Contrast training is the best way to build strength

Want to build strength and explosive power? Here’s why you should try contrast training

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If you’re looking to get stronger and improve your athletic performance, this strength training technique that combines heaving lifting and plyometrics should be on your radar.  

From metcon and eccentric training to calisthenics, EMOM and HITT, there are a plethora of different training styles to choose from it you want to get stronger and more flexible. 

But one method that is quickly gaining popularity among athletes and gym-goers alike is contrast training (sometimes referred to as complex training). In short, it’s a hybrid training style that combines heavy lifting and plyometrics (explosive movements). Evidence shows it can trigger rapid gains in lower-body strength, upper-body power, sprint speed and jump height. 

If you’re yet to come across it, don’t worry – we’ve asked some leading fitness experts to break down exactly what contrast training involves and how you can incorporate it into your workouts to build strength and improve your athletic performance. Here’s what they told us. 

WHAT IS CONTRAST TRAINING?

“Contrast training is a strength-power training method that involves pairing a heavy strength exercise with a high-velocity exercise of the same movement pattern,” explains Alex Crockford, PT and founder of the CrockFit app. “A heavy bench press paired with a push-up is a classic example. Another would be a heavy squat paired with box jumps or a heavy lunge with jumping lunges.”

Pairing these movements together, explains Tig Hodson, co-founder of women-only gym StrongHer, induces what is known as post-activation potentiation (PAP). PAP refers to an immediate improvement in muscle force capabilities due to maximal or near-maximal muscle contractions. In simple terms, performing a heavy lift prior to an explosive movement supercharges the neuromuscular system so you have an increased rate of speed, force, strength and power when it comes to the high-velocity exercise.

“Imagine you’re about to pick up a bag that you think is super heavy. You prepare your body to deal with the big load but when you stand up with all that force, you realise it’s only half full and you scare yourself with all that power you have. That’s a bit what contrast training is like,” says Hodson. 

THE BENEFITS OF CONTRAST TRAINING

It encourages strength and power gains

First and foremost, it’s an effective way of building strength and explosive power. “In the short term, the effects of PAP have been shown to produce significant increases in strength, speed, jump height, and upper body power and there are long-term benefits too,” says Hodson.

Evidence backs this up. One 10-week study found that junior basketball players who practised contrast training improved their acceleration and maximal speed by 9% and 6% respectively while the control group experienced no significant changes. Another study of 30 male athletes found that those who performed contrast training saw a 23% increase in full-body strength after a period of three months. 

It increases your running speed and capacity

If you’re looking to improve your running speed and beat your 5k time, contrast training could be the answer.

“This type of training lends itself particularly well to athletes – including sprinters, basketball players and high and long jumpers – aiming to challenge their muscles and nervous systems and ultimately optimise their performance,” says Gympass PT and wellness coach Katrin Schlee.

“That’s not to say it’s not beneficial for the casual fitness enthusiast or gym-goer,” she continues. “If you’re looking to improve your athletic capabilities, contrast training is a great option, so long as you have the required strength base.’ 

A time-efficient way to train

“Not only will contrast training help you be a better athlete, pairing strength and power exercises together is also a time-efficient way to train,” says Crockford.

“Due to the high level of physical demand on the body, you can expect to progress quickly in comparison to other training methods,” adds MyProtein PT Alicia Tyler. “You could potentially see significant improvements to your strength and athletic performance in a matter of weeks.”

The perfect tool for plateau-busting

For Barry’s UK trainer Sarah Robinson, contrast training is a great option if you’re stuck in a training rut and your progress is plateauing. “It’s something that can be injected into your training routine for a few weeks to switch things up when you’ve lost motivation or you’ve come to a sticking point.”

Schlee agrees, explaining that it’s often used as a “peaking” method by athletes who want to supercharge their power potential before an event. “If an athlete has been training for a while, a new stimulus needs to be introduced for the body to adapt and to produce more speed, strength and power. That’s where contrast training comes in.”

Incorporate it into your routine from anywhere between three and six weeks and you should see some progress.

A fun way to train

Hodson is a big fan of contrast training because, for her, it’s an enjoyable and dynamic way to train. “The scientific benefits aside, it’s an incredible way to train because it adds another dimension to your regime.”

Bodybuilding, which involves the same exercises for the same number of reps and sets can get boring, whereas contrast training adds another stimulant that can help keep you motivated and mentally engaged,” she says. 

