Critique of The Westside system

07/09/2010 17:55

May I start by saying that I am, essentially, an Olympic Weightlifter. In my youth I was a hammer thrower and rugby player and I have played around a little with Strongman but today my passion is Olympic lifting; it is the sport I spend most time coaching and competing in. Yet unlike some in the Olympic lifting world I have much respect for Powerlifters and I have a huge amount of respect for the achievements of Louie Simmons and his Westside Barbell gym. Regardless of what anyone thinks of the Westside method he certainly turns out some incredibly strong Powerlifters so he’s definitely doing something right. Besides, anyone who has such amazing passion for making people stronger and more powerful is alright in my book. I have always maintained that Olympic lifters can learn certain things from Powerlifting when it comes to the development of pure strength if and when it is deemed to be required. I also feel Simmons has been misunderstood with regard his own feelings towards Olympic lifting; he is not negative towards Weightlifting per se but instead he has reservations about the way it is coached in the US. Indeed Louie regularly speaks with great reverence of great former Eastern Bloc Olympic lifters, such as Pisarenko and Alexeyev.


So this article is not meant to be disrespectful. That said I have read much of Louis’ work regarding the Westside approach and there are many contradictions and incongruities, as well as apparent misunderstandings of the scientific literature. Louis Simmons strikes me as the sort of person that welcomes being challenged on his methods and I would hope he takes this piece in the spirit it is meant. Perhaps I have misinterpreted aspects of his writing and if so I would hope he would see fit to constructively correct me. The key resource I will refer to in this discussion is the ‘Westside Barbell Book of Methods’ (WBBM) written by Louis Simmons. 


At the heart of the Westside approach is what Louis termed ‘the Conjugate method.’ In order to avoid misquoting Simmons, this is directly taken from WBBM:


“Many methods are combined and rotated in the conjugate system. Combining the speed and max effort days, five elements of strength are trained:


1.                  quickness

2.                  explosiveness

3.                  speed-strength

4.                  strength-speed

5.                  absolute strength”


The problem is that this labelling is incongruous with the very texts on which he suggests his methods are based. Indeed Verkhoshansky and Siff specifically state, “There are essentially two main systems of organising long term training: the concurrent system and the conjugate sequence system.” So he is basically saying it is one or the other, conjugate or concurrent. They go on to define the concurrent system, “The concurrent system involves the parallel training of several motor abilities, such as strength, speed and endurance, over the same period, with the intention of producing multi-faceted development of physical fitness.” Hmmm…doesn’t that sound an awful lot like the system Louis described above? In contrast, read Verkhoshansky and Siff’s description of the true conjugate approach, “The conjugate system involves successively introducing into the training programme separate, specific means, each of which has a progressively stronger training effect, and coupling them sequentially to create favourable conditions for eliciting the cumulative effect of all the training loads. The conjugate sequence use of unidirectional means, integrated by separately developing individual, specific motor abilities (e.g. strength, speed, and strength-endurance…Usually it involves training a carefully chosen sequence of specific motor abilities, each of which is confined largely to a given period.” Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like a more classical approach to periodisation? It certainly relates strongly to block periodisation approaches. What it does not do is represent the system discussed by Louis Simmons; just go back and have a look at the underlined words and phrases.


‘Principles and Practice of Resistance Training’ by Mike Stone and colleagues corroborates what I am saying. It notes of the true conjugate system that it is “a series of concentrated blocks that are up to four weeks in duration. For example, during the first block, a strength-power athlete interested in maximising power and speed would perform high volume loads of work with one primary emphasis (e.g. strength or strength-endurance, with minimal loads allocated to other abilities designed as maintenance work.)…Emphasis is essentially reversed during the subsequent restitution block: Strength training volume load is markedly reduced while the volume load of work allocated to another quality (e.g. speed or technique) is increased.” You may now be asking yourself the same question as I, what has this possibly got to do with the Westside system?


“Pah! Semantics!” you might say; “what’s in a name?” To me it is just the first illustration and example of the misinterpretation and misapplication of mainly, but not exclusive to, Eastern Bloc training theory which is so prevalent in the writing of Louis Simmons; the very writings upon which the Westside system is founded.


