To develop well-rounded strength and athleticism, taking a multi-faceted approach to training that includes both strength and plyometric work is pivotal. That being said, doing so isn’t as simple as arbitrarily throwing some box jumps, and medicine ball throws into your training. Like anything else in strength and conditioning, not all forms of combined strength and plyometric training are created equal.
In particular, there’s one method of combined strength and plyometric/power-based training that reigns supreme: contrast training. Here’s what it is, why it’s worth doing, and how to perform it for maximal strength, power, and performance gains.
What Is Contrast Training?
Contrast training is a hybrid strength-power modality that involves pairing a heavy lift with a high-velocity movement of the same pattern (e.g., squats and box jump). Its physiological foundation is based on 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.
In practice, contrast training employs the use of a heavy lift to induce PAP, which then “supercharges” the neuromuscular system and increases the amount and rate of force that the relevant muscles can produce. In turn, PAP allows for more power to manifest during the paired high-velocity movement, much like – in Yuri Verkhoshansky’s words – lifting a half-can of water when you think it’s full.
The Benefits of Contrast Training
In the short-term, the effects of PAP have been shown to produce significant and near-immediate increases in strength, speed, jump height, and upper body power. More importantly, for athletes, however, contrast training can produce long-lasting improvements in strength and performance as the muscles and nervous system becomes accustomed to their newfound capabilities.
Why contrast training is a must-do for athletes:
It develops full-body power. Contrast training is nearly unparalleled in terms of its ability to produce long-term improvements in peak force, peak velocity, sprint speed, jump height, and upper body power. For example, one 10-week study amongst junior basketball players found that those who performed contrast training improved their acceleration and maximal sprint speed by approximately 0.2 and 0.3 seconds (9% and 6%), respectively, while also increasing jump height in three tests by over 5 inches in total. The control group, however, experienced no significant changes. Many additional studies have found similar results, further solidifying the value of contrast training for long-term power and performance improvements.
It increases strength. The effectiveness of contrast training for increasing strength boils down to the fact that the high-threshold motor units that are recruited during fast concentric actions are the same motor units responsible for maximal force production. By training similar movement patterns on both ends of the force-velocity spectrum, contrast training results in enhanced inter- and intra-muscular coordination, both of which improve the ability of muscles to contract faster and with more force. Paired with its ability to increase power, contrast training can be a potent tool for increasing strength.
In looking at the research, one study separated 30 male athletes into contrast training and “complex training” (i.e., separate strength and plyometric work) groups and found that the contrast group experienced greater increases in full-body strength by a total of 23% after three months. Similarly, the previously mentioned study amongst junior basketball players found that the contrast group increased their squat strength by nearly 30% more than the control group (on average).
It facilitates muscle growth. The 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 training session. In the long-term, it’s theorized that 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.
It’s time-efficient. For athletes who train power regularly (as all should), contrast training is time-efficient in that it combines strength and power work into a single block, thus allowing for extra training time to be allotted to other qualities.
The Best Contrast Pairings for Strength, Power, and Performance
In each case listed below, the paired high-velocity movements can be chosen to pinpoint either rate of force development (RFD) – meaning, power from a standstill – or elastic power, i.e., the generation of force through the stretch-shortening cycle.
Squat & Vertical Jump
The squat and vertical jump pairing is one of the most classic examples of contrast training, and for a good reason: for building lower body strength and power, squats and jumps are hard to beat.
- Squat options: front squats, back squats, safety bar squats, goblet squats
- Jumps with RFD emphasis: box/vertical jumps, seated box jumps, static (paused) jumps
- Jumps with elastic emphasis: depth jumps, continuous squat jumps, band-assisted jumps
Deadlift & Horizontal Jump
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 and places a greater emphasis on the posterior chain (i.e., the glutes and hamstrings). As a result, deadlifts and similar hinge movements are especially valuable when paired with broad and horizontal-focused jumps.
- Deadlift options: trap bar deadlifts, barbell deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts
- Jumps with RFD emphasis: broad jumps, static (paused) broad jumps, band-resisted broad jumps
- Jumps with elastic emphasis: continuous broad jumps, depth broad jumps
Bench Press & MB throw/Plyometric Push-Up
Pairing the bench press with similar high-velocity movements is fairly simple, with the two primary options being medicine ball (MB) throws from the chest and plyometric push-ups. In either case, bench press contrast pairings are about one thing: explosive pushing power.
- Press options: barbell bench press, floor press, dumbbell bench press
- MB throw options: MB chest throws (RFD), reactive MB chest throws (elastic)
- Plyometric push-up options: deadstop plyometric push-ups (RFD), continuous plyometric push-ups on box or with band-assistance (elastic)
Chin-Up & Overhead Medicine Ball Throw
Contrasting heavy vertical pulls (e.g., chin-ups, pull-ups) with overhead MB throws or band-accelerated chin/pull-ups can be a game-changer for unlocking overhead power, building up the upper back, and strengthening the scapular stabilizers.
- Vertical pull options: chin-up, pull-up, neutral grip chin-up
- MB throw options: overhead MB throws, overhead MB slams
- Additional power options: band-accelerated chin/pull-ups, explosive high band rows
The importance of being able to move with strength and power rotationally (in the transverse plane) and laterally (in the frontal plane) goes without saying, which makes doing so with added benefits of contrast training a win-win for athletes.
- 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: lateral hurdle hops, lateral bounds, 45-degree bounds
- Upper body power options: rotational MB chest throws, rotational MB scoop tosses
With some equipment and an adequate amount of space, training locomotion via contrast training is one of the best ways to improve acceleration, maximal sprint speed, and agility simultaneously.
- Locomotive strength options: heavy sled pushes/drags, lateral sled drags, resisted sprints/shuffles
- Locomotive power options: sprints, lateral sprint starts, explosive crossover/shuffle steps
Unilateral contrast training is another option that combines all of the benefits of regular single-leg training with the added benefits of PAP to amplify its effectiveness even further. See ‘The Best Strength and Power Superset for Athletes’ for more on the topic.
Programming Variables to Consider
Exercise Selection. When selecting the heavy-lift within a contrast pairing, the tried-and-true multi-joint movements are ideal due to their involvement of multiple muscle groups and higher loading capacities. 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” required.
Loading Parameters. For competitive athletes and advanced trainees, sticking within the 1-5 rep range using 80-90% of 1-RM is typically best for maximal strength and power gains. For intermediate trainees, using slightly lower intensities between 60-80% of 1-RM has proven to yield similar results. Loading aside, a good rule of thumb is to stay 1-2 reps shy of failure to maintain good technique.
Rest Periods. While the research varies on how much rest is needed between movements (ranging from 1-12 minutes), the sweet spot seems to fall somewhere between 1-2 minutes for beginner-to-intermediate athletes and 3-4 minutes for those who are more advanced. Above all else, the key to determining how much rest is needed is a balancing act between maximizing potentiation and minimizing fatigue.
Individual characteristics. Most of the research related to PAP has demonstrated that its effects are much more pronounced in advanced trainees with higher levels of strength, which means that coaches and athletes should account for training age and strength levels prior to implementing contrast training.
Application: Putting it All Together
Like anything else, tracking and measuring progress is the key to maximizing contrast training’s potential, as doing so allows for adjustments to be made as needed. Regardless, when programmed and performed in accordance with the aforementioned guidelines and principles, the power of contrast training for increasing strength, power, performance, and muscle growth is almost entirely unparalleled.
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