part due to some anatomical issues I have which make it hard to build my squat.) That June, I went out to intern at Westside Barbell.
I have struggled to write this piece and publish it for quite a while, in large part because I have nothing against any of the wonderful lifters I met at Westside and have nothing but respect for Louie and the crew. During those two months, I did nothing but train Westside, sleep, eat, and play video games. I didn’t bother seeking a job in Columbus because I knew that the arrangement was temporary and that I had enough money to cover my time there. I immersed myself in the Westside Conjugate Method as fully as I could. I read through every book I could, watched every DVD, passed the Special Strengths Certification test. I did my best to learn and master the Conjugate system.
When I returned home to Detroit in August, I hadn’t tested my maxes in two months, the entirety of the time I spent at Westside. However, I was highly optimistic that my numbers had improved. After all, I had been seeing progress on my lifts, particularly on lifts using bands and chains. I had learned so much and was on fire with all the new knowledge I now possessed. I was fired up. I figured I had no need to peak, since I didn’t really want to see what a competition max looked like, only a training max. I just wanted to see the progress I had made on Westside.
I was astounded to discover that my deadlift had in fact, gone down. And not just down, way down. Warming up, I did singles up to 405 somewhat easily. Then I attempted 455, thinking this would also be easy. I failed to break it off the floor. Confused, I took a quick break, dropped back down to 405, and then started building back up again. This time, my max was 435. My deadlift had dropped by roughly 70 pounds during the time I spent at Westside. My other lifts were similarly discouraging: my bench press went up a meager 10 pounds, and my squat had decreased by the same amount.
I struggled to reconcile the image that I had of Westside with the results that I now saw before me. I remembered all the positive things I had heard about Westside in my life, but now I remembered some of the negative ones, even the most gently negative ones that hadn’t seemed like insults at the time. I remembered when one respectable fitness professional had heard that I was planning on interning at Westside, and had then asked me “why” and suggested that I check out some other internships as well. When I asked another about speed work, he suggested that speed work is unimportant for raw lifters, which had seemed like sacrilege at the time but was now starting to click.
In the time that followed my return from Westside, I had recently read Matt Perryman’s Squat Every Day and decided to try out some new stuff. I spent an entire month of deadlifting every day and found myself pulling 495 again at the month’s end. I did as much research as I could to explain the results I was seeing and why Westside wasn’t working for me. In the end, here are the conclusions that I’ve come to.
Westside is NOT for raw lifters
I’ve always lifted raw. Unfortunately, Louie doesn’t really care about raw lifters, even when he’s assuring you that raw lifters benefit just as much from Westside as do geared ones. In much of his books and material, Louie has expressed disdain for anything that doesn’t involve lifting as much weight as possible: that includes not using anything and everything that you can in order to lift more weight, including lifting suits. And I completely respect this mindset, but I feel that it gets in the way of training raw athletes. All of the Westside athletes train for geared competition, and will regularly toss on bench shirts and squat suits to test their new maxes.
I have plenty of theories for why raw lifters don’t do as well on this program as do geared ones. The nature of accommodating resistance is such that the lifts are much different: with a standard weight, the bar weighs the same the whole way through, while with accommodating resistance the bar is much heavier near the top. Louie will tell you that this is universally superior for building strength (and some studies exist to back this up) but I would argue that they’re most superior for geared lifters due to the principle of specificity: the nature of the elastic bench shirt or squat suit changes the lift to be more akin to what you would see with accommodating resistance, meaning that training with accommodating resistance has more carryover for geared than raw lifters. This explains why I was seeing my banded deadlift lockout continue to rise while my standard weight deadlift went down: because I was training the lockout more and more while my off the floor was getting weaker.
