Contrast Training for Size

Contrast Training for Size

The Problem

You’re young, you’re athletic but you’re also skinny. 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. Regardless of the amount of effort you put into a seemingly solid training program, you just aren’t reaping optimal benefits. You follow proper set and rest parameters, utilize carefully chosen lifting tempos, and eat like a madman. All told, 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 (though not all) strength-and-size training programs involve moving weights at a minimum of about 70% of max effort using a lower rep range and a relatively high volume. We all knew this; what’s more interesting, however, is the way in which we perform these repetitions.


Dennis James certainly knows how to pack on lean muscle mass.

It’s important to remember that our muscles are made up of various types of slow-, intermediate-, and fast-twitch fibres. The fibres that predominately enable us to lift heavy objects are the fast-twitch fibres. By default, these are what we tap into when we do our heavy sets of five on deadlifts, bench presses, squats, and other big exercises. However, the real key to success is to maximize how much we tap into them. We have to exploit the fast-twitch fibres for all they’re worth in order to have developed muscle as the end result.

Having said that, we can easily fall into the habit of lifting 70% of our max with the amount of force it takes to simply move 70% 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 stimulate every muscle fibre to complete the lift…but just because you don’t necessarily need to doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. In the weight room, every effort you use to apply force against a resistance should be an explosive one. Especially when doing any pushing exercise, you should strive 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. It’s true that a heavily loaded bar will clearly never move more than slowly during the rep, but it’s the intended bar speed that counts. Focus in and DRIVE the weight with full force–building this connection to the mind and channeling that energy into the bar will result in much more productive reps and sets.


Francois was known to incorporate some unique training methods to build his massive physique.

Contrast Set Training - The Next Level

It’s time to take these concepts and put them on ‘roids. 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. You can do this by “contrasting” your sets, which means simply performing an explosive unloaded movement that is as similar as possible to the weighted movement you just completed. 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 examples (and there are others) are just a few of the exercises that can be paired with their 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. Performing a compound set that includes bodyweight jump squats will make the fast-twitch fibres “think” that they still need to recruit themselves in the quantity (and intensity) that they needed for the heavy squats. This tactic optimizes utilisation and leaves your legs ready to pack on size like no tomorrow…that’ll send a couple barbell sets of five to the crypt any day of the week.


A jump squat

I Digress: A Brief Disclaimer

Plyometrics (and similar ballistic movements) demand a lot of muscle 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. You need to have a beginning foundation solidly built before you add in plyometric movements. I like to use the following as a basic checklist for being able to perform plyo pushups and jump squats:

  • Ability to perform 30 full range bodyweight pushups without stopping and with a decently fast speed.
  • Ability to jump onto box about knee level high without making a noisy landing upon impact with the box.
  • Ability to perform a depth jump from 24″ box without a noisy landing on the floor.

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

WHY This Stuff Works

The main reason this approach is so effective (aside from the above reasons) is actually pretty cool. 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), 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 you come close to the end of the concentric rep so that it can change the bar’s direction in order to descend into the negative half of the lift and repeat. Unfortunately, this challenge gets harder the more we try to add velocity to the movement; 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 solution 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 in each rep of a bench press or allowing the feet to leave the ground in a back squat. As 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….


CrossFit incorporates a form of contrast training with some pretty amazing results.

The Workout

When it comes to training my clients, I often tend to arrange my workout systems by way of movements rather than muscles worked. Considering that these explosive movements have a lot to do with channeling energy through the entire body, I believe the same approach 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 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

Repeating this system twice each week (per workout) leaves room for an optional isolation-specific workout to focus on supplementary muscle groups that assist major lifts:

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

Blastoff to Size

We already know 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?

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