The Intelligent & Relentless Pursuit of Muscle™

Continuum Training
Understanding Various Strength Training
Continuums for Optimal Conjugate Design


In the strength-training world, there are numerous ways to organize training. Used correctly, all of them can be successful. Without being properly understood, they can also lead to failure. Two popular organizational models are conjugate and complex training:


What Are Continuums?

There are several different physical capacities and thus several different training methods. Some of these constitute the foundation for others. No capacity or method is isolated; they're all interrelated and developing them in the proper sequence can greatly magnify your gains. In other words, a capacity/method can serve as the stepping stone for another one.

Continuums are based on this concept. They organize the various ways to train in a certain order which constitutes the proper way to develop them. There are several different continuums depending on your goal(s). I'll discuss two of them here: the contraction speed continuum and the power continuum.


The Contraction Speed Continuum

Overcoming isometrics Functional isometrics Iso-concentric contrast Controlled concentric Explosive concentrics Ballistic

This first continuum is based on the speed of movement of the bar, and thus at the rate of force development during an exercise. This continuum respects the force-velocity curve, which states that the higher the velocity of contraction, the less force you can produce. The "slowest" speed and "highest" force methods are on the left of the continuum, while the fastest and more explosive methods are on the right. Let's review:

Overcoming isometrics: This involves exerting a maximum amount of force against an immovable resistance. The external outcome is a static (no movement) action; however, there's still a maximal contraction going on in the muscle. This type of training allows for a large force output (thus a lot of intramuscular tension), but also the capacity to sustain that high level of force for longer than during a regular dynamic exercise.

The traditional way of performing this type of training is to push or pull against safety pins in the power rack. Since isometrics develop strength mostly at the angle being trained, two or three positions per exercise should be used. Here are some examples:

Pull structure isometrics

Bench press structure isometrics

Squat structure isometrics

Split squat structure isometrics

Functional isometrics: What are functional isometrics? Well, isometric training refers to exerting strength without movement. The most classic form of isometric training is pushing or pulling an immovable load as we just saw above. Since you recruit more motor-units during an isometric action than during a concentric action, it's arguable that isometric exercises can lead to greater strength stimulation. However, as I mentioned, there are some problems with pure isometric training.

First, it's impossible to quantify progress. Since you're not moving a load, you don't know if you're improving or if you're exerting maximal effort or not. This can surely decrease progression and motivation.

Second, isometric training is angle specific, meaning that you'll gain strength only at the joint angles being worked. (There's only a 15-20 degree carryover of strength gains.)

Functional isometrics are a bit different. You still exert force without movement, but you're actually lifting a load. You start the bar at a specific height and lift it two to three inches. Then you hold the position for six to ten seconds. You keep adding weight until you can't lift and hold it for at least six seconds while maintaining a good lifting posture.

This way you're actually lifting weights and can quantify your progress. But the problem of joint angle specificity still applies. That's why we want to use three positions working the whole range of motion of a selected movement. The three positions are:

1. A few inches after the start position

2. The sticking point

3. A few inches from the final position

This can be used for several weight lifting exercises. I find it to be particularly effective at improving the bench press, deadlift/clean, and overhead press.

Example of a functional isometric pull structure

Iso-concentric (or iso-dynamic) contrast: In this training method, you combine an isometric contraction with a dynamic lifting motion. There are several different applications of this method:

Including an isometric pause (3-5 seconds) during the performance of each rep. Normally you hold the pause either in the peak contraction position (leg curl, leg extension, back exercises, most cable exercises), or at the midpoint of the range of motion (squat, bench press, deadlift, leg press, curl, etc.)

Performing the dynamic exercise normally (no pauses). At the end of the set you hold the bar for as long as possible either at the peak contraction or midpoint, depending on the exercise.

Perform an isometric exercise as a pre-fatigue set before a dynamic movement. For example, doing an isometric hold on the leg extension (peak contraction position), then moving on to squats without rest. If training for strength, the hold should last around six seconds. If training for size, it should last 15 to 30 seconds.