Westside is very low volume
Westside uses very low volume on the primary lifts. On max effort days, you’re building up to a max using singles, on a variation of the primary lift. This is good for testing your max and accustomizing your body to heavy work to build strength, but certainly isn’t a lot of volume. Speed days serve as your volume days, however these tend to be very low volume as well: you’re doing 1-3 reps for 8-12 sets with a submaximal weight and a certain amount of band resistance as quick as you can. While I don’t deny that speed can be a useful variable in making an exercise more effective, this still adds up to a relatively small volume. With deadlifts, you’re supposed to do singles, literally coming out to 8-12 reps total. Even with the bench, at three times that, you’re looking at 24-36 reps. This is a solid amount of volume, but not nearly as much (nor at as high of an intensity) as many programs geared towards raw lifters would suggest. So: even the “high” volume day is not very high.
To be fair, Westside balances this out with an extraordinary amount of assistance work relative to many other programs. You might spend fifteen minutes doing speed work and then another hour and a half doing assistance work for the main lifts. This assistance work is typically bodybuilding style work in the 12-20 rep range, but you’re also getting a huge amount of GPP in the form of sled work, yokes, wheelbarrow carries, belt squats, and the like.
Westside has some… interesting views on biomechanics.
Early on in my internship, I asked if chest flyes were an acceptable accessory exercise for the bench press. This got me laughed at. The bench press, it was explained to me, is all about the lats and the triceps. Likewise, I was later told that the squat is actually not quad dominant at all but rather that it is entirely hamstring/hip dominant. Admittedly, the style of squatting that Westside does, with an extremely wide stance, is possibly more hip dominant than most squats you’d see out there. However, that doesn’t mean that I would argue that the squat is ALL about the hamstrings and the hips, nor that I would argue that the bench is secretly all about the lats. Westside would have you believe that the lats are the prime mover in the bench press, an anatomical impossibility. Are they important to control the bar during the lowering phase, and potentially more important in a bench press shirt because of the way it changes the lift? Absolutely. A prime mover? Absolutely not.
Westside would have you believe that the pecs and the quads, two extremely large and important muscle groups, are virtually useless. The oddness of this should be readily apparent. But this isn’t the only weirdness that Westside has with their view of biomechanics, and it becomes even more apparent when they try to apply their knowledge to other sports and activities than powerlifting. I was told that runners need to do a lot of upper body work. For most sports under the sun, I was told that the main problem was that none of their athletes were appropriately strong – even with endurance athletes who should spend much more time on their endurance activities, it was suggested that they spend a great deal of time focusing on getting stronger. While this is a popular argument in some circles, I feel that by and large the strength and conditioning community recognizes that there’s an appropriate amount of strength training for primarily endurance based athletes – and that it’s not a disproportionately large amount, as Westside would argue.
Trying to understand Louie is difficult. Trying to understand the Russian texts he draws his knowledge base from is impossible.
I love Louie to death. The man is likeable, charismatic, and hilarious. He’s got a lifetime of learning and experience under his belt that I won’t be able to match for decades, if ever. He’s lived through so much powerlifting that he’s a literal legend. He’s easygoing and playfully competitive and willing to answer any question you put to him. He’s still got way better grip strength than I do. The dude is a tank. What he is not, unfortunately, is concise.
Even the smallest question can send Louie off onto long rants. If you do any type of mobility or flexibility or warmup, he immediately conflates all of that with that one study about how stretching for longer than a minute can impact your performance and then goes on a long rant about how lions don’t warm up before chasing down prey and so neither should you before lifting a barbell. I know because I received it several times for trying to use one of the foam rollers that he keeps at Westside. These rants can be informative, but Louie talks in references to studies you haven’t read, in references to athletes he’s trained that you’ve never heard of but for whom this method Totally Worked and that’s why it Should Work For Everyone.
Likewise, Louie’s books are equally fraught with issues of comprehension. Many of his books could have used quite a lot of editing, and are filled with equally confusing and jumbled sections that make it hard to understand how those sections fit together or what you’re supposed to take away from them. Many of the words Louie uses are neologisms he’s coined (or drawn from the Russian texts) in place of much more commonly used words. For example, I failed a question on the Special Strengths Certificate because it made reference to a “mini-max” that I didn’t know the meaning of – apparently, this meant “sticking point” and while it had been used several times in some of the texts, it had never been explained. I had mistook it to mean something else, and since it had never come up in conversation over the course of the internship I had never discovered my error. This isn’t the only example, and there are plenty of things that would be extremely difficult to understand if you weren’t able to ask Louie directly.
