One of the first things you lay eyes on when you enter the Primal Strength Gym is a wall of kegs. Once you take a closer look around, you’ll see a wide variety of odd objects like a circus dumbbell, sandbags, slosh pipes, tires, logs, grip tools and other unorthodox equipment.
Go into any gym across the world, and one of the most prevalent lifts you will see is the bench press. It’s one of the first lifts most people learn and a staple for a ton of mass and strength building programs.
But to get bigger and stronger, do you really need to bench press?
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.
The only two training splits I recommend are either full body or an upper lower split.
Body part splits and bodybuilding style training has its place for supplemental programming, but it’s ill-suited (as a primary focus) for the average gym rat or athlete who wants to get both strong and huge. Training full body or with an upper lower split recruits far more muscle, allows you to train much more frequently than body part splits, and will build both size and strength concurrently.
If you want a more detailed look into why I advocate against body part splits for the average gym rat, read this: Ditch the Body Part Split
I favor an upper lower split personally because I think it has a few advantages over full body training, but I’ll give you examples of both just so you can decide for yourself what suits your needs and schedule more.
For a full body split, it’s pretty straightforward. You train your entire body each training session so no movement is off limits.
The disadvantage to full body training is that your training sessions will typically be longer than normal and your recovery times increased. You may also be hard pressed to fit everything you’d like to do in a single training session.
As a general rule, no matter what the split, I train my biggest/heaviest lifts first and follow that with assistance work and specialty training such as plyometrics and explosive movements. Several days a week, I will end with 20 minutes of high-intensity cardio.
Here is an example full body training plan:
- Big Lift (Bench, squat, overhead press, deadlift)
- Assistance (row variations, tricep and bicep work, hamstring and posterior chain movements, floor presses, squat variations, single-leg exercises, etc.)
- More Assistance (different movement from your 1st assistance exercise)
- Bodyweight or Explosive Movement (push-up and pull-up variations, dips, kettlebell cleans and snatches, barbell hang cleans, heavy push presses, plyometrics)
- Core Work and/or Conditioning (sprints, hanging leg raises, medicine ball throws, kettlebell swings, battle rope, weighted crunches, farmers carries)
* For some of your explosive work, if it’s really taxing, you may perform that as your second movement to reduce the possibility of technical errors and injury, as well as increase the actual training effect of the exercise. *
Training hard with a full body approach, you only need to train 3 days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday for example), with some light to moderate active recovery sessions on your off days.
Upper Lower Split
Upper lower splits are a progression from full body training and are what I typically use in my own training and with my clients. Your training sessions are split into upper body days and lower body days.
The upper lower split is more flexible than a full body split and allows you to hit your entire upper/lower body within a reasonable time frame (a typical training session would be about an hour). It also allows you to train more frequently, several times a week for both your upper and lower body.
Sticking with some of the considerations I laid out above (heaviest lift first, etc.) an upper lower split would look something like this.
- Big Lift (bench, or overhead press)
- Upper Body Assistance
- Upper Body Assistance
- Bodyweight or Explosive Movement
- Core Work and/or Conditioning
- Big Lift (squat, deadlift)
- Lower Body Assistance
- Lower Body Assistance
- Bodyweight or Explosive Movement
- Core Work and/or Conditioning
For an upper lower split, I take a 2 days on 1 day off approach. A sample schedule would be something like this:
Monday – Upper
Tuesday – Lower
Wednesday – Off Day/Active Recovery
Thursday – Upper
Friday – Lower
Saturday – Off Day/Active Recovery
Sunday – Off Day/Active Recovery
If you are looking for some set and rep guidelines for both full body and upper lower split programs, check out these two articles:
If you want an 8 week program centered around an upper lower split, check out Uncaging Your Primal Strength. You can download it from my programs page. It comes complete with an exercise list, rep and set guidelines, and built-in printable training worksheets.
Since its release, people from all over the world have been crushing the program, breaking strength plateaus, building muscle mass, and shredding body fat.
