Contrast Training for Size

by on May 4, 2012

May 2012: Contrast Training for Size

In your quest for size, you’ve utilized some top notch training advice and programming from the best coaches in the ‘biz. Good on you for that.

The Problem

You’re young. You’re athletic. But you’re also skinny. Regardless of the amount of effort you put into a seemingly solid size program, you just don’t reap optimal benefits. You follow proper set and rest parameters, include proper lifting tempos, and eat like a madman. With the amount of dedication you’re putting into this, you should have the dimensions of Captain America – something is missing.

How do You Lift? The Skinny on Getting Big

The basic parameters of most strength and size training programs (less a few) involve moving weights at a minimum of about 70 percent of max effort, for a lower rep range and a relatively high volume. We all knew that. What’s more interesting though is the way in which we perform our repetitions.

It’s important to remember that our muscles are made up of various types of slow twitch, intermediate, and fast twitch fibres. The fibres that predominately enable us to lift heavy objects would be the fast twitch fibres – so by default, they’ll be tapped into when we do our heavy sets of 5 deads, bench, squats, and other exercises. But the real key is to maximize just how much we tap into them. We have to exploit them for their worth in order to have developed muscle as the end result.

Having said that, we can easily fall into the habit of lifting, say, 70 percent of our max with the amount of force it takes to simply move, well, 70 percent of our max. This is where things can fall apart for lifters. If you take the empty bar off the bench press rack and push it away from your chest with only 45 lbs worth of force, you will not be stimulating every muscle fibre to complete the lift. But just because you don’t necessarily need to, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Where the weight room is concerned, every effort you make applying force against a resistance should be an explosive one. Especially when doing any pushing exercise, you should intend for the weights to move away from the floor as FAST as humanly possible – Not only when the weight is light, but also (and especially) when it’s heavy. Note that a heavily loaded bar will clearly never move anything more than slowly when performing the rep, but it’s the intended bar speed that’s the point. Focus in, and DRIVE the weight with full force. Having this connection to the mind and channelling that energy into the bar will result in much more productive reps, and sets.

Contrast Set Training – The Next Level

Knowing what we know about fast twitch muscle fibres, we can further exploit them by “tricking” them into doing more work than they normally would do. This is achieved by “contrasting” your sets. This means simply performing an explosive unloaded movement as similar to the weighted movement you just performed. Here’s what I mean:

Loaded Movement

Unloaded Explosive Movement

Squat Bodyweight jump squats
Bench Press Plyo Push ups
Deadlift Vertical Jump or Broad Jump
Pull Ups Med Ball Slams
Lunge/Split Squat Jump Split Squats


How This Stuff Works

The above (among others) are just a few examples of exercises that can be translated into explosive unloaded counterparts. Let’s use the squat as our example. The fast twitch muscle fibres will be stimulated by performing a set of heavy front or back squats. Compound setting the squats with bodyweight jump squats will make the fast twitch fibres “think” that they still need to recruit themselves in the quantity (and intensity) they needed to during the heavy squats. This optimizes their utilisation and leaves your legs ready to pack on size like no tomorrow. That’ll send a couple barbell sets of 5 to the crypt any day of the week.

I Digress: A Brief Disclaimer

Plyometrics (and ballistic movements of the like) ask a lot of muscles and neurological output. If you’re not at the point in your training where you can perform bodyweight movements with no sweat (and I mean damn near in your SLEEP), then move on to the next article. There needs to be a beginning foundation built before performing plyometric movements. I like to use this as a basic checklist for being able to perform plyo pushups and jump squats

1) Be able to perform 30 full range bodyweight pushups without stopping, and be able to keep a decently fast speed.

2) Be able to jump onto box about knee level high without making a noisy landing upon impact with the box.

3) Be able to depth Jump from 24″ box without a noisy landing on the floor.

If these three are not an issue, proceed to the good stuff!

WHY This Stuff Works

The main reason this kind of stuff is so effective (aside from the above reasons) actually gets pretty cool. See, even if we do exercises with weights with our fast twitch fibres in mind and really try to accelerate the loads as much as possible, maybe doing speed bench presses and speed squats and deadlifts, but the catch comes in the nature of the training method itself. You really have to compromise your force output when you’re confined by a barbell. A set of speed bench presses or squats is all fine and dandy, but the body actually needs to prepare to decelerate the load as it comes close to the end of the concentric rep, so that we can change the bar’s direction to descend into the negative half of the lift and repeat. Unfortunately, this situation worsens the more we try to add velocity to the movement, and this hinders our progress because we’re essentially teaching our bodies to “slow down” at the point during the lift where the body needs the most speed. An optimal action would be to let go of the bar at the end of each concentric rep and therefore “complete” the force output by actually achieving maximal power. That would translate to actually “throwing” the bar away from you each rep in a bench press, or allowing the feet to leave the ground in a back squat. Since both of those options aren’t always the safest, it makes more sense to apply some science, get some hang time, and slap on some muscle. So without further ado….

The Workout

When it comes to my training clients, I often tend to arrange my workout systems by way of movement rather than muscle being trained. Considering that these explosive movements have a lot to do with channelling energy through the entire body, I believe the same should apply. A sample week may look something like this:

Day 1 – Vertical Push / Pull

A1) BB Squat – 6-8 reps
ALTERNATE CHOICE: A1) BB Deadlift – 6-8 reps

A2) Squat Jumps – 6-8reps
ALTERNATE CHOICE: A2) Vertical Jumps – 6-8 reps
Perform 4 Rounds

B1) Weighted Pull Ups – 8 reps

B2) Med Ball Slams – 10 reps
Perform 4 rounds

C1) Standing Press – 6-8 reps

C2) Med Ball Overhead Throws (kneel if your gym has lower ceilings) – 8 reps
Perform 4 rounds

Day 2 – Horizontal Push/Pull

A1) Bench Press – 6-8 reps

A2) Plyo Push Ups – 6-8 reps
Perform 4 Rounds

B1) Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat – 6-8 reps/leg

B2) Split Jump Squats – 6-8 jumps (after EACH leg. Be sure to rest for 30 seconds before starting the 2nd leg.)
Perform 4 rounds

C1) Seated Rows – 12 reps

C2) Eccentric Glute Ham Raise – 6 reps

C3) Standing Broad Jumps – 6 Jumps

A system repeated twice each week per workout leaves room for an optional isolations/specifics workout where supplementary muscle groups that assist major lifts may be focused in on:

Choose any or all of the following and perform 4×12:

  • EZ Bar French press
  • Close Grip Bench Press
  • Barbell Biceps Curls
  • Bodyweight CHIN ups (palms in)
  • Ab wheel rollouts
  • Hanging leg raises

Blast Off to Size

We already knew the basics – now it’s just a matter of supercharging them so that those sleepy muscles get stirred into stimulation. After all, when it comes to exercise, we want to have our entire arsenal at our disposal. The potential may be there for a seriously impressive physique, and all it takes is a look deep into the particulars of your muscular system in order to tap into benefits that can last a lifetime. Ready to explode into some gains?

Lee Boyce

Lee Boyce is based in Toronto, Canada, and works with strength training and preventive care clients. He is the owner of and is a contributing author to many major publications including Musclemag, TNATION, Men’s Health, and Men’s Fitness. Check out his website and be sure to follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.