Perform an isometric exercise as a post-fatigue set after a dynamic movement. This is similar to the preceding method, but the iso-leg extension would be performed after the squats.

Controlled concentric: This is your regular "bodybuilding" exercise movement: lowering the bar (eccentric) slowly (3-5 seconds) and lifting it a little faster, but still under control (two seconds or so). This type of training is best suited to develop muscle size as well as structural integrity of the tendons.

Explosive concentric: This refers to the dynamic effort method. Using a submaximal weight, you execute the concentric (lifting) portion of the exercise with as much acceleration as possible. This method also includes the various Olympic lift variations. This type of training is best to develop neural efficiency as well as the capacity to recruit high-threshold motor units (the most powerful muscle fibers).

When using traditional lifting movements (bench press and squat for example) a load of 45 to 55% of your maximum is best, as it’s the load at which the maximal power output is present.

When using the Olympic lifts, loads of 75 to 90% can be used as these exercises are explosive by nature. So even when using a load close to your maximum, the movement will still have a high rate of acceleration.

An example of a variation of the Olympic lifts (power clean from blocks)

Ballistic exercises: Ballistic refers to an actual projection of the source of resistance. The source of resistance itself can either be from an outside source (e.g. medicine ball) or from the athlete’s bodyweight.

The intensity of these exercises vary from very low (simple bounding drills) to very high (loaded absorption drills, high impact plyos). These exercises are the ones in which the acceleration factor is the most important in relation to total force production. These movements have a great impact on the nervous system because of the high accelerative demands.

While low intensity ballistic exercises (bounding drills, basic jump training, light medicine ball throws, etc.) aren't very stressful (and thus can be used quite often, mostly as a good specific warm-up tool), high intensity ballistic exercises (depth jumps, weighted jumps, heavy medicine ball throws, loaded absorption drills) should only be used infrequently (once or twice a week) for a limited period of time (4-6 weeks).

The latter exercises (high intensity) do carry a great potential for power improvement, but they're very stressful on the nervous system and the tendons. It's also important to understand that the training effect of the high intensity ballistic exercises is delayed, meaning that the improvements in the capacity to produce power are best seen two or three weeks after the last stimulation.

Example of a ballistic exercise: jump lunge

Example of a ballistic exercise: depth push-up

Example of a ballistic exercise: medicine ball throws


Training Organization with the Speed of Contraction Continuum

Now let's take a look at how to structure the training program using this continuum as our base. Remember the three structures we talked about earlier: conjugated, sequential, sequential conjugated.


Conjugated

With this type of structure, we want to use a wide range of training stimulation within the same training unit (week of training or microcycle). This means four to six "steps" in the speed of contraction continuum. Depending on your goal, you may use more or less methods as some might not be conducive to your final objective.

If you train only for muscle size…

1. Overcoming isometrics (for time, 15-45 seconds per set)

2. Functional isometrics

3. Iso-concentric contrast

4. Controlled concentric

If you train only for maximum strength …

1. Overcoming isometrics (for intensity, 5-10 seconds per set)

2. Functional isometrics

3. Controlled concentric (heavy lifting: the heavy weight makes the concentric portion controlled. Do not try to move it slowly on purpose.)

4. Explosive concentric

If you train for athletic improvement …

1. Overcoming isometrics (for intensity, 5-10 seconds per set)

2. Functional isometrics

3. Iso-concentric contrast

4. Controlled concentric (heavy lifting: the heavy weight makes the concentric portion controlled. Don't try to move it slowly!)

5. Explosive concentric

6. Ballistic


Weekly Program

Ideally you want to group training methods of a same nature during the same training day. In this continuum we can divide the methods in two groups:

Group 1

Overcoming isometrics

Functional isometrics

Iso-concentric contrast

Group 2

Controlled concentric

Explosive concentric

Ballistic

So if you train four times per week, that would give you a training split like this:

Day 1: Group 1 — Lower body

Day 2: OFF/Restorative measures

Day 3: Group 1 — Upper body

Day 4: Abdominals/Restorative measures

Day 5: Group 2 — Lower body

Day 6: Group 2 — Upper body

Day 7: OFF/Restorative measures

You want to stick to multi-joint exercises as much as possible. You can always add some vanity/beach training at the end of your training sessions.


