Contrast Training For Power and Explosiveness

Here's what you need to know...

  1. Building explosive strength is key to reaching full potential in the weight room.
  2. Contrast sets consist of a heavy lift followed by an explosive movement that mimics the mechanics of the heavy lift.
  3. Performing an explosive movement directly after a heavy resistance exercise causes post activation potentiation (PAP), which increases explosiveness in high velocity movements.

What's a Contrast Set and Why Should I Do It?

Contrast sets consist of a heavy resisted exercise paired with an unweighted explosive exercise. The two exercises share a common movement pattern, like squats and vertical jumps.

Performing a maximal or near-maximal muscular contraction before an explosive movement causes post-activation potentiation (PAP), which allows for a more powerful explosive movement.

The ability to apply force quickly can mean the difference between a successful PR and a lift that stalls halfway and results in a miss. In a squat competition, I'll put my money on the guy who explodes out of the hole with authority versus the guy who has trouble generating force quickly.

Louie Simmons includes speed work as an integral part of his programs because it enables you to lift more weight. For guys that don't have time to do separate Dynamic and Max Effort Days, contrast sets are a way to build power while still getting heavy strength work at the same time.

How Does PAP Work?

We're not 100% sure yet. According to Bret Contreras, the potential mechanisms that cause PAP include phosphorylation of myosin regulatory light chains, increased recruitment of higher order motor units, and changes in pennation angle. Studies have also suggested that PAP is caused by increased synaptic excitation in the spinal cord.

What we do know is that PAP increases the force exerted by a muscle due to its previous contraction. According to scientist and Supertraining author Yuri Verkhoshanksy, the effect of PAP is like "lifting a half-can of water when you think it's full."

Two Different, Equally Effective Contrasts

Two Different, Equally Effective Contrasts

Depending on the athlete's goals, we have two different variations of high-velocity contrast movements.

Rate of Force Development (RFD). RFD refers to the body's ability to accelerate from a standstill (similar to starting strength). An example would be jumping from a seated position.

Elastic explosiveness. Refers to the body's ability to generate force by way of the stretch shortening cycle through a countermovement. An example of this would be a squat jump in which the athlete flexes his hip and knees quickly before jumping.

Which Should You Work On?

There's a simple test to determine which type of contrast movement will benefit you the most. Simply perform 3 vertical jumps, one with a normal countermovement, one with a paused start, and a depth jump from a 12-18 inch box.

  • If your paused jump is significantly lower than your normal jump (85% or less), you need to improve your RFD.
  • If your depth jump is equal to or lower than your normal jump, you need to work on elastic explosiveness.

The depth jump should allow for a higher jump due to the effect of the stretch shortening cycle, so if your depth jump isn't higher than your standing vertical jump, it means your muscles aren't effectively harnessing the energy created by the drop from the box.

Sets, Reps, and Volume

For each contrast set, the weight should be at or above 90% of 1RM so that the lifter performs 1-3 reps of the heavy lift followed by 3-6 reps of the high-velocity movement.

Keeping the volume low during the heavy lift will lessen the effect of fatigue and allow for maximum force production during the explosive movement while maximizing the effects of PAP.

You should add a 30-second rest interval between the heavy lift set and the explosive movement. This gives the involved muscles time to recover, while still allowing the lifter to take advantage of PAP from the heavy lift.

Also, the addition of a 15-second rest after each rep of the explosive movement will allow for maximum velocity on each rep. After finishing your explosive reps, rest for 3 minutes before the next set.

Since it's unwise to start off by throwing 90% of your 1RM around, include 3-5 warm-up sets before piling the weight on. However, to avoid muscle fatigue before the work sets, only do enough warm-up reps to get your blood flowing.

Three warm-up sets of 3-5 reps seems to work well, though advanced lifters dealing with very heavy weights may need a fourth and fifth warm-up set.

Squat Contrast Sets

Squat Contrast Sets

For easy transition from heavy squats to speed squats, set up the bar so that your speed squat weight is on the inside of the bar, and then add the extra weight to the bar so that the total weight is equal to your weight for heavy squats. After completing your heavy set, simply strip the extra weights off the bar so that only the speed squat total remains.

For example, if your max squat is 395 pounds, set up the bar with a 45-pound plate and a 35-pound plate on each side, giving you 205 pounds on the bar. If you're doing a heavy set at 95% of your max (375), add another 170 pounds to the bar.

Then after doing the heavy set, strip off the extra 170 pounds and do the speed squats with 205. Taking off the extra weight by yourself takes about 30-45 seconds, which is a good rest interval between heavy and explosive movements.

When doing speed squats, follow Louie Simmons' guidelines for weight and keep the intensity around 50-60% of your 1RM. In an ideal world, we'd use carefully calculated intensities for speed squats, but following this table will save you time and make the entire process a little more streamlined. (Follow the table below to determine how much weight to use on both the speed box squats and the regular speed squats.)

