To build a body that performs just as good as it looks, standard lifting alone won't cut it. It's the "other stuff" – namely, plyometrics and power-based work – that really separates the high-performing beasts from the lifters who are all show and no go.
But developing appreciable strength and power won't happen by mindlessly throwing some box jumps and medicine ball throws into your training. And not all forms of combined strength and power-based training are created equal.
There's one method that reigns supreme: contrast training.
It's an underused method, which is weird since it's known for increasing strength, developing power, packing on muscle, and improving athleticism all at once.
Here's what it is, why you should do it, and how to do it.
What Is Contrast Training?
Popularized by Yuri Verkoshansky and Mel Siff in Supertraining, it's a hybrid strength-power modality that involves pairing a heavy lift with a high-velocity movement of the same biomechanical pattern. Think squats and vertical jumps.
The real magic lies in its ability to elicit post-activation potentiation (PAP), which refers to the acute enhancement of muscle force capabilities following maximal or near-maximal muscular contractions (from heavy lifting).
Think of it like this: Using a heavy lift to induce PAP "tricks" the neuromuscular system into exerting more force than otherwise possible, which then juices up the explosive capacity of the relevant muscles.
In turn, the amount and rate of force that the muscles can produce is amplified, thus enabling more power output during the paired high-velocity movement (by about 1-5% more than possible in PAP's absence).
As Yuri Verkoshansky put it in simpler terms, PAP is like lifting a half-can of water when you think it's full.
In the short-term, harnessing the transient power of PAP via contrast training produces significant and near-immediate increases in muscular strength as well as numerous measures of upper and lower-body power.
More importantly for lifters, however, contrast training can produce long-lasting improvements in both performance and body composition after repeated exposures to PAP, ultimately resulting in enhanced athleticism and a strong and jacked physique to boot.
Here's a breakdown of the benefits:
1. It develops power.
Studies have demonstrated contrast training's ability to produce improvements in multiple measures of power, such as peak force, peak velocity, sprint speed, and jump height (among others).
For example, during a 10-week study, 26 junior basketball players who performed contrast training improved their acceleration and maximal velocity sprint times by 0.2 and 0.3 seconds (9% and 6%) respectively, while also increasing jump height in three tests by over 5-inches in total.
An eight-week study demonstrated that, among college-aged males doing the same strength program, those who contrasted plyometric push-ups with bench pressing increased their peak upper-body power by 5.1% more than those who did not.
2. It improves long-term strength gains.
For those who couldn't care less about athletic performance and are primarily concerned with strength, fear not – contrast training does that, too.
One study separated 30 male athletes into contrast training and "complex training" (separate strength and plyometric work) groups and found that, after three months, the contrast group experienced greater increases in full-body strength by a total of 23%.
Likewise, remember that study on the basketball players? Those researchers found that the athletes who performed contrast training increased their 1-RM squat by nearly 30% more than the control group.
How does contrast training increase strength? Well, the high-threshold motor units recruited during fast concentric actions are the same motor units responsible for maximal force production. So by training similar movement patterns on both ends of the force-velocity spectrum, contrast training does two things:
- Enhances inter-muscular coordination, which enhances force production between multiple muscles.
- Enhances intra-muscular coordination, which improves the ability of individual muscles to contract faster, more efficiently, and with more force.
Paired with its ability to increase power, contrast training can be a potent tool for busting through stubborn strength plateaus and smashing more weight in the big three lifts.
3. It improves short-term strength gains.
The notion that potentiation can increase short-term strength is nothing new. For example, short bouts of max-effort overcoming isometrics spike muscular strength almost immediately.
Likewise, doing jumps before squatting can increase the amount of weight you can handle shortly thereafter. In the same manner – albeit the other way around – eliciting PAP via contrast training can lead to acute enhancements in strength after 3-5 minutes (or more) of rest.
4. It increases muscle mass.
Albeit indirectly, contrast training can facilitate muscle growth via two primary mechanisms.
First, increasing strength in both the short and long-term means being able to use heavier loads, and – as every serious lifter knows – more weight almost always means more growth.
