TRAINING ARTICLES

Lift FAST to grow FAST – Contrast Training for Bodybuilding

“Lower the weight slowly.”

“Feel the burn.”

“Don’t use momentum.”

The above three are some of the lifting cues often associated with bodybuilding.

They are good cues because they help to ensure tension on the target muscle, prevent injury caused by faulty lifting technique and also help ensure a certain level of muscle-building, metabolic stress on the muscle.

However, there is one problem with the above cues: They tend to limit the amount of load that you can lift and they, to some extent, negate activation of the fast-twitch muscle fibres. It is the fast-twitch fibres that have the greatest potential for growth.1

If the above cues describe a main portion of your lifting, if you feel that you have reached a plateau, or if you simply feel like trying a new, cool and science-based training routine, you might want to give contrast training for bodybuilding a try.

The Physiology behind Contrast Training

Contrast training is defined as a workout that involves the use of contrasting loads – that is, alternating heavy and light exercises set for set.

The light exercises are typically loaded or unloaded squat jumps or so-called bench throws in which the lifter performs the lifting phase of a bench press and releases the bar into the air. Bench throws are performed in a specialized Smith machine that automatically catches the bar on the way down.

In general the effect is greatest when the lighter sets are biomechanically similar to the heavier sets, meaning that the movements are similar, such as, for example, a barbell back squat and a squat jump. However, also a biomechanically opposite movement (a pull) can have a potentiating effect on a subsequent lighter set of a movement that uses opposing muscle groups (a push).11

Under the right conditions, the heavier set can have a potentiating effect on the lighter set for up to 10 seconds in the form of increased mean power, increased force and increased jump height.3,5,6 Also, a potentiating effect on a 10-second bike sprint has been observed.6

  • This potentiating phenomenon is called post-tetanic potentiation, or the “after-effect of the nervous system.”2
  • The potentiating effect predominates in fast-twitch fibres.3
  • To trigger the potentiating response, a high proportion of fast-twitch motor units (muscle fibres) must be activated with a minimum of 85 percent of maximal intensity for several seconds.4 Specifically, 3 to 5 repetitions with 85 percent of 1RM (3–5 RM loads) has been shown to have the potential to create the potentiating effect.
  • Stronger athletes, including athletes with a greater proportion of type 2 fibres, seem to experience a greater potentiating effect than weaker athletes. In one study, a minimum of a 1RM of 139 kilograms in the half squat was needed to create the potentiating effect.3, 7
  • In the minutes after the heavy set, the lifter’s performance is determined by the sum of any fatigue effects and any potentiating effects. In general, the potentiating effects appear to dominate 2 to 5 minutes after the heavy set, but more specific guidelines cannot be given.3,6 In some cases, the potentiating effect is seen as little as 10 seconds after the heavy set.
  • The potentiating effect occurs after the first set and seems to taper off from set to set.3,8

One often-cited study shows no potentiating effect of a preceding heavy bench press set.9 It is worth noting that the movement of the “lighter set” was a medicine ball throw, with the feet in the air. Placing the feet in the air reduces the size of the base of support and makes the lifter less stable. Other studies have shown that in less stable situations, muscle activation is reduced on the prime movers and increased in the stabilisers.10 Thus, it appears counterproductive to use an exercise that limits the use of the large prime movers together with contrast training that has the explicit purpose of facilitating the large prime movers.

Although the potentiating effect is mostly related to increases in power, two aspects of contrast training can be exploited to build muscle:

  • An increased mean jump height is equal to an increased work output, as total work output is related to the total anabolic response (and thus muscle-building potential of the training.12
  • The potentiating effect occurs predominantly in the fast-twitch fibres, which – as mentioned above – have the greatest potential for growth.

We are going to make two additional tweaks to make contrast training a true muscle-building strategy.

Tweak #1: Many of the cited studies use half squats and squat jumps in which the knees bend to about a 90 degree angle. Half squats do not place either the hip extensors or the knee extensors under full stretch. Placing high tension on a muscle in the stretched position results in high levels of active and passive myofibrillar tension and is thought to be a strong stimulus for the laying down of sarcomeres in series and in parallel. An increased number of sarcomeres in series and in parallel supports increases in muscle size, maximal shortening velocity and power.13 Thus, instead of half squats and regular squat jumps, we are going to use full squats (or at least squats to parallel) as well as full squat jumps.

