Despite my job title as a strength and conditioning coach, I care far more about power than I do strength.
Whereas strength is the ability to exert force, power is the ability to exert force quickly.
As it applies to sports, power is what bridges the gap between strength in the weight room and performance on the field. Think about it: The ability to sprint fast, jump high or swing with elite bat speed is ultimately a byproduct of power.
However, strength is the foundation and a mandatory prerequisite of power, which makes training to develop both qualities essential. So why not check both boxes at the same time?
Enter contrast training, one of the best ways, if not the best way, to develop both strength and power simultaneously.
How (and Why) Contrast Training Works
The premise of contrast training is simple: perform a heavy strength exercise within the 3-5 rep range, then move immediately into a high-velocity movement that mimics the same biomechanical pattern (e.g., heavy Squats and Box Jumps).
Its effectiveness is largely based on the phenomenon of post-activation potentiation (PAP), which refers to the acute enhancement of muscular contractions due to heavy lifting’s effect on the muscles and central nervous system (CNS).
In other words, heavy lifting excites the body’s fast-twitch muscle fibers and provokes a strong CNS response, which then translates to amplified power production (“potentiation”) during subsequent high-velocity movements.
As Yuri Verkhoshanksy put it, “PAP is like lifting a half-can of water when you think it’s full.”
Here’s why contrast training can be an absolute game changer for athletes:
- Improved rate of force development (RFD). Heavy lifting excites the body’s fast-twitch muscle fibers, which leads to the “firing” of more high-threshold motor units during the ensuing high-velocity movement(s). Paired with the simultaneous excitement of the CNS, the result is improved RFD, which is the rate at which an athlete can produce and exert force from a standstill.
- Increased elastic strength. Whereas exercises like Box Jumps and Medicine Ball Throws mostly target RFD, other options like Depth Jumps and Plyo Push-Ups can be utilized to shift the focus to elastic strength. As opposed to RFD, elastic strength refers to the generation of force by way of the stretch-shortening cycle through a countermovement rather than a standstill, which makes it especially applicable to sports.
- Greater gains in absolute strength. Although the primary objective of contrast training is to increase power, PAP’s effects are also beneficial for building pure strength as the high-threshold motor units that are recruited have a direct carryover to greater loading capacities in the big lifts.
- More muscle growth. The high-threshold motor units that are recruited during fast concentric actions have the most potential for muscle growth, which means that more muscle can be recruited while training explosively. The recruitment of more muscle is correlated with greater gains in strength and size, which makes contrast training an effective way to build more muscle.
Contrast Training to Enhance Athletic Performance
The “problem” with contrast training is that it’s almost exclusively associated with different variations of the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift. While these big three patterns (squatting, pressing and hinging) are undoubtedly important, they’re hardly the be-all, end-all of athletic performance. As a matter of fact, they fail to address arguably the most pivotal facet of all—being strong and powerful on one leg.
And therein lies the missing link of single-leg contrast training.
Single-leg contrast training is arguably the most “sport-specific” way to build transferrable strength and power to where it matters most—on the playing field. Sports occur primarily on one leg, after all, whether an athlete is sprinting, changing direction and/or jumping/landing on one leg.
There are plenty of combinations that fall into the category of single-leg contrast training:
- Single-Leg Deadlifts paired with Single-Leg Broad Jumps
- Split Squats paired with Split Squat Cycle Jumps
- Heavy Sled Marches or Drags paired with Unresisted Sprints
- Lateral Lunges paired with Lateral Bounds (also known as Lateral Heidens)
That being said, there’s arguably no better contrast pairing for athletic performance than Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS) combined with Single-Leg Box Jumps (as shown here with a 2-leg landing):
Why is this pair such a powerful contrast duo for athletes?
In and of itself, the Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat is arguably the best exercise in existence for improving athletic performance and lower body function. On top of building functional strength and addressing weak links (among a plethora of other benefits), they have a direct carryover to sprinting speed.
Single-Leg Box Jumps are one of the simplest and most effective exercises for building power in the lower half, as they have all of the same benefits as regular Box Jumps, albeit with the added value of unilateral work.
Performing unilateral exercises is a valuable way to shed light on any asymmetries, imbalances and/or strength discrepancies that may exist between sides, which makes this particular pairing especially useful as a diagnostic tool.
How to Pair RFESS and Single-Leg Box Jumps
To unlock the full power of this athleticism-enhancing superset, it’s important to use the proper volume, load and box height.
- For the RFESS, stick within the 3-5 reps per set range for each leg.
- Pick a load that’s challenging, but not so heavy your reps become grinders and/or your technique breaks down.
- Pick a box height you know you can safely reach off one leg. I suggest landing on the box with both feet, however, so you can safely keep the focus on single-leg force. Aim to jump as high as you can while still landing safely on the box.
- Perform no more than 3-5 jumps per leg per set. The goal is maximal intent and peak power production.
- Perform 2-4 total sets, resting long enough between each set to maintain quality repetitions and explosive movement.
Combine the power of PAP with the individual benefits of both RFESS and Single-Leg Box Jumps—or any other single-leg contrast pairing, for that matter—and the result is an unparalleled superset for improving athletic performance.
Photo Credit: jacoblund/iStock