Contrast training is one of the most effective ways to increase your strength levels, power output, muscle mass, metabolic function for fat loss, and overall performance levels.
I first read about contrast training in Yuri Verkhoshansky’s Supertraining, but I have seen it employed elsewhere for a variety of different training goals and applications.
The concept is simple. Taking an example from Verkhoshansky and something we’ve probably all done in our lives, imagine picking up a can that was half full of liquid when our mind thought it was full. Typically what happens is we move the can with much more force than we intended and make a big mess. Our nervous system was primed based on past performance and therefore muscle capability was enhanced.
Now apply this to strength training. There are two different ways I use contrasts in my training. I use contrasting movements (an explosive movement after a heavy lift) and I use contrasting tempos (lighter loads with explosive, faster tempo than normal).
Using either of these, think of the above water example. Working in explosive movements/tempos after a strength movement recruits more motor units and produces more force. The benefits are straightforward. The more muscle you recruit, the more explosive, strong, and powerful you are. Contrast training also increases the amount of work you are doing giving you a greater metabolic boost than normal training. And obviously, the more muscle you recruit, the more hypertrophy you can induce (although you may want to up your reps slightly for a hypertrophy focus).
Putting Contrast Training Into Practice
Ok, so you get the concept, but how do you actually implement it? As mentioned before, I use contrast training in two different ways.
#1 Contrasting Movements
Start with a 5-8 rep set of a heavy lift and pair it with an unloaded explosive movement with the same rep scheme. For example, a heavy set of squats followed by a set of box jumps; or a heavy set of bench followed by a set of plyo push-ups; or a heavy sled drag followed by an all-out sprint.
Your unloaded contrasting movement should be done with maximal effort. Rest times in between your heavy lift and contrast movement can vary and is goal dependent. If you goal is maximal strength, rest for 3 minutes. If your goal is for increased athletic performance or fat loss, rest for 30 seconds or no rest at all. For hypertrophy, split the difference somewhere in between.
Four to five sets (of each movement) will do the trick. Use the lower end of the rep scheme for maximal strength, and the upper end for hypertrophy and fat loss. You don’t need to use contrast movements every training session, as I don’t recommend training maximally for extended periods of time, but continuously keep it as part of your training toolkit.
#2 Contrasting Tempos
For this, you are doing the same movement (bench, squat, deadlift, etc.) for three sets, but varying the tempo in which your perform it. You start with a set of slow tempo emphasizing the eccentric movement of the lift, then perform a set faster than normal, and then perform a normal one. Here is an example:
Set 1: Using a moderate weight (70-80% of your 1 rep max), you use a very slow tempo (about 5 seconds on the negative portion of the lift) and then pause near the bottom of the lift for 2-3 seconds. For squats the pause would be at roughly parallel, for bench, the bar just above your chest, etc. The idea here is that you keep full body tension. After the pause, you perform the concentric part of the lift normally. This set is done for 2-3 reps, and then you rest for 2 minutes.
Set 2: This set is done with lighter weight (60-70%) but done explosively. You control the eccentric portion, but explode from the bottom applying as much force as you can. This set is for 3-5 reps, and then rest for 60 seconds.
Set 3: This set is done with the heaviest weight (80-85%) using normal tempo (2 seconds down, no pause, 2 seconds up). This set is for 4-6 reps and then you rest 3 minutes.
You perform this series of sets (all 3) 2-3 times, giving you a total of 6-9 sets.
After your last set, try to end your training with the tempo that is most conducive to your goals. For example, if you are a strength athlete always end your training with the heaviest set. If you’re a an athlete and are trying to develop explosiveness, then add in an extra set of set #2 at the end of the series. For hypertrophy, end the series with an extra set of #1.
Training Smarter, Not Harder
Use contrast training to help boost your performance, but know how to tailor them to your goals based on the recommendations I gave above. These are easy to integrate into any strength training program, so use them to your advantage and break through your plateaus. But as with anything else, do not overuse them to the point that they lose their effectiveness.