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High Contrast for Huge Gains

Want a scientifically proven, battle-tested and athlete-approved method for blasting through plateaus, increasing strength and building insane muscle size? Look no further than contrast training.

If you could watch a world-class sprinter warm up before breaking a record, you’d likely be surprised by his choice in preparatory movements. The dynamic stretches, running drills and joint-mobility work would hardly seem out of place, but the set of heavy barbell back squats he busts out right before hitting the track might leave you questioning his desire to set a PR, much less finish the race. 

But that sprinter and his coaches aren’t daredevils, and they didn’t lose a bet. They’re simply using a calculated approach to activating the most muscle fibers possible and increasing power output for more speed. The technique of combining heavy and explosive movements has been a key ingredient in the training of elite athletes who rely on speed and power to excel in their sports, but it also has plenty of use for anyone whose only goal is to build bigger, stronger muscles. The key is in the contrast, and the combined effect is greater than the sum of its parts.

What Is Contrast Training?

In its simplest sense, contrast training starts with a standard set of heavy lifts performed for 6–10 reps and then follows it up immediately with an explosive exercise that uses the same movement pattern. This pairing of two similar moves — one heavy and one explosive — lets you add volume to your workout without overly taxing your central nervous system (CNS) and jeopardizing your recovery. A typical example would be a set of heavy barbell squats followed immediately by a set of bodyweight jump squats, or a set of heavy bench presses followed by plyometric (or clapping) push-ups. Though each movement is vastly different in terms of energy requirements and the stress it places on both your targeted muscle groups and central nervous system, each involves the same type of movement and activates the same muscle groups. This last point is an essential component of contrast training, as the beneficial effect works only for similar motions using the same muscles.

Under the Hood

The mechanism behind contrast training lies in its two-step progression: Typically, a heavy, strength-based movement promotes strength and builds muscle, while lighter, more explosive moves improve power and increase motor unit recruitment. But performing an explosive exercise immediately after a heavy, strength-based movement offers an added benefit: The strength-based exercise primes your central nervous system to recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers and motor units for the power-based move. The result of this increased activation is the ability to lift with more force, so in addition to adding volume with these extra explosive sets, you’ll also be increasing the intensity of your workouts in a way that won’t lead to overtraining. The results are more stress on the targeted muscles, a greater overall anabolic effect and an enhanced ability to recover from intense training.

Researchers have been studying the effects of following heavy lifts with unloaded, explosive movements since the 1960s, and strength coaches and athletes have been using contrast training to increase performance for at least that long. The scientific principle at work in contrast training is post-activation potentiation (PAP), which states that a muscle’s explosive capability is enhanced after it’s been forced to perform maximal or near-maximal contractions. Russian sports scientist Yuri Verkhoshansky, the first Soviet coach to use the barbell squat for jumping and sprinting training, likens PAP to lifting a half-full can of water that you think is full. Because of the incongruity between the perceived force needed to lift the can and the actual force required, the can would move twice as fast as you intended. If you’re still having trouble grasping the idea, think of the hitter in the batting circle who uses a weighted donut on the bat and takes his practice swings. When the weight comes off, he’s swinging that bat with more power and force than before.

According to researchers, the mechanisms responsible for creating PAP are increased motor-unit recruitment (using more muscle), enhanced motor-unit synchronization (using muscle more efficiently), greater motor neuron input (improved mind-muscle connection) and decreases in presynaptic inhibition (nothing preventing your brain from producing maximal force). In short, you’re running more powerful software (your working muscles) on more efficient hardware (your nervous system).

Contrasting Approaches

Fancy terminology aside, PAP basically means that your CNS throws more motor units — muscle fibers and the nerves that activate them — into the task and removes the brakes that usually prevent you from using all-out power. Other researchers have offered even more complicated explanations, suggesting that hormonal or metabolic factors may underlie contrast training. But none of the science would matter if the method didn’t reliably make muscles bigger, faster and stronger.

Contrast training’s versatility is another major benefit, and with a little creativity it can be tailored to support a number of training goals, including increasing power output and cutting fat while keeping muscle, but the goal driving this program is simple — you’ll be using each contrast pairing prescribed in the full-body workout to increase the size and strength of your working muscles.

Too many experts make training for strength and hypertrophy (muscle size) more complicated than it needs to be. But there are really only two ways to get bigger and stronger: physiologically and neurologically. If we return to our hardware-software metaphor, physiological training represents the hardware; it happens when you add muscle size through hypertrophy-based (higher rep counts, sets taken to failure) training protocols. The often neglected but equally important “software” part of the equation is the neurological component, which trains the CNS to more efficiently utilize muscle tissue. This, in effect, makes you stronger, and increases in strength have been shown to have a direct correlation to increases in muscle size.

Because building bigger muscles is our main focus here, you’ll be using an approach that differs slightly from the typical low-rep strength-based sets. You’ll still be forcing CNS adaptation by following strength-based moves with their faster, more explosive counterparts. But instead of doing low reps in the 3–5 range for the first movement, as is typically prescribed for strength-based athletes, you’ll be increasing the rep counts to anywhere from 6–12 reps. You’ll also be performing slightly more reps of the explosive follow-up moves to increase overall training volume, but these sets aren’t taken to muscle failure; do only the number of reps prescribed and keep the movement explosive. While these increases slightly diminish the “contrast” component of the original training protocol, they drastically increase the “training” component by adding more volume, which is a sure-fire way to stack your frame with insane amounts of muscle.

Contrast Training Workout

Contrast training pairs a traditional heavy move and an explosive one to maximize muscle size while improving central nervous system efficiency. Use the workout plans below to achieve both in the same workout. This contrast training split uses a hybrid of protocols for maximum increases in both power and size. For each pairing (labeled “1” and “2”), perform the second move immediately after the first move in superset fashion. Many of the explosive follow-up moves may seem a bit unusual, so be sure to read the detailed exercise descriptions before attempting them.

Monday: Back and Biceps