Another key misunderstanding which throws into question the validity of the Westside approach is Louis’ apparent unwillingness to distinguish Powerlifting, a pure strength sport, from strength-speed and speed-strength sports such as Weightlifting and shot putting. This is evident in Simmons’ regular attempts to appropriate Eastern Bloc strength sport theory, which was never developed for Weightlifting, to his sport of Powerlifting. To do so is no different than consulting a book on building a Formula 1 car in order to build a bulldozer. Simmons also notes of former elite level East German shot putter Ulf Timmerman, “Ulf had a 727 squat, 352 snatch, and 418 bench. But he was fastest with weights of 50-70%....The DDR had arrived. They found that to succeed, one must become stronger and faster.” He applies the same logic to Vasily Alexeyev noting “the great former Soviet super heavyweight, was a perfect example of the importance of speed.” Speaking of the efforts of Alexeyev’s coaches to maintain his pulling speed he suggests “Forty years ago, the Soviets knew how important it was to match force and velocity.” But, of course, Powerlifting is not the same as Weightlifting or Shot Putting; they are very different sports with different physical requirements.


Louie demonstrates his appreciation of the existence of the force-velocity curve yet does not appear to fully grasp its relevance to Powerlifting. The force-velocity curve states quite clearly that maximum force is attainable where velocity is zero (we’ll discount eccentrics for the moment). Thus a Powerlifter with a 600lbs deadlift will be able to exert his maximum force upon a barbell loaded to above 600lbs; he just won’t be able to lift it. Thus, by definition, in Powerlifting the absolute maximum weight you can lift is the weight that will end up travelling at the slowest speed. Yes the lifter will attempt to move it at the greatest rate but it will still move very slowly; if they can move it quickly, they could have lifted more. To quote Verkoshansky and Siff once again, “maximum strength is the maximal force displayed under isometric conditions or in very slow movements against a maximal load.” It’s all there in black and white in one of the very “Books Lou recommends.”


Clearly Weightlifting and Shot Putting are very different; of course speed is important in these sports! Why? Quite simple, the need to generate momentum. Momentum equates to ‘mass x velocity’ so the greater the velocity a mass achieves, the more momentum it has. In Shot Putting, the more velocity the athlete can generate in the shot before it leaves the hand, the more momentum it will have and the further it will travel. In Weightlifting the lifter has to generate upward velocity to give the bar momentum in order to generate vertical displacement; without momentum the key concept of Olympic lifting, i.e. the lifters going down as the bar’s still going up, would not be possible. Weightlifting is clearly, then, a strength-speed sport whereas shot putting is more a speed-strength sport but the principles are the same. Powerlifting is, in contrast, purely and simply a strength sport. Even someone with limited scientific knowledge can see that the sport is clearly misnamed; Weightlifting is the true Powerlifting. If Powerlifting were truly about speed then large power outputs would be observed; remember ‘power = force x velocity.’ With the kinds of weights moved in Powerlifting and the forces generated, if speed were any sort of key factor at all then the power outputs recorded would be massive; in reality they simply are not. Work by John Garhammer (1993) demonstrated that in evaluations of experience male Powerlifters the absolute power recorded in Watts was 300, 1100 and 1100 for the bench, squat and deadlift respectively. Compare that with the recordings for the second pull in Olympic lifting where the second pull in the jerk, clean and snatch respectively were 5400, 5500 and 5600W! Louis is often very derisive of the term ‘the quick lifts’ and has stated “they’re no quicker than any other lift.” Clearly Garhammer’s work proves this is incorrect; less weight was being used in the Olympic lifts but far higher power outputs were recorded hence velocity was far, far higher in the Olympic lifts. In Olympic lifting and shot putting you need both strength and speed, i.e. power, but in Powerlifting, ironically, you just need blunt force strength. Weightlifting and Shot Putting used weights which permit the application of speed, Powerlifting does not; if it does you can lift more weight.


