March 24, 2022 marks the end of an era in the powerlifting world. Louie Simmons, pioneer of the conjugate method, owner of the world-renowned Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio, and a world-class powerlifter in his own right, died at the age of 74 of a heart attack. It would be easy to lump his death in with the many others that have passed on from the fitness community this year, like bodybuilder George Peterson or former Mr. Olympia Shawn Rhoden, but to do so would be to minimize the earth-shattering impact Louie has had on the world of strength sports. His methods have produced countless world records across all age, weight, and gender categories, and professional athletes of many disciplines have sought out Westside Barbell to improve performance on the field. And this doesn’t include Louie’s own records, which led him to achieve totals qualifying as Elite in five – yes that’s correct, five – different weight classes. So, who was this titan, this near-supernatural figure within the world of strength sports?
Louie Simmons began as an Olympic Lifter in his teen years in the 1960s. Around this time, however, powerlifting was taking its first steps into becoming a mainstream sport in the United States. So, in his early twenties, Louie moved on from the Olympic platform to the power rack, beginning to train for the squat, bench, and deadlift. However, in 1973, he broke his spine in training, including a full dislocation of the SI joint. This led to his first major contribution to the world of strength: the reverse hyper. Once his spine had healed, Louie put together this piece of exercise equipment. It allows for simultaneous contraction of the main muscles in the posterior chain, including the spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, etc., while also decompressing the spine itself. For a firsthand look, visit the free weight room at the Appleton YMCA, where one is located. This piece of equipment is now used in gyms all across the world, and I can say from personal experience that it will work wonders on your lower back pain.
As Louie continued his career in powerlifting, he noticed a disturbing trend in the widely accepted training method called progressive overload. To give a brief synopsis, progressive overload is a form of periodization in which there are three phases in each wave: muscle mass building, speed training, and power building. The first phase utilizes lighter weights at higher rep ranges to build the necessary muscle mass and density to handle heavier weights. The second phase then uses medium weights and slightly lower rep ranges to train quick twitch muscle fibers to move heavy loads as fast as possible. Lastly, the third phase uses very heavy weights at very low rep ranges to establish top end power under duress. The issue Louie found with this system of training, however, is that by lowering rep totals over time, even with higher weights, the total volume drastically decreases, meaning come competition day one’s lifts will be very hit or miss due to the loss of muscle memory that accompanies less repetition. Further, by breaking up the segments of training into three separate phases, one can lose progress in one dimension as they gain another. So, I may lose muscle mass gained in phase one while gaining speed strength. Not content to settle for subpar training, Louie invented the now world-famous conjugate method.
Louie based this method on the work of a pair of Russian sports scientists, A.D. Ermakov and N.S. Atamasov. Without diving too far into the weeds, what these scientists found was that subjecting the body to constant changes in type and amount of stress led to the greatest gains in strength and size. To improve one’s back squat, for example, one should do more than just heavy back squats. They should also incorporate box squats, speed squats, front squats, and more. Another key aspect of the conjugate system is the use of elastic bands to add tension, called using “reverse bands.” Deadlifting from the floor with bands attached to the bar and anchored to the floor will ensure the weight feels heavier and heavier as it is pulled further from the floor, ensuring the athlete has to work harder at the end of the pull, when they are already the most fatigued.
The results the conjugate method produces speak for its efficacy. The two most impressive and equipped powerlifting totals of all time, Dave Hoff’s 3014 lbs. total at 308 lbs. bodyweight and Heidi Howar’s 1500 lbs. total at 132 lbs. bodyweight, were both produced using the conjugate method for training, as have tens of other world records across all weight classes. In doing so, Westside became a household name in the industry; today, the name “Westside Barbell” is known in gyms all across the world. Similarly, every powerlifting gym houses examples of the conjugate system, with gym rats around the globe reading Louie’s works and putting his principles into practice.
Yet Louie did not come without his fair share of controversy. Westside Barbell has many a hater, given its invitation-only system and hardcore training environment. World class lifters like Brandon Lilly have had harsh words for Louie after leaving his gym, with Louie quipping he “simply didn’t want to do the work.” Lifters who did make it in often brought an intense atmosphere that rubbed competitors and fans alike the wrong way at meets, bringing about a bad reputation for the gym as a whole for decades. His athletes also only compete in equipped divisions, which angers those who prefer the purist form of raw powerlifting. Perhaps the killer blow came in a 2016 interview with Joe Rogan where Louie famously said of drug tested federations, “It’s not illegal to take drugs, it’s illegal to get caught taking drugs.”
So who was Louie Simmons? A powerlifting icon who revolutionized the sport, or a cheat who bred some of the biggest jerks in the sport? The answer lies, I think, somewhere in the middle. For every athlete who rubbed someone the wrong way, and for every skirted drug test, there lay tens of records, novel inventions, and a whole method of training in his favor. Louie may not have been perfect, but without him, the sport sure wouldn’t be the thing we know and love it to be today.