Coming out of trying 531, I wanted to get back into heavy weight training, so I looked into Westside. The Westside Barbell program was developed by Louie Simmons, and uses Eastern European principles of weightlifting. Unlike most powerlifting programs that focus purely on moving fairly heavy weights (80-90%), it divides training into very heavy max effort sessions (90 – 100%) and much lighter dynamic effort sessions (40 – 60% plus 25 – 30% bands or chains) for both the lower and upper body.
You do four sessions per week with 72 hours between a max effort and a dynamic effort session on the same body part. After each session you do accessory work for 2 – 4 sets of 6 – 10 reps, thereby including variation and volume into your training. In short, Westside kinda covers all bases.
What I Liked About Westside
Your ability to create force is affected by multiple elements. These include your central nervous system’s ability to recruit muscle fibres, the force your muscle fibres are capable of producing, how fast you can move the bar, and your technique and/or practise.
Block periodisation involves focusing on developing one (ish) of those elements at a time. You might do a month of high volume training to build the size of your muscles whilst mastering the technique, then you might do a cycle of very heavy lifting to train your CNS, then a cycle of light weight moved at great speed.
Westside programming approaches thigs differently. It uses a method called conjugate periodisation, which develops multiple elements at the same time. You do this by alternating maximal exertion days (for strength) with dynamic days (for speed).
On maximal exertion days, you work up to the heaviest weight you can handle to develop your raw strength. On dynamic days, you move lighter weights as quickly as you can – using chains or bands to develop your ability to produce force towards the end of the movement (this enforces compensatory acceleration, which I’ll write about later). This makes you faster and more explosive.
After the primary work of the session, Westside involves repetition work – which uses lighter weights for high volume, which develops muscular size and strength. In this way, you’re training for strength, size, speed and technique all at the same time – and it feels great!
As part of the conjugate periodisation approach, you train using different variations of the classic three lifts. Beginners change every three weeks; experts every week. The theory here is to overcome the stasis of neuromuscular coordination: once you’ve mastered a movement, simply doing it over and over again won’t result in the same level of improvement. Instead, by throwing in a variation of the movement you’re mastered, you force your body to develop afresh.
For me, this meant learning things like block bench pressing, safety bar squatting and snatch grip deadlifting – all of which worked my body in new and challenging ways. It was fun! Although I must admit that, whilst struggling with a 135kg safety bar squat, I started wondering whether it could possibly be as effective as a much heavier conventional version.
What I Didn’t Like About Westside
Lack Of Deadlift
For some reason, Westside doesn’t involve much deadlift training. I think this is because a) developing your squat strength translates into deadlift, and b) the Westside Gym excels at equipped lifting, where deadlift doesn’t contribute as heavily towards overall scores.
Whatever the reason, I really love deadlifting and not doing it at least once a week irritated me. I addressed this by doing both deadlift and squat on lower body speed days, then alternating my lower body max exertion days between heavy squats with rack pulls, and heavy deadlifts with dead squats.
Heavy Day 1: heavy squat and rack pulls
Speed Day 1: deadlift with chains and squat with bands
Heavy Day 2: heavy deadlift and pause/dead squats
Speed Day 2: deadlift with bands and squat with chains
That helped, but it still involved only squatting or deadlifting over 50% of my max once every couple of weeks – but without an associated increase in volume to make up the deficit. In short, I was never convinced that I was improving either particularly effectively.
Not Much Practise
The overall volume in Westside for the three main lifts isn’t super high. That’s deliberate: in a total opposite approach to 531, Westside teaches you to get strong by doing assistance work and variations of the lifts, not the lifts themselves.
I think that’s partly because equipped lifts seem to break down into more constituent ‘parts’ where a lifter can get stuck. When shifting that much weight, any weak spot can be a catastrophe – so they drill the different ranges of motion to iron those kinks out.
For beginner powerlifters like me, that’s not hugely helpful. I need to be drilling the full movements that make up the sport, preferably hundreds and thousands of times. Given that the average Westside session involves about 25 reps (including warmups), it would be a long time before I master the movements and can perform them with POWER (and without breaking myself).
Max exertion days in Westside involve lifting all the way up to max (or near max). I think this also might be down to Westside being primarily an equipped gym; equipped lifters can spend more time using near-to-max weights because of the support from their suits. I’m not sure that raw lifters (like me and 99% of you) can handle that much maximal exertion safely week in and week out.
One rep maxes are incredibly physically taxing: doing them as frequently as Westside demands seems like a sure way to get banged up quickly, especially for people like me who have quite high-impact jobs outside of the gym.
I would prefer to build up to 90% (three rep max) on maximal exertion day. The plan would be to continue this for 9 – 10 weeks, then do a max test and re-calculate accordingly. Of course, that doesn’t seem totally Westside.
Luckily for me, there is program out there that promises strength and athletic improvement using entirely sub-maximal training. It’s called the Juggernaut Method.