Strength training and plyometrics are usually regarded as separate conditioning methods, with the plyometrics being performed first in a training session. Contrast training “bridges the gap” between these two training methods to help athletes increase their running speed, jumping ability, and power.
Contrast training works on the concept of “post-tetanic potentiation” (PTP), which states that a more powerful muscular response can be performed if it is preceded by a strong muscular contraction. We often see baseball players swing weighed bats before stepping up to the plate, such that they will be able to hit the ball harder. This is an example of PTP. Here’s another example.
Let’s say you are lifting boxes of various weights. When you lift the heaviest boxes, you recruit the powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers. When you lift a much lighter box after lifting a heavy one, you might find that the box almost flies out of your hands. Although you don’t need to recruit those powerful fibers, the nervous system was conditioned to activate those fibers when you lifted the heavier box. This is the PTP effect.
PTP is the reason this training works, and the term coaches used to describe this method is contrast training. This term fits, as you are contrasting two radically different training methods in the same set to create more powerful muscular contractions.
One form of contrast training was used by Canadian strongman Doug Ivan Hepburn. Hepburn won the 1953 World Weightlifting Championships and was the first man to bench press 500 pounds, eventually lifting 545. Hepburn used a method where he would start his workouts with heavy singles, followed by the same exercises but with slightly lighter weights so that more reps could be performed.
Another form of contrast training is wave loading, popularized by Bulgarian weightlifters in the ’70s and introduced to the bodybuilding community in the magazine Muscle Builder/Power with an article detailing the training of Andon Nikolov, an Olympic champion in weightlifting from Bulgaria. Nikolov went on break several world records held by David Rigert, one of Russia’s most popular lifters. This article explained how Nikolov would work up quickly to a one-rep max in either the snatch or the clean and jerk, then based upon these results reduce the weight to be able to perform multiple reps of these exercises for several sets.
One more type of contrast training involves performing a heavy weight training exercise followed immediately by a plyometric exercise. A longer rest is taken after the plyometric exercise to ensure near complete recovery. Here is an example of a contrast training superset for the lower body designed to improve the vertical jump:
A1. Back Squat, 5 x 3, 40X1, rest 15 seconds
A2. Box Jump, 5 x 10, 10X1, rest 180 seconds
In this example, the squats will stimulate the nervous system to activate the powerful fast-twitch fibers without creating excessive fatigue in the athlete, and those fibers will be still be activated during the box jump. For the upper body, you could perform a bench press followed immediately by Marine push-ups (clapping at the top), as follows:
A1. Bench Press, 5 x 3, 40X1, rest 15 seconds
A2. Marine Push-ups, 5 x 10, 10X0, rest 120 seconds
To increase sprinting speed and leg power, you can use contrast training within the same set of an exercise with a push sled. To do this, you would grasp the vertical handles near the top and push the sled for about 10-15 yards. Without breaking stride, you would release the handles, step to the side of the sled and take off in an all-out sprint for another 15- 20 yards. You’ll find that when you release the handles, you will experience a sudden burst of speed as if someone was pushing you from behind. The result is that you will run faster than you could otherwise.
As for the weight of the sled, traditionally track coaches warned against using more than 10 percent of bodyweight for this type of training, but more current research is suggesting that weights of 30 percent of bodyweight, or more, can be used effectively. However, you don’t want to push a sled for more than 25 yards because you want to stay in the acceleration phase of running. As for the weight to use, that decision varies with the level of strength of the athlete – a good rule, of thumb is to use the weight that gives the athlete the greatest kick when the athlete lets go of the sled.
Finally, consider that contrast training is very taxing on the nervous system, so it should seldom be performed more than twice a week (with ideally two days rest between training sessions) to avoid overtraining. Using this type of training once every five days or just once a week may be the best approach.
Contrast training can be a valuable training method for helping athletes become faster and more powerful, and as such strength coaches should consider trying it with their athletes.