So Simmons’ statements regarding Alexeyev and Timmerman do not apply to Powerlifting and thus, considering everything previously discussed, his ‘dynamic effort method’ days must be thrown heavily into question as an effective means of training Powerlifters. Rate of force development (RFD) is vital in many, many sports; sprinting, Weightlifting, jumping event, throwing events, boxing and other ‘power’ sports are all examples of sports where the athlete has limited time to apply force and, as such, the ability to bring on force rapidly is an essential ability. In Powerlifting the athlete is not limited by the time available to them to apply force and thus RFD is not a key ability. Even if you think RFD is important in PL then who says you need to train it against moderate loads? Indeed muscular force can be generated just as rapidly, even more rapidly, under static or heavy/slow conditions Simmons is correct to observe that there is a point on the force-velocity curve where the loads and speeds result in the greatest power outputs but why is that relevant to Powerlifting? Indeed it would appear to be a misunderstanding of the underlying theory. Simmons notes, “The weight used should be non-maximal in the 50-75% range. Many experts, like Siff, Verkershonsky, and Spassev agree that this is the best range for developing explosive strength. This method is for increasing the force output.” Firstly, why would it increase force output? On what is that statement based? Yes, numerous research papers have identified percentages where power output is maximised but it has never been proven that training at this level is optimal for improving power output in the athlete. Even if it were, the previous discussion should have cast serious doubt on the relevance of this to Powerlifting.


Speaking more on the dynamic effort method, Louis suggests, “If you can bench 700lbs and are training with 350, then you should be applying 700lbs of force to the barbell in each rep.” This is a very odd statement indeed; for one force cannot be measured in lbs, generally only Newtons but I guess even lbs∙ft/s2 would pass, but the issue with this statement bears out a far deeper running misunderstanding. Once again the force-velocity curve, which Simmons professes to grasp, shows, by definition, that you will never be able to exert the same force to, the fast moving, 350lbs bar as you can to, the slow moving, 700lbs one. Given that we have already established absolute strength is THE key defining ability to Powerlifting success why would this be of use? Please note, I am not making a judgement that athletes should not attempt to move the bar as quick as physically possible on every lift; this is simply a matter of opinion. Many coaches and lifters, including Fred Hatfield, recommend lifting the bar as fast as possible on every weight. On the other hand, Ed Coan and Stephan Korte talk about just putting in enough effort to lift the weight.


Perhaps Louis has this confused with the large impulses imparted to the floor and recorded in Weightlifting. The scope of this article does not, however, permit extended discussion on this topic. A quote from WBBM would indicate that such a misunderstanding has taken place, he states, “Siff and Verkhoshansky used a force plate machine to determine the maximum effort a highly skilled Weightlifter could display. The lifter generated 264lbs of force on a 154lbs bar. The 154 is 58% of 264.” Here we cannot ignore the inappropriate units, for comparing the weight of a bar with the impulse applied to the floor is worse than an apples and oranges comparison; at least they’re both fruits! This experiment is used by Simmons to justify the use of weights in the 60% range in his dynamic effort method. I have already stated that many experiments have been carried out to evaluate the optimal percentages to maximise power output but this is not such as experiment; it is simply a complete misunderstanding and misapplication on the part of Louie.


I am certainly not the only person to question the relevance of the dynamic effort method to Powerlifting. Mike Tuchscherer, a respected IPF lifter, says "DE work is an extremely specialized tool for a powerlifter that most won't need. Power output has very little to do with Powerlifting sport results." Other lifters, such as Brian Schwab, have abandoned the dynamic effort method after it failed to deliver results and, of course, many, many of the greatest Powerlifters in history do not and did not use it.


Implicit within the dynamic effort method at Westside is the use of bands and chains; the benefit of which I have long questioned. Indeed, as Simmons to his credit observes, the research carried out thus far has shown them to be of little use; of course Louis is disparaging of this research. The theory of bands and chains is that they provide accommodating resistance, i.e. the load becomes greater at the point in the lift where you become stronger. I can see where this may have relevance in sports where speed and jumping is of relevance, after all who wouldn’t want to be stronger at the top of the range in such sports? I can even see, ironically, how it could be useful in Weightlifting in that you can train the squat for the recovery and the top range to assist the jerk. What is not clear is why someone executing a deadlift, squat or bench press (raw) would need it when it is the sticking point (i.e. that of least mechanical advantage) which will dictate a successful lift. Ironically the shortcomings of these methods may have been best put by a Westsider, Jim Wendler, who suggests, “The strength curve for athletes/regular guys is heavy at the bottom and light at the top, so they need more low end work. The strength curve for geared (equipped) lifters is light at the bottom and heavy at the top, so more high end work is needed. Using chains/bands on a raw lifter will lower the use of bar weight and THUS lower the amount of weight that’s used at the bottom of a lift. Hence, the strength curve is all screwed up and not always suited for a raw lifter.”


