Contrast Sets for Maximal Muscle Growth
Goal of contrast sets: Increase total power potential through utilization of dynamic/explosive exercises combined with compound strength movements. And of course maximize muscle growth.
The traditional path to building muscle is 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps for 4-6 different exercises. Do this consistently while prioritizing your sleep and protein intake, and you’ll see noticeable gains. While this approach is proven to be effective, overtime it can lead to stagnation or even regression in a lifter’s program due to the lack of strength and power development.
Why Strength and Power Matters for Muscle Mass
When it comes to building muscle, an athlete should prioritize getting stronger and increasing their total power output. Strength training combined with dynamic/explosive movements results in increased muscle fiber recruitment and CNS (central nervous system) stimulation. An increase in muscle fiber recruitment results in greater potential for hypertrophy.
Since power is the fast display of strength, you can’t be powerful without being strong first. Or as Louie Simmons said, you can’t shoot a cannonball out of a canoe.
Power = Force x Velocity OR Strength x Speed
Power potential enhances neurological efficiency and your ability to generate force quickly. Force is dependant on your ability to recruit the high threshold motor units (HTMU) required for a specific movement pattern (1). So in order to stimulate these HTMU, power/explosive training should be incorporated into your programming.
One of the most tried and true methods for increasing total power output is using what’s known as contrast training or contrast sets.
What are contrast sets?
A contrast set is a strength movement followed by a dynamic/explosive movement. The strength exercise involved in this pairing acts as a “primer” for the explosive movement. By performing a max or sub maximal effort lift for 2-4 reps, your CNS is “heightened” and your ability to express force in the form of a dynamic movement pattern is enhanced. This is what’s known as post-activation potentiation.
Post activation potentiation is a theory that states that the contractile history of a muscle influences the mechanical performance of subsequent muscle contractions (2). The idea isn’t to fatigue your muscles with long duration exercise, but instead utilize higher loads for fewer reps to enhance subsequent muscle performance.
Most traditional “bodybuilding” rep ranges fail to enhance the lifter’s neural drive or total power output. Overtime, the lifter may experience plateaus or regressions in their strength and muscle “gains” since they’re not exposing their muscle fibers to a higher degree of output.
What’s more, our power and cognitive function declines as we continue to age. So it’s imperative to incorporate explosive and dynamic exercises into a lifter’s program to not just delay the inevitable effects of aging, but to improve intramuscular coordination.
Contrast sets don’t just make you more powerful, they lay the foundation for hypertrophy gains to continue (especially as we age).
Training Guidelines for Contrast Sets
- Focus on building strength first. Remember, power is strength x speed. You can’t display strength quickly if you’re not strong! Contrast sets are reserved for those who have been lifting consistently and have a solid foundation of strength. This is an advanced training method.
- Always warm-up. I know, you want to just to get into it. I get it. Even so, make sure you warm-up beforehand. You’ll get more out of your training.
- Use similar movement patterns for exercise pairings. For contrast sets to work, both of the exercises should be similar (to a degree) in terms of movement pattern while utilizing similar muscle groups. For example, it wouldn’t make sense to do a heavy bench press and then squat jumps. Instead, something like explosive push-ups or med ball tosses would pair well with a bench press given the movement and muscle recruitment similarities.
- Lift 80-85% of your 1RM for 2-4 reps. This is a general guideline. The idea of the strength movement is to treat it as a strength movement for maximal muscle fibre/CNS recruitment before performing the following explosive exercise. It wouldn’t make sense to do 10 back squats and pump a bunch of blood to your legs before box jumps. That’s how you fuck yourself up (sorry CrossFit).
- The strength movement should be no longer than 10-15 sec in duration. Piggybacking of that last point, the initial strength movement is meant to “excite” or “heighten” your muscles and nervous system, not completely gas them out.
- Move the weight FAST. To quote Louie again, you can’t move a heavy weight slowly. It may look like it’s moving slow, but you need to be thinking fast. Focus on lifting with maximal effort and moving the weight as fast as possible during the concentric portion of the lift with optimal form and technique.
- Do 2-4 reps for the explosive/dynamic exercise. Your ATP levels (your muscle’s energy source) deplete rapidly as you perform high intensity activities like plyometric or ballistic training. Fewer reps will allow you to focus on quality and
- Only do contrast sets 1-2 x per week. Training for power has a toll, and the fee is hefty. 1-2 contrast workouts per week is plenty. Be sure to recover between sessions with good sleep and eating.
- Don’t immediately jump into the explosive exercise. This is a general rule of thumb when I program supersets for most of my clients anyway, but this especially applies to contrast sets. You don’t want to do the subsequent explosive exercise huffing and puffing or in a state of fatigue. Your form will break down and you won’t perform to your potential. This isn’t a race and you don’t get a medal for sprinting to the next exercise as fast as you can. Take at least 10-15 seconds to regroup before performing the second exercise. But note that taking too long of a break between exercises can be detrimental to your performance as well since your “heightened state” (aka post activation potentiation) begins to fade roughly beyond 15 sec.
- Recover between contrast sets. Contrast sets pair a strength movement and an explosive exercise together, which means it takes a lot out of your body (and nervous system). Rest at least 3-5 minutes (maybe even slightly longer) between sets.
- 4-6 total contrast sets for 1-2 different pairings is plenty. Top that off with 1-2 small accessory exercises (delts, biceps, triceps…whatever you’re training that day) and you’re good to go.
Examples of Contrast Sets
A1. Box Squat x 3
A2. Box Jump x 2
Both movements are knee-dominant lower body exercises in a bilateral setting, so the pairing here makes sense.
B1. Heavy Sled Push x 20 yards
B2. Sprint x 40 yards
Ever push a heavy ass sled? It sucks. But it’ll make you tough and pack meat on your legs. The heavy sled followed by a sprint is a good pairing since both movements involve projecting the body forward unilaterally (one leg at a time).
C1. Bench Press x 2
C2. Explosive Push-Ups x 4
You should be doing more push-ups. Everyone should be. Try doing a heavy bench then some explosive push-ups and thank me later. You’ll get stronger and your shirts will fit better.
D1. Deadlift x 3
D2. Kettlebell Swing x 4
E1. Deadlift x 2
E2. Overhead Med Ball Throw x 2
An overhead med ball throw pairs well with a heavy deadlift since it involves extension of the knees and hip (both seen in the deadlift), but in an explosive setting.
Contrast training or contrast sets are one of the best ways to develop power and induce hypertrophy as we continue to age given the neurological benefits associated with it.
- STRENGTH; Joe Defranco, Jim Smith. 2014; 287
- Robbins DW. Post-Activation Potentiation and its Practical Applicability: A Brief Review. J Strength Cond Res. 2005; 19: 453–458