Worse still are the Russian texts Louie draws a lot of his knowledge from. Without exception, they’re universally dry, boring, and extremely difficult to read. Most of them are talking about Russian weightlifting, and many of Louie’s maxims are drawn from these books wholesale without really considering how they might not fit into powerlifting and how powerlifting differs from weightlifting. I’ve literally seen one book in which Louie basically said that only about one page said anything of interest, and that the rest wasn’t important. His recommendations for depth jumps (a maximum of 40 per day) come from a single throwaway comment in a Russian text without any citations or other supporting evidence to suggest why this number is superior. These Russian texts aren’t, in general, very heavy on citations or case studies or anything of the sort, so it’s often hard to tell which recommendations are valuable, which aren’t, and which are total garbage. Likewise, much of it is downright incomprehensible and refers to entire Russian schools of training thought of which you can’t understand very well without having that background knowledge.
Westside over-generalizes itself a lot.
Above, I argued that Westside isn’t good for raw lifters, and that Westside has some weird recommendations when it comes to training runners. Stuff like that is common place. In general, listening to Louie, you’d believe that most strength and conditioning coaches for most sports teams have their heads up their asses. He would frequently go on about how virtually everyone who trains for weightlifting in the US has no clue what they’re doing and need to get stronger. He would lament how the S&C team at nearby OSU doesn’t listen to his advice on how to train football players.
(To be fair, there were several OSU athletes who, at their own peril due to the team’s dislike of Louie, trained at Westside, and they told us some hilarious stories of some of the bad coaching that went on there. However, that doesn’t mean that I feel that Louie’s recommendations on training football athletes are spot on.)
Louie is really good, in my opinion, at one thing: training geared lifters. When it comes to a lot of other stuff, I don’t feel he’s as well learned or read. However, to hear him tell it, he’s one of the only good strength coaches in his hemisphere, and everyone else is doing stuff wrong, no matter their level of expertise or experience with the athletes they work with.
You can’t train Westside without Westside.
The number one problem with trying to train using Westside, is that you can’t train Westside without Westside. This is both a good and a bad thing.
One of the reasons is that the entire gym exists as a minor cult of personality around Louie. Louie’s genuinely the only thing that holds it together, and without him it would definitely fall apart pretty quickly. Many simply immediately bow down to Louie’s wisdom and much of what goes on in training is determined by Louie, or at the very least reached in consensus with Louie having a greater say in it than everyone else.
Westside trains as a team, and as a team they often deviate from what a base Westside template is supposed to look like. They might all get really into certain exercises for a while, or a few of them might decide not to do some of their GPP, or they might do different warmups. They don’t always shoot for the exact numbers they’re supposed to, and sometimes might decide to go balls to the wall and hit a much heavier weight than planned. If one person needs to train grip a little more, this might turn into a challenge in which everyone tests how long they can hold onto a weighted bar to see who has the best grip strength. Since they act as a team, they often deviate from the plan as a team. The program is not strictly kept and changes greatly from month to month, in large part due to the massive amount of variation already built into the max effort days.
Westside as a gym is an amazing experience. Everyone in it is extremely dedicated, and there’s nothing motivating like squatting next to guys who can squat literally double your max. There’s a certain energy to your workouts when you’re working out as a team, and you certainly push yourself a lot further than you probably would training on your own. Guys will run the monolift for you, help you get into and out of a suit, spot you, and push you. They’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong and what you should try and do right instead. You can get a similar atmosphere in many smaller powerlifting gyms sprinkled across the country, but none is quite like Westside.