Second, the fast concentric actions that occur during high-velocity movements target type-II fast-twitch muscle fibers, which have a 25-75% greater potential for muscle growth than type-I fibers. In the short-term, this increased type-II muscle fiber recruitment leads to the recruitment of more muscle throughout the remainder of a workout, ultimately leading to more muscle growth over time.
In the long-term, contrast training can lead to muscle-fiber type shifting, meaning that it can teach slow-twitch fibers to behave like fast-twitch fibers by increasing their size and force potential.
5. It's "fun" and time efficient.
It combines strength and power work into a single block and spares some precious training time for all of the extra pump work your little heart desires. It's also a great opportunity to feel like an athlete.
The Best Contrast Pairings
The first three pairings revolve around the big three lifts. Simple? Yes. Effective? Absolutely.
The remaining pairings consist of lesser-performed contrast exercises that'll fill in the gaps by accounting for additional movement patterns, different body positions, multiple planes, and locomotion.
In each case, the paired high-velocity movements can be chosen to pinpoint either rate of force development (RFD) – power from a standstill – or elastic power – the generation of force through the stretch-shortening cycle.
Pairing 1: Squat & Vertical Jump
Example: Front Squat & Static Box Jump
For building lower body strength and power, squats and jumps are hard to beat. The two movements' similarities are fairly straightforward since they involve vertical propulsion and similar muscle actions in the lower half.
- Squat options: Back squats, front squats, Safety-Bar squats, box squats
- Jumps with RFD emphasis: Box jumps, vertical jumps, static (paused) jumps
- Jumps with elastic emphasis: Depth jumps, continuous squat jumps
Pairing 2: Deadlift & Horizontal Jump
Example: Trap Bar Deadlift & Depth Broad Jump
Regardless of the variation – standard deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, etc. – what separates the hinge and horizontal jump pairing from its squat and vertical jump counterpart is that it requires more effort from the hip extensors. This places a greater emphasis on the posterior chain. As a result, deadlifts and similar movements are especially fitting in combination with broad and horizontal-focused jumps.
- Deadlift options: Romanian deadlifts, conventional or sumo deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts
- Jumps with RFD emphasis: Broad jumps, band-resisted broad jumps
- Jumps with elastic emphasis: Continuous broad jumps, depth broad jumps
Pairing 3: Bench Press & Med Ball Throw (or Plyo Push-Up)
Example: Barbell Bench Press & Med Ball Chest Throw
Like squats and deadlifts, pairing the bench press and its derivatives with similar high-velocity movements is simple, with the two primary options being medicine ball throws from the chest and plyometric push-ups. Regardless, bench press contrast pairings are about one thing: explosive pushing power.
Think of NFL linemen fighting at the line of scrimmage, or blowing up your uncle in the annual Thanksgiving football game.
- Press options: Barbell bench press, floor press, close-grip bench press, specialty bar bench press
- Throw options: Med ball chest throws (RFD), reactive med ball chest throws (elastic)
- Plyo push-up options: Dead-stop plyometric push-ups (RFD), continuous band-assisted plyometric push-ups (elastic)
Pairing 4: Chin/Pull-Up & Overhead Medicine Ball Throw
Example: Chin-Up & Overhead Medicine Ball Throw
The vertical pulling pattern is often overlooked from a power-building perspective, mostly because vertical movements are tough to train with a lot of speed. It's easy to do speed work when squatting, benching, and deadlifting; it's virtually impossible to do so with any sort of pull.
For that reason, contrasting heavy vertical pulls with overhead medicine ball throws or band-accelerated chin/pull-ups can be a game changer for unlocking power in the upper back and lats, as well as for strengthening the scapular stabilizers and rotator cuff musculature.
- Vertical pull options: Chin-up, pull-up, neutral grip chin-up, ring chin-up
- Med ball throw options: Overhead med ball throws, overhead med ball slams
- Additional power options: Band-accelerated chin/pull-ups, explosive high band rows
Pairing 5: Unilateral Exercises
Example: Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat & Single-Leg Box Jump
Unilateral contrast training provides all of the benefits of regular single-leg training, but with the added element of PAP to juice up its strength and power-building potential even further.