Another highly questionable aspect of the Westside method, and once again concerning the dynamic effort method, is his use of ballistic benching (i.e. a rapid reversal an inch above the chest) and, more specifically, the misunderstanding on the scientific literature which underpins his thinking. Louis suggests, “Yes, reversal strength can be stored for the pause rule.” Attempting to justify this he continues “Don’t forget, the stretch reflex lasts up to at least two seconds.” Really? Two whole seconds? A reflex? “The stretch reflex will remain for up to four seconds in high-skilled lifters and two seconds for less skilled athletes.” Oh it’s four seconds now?! He’ll be saying it’s eight seconds next! “We have proven that by sitting on a box correctly the reflex lasts for eight seconds.” See?! Told you!


Simmons notes that his statements on the stretch reflex are based on research by Wilson in the 1990s but what becomes increasingly obvious is that Louie never actually read the research papers. It is misapplications and misunderstandings like this which are the very reason that when you read something which cites a paper, SUPERTRAINING by Siff and Verkhoshansky in this case, that you have to go away and actually read the paper itself. S&C coaches and Powerlifters Kenny Croxdale and Tom Morris have, already, very eloquently addressed this issue:


“The amount of time spent in the amortization phase is the determining factor in a movement being plyometric or not. Research by Wilson et. al. (1990) examined different delay times in the bench press and showed that the benefits of prior stretch may endure for as long as 4 seconds, at which point it is suggested that all stored elastic energy is lost. This could lead one to believe that there is full retention of a stretch reflex if the amortization phase is 4 seconds or less. However, the stretch reflex begins to dissolve immediately. Even a short pause will negate the stretch reflex. Additional research indicates that "delays as short as .02 seconds are sufficient to dissipate the benefits of prior stretch", with up to 50% of the stretch reflex being lost in one second (Siff and Verkhoshansky, 1998). Therefore, it can be concluded that the longer the pause, the less powerful the contraction.   To put it simply, the longer it sits, the heavier it gets.”


What seems to have happened is confusion between storing of elastic energy in the series elastic component and elastic recoil (a mechanical process), and the myotatic stretch reflex (a process of the peripheral nervous system); the two are very different. Just to double, double check that I am accurate in my contentions I emailed one of the world’s leading experts in the field of neurophysiology and, specifically, the stretch reflex, Professor Simon Gandevia of the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute in Australia. His response was simple and to the point, “You are correct in your views. The stretch reflex does not last 2 seconds.”


Moving on, let us briefly discuss another of the key components of the Westside approach, very regularly changing of maximal effort method exercise. Louie advises, “Keep in mind that if you train a lift at 90% or more for more than three weeks, your central nervous system is negatively affected and your progress will go backward.” At no point, though, does Simmons ever provide any evidence that training at near limit on exercises which are often only moderately different would prevent CNS fatigue. He also fails to note why, even if his contention is correct, why this would be any more useful than training the classic lifts with cycled loads. Could one not suggest that whatever you would lose from temporal reduced intensity would be more than made up for in the more specific nature of the exercise? These are questions which I would like to see answered in Louie’s work through the citing of specific pieces of research evidence. It would also be interesting to see a percentage of how many of the best Powerlifters of the day and throughout history used a Westside methodology. Clearly other methods worked incredibly well in the past and many, many elite lifters around at the moment have fantastic success utilising more conventional programs. For example, the best deadlifter in the World, Andy Bolton, certainly trains the deadlift in his routines yet this is something which Louie generally avoids; surely this makes people think. Overall, though, regular changing of exercises is a matter of coaching opinion more than fact; it is, after all, the very debate which has faced Olympic lifting for many years, Bulgarian vs. Russian systems.


The proof of the pudding is always in the eating and Westside clearly turns out some very strong men. I’m not saying Louie’s methods do not work, they clearly have done; instead I question if the rationale for aspects of the Westside system is scientifically valid and accurate. Could it not be that some of these lifters are getting strong because of some elements of the system but in spite of others? One could also argue that the success Westside has had in marketing its approach has attracted gifted lifters to his gym and his methods? We know how important a large athlete base is in achieving success. It may also be the case that certain elements of Simmons’ methodology work but for vastly different reasons to those suggested. An example might be that the split of maximum and dynamic effort methods simply resulted in less volume at high intensities; much of the early research on periodisation showed that alternating harder and easier workouts was a very effective approach. At the very least I would hope this article makes those that blindly follow Westside methodology question how they train. Perhaps it will even make Louie and co. look again at aspects of what they preach.


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