I also have a ridiculous deal going on for 3 of my eBooks, where you can get Uncaging, The Primal Mind, and Primal Strength Nutrition for a 30% discount. Don’t miss out before I come to my senses and raise the price back to face value!
If you want something even more dynamic and personalized, check out my online coaching portal: Primal Online Coaching.
By investing in online coaching, you will get 8 weeks of personalized programming, video critiques of your lifts, and a lot of interaction with me. Why not invest in the same training that is producing the nationally ranked athletes and record holders from the Primal Strength Gym?
The pull-up, sometimes referred to as the “upper-body squat”, is one of the best tests of your relative strength (strength to bodyweight). It’s one of the greatest upper-body builders there is and one that all serious lifters should train to master.
But pull-ups give a lot of people problems and it can be one of the hardest exercises to improve on…until now.
Use these methods to improve your pull-up performance.
#1 Do Not Train to Failure
This is by far the most prevalent violation of training your pull-ups. With any other exercise, you usually implement some form of progressive overload and you don’t train maximally day in and day out. But yet, I often see people doing set after set of pull-ups until failure and then wonder why they are not making progress.
You must treat your progression in pull-ups just as you would any other exercise and not train maximally every training session. By implementing some sort of pull-up specific training plan with progressive overload, I can almost guarantee you that your performance will improve.
#2 Train the Regressions, Progressions, and Variations
If you are trying to increase the number of pull-ups you can do, work in some variations that allow you to do more reps. Recline rows work well here and give you the ability to develop your pulling power and really initiate your lats. Vary your grip positions as well (narrow, neutral, overhand, underhand, wide).
For those of you who can already do 10 or more pull-ups and want to further increase your ability, strap some weight to a weight belt and do weighted pull-ups. Then, when you go back to pure bodyweight pull-ups, your movement will feel much lighter.
#3 Train Assistance Movements
There are a ton of row variations. Rows are one of the main exercises I recommend for building your back and by improving your pulling-power in other row movements, you will be improving your pulling-power on your pull-ups too. Single arm dumbbell rows, barbell rows, recline rows, and lat pull-downs are all great for improving pulling power.
#4 Modify Your Rep Ranges in Your Variations and Assistance Movements
This one is important. If you are trying to increase the number of pull-ups you can do, you probably need to add in some more endurance work. Lifting heavy the majority of the time will work wonders for your strength, but say you are stuck on a 5 pull-up max, training heavy with low rep sets on all of your assistance work may not benefit you.
If you want to increase your reps on pull-ups, try increasing your reps on rows and other similar movements as well, so you are conditioned for more endurance that high-rep sets of pull-ups require. For most of you training Primal style, that means throwing in high rep sets of 12 or more on your pull-up specific movements, rather than typical strength rep ranges of 3-8.
This comes down to a simple tweaking of technique, but I’ve found that this one adjustment can add up to 3 solid pull-ups on your current max. You must initiate your pull-ups by firing up your lats and not by pulling with your biceps. Cue yourself to drive your elbows down and back when you start the movement; this will engage your lats and take the emphasis off your biceps, giving you much more pulling power.
#6 Improve Your Grip Strength
The more grip strength you have, the easier any lift will feel. Pull-ups are no different.
Train your grip strength with farmer carries, barbell pulling movements, and the use of fat bars. If you don’t have access to fat bars, invest in a pair of Fat Gripz. They are always in my gym bag, and I use them every single day. You can pick up a pair through Primal, on the right hand side of this screen.
#7 Cut Body Fat
Extra weight might help you put up bigger numbers in leverage based exercises like squats and deadlifts or some sport specific activities, but in most other cases it’s worthless and unhealthy. Trimming excess weight will help you move more efficiently and improve your mobility, not to mention make pull-ups a hell of a lot easier.