Tweak #2: Optimal muscle growth may come from maximizing the combination of mechanical and metabolic stress. Mechanical stress is created with an eccentric muscle action, heavy loading with 2 to 10 repetitions per set (75 to 95 percent 1RM) and 1 to 2 minutes of rest between sets. Metabolic stress is created with moderate loading with 10 to 30 repetitions per set (55 to 75 percent 1RM) and 30 to 60 seconds of rest between sets.14 Contrast training clearly provides a mechanical stimulus (stress). To get a full hypertrophy stimulation, we will add a back-off set with a very special type of jump.

How to Apply Complex Training to Bodybuilding

Contrast training is sometimes referred to as “complex training,” because the heavier and lighter set is performed as a complex.

We will describe a lower body complex that focuses on full squats and an upper body complex that focuses on bench press and push-ups. Each complex should be performed once or twice per week depending on your recovery ability and preferred split structure.

Here is what your week would look like if you trained each complex twice on an upper body/lower body split:

Monday + Thursday: Lower Body Complex

Squat Complex

1 or 2 sets of each of the following exercises: deadlifts, hamstring curls.

Tuesday + Friday: Upper Body Complex

Bench press + push-up complex

1 or 2 sets of each of the following exercises: rows, chin-ups/pull ups, biceps curls or any type of lateral or posterior deltoid exercise.

Before you start any of these complexes, make sure to develop proficiency in each individual exercise. Be particularly careful with being ready for the jumps and plyometric push-ups (see below). Jumps and plyometric push-ups expose the body to impact forces through the hands and feet as well as high-velocity/medium-high force eccentric contractions; these are both very stressful and potentially injury-provoking forces. You might want to practice the jumps and plyometric push-ups for a couple of weeks with low volume before you start the program.

Lower Body Complex: Squat and Squat Jumps

Test your 1RM in a full barbell back squat or at least a squat in which your thighs break parallel with the floor.

Practice separately two kinds of squat jumps:

Full Squat Jump: Place your hands across your chest. With a fast movement, squat as deep as you can (preferably below parallel). When you reach the bottom, immediately explode upwards and jump as high as you can.

During a normal landing, you would meet the ground with straight legs and then immediately, in a smooth way, bend them to reduce the impact from the landing. This strategy, however, increases the ground contact time and reduces the tension experienced by the muscle.

We know that it is tension that builds muscle. Therefore, we want to optimize the tension by aiming to land with bent legs (about a 90 degree knee angle). Your time on the ground will be much shorter than during a regular jump, and during that time, your knees will bend from that 90 degree angle to about a 110 degree angle corresponding to your thighs being slightly below parallel. You want to program yourself to jump as high as possible with the shortest possible contact time.

Initially, you should perform this exercise with no additional load. If the number of prescribed jumps becomes too easy, you can perform the jumps with a weighted vest or by holding a weight placed across your chest.

Low Position Squat Jump: The purpose of the low position squat jumps is to keep the quads under constant tension for the duration of a set. Thus, it is the low position squat jumps that we use to provide the metabolic stimulus.

To perform the low position squat jumps, squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor (not lower). In this position, you perform jumps with minimal knee and hip extension. These jumps should lift you 1 to 2 inches of the ground. You will find that the knee and hip extensors start to “burn.”

Initially, you should perform this exercise with no additional load. If the number of prescribed jumps becomes too easy, you can perform the jumps with a weighted vest or with a bar across your upper trapezius muscles (high bar).

Day 1

A1. Full Barbell Back Squat: 3/4/5/3/4/5 × 3–5 repetitions (with 75 percent of the 1RM)

Rest 1–5 minutes then perform

A2. Full Squat Jump: 3/4/5/3/4/5 × 7

Rest 3–5 minutes and repeat.