HOW TO DO CONTRAST TRAINING

The basics

With contrast training, the idea is to perform between anywhere between three and eight reps of the heavy strength exercise then launch straight into the explosive movement for the same number of reps, explains David Wiener, training and nutrition specialist at Freeletics.

Once you’ve completed the first set, rest for up to three minutes before attempting another set. You should aim to complete around three to four sets of each exercise pairing. 

Select the right weight for you

It’s crucial to choose a heavy weight to begin with to ensure you switch on the neuromuscular system and elicit PAP,” says Crockford.

Having said that, this method isn’t about training to failure. You don’t want to tire out your muscles, you simply want to fire them up for the plyometric movement. “A good rule of thumb is to stay between one and two reps shy of failure for maximal strength and power gains while making sure your form is in check,” advises Hodson. 

Of course, the heavier you go, the higher the risk of injury so Crockford says it’s vital to stay within your capabilities and focus on technique.

So, how can you tell if you’ve selected the right weight? “After you complete the strength exercise, it should take you no longer than 10 to 15 seconds to transition to the explosive movement,” explains Schlee. “If it takes you longer, then you went too heavy and you should lower the weight.”

Activate your muscles

Robinson says it’s important to do some activation exercises before getting started to “wake up” the muscles you’re going to work. This will make your workout more effective and help you avoid injury. Think side steps, glute bridges and band work.

Schlee also suggests performing a few ramp-up sets before getting into the session. “Say you want to deadlift 100kg,” she says. “You would perform one to three sets of between two and three reps at a lighter weight to make sure the movement pattern is primed.”

Focus on compound movements

When it comes to the heavy lifts, it’s important to choose the right exercises. “You want to focus on compound movements like deadlifts, squats, bench press and pulling variations for the heavy lifts,” says Schlee. “Isolation exercises like bicep curls aren’t suitable for contrast training.”

Tyler offers a reminder to pair together exercises of the same movement patterns. “It wouldn’t be beneficial to pair a barbell back squat with explosive push up as these use different muscle groups,” she explains. “It may send mixed signals to the muscle twitch fibres due to the swift turn around between exercises and this is where injuries can occur.”

Move with intent

Intent is your mantra, says Schlee. “The explosive movements should be exactly that – explosive,” she says. “The jumps shouldn’t look and feel like you’re doing an aerobics class. You should be thinking one jump at a time and trying to touch the sky, not just trying to complete them as fast as possible.”

Don’t overdo it

“Contrast training can be extremely draining and exhausting, so it’s not something I’d recommend doing every day,” advises Wiener. “Like with any training style, listen to your body and don’t overdo it.”

It’s a mentally and physically challenging way to train so it’s important not to get carried away, he warns. Because you’re lifting heavy and moving powerfully, you are putting your body under a lot of pressure so it can be easy to push yourself beyond your limit, leading to poor form, loss of control and injury.

So, how often should you do contrast training? Ultimately, it depends on your fitness level and personal goals but incorporating one or two contrast training sets once or twice a week into your usual programme is a good place to start, suggests Tyler. “Once you become more familiar with it, you could use it three times a week alongside your sessions.”

She emphasises the importance of at least one rest day in your weekly routine, plus a couple of active recovery days where your focus is on steady-state cardio and mobility work.

IS CONTRAST TRAINING SUITABLE FOR BEGINNERS?

The PTs agree that this training style isn’t one for complete newbies. “You don’t have to be super advanced but you should have experience of strength training and mobility work as this method is all about optimising existing strength and power,” says Hodson.

“Newbie lifters should make it an absolute priority to build a solid foundation of strength using heavy compound lifts prior to embarking on an intense form of hybrid training such as contrast training,” adds Schlee.

So, if you are relatively new to the gym and you like the sound of contrast training, Robinson suggests working with a fitness professional to help you get started safely and effectively. Ultimately, proper form is key to avoiding injury and seeing progress.

“If you have any injuries or you suffer with back or joint issues, do seek medical advice before embarking on an intense training method like this,” says Schlee. 

CONTRAST PAIRINGS TO TRY

  • Barbell squats and box jumps (you can do regular jump squats if you don’t have access to a box)
  • Front squats and shuttle sprints
  • Chest press and slam ball throws
  • Lunges and jumping lunges
  • Chest press and plyometric push ups
  • Deadlifts and long jumps
  • Deadlifts and kettlebell swings

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Images: Getty

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Priyankaa Joshi

@_priyankaajoshi