Take a look back at your training logs and see how much time you are devoting to these. I bet you’d be surprised at what you find. I meticulously plan my workouts every single day, but when I look back on my records, I can always find at least one these best exercises that I’m neglecting.
Missing something from this list in your training? It’s time to make it a priority. Maybe that means scrapping something else from your current training plan to fit these in, and in that case, you are welcome for the intervention.
- Deadlifts – What? Everybody does deadlifts right? Wrong. The average gym rat doesn’t spend enough time making these a focus, or they commit one of the greatest gym sins of all by not deadlifting period. They are one of the greatest tests of overall body strength, and if you aren’t doing these with regularity, I can guarantee you that you aren’t meeting your full strength potential.
- Pushups – Amazing that such a classic can get overlooked, but it happens on a regular basis. Hall of Fame NFL running back Hershel Walker claims he built his body totally from push-ups. Not sure I buy it, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. An easy way to make sure to get these in is by incorporating them into a warmup or a finisher.
- Pullups – Same as above. After you can do 15 perfect pull-ups, vary your grip and start working on some of the variations.
- Glute Ham Raises – Weak hamstrings are the single most pervasive muscle imbalance across the planet. Weak hammies will hinder you in the deadlift, squat, sprinting, and a myriad of other athletic performance activities. If you don’t have access to a glute ham machine, there a variety of different techniques to perform them, or you can substitute in Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, hip thrusts, hamstring curls and boxsquats. If this list was a top 15, all of these would be on there.
- Farmer Carries – These are a must and one of my favorite exercises. They make a great training finisher and will work wonders for your upper back, grip strength, forearms, and mental toughness.
- Squats – Kinda goes hand in hand with #1. If you don’t want to look like a lightbulb, you gotta squat. Squat often, squat for a lot of reps, and squat heavy. As I mentioned with pull-ups, work in some of the squat variations like front squats, box squats, and single-leg squats. All of these will help improve your flexibility, technique, and strength.
- Hang Cleans – Performing these will do wonders for building mass on your entire upper body and for developing your explosiveness. Hang cleans produce 4 times as much power as squats and deadlifts, and 9 times as much as the bench press, according to some research. They are also fairly easy to learn, making them a great addition to the classics like bench, squats, overhead pressing, and deadlifting.
- Kettlebell Swings – These are the easiest of the kettlebell lifts to learn and one of the most effective. Benefits for your legs, shoulders, hips, mobility, explosiveness and power make this fat burning lift a must for your strength training routine.
- Hill Sprints – Get outside and run some hills for fat loss. I always feel sorry for the suckers I see on the stair stepper or treadmill for hours on end when they could be outside doing 20 minutes of hill sprints and get a far better training effect. Hill sprints are the single most efficient way to burn fat. No more elliptical, I’m begging you.
- Hanging Leg Raises – In my opinion, these are one of the best core exercises you could do. Not only do they strengthen your ab muscles, but they target your hip flexors as well. They offer a great range of motion and help improve your mobility.
They are key at developing explosiveness and athleticism and should be an important component of a well balanced strength training program. You will need this explosiveness when trying to build strength for the heavy barbell lifts like the bench and deadlifts. Plus they are vital in developing general physical preparedness and work capacity that will allow you to increase your training volume as you progress.
There are a ton of jump variations you can do, but for most of you these 3 will do the trick.
#1: Box Jumps
Most gyms have some sort of box you can jump on. Nothing complicated here. Just jump onto the box. Jump higher and higher as you progress.[tube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPMqixXXsIA[/tube]
#2: Hurdle Jumps
This simply means jumping over things. In a standard gym sitting, you can jump over benches or boxes. If you are training outside, this is where park benches and other objects come into play.
#3: Long Jumps
These are the most advanced because they require a great deal of explosiveness and athleticism already. You have to be very careful on cushioning your landings, and be aware of the pounding your joints, knees, and legs take in the process. I do not recommend this for beginners, but as you progress, you can work these in. Make sure your technique is sound and you have a strong core before doing these.