Notes: On Day 1, use a percentage of the 1RM that is a little lower than discussed in the beginning of this article, but the needed tension is generated from the speed with which you move this weight.

Program yourself to lift the weight in the following way: Start lowering the weight at a slow to medium speed to ensure the right movement path. From the middle towards the end of the lowering phase, you should increase the tempo. As your body reaches the lowest position, immediately start the upward phase as you “maximally accelerate the weight throughout the range of motion in order to lift the weight “as fast as possible.” This is the compensatory acceleration technique developed by Dr. Fred Hatfield, who – along with doing some great writing – also has a 1,000-pound squat to his name.

On day 1, you don’t increase the load. Instead, your goal is to lift the weight faster and faster each week.

“2/3/4/2/3/4” is the number of sets in week 1/2/3/4/5/6.

Regarding the full squat jump, use a plate across your chest in the following progression: 5/10/15/10/15/20 pounds (weeks 1–6)

When you are done with contrast sets, it is time for your back-off sets.

B1. Low Position Squat Jumps: 1–2 × 30–40

Increase the load by 0.5–1 kilos if you can perform 40 repetitions without stopping.

Day 2

A1. Full Barbell Back Squat: 2/3/4/2/3/4 × 5–3 repetitions (with 85 percent of the 1RM)

Rest 1–5 minutes then perform

A2. Full Squat Jump: 2/3/4/2/3/4 × 4

Rest 3–5 minutes and repeat.

Notes: On day 2 you begin with the same percentage of the 1 RM as on day 1, but on day 2 you systematically increase the load by adding 0.5–1 kilos in week 2 and week 3. In week 4, you go back to the load you used in week 2, but in week 5 and week 6, you add load again each week. As you increase the load from week to week, it is okay if the number of repetitions drops down to 3.

You should lift the weight in the style as you did on day 1, but the actual tempo will be a little slower because the weight is heavier.

Regarding the Full Squat Jump, use a plate across your chest in the following progression: 5/10/15/10/20/25 pounds (week 1–6)

When you are done with contrast sets, it is time for your back-off sets.

B1. Low Position Squat Jumps: 1–2 × 20–30

Increase the load by 0.5–1 kilos if you can perform 30 repetitions without stopping.

Upper Body Complex: Bench Press and Plyometric Push-up

Test your 1-repetition maximum in a barbell bench press.

Practice separately two kinds of plyometric push-up jumps:

Regular Plyometric Push-up: Assume a regular push-up position. Lower yourself to the ground with a quick movement. As you reach the bottom position, immediately explode upwards so powerfully that your hands leave the floor. Now, most of us have greater relative strength in the legs compared to the arms, so you may or may not be able to “meet the ground” with bent arms. If you can’t meet the ground with bent arms, simply meet the ground normally and lower yourself to the ground before repeating.

Low Position Plyometric Push-up: Lower yourself to the bottom position of a push-up. Push with both hands simultaneously so that your hands are lifted 1 to 2 inches above the ground. Use minimal movement in the shoulder and elbow joints.

Note: Don’t perform any of the jumps or the plyometric push-ups on a cement floor. Even floors with a thin carpet on top of cement are too hard. To minimize the impact experienced by the hands and feet, perform these exercises on a solid, but softer mat.

Day 1

A1. Barbell Bench Press: 3/4/5/3/4/5 × 3–5 repetitions (with 75 percent of the 1RM)

Rest 1–5 minutes then perform

A2. Regular Plyometric Push-Ups: 3/4/5/3/4/5 × 7

Rest 3–5 minutes and repeat.

Notes: On Day 1, use a percentage of the 1RM that is a little lower than discussed in the beginning of this article, but the needed tension is generated from the speed with which you move this weight. Lower and lift the weight in the same manner as described under the barbell squat.

On day 1 you don’t increase the load, instead your goal is to lift the weight faster and faster each week.

If you need a load for the Plyometric Push-Up, a weighted vest is recommended.

When you are done with contrast sets, it is time for your back-off sets.

B1. Low Position Plyometric Push-Ups, 1–2 × 30–40

Increase the load by 0.5-1 kilos if you can perform 40 repetitions without stopping.