Without these factors in place, you’re not really training Westside if you’re anywhere outside of those walls. Westside exists as a certain system, as a template, but within those walls microadjustments are being made to that template constantly, all based on the changing needs of its athletes and the changing situations that they find themselves in. Without Louie to oversee it and a band of world class lifters to follow it, it’s not really Westside. It’s certainly Westside influenced, Westside oriented – but it’s not Westside. I’ve honestly not, in any of the gyms I’ve worked at since, found a similar atmosphere. Westside was certainly magical. That’s part of the reason it’s so alluring.
So what do I still use from Westside? Well, here are a few things.
Bands and chains.
I don’t believe bands and chains are the be-all end-all that the Conjugate Method preaches, though I do believe that they can be used to target weakpoints (if you have a bad lockout) and ensure variation. I tend to prefer chains in this regard because the nature of elastic resistance is different from the nature of additional resistance from chains, and since chains are more like traditional weight I feel they have more carryover to raw lifting. However, I do not recommend using chains for every single lift in every single workout.
The Sumo Deadlift
Before Westside, I trained primarily using the traditional stance on the deadlift, and it showed. My sumo was generally no better than 80% of my traditional at any point. Additionally, my form on the sumo was awful, and I didn’t really know proper setup. Louie uses an excellent “sumo deadlift from seated in a chair” trick that really teaches you how to set up properly for the lift and then drive your hips through as you initiate the lift. Now, while I still typically practice with traditional, my sumo max is right around my traditional max, and in some cases I’ve managed to set PR’s on sumo instead.
The sumo deadlift is an excellent lift. As others have probably pointed out elsewhere, it’s an excellent lift in part because the wide stance can carry over a little better to the wide stance squat. If you squat low bar (as I do) it’s an excellent tool in your tool box and should be used regularly. While it may not be as important for non-powerlifters, it can still be used well with other populations. In particular, since the sumo stance tends to result in less dramatic hip extension angles, it can be useful for beginners or those with back issues learning to deadlift for the first time.
GPP and Accessory Work
Before Westside, I did largely only primary work: deadlifting, squatting, overhead pressing, and bench pressing, along with some pulling in the form of pullups or rows. Aside from that, I did a little bit of arms or whatever other muscle group I felt like to satisfy my former bodybuilder’s ego, but nowhere near the amount of accessory work Westside uses. I was floored for the first week of Westside precisely because I wasn’t ready for this volume of accessory work. I have since come to follow a much greater deal of accessory work than I did before, and I thank Westside for teaching me the value of it for building muscle mass and maximizing the value of your body composition.
Likewise, I did little to no cardio before but now do regular cardiovascular exercise – in my case, primarily running thanks to a bit of programming from Alex Viada. If Alex, who runs marathons while also having squatted 700 pounds, can’t convince you of the value of cardio, I don’t know who can.
Before Westside, I utilized a variety of periodization styles in an attempt to find something that worked for me. Most of those had little to no effect. The only periodization scheme that I’ve ever seen massive results from is a high intensity high frequency (HIHF, ie squat every day) plan. However, for simple and straightforward progression, I’ve come to appreciate the value of the pendulum scheme that Westside uses: namely, one heavy day (the max effort day) and one volume day (the speed day). Both days, the way I program them, tend to have much more volume in the primary lifts than Westside’s do. But the general format is good, and tends to be echoed in a lot of strength programs I’ve seen outside Westside. It enables you to frequently build towards a max effort which maximizes strength gains while also allowing you to do submaximal effort days to get in more work without compromising your recovery from those max days. If I’m not peaking for a competition, this tends to be the sort of plan I follow, with a heavy upper and heavy lower each week as well as a volume upper and volume lower.
Want something to improve? Do it every day!