Complex Training

Complex training was first used in the former Soviet Union and then spread to the whole Eastern bloc. It was especially popular in Bulgaria. Years later, American coaches (Donald Chu was the first one to write a book on the subject) adapted this form of training and it became somewhat popular in North America.

A "complex" refers to a series of exercises working the same muscle structures (e.g. lower body) but all targeting a different portion of a spectrum. The volume distribution of the program is what's called "vertical training" (what we call circuit training), in which you perform one set of each exercise one after another (with or without rest depending on your objective). Once all exercises have been completed, you start another one until the required number of sets has been performed.

Here are examples of the first two types of complex training: Russian and Bulgarian.


Russian Complex Training

A Russian complex involves a continuous alternation between exercises of heavy and light loads in the same session, or more specifically, alternating between a slow-speed strength exercise and a high-speed strength exercise. In most cases, a complex is made up of two exercises. For example:

Lower Body Russian Complex

Exercise 1: Back squat

3-5 repetitions with a load of 85-95% of 1RM

Rest 3-4 minutes

Exercise 2: Jump squat

10 reps with a load of 15-20% of the back squat 1RM

Rest 3-4 minutes

This complex would be repeated anywhere from two to five times in a workout. A variant of this form of training would be a Russian superset complex. Ironically, it wasn't used in the former Soviet Union, but rather it’s an adaptation of the Russian complex by Western sport-scientists. The basic technique is the same, except that there's no rest between the exercises in a complex. For example:

1. Lower Body Russian Superset Complex (strength-speed emphasis)

Exercise 1: Back squat

3-5 reps with a load of 85-95% of 1RM

No rest

Exercise 2: Jump squat

10 reps with a load of 15-20% of the back squat 1RM

Rest 3-4 minutes

This complex would be repeated anywhere from two to five times in a workout.

2. Lower Body Russian Superset Complex (speed-strength emphasis)

Exercise 1: Jump squat

10 reps with a load of 15-20% of the back squat 1RM

No rest

Exercise 2: Back squat

3-5 reps with a load of 85-95% of 1RM

Rest 3-4 minutes

Again, this complex would be repeated anywhere from two to five times in a workout.

I 'm not a big fan of the superset version as it prevents you from producing a high quality effort on both exercises. I think that it became popular mostly because it’s a good way to save time and, since it’s more tiring, athletes believe that they're working harder.


Bulgarian Complex Training

The Bulgarian complex is basically an extended version of the Russian complex. Instead of doing a complex of two exercises, you use a complex of four to five exercises, going from the heaviest one to the lightest one. For example:

Lower Body Bulgarian Complex

Exercise 1: Back squat

3-5 reps with a load of 85-95% of 1RM

Rest 3-4 minutes

Exercise 2: Power snatch or power clean

2-3 reps with a load of 85-95% of 1RM

Rest 3-4 minutes

Exercise 3: Jump squats

10 reps with a load of 15-20% of the back squat 1RM

Rest 3-4 minutes

Exercise 4: Depth jumps

10 reps from 0.5m

Rest 3-4 minutes

Exercise 5: Vertical jumps

As many jumps as possible in 15 seconds

Rest 3-4 minutes

Because of the high number of exercises, only one to three complexes would be completed in one workout. If we use the contraction speed continuum to plan a complex training session, we want to use a model similar to the Bulgarian complex since we’ll need to include four to six exercises. Once again, method selection will depend on your goal.

If you train only for muscle size…

1. Overcoming isometrics (for time, 15-45 seconds per set)

2. Functional isometrics

3. Iso-concentric contrast

4. Controlled concentric

If you train only for maximum strength …

1. Overcoming isometrics (for intensity, 5-10 seconds per set)

2. Functional isometrics

3. Controlled concentric (heavy lifting: the heavy weight makes the concentric portion controlled. Don't try to move it slowly on purpose.)