Day 2

A1. Barbell Bench Press: 2/3/4/2/3/4 × 5-3 repetitions (with 85 percent of the 1RM)

Rest 1–5 minutes then perform

A2. Regular Plyometric Push-Ups: 2/3/4/2/3/4 × 4

Rest 3–5 minutes and repeat.

Notes: Lower and lift the bar in the same way as described under day 1. Increase the load in the same way as described for the barbell squat.

When you are done with contrast sets, it is time for your back-off sets.

B1. Low Position Squat Jumps: 1–2 × 20–30

Increase the load by 0.5–1 kilos if you can perform 30 repetitions without stopping.

Conclusion

Even though contrast training was developed as a method to improve power, contrast training can be an effective muscle-building strategy as well when specific tweaks are used for muscle building.

Because facilitation of the nervous system is a key component of success with contrast training, a dose of FUBAR would be very relevant to maximizing your benefit of contrast training. PURPLE•K REPS may be helpful for the back-off set and to improve performance.

Prepare well for the jumps in contrast training (see above). Perform the program for 6 and up to 9 weeks if you are still making progress at six weeks.

The body often responds to a new and different stimulus. So the big question when you switch programs is “How can I stimulate muscle growth in a way that is as different as possible from what I just did?

Even with the back-off sets, contrast training is characterized by the mechanical stress. Therefore, you might consider shifting to a volume-based program when you are done with the contrast training. Further, contrast training is characterized by having the main stress during the eccentric contractions; therefore, a program that emphasizes concentric contractions could also work well. A prime example would be Olympic-style lifting, if you are in a gym where there is an opportunity to drop the bar (and not perform the eccentric phase).

References

  1. Fleck S, Kraemer W. Neuromuscular physiology and adaptations to resistance training. In: Designing Resistance Training Programs. 3rd Ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2004:83
  2. Enoka R. Acute adjustments. In: Neuromechanics of Human Movement. 4th ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2008:341.
  3. Duthie GM, Young WB, Aitken DA. The acute effects of heavy loads on jump squat performance: an evaluation of the complex and contrast methods of power development. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Nov;16(4):530-8.
  4. Gullich A, Schmidtbleicher D. MVC-induced short-term potentiation of explosive force. New Stud Athl. ;11:67-81.
  5. Weber KR, Brown LE, Coburn JW, Zinder SM. Acute effects of heavy load squats on consecutive jump squat performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 May;22(3):726-30
  6. Smith JC, Fry AC, Weiss LW, Y Li, Kinzey SJ. The effects of high-intensity exercise on a 10-second sprint cycle test. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 Aug;15(3):344-8.
  7. Hamada T, Sale DG, MacDougall JD, Tarnopolsky MA. Postactivation potentiation, fibre type and twitch contraction time in human knee extensor muscles. J Appl Physiol. 2000 Jun;88(6):2131-7.
  8. Smilioss I, Pillianidis T, Sotiropulos K, Antonakis M, Tokmakidis SP. Short-term effects of selected exercise and load in contrast training on vertical jump Performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Feb;19(1):135-9.
  9. Ebben WP, Jensen RL, Blackard DO. Electromyographic and kinetic analysis of complex training variables. J Strength Cond Res. ;14(4):451-456.
  10. Norwood JT, Anderson GS, Gaetz MB, Twist PW. Electromyographic activity of the trunk stabilizers during stable and unstable bench press. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):343-7.
  11. Baker D, Newton RU. Acute effect on power output of alternating and agonist and antagonist muscle exercise during complex training. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Feb;19(1):202-5.
  12. Drinkwater EJ, Moore NR, Bird SP. Effects of changing from range of motion to partial range of motion on squat kinetics. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Apr;26(4):890-6.
  13. Hartman H, Wirth K, Kluseman M, Dalic J, Matuschek C, Schmidtbleicher D. Influence of squatting depth on jumping performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec;26(12):3243-61.
  14. Ratamess NA. Adaptations to anerobic training programs. In: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2008:100.

← Older Post | Newer Post →

SIGN UP NOW!




/