When selecting movements within a unilateral contrast pairing, specific exercises can be chosen to get varying degrees of hip or knee-dominance and horizontal or vertical propulsion.
- Knee-dominant options: Rear-foot elevated split squats, split squats, single-leg squats
- Hip-dominant options: Split-stance RDLs, single-leg deadlifts, slide board reverse lunges
- Vertical jumps: Single-leg box jumps (RFD), alternating split squat jumps (elastic)
- Horizontal jumps: Single-leg broad jumps (RFD), single-leg hurdle hops (elastic)
Pairing 6: Multi-Planar Exercises
Example: Rotational Landmine Press & Rotational Med Ball Chest Throw
Given that being able to move with strength and power rotationally (in the transverse plane) and laterally (in the frontal plane) is essential for overall function and performance, doing so with the added benefits of contrast training can pay huge dividends for athletes and non-athletes alike.
- Lower-body strength options: Lateral lunges, lateral squats, lateral sled drags/crossovers
- Upper-body strength options: Rotational landmine presses, rotational cable presses
- Lower-body power options: One or two legged lateral jumps, lateral bounds, 45-degree bounds
- Upper-body power options: Rotational med ball chest throws, rotational med ball scoop tosses
Pairing 7: Locomotive Exercises
Example: Sled Push & Sprint
Locomotion is just moving through space in some way. It's arguably the most important movement pattern since it relates so closely to sport and life.
The problem? Training locomotive qualities like acceleration, top speed, and agility can be tough to do in a gym because there's often not enough space. However, with some equipment and an adequate amount of room to move, doing so with contrast training is one of the best ways to improve all of the those qualities at the same time.
Locomotive strength options: Heavy sled pushes/drags, lateral sled drags, resisted sprints/shuffles
Locomotive power options: Sprints, lateral sprint starts, explosive crossover/shuffle steps
Variables to Consider
The key to successful contrast training is accounting for the primary variables:
When it comes to choosing the heavy lift within a contrast pairing, the tried-and-true multi-joint movements reign supreme due to their involvement of multiple muscle groups and higher loading capacities, both of which increase the magnitude of PAP.On the other end of the spectrum, the best high-velocity exercises are the ones that allow for explosive, all-out movement with little to no "skill" requirements.
For competitive athletes and advanced lifters, sticking within the 1-5 rep range using 80-90% of 1-RM is typically best for maximal strength and power gains. Some research shows that contrast training can produce benefits throughout a wide range of intensities, however, which means there's probably some wiggle room for beat-up lifters or for those who want to bias hypertrophy.For example, sacrificing some intensity for slightly higher reps (say 6-8 reps at 70-80% 1-RM) can be effective for accumulating some extra volume while still producing a moderate PAP response. Either way, a good rule of thumb is to stay 1-2 reps shy of failure to maintain dialed-in technique and mitigate fatigue.
Determining how much rest is needed between movements is a balancing act between maximizing potentiation and minimizing fatigue. While the research varies on "optimal" rest times – with a wide range between 3-12 minutes suggested – the sweet spot seems to fall somewhere between 3-4 minutes. That being said, numerous factors can affect recoverability – like intensity, volume, exercise selection, and individual strength levels – which means that a trial-and-error approach is the safest bet.
Most of the research related to PAP has demonstrated that its effects are much more pronounced in advanced lifters with higher levels of strength. So factor in your training age and strength levels prior to using this method.
Also consider your muscle fiber composition. Those with a higher proportion of type-II fibers respond more favorably to PAP – although that's probably majoring in the minors. When in doubt, let training experience and strength be the gauge.
Putting It All Together
Contrast training has proven to yield significant improvements in strength, power, and muscle mass for up to and potentially beyond 8-12 weeks. Like anything else, however, nothing works forever, which makes tracking and measuring progress the key to maximizing its potential.
Regardless, there's no denying the power of contrast training for increasing all things related to strength, power, performance, and muscle growth, which makes it a must-do for athletes, non-athletes, and washed-up meatheads alike.
Related: Muscle Up Top, Hustle Down Below
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