4. Explosive concentric

If you train for athletic improvement …

1. Overcoming isometrics (for intensity, 5-10 seconds per set)

2. Functional isometrics

3. Iso-concentric contrast

4. Controlled concentric (heavy lifting: the heavy weight makes the concentric portion controlled, so again, don't try to move it slowly.)

5. Explosive concentric

6. Ballistic

All of the selected methods are trained during the workout. There are four weekly workouts:

Workout 1: Lower body, quads dominant

Workout 2: Upper body, push dominant

Workout 3: Lower body, pull dominant

Workout 4: Upper body, pull dominant

Here’s an example of how to structure such workouts. We'll use gains in athletic performance since it’s the most thorough complex of all:


Workout 1: Lower body, quads dominant

A1. Squat structure overcoming isometrics (mid and high positions only)

5-10 seconds per position

Push as hard as humanly possible

1 minute of rest before A2

A2. Squat structure functional isometrics (mid and high positions only)

3-6 seconds per position, lifted 2-3’’ from the starting point of that position

90 seconds of rest before A3

A3. Pause back squat

5 reps of normal squat with a 3 second pause when knees are at 90 degrees

2 minutes before A4

A4. Back squat

3-5 reps at 85-90%

2 minutes before A5

A5. Speed squat (with bands if available)

3 reps at 45-55%

1 minute before A6

A6. Jump squat

10 reps at 20-30%

3 minutes before starting a new circuit


Workout 2: Upper body, push dominant

A1. Bench press structure overcoming isometrics (mid and high positions only)

5-10 seconds per position

Push as hard as humanly possible

1 minute of rest before A2

A2. Bench press structure functional isometrics (mid and high positions only)

3-6 seconds per position, lifted 2-3’’ from the starting point of that position

90 seconds of rest before A3

A3. Pause bench press

5 reps of normal bench with a 3 second pause when the bar is 3-4’’ from the chest

2 minutes before A4

A4. Bench press

3-5 reps at 85-90%

2 minutes before A5

A5. Speed bench (with bands if available)

3 reps at 45-55%

1 minute before A6

A6. Ballistic bench press (or medicine ball throw from chest)

10 reps at 15-20%

3 minutes before starting a new circuit


Workout 3: Lower body, pull dominant

A1. Pull (deadlift) structure overcoming isometrics (low and mid positions only)

5-10 seconds per position

Push as hard as possible

1 minute of rest before A2

A2. Pull structure functional isometrics (low and mid positions only)

3-6 seconds per position, lifted 2-3’’ from the starting point of that position

90 seconds of rest before A3

A3. Pause Romanian deadlift

5 reps of normal RD with a 3 second pause when the bar is 1’’ below the knees

2 minutes before A4

A4. Romanian deadlift

3-5 reps at 85-90%

2 minutes before A5

A5. Power clean from the hang

3-5 reps at 70-80%

1 minute before A6

A6. Jump lunges

10 reps at 20-30% of bodyweight

3 minutes before starting a new circuit


Workout 4: Upper body, pull dominant

A1. Bent-over row structure overcoming isometrics (mid and high positions only)

5-10 seconds per position

Push as hard as humanly possible

1 minute of rest before A2

A2. Bent-over row structure functional isometrics (mid and high positions only)

3-6 seconds per position, lifted 2-3’’ from the starting point of that position

90 seconds of rest before A3

A3. Pause barbell row

5 reps of normal RD with a 3 second pause when the bar is against the abdomen

2 minutes before A4

A4. Bentover barbell rowing

3-5 reps at 85-90%

2 minutes before A5

A5. Speed dumbbell bentover row

As many reps as possible in 15 seconds with a relatively light weight

3 minutes before the next circuit


That wraps up the contraction speed continuum. In Part II, we'll explore the power continuum. Stay tuned to T-Nation!

 

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