Max Squat * Suggested Speed Squat Weight *
Less than 250 95
250-300 135
305-350 185
355-400 205
405-450 225
455-500 245
505-550 275
555-600 315

* pounds

If your goal is to improve rate of force development, pair speed box squats with your heavy squat. To do speed box squats, simply sit onto a box that's set at or slightly below parallel. Come to a complete stop and then explode up, squatting the weight as fast as possible.

Squat RFD Contrast

  Exercise Reps Instensity
A1 Squat 2, 2, 1, 1 90%, 90%, 95%, 95%
A2 Speed Box Squat 3, 3, 2, 2  

To improve elastic explosiveness, pair the heavy squats with regular speed squats. Concentrate on descending to depth as quickly as you can before reversing direction and exploding up. A fast countermovement causes greater effect of the stretch shortening cycle, which will increase concentric acceleration out of the hole.

Squat Elastic Contrast

  Exercise Reps Instensity
A1 Squat 2, 2, 1, 1 90%, 90%, 95%, 95%
A2 Speed Squat 3, 3, 2, 2  

Deadlift Contrast Sets

To improve rate of force development, pair heavy deadlifts with explosive pull-throughs. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width, holding a rope attached to a cable. Reach back between your legs while maintaining a flat back.

Without using a countermovement, powerfully extend your hips and knees and lock out the movement like you would a deadlift. Keep the weight for the pull-throughs at or below 50% of your deadlift 1RM to ensure high velocity movement.

Deadlift RFD Contrast

  Exercise Reps Instensity
A1 Deadlift 2, 2, 1, 1 90%, 90%, 95%, 95%
A2 Explosive Pull-Through 4, 4, 3, 2  

For developing elastic explosiveness, use heavy kettlebell swings. Again, the goal is high-velocity movement, so pick a weight that you can move explosively while maintaining good form. Start with a 32-kilo kettlebell, then progress to a 36-kilo, 40-kilo, and a 44-kilo over time.

If you don't have access to heavy kettlebells (at least 32 kilos), then use heavy dumbbells in their place.

Start with a 70-pound dumbbell and progress from there as your form allows.

Deadlift Elastic Contrast

  Exercise Reps Instensity
A1 Deadlift 2, 2, 1, 1 90%, 90%, 95%, 95%
A2 Heavy Kettlebell Swing 3, 3, 2, 2  

Bench Press Contrast Sets

The med ball chest press is a great choice to pair with the bench press, but if you don't have access to medicine balls, plyo push-ups will also work.

To improve RFD, start with the med ball on your chest at a standstill, relax completely, then explosively chest pass the ball upwards as hard as you can.

Choosing the weight of the medicine ball depends on the individual. Make sure to choose a weight that you can throw with consistent velocity throughout the entirety of the set. It should be a weight that's challenging to move fast, but not prohibitively so.

Bench RFD Contrast

  Exercise Reps Instensity
A1 Bench Press 2, 2, 1, 1 90%, 90%, 95%, 95%
A2 Med Ball Chest Pass 4, 4, 3, 2  

For elastic explosiveness, use med ball explosive presses. Have a partner drop the medicine ball to you from above while you lie on your back. Then, catch the ball and throw it as high as you can after a short countermovement. Think about having soft hands and then quickly getting rid of it, like playing hot potato with an egg.

Bench Elastic Contrast

  Exercise Reps Instensity
A1 Bench Press 3, 2, 1, 1 90%, 90%, 95%, 95%
A2 Med Ball Explosive Press 3, 3, 2, 2  

If you don't have access to med balls or room to throw them, perform explosive push-ups from a standstill on the ground for RFD, or plyo push-ups from an elevation for elastic explosiveness.

Bench RFD Contrast #2

  Exercise Reps Instensity
A1 Bench Press 2, 2, 1, 1 90%, 90%, 95%, 95%
A2 Plyo Push-Up from Rest 4, 4, 3, 2  

Elastic Contrast #2

  Exercise Reps Instensity
A1 Bench Press 2, 2, 1, 1 90%, 90%, 95%, 95%
A2 Plyo Push-Up 3, 3, 2, 2  

Putting it All Together

Contrast sets are best done at the start of your session. If your program already includes a day for squatting, deadlifting, and benching, simply replace your regular sets with contrast sets.

To increase training density, it's a good idea to include a set of mobility work or other active recovery exercise during the 3 minute rest periods between contrast sets.

Offseason athletes should use contrast sets for 3-4 weeks at a time, usually once per offseason. I don't like the idea of doing explosive work during the competitive season. By saving them for the offseason, we're able to develop explosiveness without sacrificing strength gains.

For those training solely to increase the big lifts, work contrast sets into your program every 3 months or so, depending on your needs. Guys who feel they need to drastically increase their explosiveness could benefit from using them every one or two months.

Andrew Sacks is the owner and head of strength and conditioning at Prime Sports Performance in Baltimore, MD. Andrew specializes in training athletes with an emphasis on speed and power development. Follow Andrew Sacks on Facebook