Here's what you need to know...
- Serious lifters know the importance of taking a back-off week to promote recovery and accelerate progress. But taking what's called a "contrast week" is even better.
- Bodybuilding programs often leave out strength work while powerlifting programs often minimize hypertrophy work. The contrast week is where you can fit these missing elements into your program.
- Contrast weeks can be used to alleviate CNS fatigue, DOMS, or repetitive overuse injuries. As a bonus, they can be a fun mental break.
- The contrast week is also an opportunity to work on practicing new exercises so they'll be ready to add into your primary training sessions.
Contrast Training Beats Deloading
Deload or "back off" weeks are a commonly accepted feature of traditional programming. The rationale behind the idea of a deload week is supported by Dr. Zatsiorsky's "Two-Factor Theory."
According to the professor: "The immediate effect after a workout is considered a combination of (a) fitness gain prompted by the workout and (b) fatigue. The summation of positive and negative changes determines the final outcome."
Put another way, during extended periods of hard training, your true fitness capacity is "masked" by accumulated fatigue. During a deload, however, fatigue evaporates, allowing your true fitness potential to be expressed.
Typically, deload weeks are regularly scheduled – most commonly every fourth week. Despite this, I've argued against the idea of a planned back off week, since you'll inevitably have unplanned deload weeks due to unexpected illness, injury, and/or outside obligations that always seem to pop up without warning.
One flaw of this approach is that it's probably better to be proactive than reactive. In other words, rather than wait for an injury or illness to bite you in the ass, it's better to deload a bit in a regularly-scheduled manner to prevent these issues from cropping up in the first place.
However, there's be a third approach to the issue: scheduled contrast weeks.
Contrast and Fatigue Specificity
Could it be that the value of a deload week has less to do with a reduction in work and more to do with a change of pace? A break from the tedium? After all, contrast promotes recovery.
Basically, whenever you're doing anything difficult (resistance training, aerobic training, etc.), you prompt recovery by discontinuing the thing that's causing the fatigue in the first place. This discontinuance can be achieved through two different ways:
- Stop all activity
- Start a different activity
There's of course recovery potential in both approaches, but a concept I call "fatigue specificity" argues for the latter approach: Whenever you engage in a specific type of training, the fatigue it generates has a greater impact on subsequent similar activities than it does on subsequent dissimilar activities.
For example, imagine that you bench-pressed 5 sets of 5 with a very heavy barbell on Monday. On Tuesday, you'll do a second workout. Just for fun, rank the following five options, based on how heavily each will be affected by the fatigue from the previously-performed bench press workout:
- Barbell Bench Press 5x5
- Barbell Bench Press 2x15
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 1x30
- Squat 3x10
- 5k Run
I've of course ranked these five workouts from most similar to least similar to the 5x5 bench press session. Therefore #1 will be most affected by fatigue, and #5 the least affected.
While it's true that all of these activities ultimately draw from your total energy resources, it's really only the type of energy that's in least abundance that really matters when it comes to physical training. So borrowing from the examples above, bench pressing 5 sets of 5 draws most heavily on the ATP/glycolytic energy system, while a 5k run relies mostly on the aerobic system.
The contrast week can be used as an opportunity to experiment with new things and get out of your comfort zone – a chance to do things that aren't in your formal program. And believe it or not, often something of even greater difficulty can promote recovery, simply because it's different.
Also remember that all programs are "incomplete" – there's always a compromise. Bodybuilding programs don't focus enough on strength, and powerlifting programs might not target hypertrophy sufficiently. Both approaches often neglect other qualities such as mobility and work capacity. The contrast week can be where you fit these missing components into your program.
The contrast week can also be an opportunity to work on developing new exercises that aren't quite ready for inclusion into your normal program. For example, you might want to do kettlebell snatches or barbell power cleans, but you can't really include them into your program because your technique isn't yet stable. The contrast week is where you can work on these skills until they're ready for prime time.
How to Use a Contrast Week for Your Goals
With the idea that "contrast promotes recovery" in mind, let's look at a few different scenarios where the contrast week can be effectively applied:
Repetitive Overuse Injuries: The fewer skills your sport or favorite activity entails, the more likely you are to experience overuse injuries. Olympic lifting, powerlifting, and kettlebell sport are a few such examples.
When implementing a contrast week for these situations, the primary goal is to dramatically reduce or (preferably) even discontinue the movement patterns that you typically use in normal training, particularly those that seem to create problems.
Powerlifters with sore knees should replace squats with more knee-friendly movements such as back extensions and hip thrusts. O-lifters with sore wrists might be advised to avoid racking the bar on their shoulders during contrast weeks, perhaps by subbing heavy pulls for their normal cleans.
In all cases like these, it's not absolutely necessary to reduce volume or intensity. The goal is to avoid your normal repetitive patterns.
DOMS: Post-workout soreness can affect any type of athlete, although it's probably most problematic for athletes with constant novelty in their training (such as CrossFit) and/or significant eccentric loading.
A contrast week for this application would be focused on minimizing eccentric loading as much as possible, along with limiting your activities to well-mastered and/or familiar skills. These activities might include sprinting, bicycling, or doing Prowler work.
CNS Fatigue: Powerlifters and weightlifters are most affected by central nervous system recovery issues. The contrast week solution for them isn't complete rest, but rather contrasting activities such as moderate-load bodybuilding, work-capacity drills such as sled drags, and anything else that might promote recovery such as foam rolling, massage, or getting some solid sleep.
Psychological Tedium: One of the least-understood aspects of serious athletic training is the constant monotony of training. During contrast weeks, take the opportunity to explore or revisit activities that you don't normally have the chance to enjoy. Doing so will reinvigorate you for the next hard phase of regular training.
Psychic Stress: Regularly battling with very heavy weights sets up a "fight or flight" response. Sometimes it feels almost like narrowly escaping a life-or-death event.
These types of experiences take a heavy psychic toll on the mind and body, and this type of stress accumulates. Use the contrast week to recuperate. Focus on low to moderate-load movements that you don't typically do in your regular training. Emphasize fun, low-stress activities.
Contrast Is Superior To "Rest"
You'll notice that no matter what type of accumulated stress(es) you need to recover from, simply implementing a regularly scheduled contrast week will accelerate recovery without setting you back the way a week of complete inactivity might.
Start implementing this strategy on your next training cycle and you'll be happy with the results!