To be fair, this isn’t solely a Westside creation. As I’ve pointed out, HIHF programs exist extolling the value of doing a bit of crazy work now and then to see results. However, Westside generally did some of the same stuff with lighter accessory exercises. For example, Louie recommended using the reverse hyper machine daily – an excellent recommendation for building strength and muscle in the posterior chain without really compromising recovery in the primary work. Likewise, Louie recommended training the triceps daily to build bigger arms and improve the bench. I would take it a step further and argue that if there’s any lagging body part you want to focus on, whether it be for strength or for muscle, you should train that bodypart daily.
This doesn’t mean that you need to train it heavily daily, only that you should do it. I don’t have access to a reverse hyper, but I often do kettlebell swings at a light weight or regular hyperextensions daily in order to get a similar effect, even if I’m absolutely tanked from a deadlift session the previous day. These active recovery workouts tend, at least in my experience, to speed up the recovery process as well.
This process works best with smaller muscle groups: calves, arms, shoulders, and traps come to mind. But I would argue it can be done with any muscle group, provided that the weight is kept light and the repetitions high.
Speed work can be extremely valuable.
If you talk to Louie about speed, he’ll give you an argument about how in the end, all strength is basically just speed. Well, I don’t tend to agree, and neither do others. However, I still agree that speed work is valuable, which is to say that you certainly shouldn’t be doing purposefully slow work when training for strength. You should always be trying to move the bar as quickly as possible, since this tends to net the best strength results. You can do pause reps if you need to target certain weak points, but otherwise you should be powering through stuff as fast as you can.
Speed work in the Westside dynamic day style isn’t as valuable, in my opinion, as a significantly greater volume of work. However, I do believe that it’s more valuable than an equal volume of non-speed work. Speed can be an important variable to modify, particularly if the lifter is unable to go as heavy as they might want for any reason.
One moment I’ll never forget is when we trained grip strength at Westside by holding onto a simple barbell to which a doubled over red band had been attached on each side and anchored to the bottom of the rack. All you had to do was hold onto the bar in the deadlift position for as long as you could, standing fully erect. I tore off half the skin of my palms holding onto it for 2 minutes or so, feeling like I was going to die the whole time, and Louie managed to hold onto it for 3.
Another one we did for shoulder stability and health was a bamboo bar (a very light plexiglass bar) to which we attached bands on each end and then hung kettlebells from those bands. Simply pressing this weight is extremely difficult, as the kettlebells are constantly swinging around, but holding the bar about an inch above the chest for time is absolutely brutal. Particularly since, in true Westside fashion, guys will probably bump the kettlebells around to screw with you when you aren’t looking. The same thing can be mimicked in a commercial gym with a standard barbell, though since the barbell itself is heavier you need to potentially add a bit more weight to get a similar effect.
Another isometric exercise is the belt squat machine. A belt is attached around the waist, and then a cable is attached to the belt with a line of pull that goes straight down – then into the belt squat machine device, through a few pulleys, and then over to the weight stack on the other side. This belt is worn for time, with a large amount of weight, to accustom you to the feeling of having a huge amount of weight on your hips. Fighters used this while moving around and imitating sparring to build strength in the legs. I can tell you, five minutes on that thing is brutal.
Many of these isometrics are wonderful for targeting areas that are hard to build otherwise – to this day, holding onto a weighted bar for time remains one of my favorite grip strength challenges, and the one that probably has the most carryover to your deadlift.
Before Westside, I trained with relatively few variations on the main lifts. At Westside, where you train a different variation on every max effort day, I felt I had too much variation as I was unable to really practice the main lifts heavy very often. However, after coming back from Westside I did begin using a much greater number of variations on the main lifts, though I might have done them as assistance work or volume work instead of the primary heavy work. This truly does stave off stagnation during your training and keep you progressing.
Westside isn’t perfect, but neither is it garbage. Louie is a mad genius who’s learned a great amount of stuff over the years and learned to apply as much of it as possible to improving his athletes. Many of his methods, while now more widely known, were groundbreaking and unique at the time that he began using them. Only by trying out new methods and experimenting with what works and what doesn’t can we develop optimal training styles for different athletes, and Louie’s been doing it for longer than any of us.