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Unlocking Strength and Power: Contrast Training and 1 Rep Max Testing


Contrast Training for Your 1RM can pair back squats with box jumps, or bench press with push ups.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably gathered that we’re pretty big on strength here at Snowbeast. We regularly incorporate strength training into rehab plans for all kinds of pain and injuries, but it’s also critical in improving each aspect of physical performance, overall health, longevity, and functional capacity.  Strength training enhances muscular power, endurance, and resilience. Stronger muscles generate greater force, improve movement precision, and support sustained activity, boosting overall performance while providing better stability and mobility throughout the body and reducing injury risk. 


Essentially, if there was one thing to do to get the most bang for your buck in building peak performance and long-term athletic health, it’s building strength. With that said, the focus of this blog is to discuss a strength training technique called “contrast training” and its application in testing a 1 rep max (1RM) lift—a crucial part of training, programming, and tracking for athletes looking to enhance their strength and power.


What is Contrast Training?


Contrast training is a technique that alternates between heavy lifting and explosive/plyometric movements within the same resistance training session. For example, you might pair a heavy back squat with a set of jump squats. The principle behind contrast training is to take advantage of post-activation potentiation (PAP), where the heavy lift primes the muscles and nervous system, allowing for more powerful and explosive muscular contractions in the subsequent movement.


Key Components of Contrast Training:


  1. Heavy Lift (1-4 reps): This involves lifting a substantial weight, typically around 85-95% of your 1RM, to activate the nervous system and recruit muscle fibers.

  2. Explosive Movement (3-5 reps): Following the heavy lift, an explosive movement is performed. This could be a jump, sprint, or a lighter/faster lift, which benefits from the increased muscle fiber activation achieved during the heavy lift. (ideally this exercise is a similar movement pattern to the heavy lift such as a plyometric push-up after a heavy bench press). 


Contrast training takes advantage of post-activation potentiation which can improve vertical jump performance.

Why Contrast Training?


The rationale behind contrast training lies in its ability to enhance muscular power and improve neuromuscular efficiency. When you perform a heavy lift, your body recruits a large number of muscle fibers and increases the neural drive to those muscles. Immediately following this with an explosive movement can maximize power output and improve overall athletic performance. Conveniently, this concept works in both directions. In other words, your heavy lift improves the power output for your explosive exercise and your explosive exercise maximizes your muscle activation for your next heavy lift.  Considering that total volume and fatigue levels remain relatively low in this type of training, it makes for an ideal 1RM protocol when applied appropriately. Here’s how we do it: 


Squat training at the gym or at home can lead to stronger legs and more power when climbing the mountain or sliding down the slopes.

Implementing Contrast Training to Test Your 1 Rep Max


Here's how you can use contrast training to help determine your 1RM:


  1. Warm-Up: Start with a thorough warm-up. Include dynamic stretching and other mobility work as needed and more importantly, several light lifting sets gradually building in weight as you go.

  2. Heavy Lift Set: As you build to heavier lifts, contrast sets begin starting ~75-90% of what you estimate your 1RM to be. This primes your muscles and nervous system for the following explosive movement.

  3. Explosive Movement: Immediately (within 5-10 seconds) follow with an explosive exercise such as jump squats or plyometric push-ups. This will enhance your power output.

  4. Rest and Repeat: Rest for 2-5 minutes to allow full recovery, then increase the weight and attempt another heavy lift. Continue this cycle, gradually increasing the weight until you find your 1RM.

  5. Cooldown and Recovery: Finish with a cooldown including a few light sets, some cardio, or the other exercises you have planned for the session. 


Tips for a Successful 1RM Test


  • Technique First: Always prioritize proper form and technique, especially when lifting heavy. Your 1RM should be the heaviest weight that you can lift WITH GOOD TECHNIQUE. When you start to lose your form, we consider it a failed lift even if you got the weight back to the rack- this discourages dangerous lift attempts and ensures that we prioritize safety during this progression.


  • Gradual Progression: Increase weights gradually to prevent injury and ensure accurate 1RM testing. As you approach your estimated 1RM, small jumps in weight- sometimes as little as a .5lb can feel massive, so listen to your body and avoid biting off more than you can chew!


  • Spotting: As you build to your heavier sets, you’ll need a spotter to make sure you can safely get the weight back to the rack. It’s critical that both you and your spotter are familiar with proper spotting techniques and that you have clear communication about exactly how and when you are lifting/spotting the attempt.


Conclusion


Contrast training is a powerful tool for athletes looking to boost their strength and power (and therefore all other aspects of performance). By leveraging the benefits of post-activation potentiation, you can enhance your muscular activity and accurately test your 1 rep max. Below is an example of a Contrast 1RM protocol.  Exact percentages, reps, contrast movements, and rest intervals may differ between athletes and lifts based on many factors. 


  • (10-20%) x 10-20, fast 

    • 8-10 plyometric movement

    • 1min rest

  • (30-40%) x 10, control down, fast up 

    • 6-8 plyometric movement

    • 1-2min rest

  • (40-50%) x 6-8

    • 3-5 plyometric movement

    • 2-3min rest

  • (60-70%) x 3-5

    • 2-3 plyometric movement

    • 3-4min rest

  • (70-80%) x 1-2

    • 2-3 plyometric movement

    • 3-4min rest

  • (80-90%) x 1

    • 1-2 plyometric movement

    • 4-5min rest

  • (90-100%) x 1

    • 1-2 plyometric movement

    • 4-5+min rest

  • (100+%) x 1

    • 1-2 plyometric movement

    • 4-5+min rest

  • Additional rounds of 100+% as needed


Happy lifting Snowbeasts!

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