Knowing you need to focus on these 3, how do you incorporate them into your training?
I’d treat them just as any other exercise. They count towards your overall training volume and the higher/further you jump counts towards your training intensity. The higher/further you jump, the less reps per set you should perform. Fifteen or less total reps split up among 3-5 sets would work.
I tend to work my jumps in at the end of my workouts or after my big compound lift. If I’m jumping for a low vertical, I’ll use them as a conditioning finisher. If I’m going for high verticals, I’ll make them a focal point of my training after heavy squatting for example. One thing you can do to work in jumps mid-training is superset heavy squats with box jumps to really build up your explosiveness and leg strength.
One important distinction here is to not treat jumps as high-intensity cardio alone. While they do make a kick ass conditioning exercise, you also need to treat them as a way to develop explosiveness. The more explosive you are, the better you will perform on your big lifts. That’s why it’s important to test yourself and continually try to jump higher and further, not just for reps and time.
As far as frequency goes, you could jump a couple of times a week. Work in your plyos on the same days you are training lower body if you can. If you must jump the day after lifting heavy squats or deadlifts, crank your intensity (height/distance) down to no more than 75% of your max effort. Just like lifting weights, jumping for prolonged periods at 100% max effort can be stressful on your central nervous system (CNS).
Explosiveness is key for generating force and strength. Without it, you will never meet your potential at the big lifts like bench press or deadlifts. While most gym rats focus on gaining size and developing strength via training heavy, developing explosive power to augment your raw strength can be your competitive edge.
#1: Up Your Tempo
This one is probably the most obvious, but if you take a look around the gym, I’m willing to guess that less than 20% of the average Joes are doing it. The problem is people read too much junk on the internet and lift with 4/2/1 tempos or spend an ungodly amount of time on each rep trying to maximize time under tension. For most barbell lifts, you should be doing them as fast as you can and with explosion (controllably, not like a damn maniac). This means a 2/0/2 tempo at most. Move the bar with some authority.
If you start doing all of your reps with some explosiveness, it is inevitable that over time you will become more explosive.
#2: Do Speed Work
This is a classic remedy for when you get stuck at a strength plateau and you need to be able to apply more force and accelerate the bar in order to put up bigger numbers.
Some of you may ask, isn’t speed work just upping your tempo? Yes and no. When I spoke about upping your tempo above, I’m assuming that you can increase the tempo of your current working sets (in that 70-85% of 1 rep max zone I talk about here). If you can grind out a working set of 5 reps on the bench with a slow tempo, I’m betting that you can do the same, if not more, with a higher tempo.
But with speed work, you are reducing the weight you can handle greatly to about 50-75% of your 1 rep max and banging out sets of 5-8 as explosively as possible. Working with the lighter weights, you will be able to up your tempo more controllably, and while it may seem easy, you are priming your body for improved neurological efficiency.
#3: Learn the Olympic Lifts
There is nothing better for athletes than learning the explosive lifts. While squats, deadlifts, and overhead press remain my go to gym lifts and mass builders, the olympic lifts are some of the most explosive lifts you can do. While they are highly technical and can be hard to learn, for someone trying to develop explosive power they can be essential.
I attended an olympic lifting seminar a while back taught by the head football strength and conditioning coach from the Virginia Military Institute, and he spoke of how he has his athletes olympic lift several times a week.
At the very least you should learn how to clean and press, which is something I’m required to do a lot training for Strongman. If you could only do one upper body exercise for the rest of your life, this would be it.
#4: Embrace Plyometrics
Back when my vertical jump was at its highest, so were my squat and bench numbers. I was jumping twice a week and developed explosiveness that directly translated to my performance in the weight room.
Jumping for height and distance is all you need to do once or twice a week. Nothing fancy, but it needs to be part of your training. Not only will this help with explosion, but it’s a great conditioning tool as well. Vertical jumps, box jumps, hurdle jumps, and broad jumps are all you need here.