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A set of heavy squats followed by squat jumps. Bench presses before medicine-ball passes. Deadlifts -coupled with kettlebell swings.

These exercise combos might seem counterintuitive, since they work the same muscles — but that’s exactly the point. These pairs are examples of contrast training, in which a heavy lift is followed by an explosive exercise that uses the same movement pattern.

Contrasting the exercises simultaneously builds your strength and explosive power.

“It’s a way to trick your body into recruiting more muscle so you can throw a ball farther, run faster, or jump higher,” says Joe DeFranco, a strength-and-conditioning specialist, cocreator of the Certified Physical Preparation Specialist certification, and owner of DeFranco’s Gym at the Onnit Academy in Austin, Texas.

The “how” behind contrast training is a phenomenon known as post-activation potentiation, or PAP. First, fire up your fast-twitch muscles by performing a heavy lift. Then, while your muscles and nervous system still “remember” what you did, transfer this muscle-fiber recruitment by performing a power movement.

Mobility exercises between sets help support optimal alignment, preventing injuries and increasing the effectiveness of the strength-power couplets.

Along with its immediate performance benefits, contrast training can also lead to long-term gains, including adaptations to your muscles (an increase in size) and to your central nervous system (more efficient use of your muscles because of improved mind-muscle connection).

And there’s a bonus: Contrast training can be a useful technique for people who have trouble using certain muscles in an explosive movement, says DeFranco, who has trained Olympic, NFL, NHL, and MLB athletes. For instance, if you tend to rely on your quads while jumping, you can train your glutes to contract by prefacing jumps with a strength move that activates the glute muscles.

Contrast training has obvious applications to athletes, but DeFranco advocates using the technique regardless of whether you play sports or not. When you train your body to generate force quickly, you move better in everyday life, he says.

“Everyone should train like this for function — even if that just means picking up your kids, carrying your groceries, or playing golf on the weekend,” DeFranco says. “This type of workout gets you moving better and feeling better, and it’s interesting — you get out of the rut of ‘three sets of 10.’”

The Contrast-Training Workout

The following workouts, designed by Joe DeFranco, each contain a strength-power couplet, plus a mobility component.

Choose a weight that is medium-heavy for you. The resistance should be challenging, but not so difficult that you are fatigued after five reps or your form is compromised.

When in doubt, start light  — with an empty barbell, 8-kilo kettlebell, or 5-pound medicine ball, for example. Increase the weight as your strength and skill improve.

Because contrast training is more intense than traditional resistance-training formats, DeFranco recommends doing circuit 1 for three weeks before advancing to circuit 2 for three weeks. Limit contrast training to once a week.

The Circuit Format:

  • Perform five reps of the specified strength exercise. Move the weight as quickly as you can, with good form, aiming to complete the five reps within 10 seconds.
  • Rest for 10 to 30 seconds.
  • Perform five reps of the specified power exercise. Again, move quickly and aim to complete the set within 10 seconds.
  • Actively rest for two to three minutes between sets, performing the suggested mobility exercises, which DeFranco says will support performance and recovery.
  • Perform three to six sets of the entire circuit.

Circuit 1

Movement pattern: Squat
Primary muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings

Strength: Box Squat

box squat

  • Step under a racked and loaded barbell. With the bar settled in your shoulder girdle, lift up and step back so you are directly in front of a knee-height box or bench, feet hip width or slightly wider.
  • Keep your abs engaged and slowly squat down, lowering your butt toward the box.
  • Pause as you sit on the box — but don’t relax. Drive through your heels to stand.
  • Repeat five times.

Note: Squatting to a box activates the glutes more than a standard squat. If a box isn’t available or comfortable, do a box-free barbell back squat or goblet squat with a kettlebell or dumbbell.

Power: Squat Jump


  • Stand with feet about hip width or slightly wider. Keep your abs engaged and your gaze straight ahead.
  • With your weight in your heels, squat down, letting your arms swing naturally.
  • Explosively reverse the movement, extending your knees and hips to jump into the air, allowing your arms to propel you.
  • Land softly with your knees bent, and sink back into a squat position.
  • Repeat five times.

Mobility: Calf Stretch


  • Stand on a low step with the ball of your right foot on the edge.
  • Drop your heel until you feel a stretch in the calf.
  • Hold for 15 seconds, then switch sides.

Kneeling Hip-Flexor Stretch


  • Start in a kneeling lunge with your left leg forward and right knee on the ground.
  • Squeeze your right glute and, without arching your back, shift your left knee forward.
  • Hold for 15 seconds, then switch sides.

Circuit 2

Movement pattern: Chest press
Primary muscles worked: Chest, shoulders, triceps

Strength: Barbell Bench Press


  • Lie flat on a bench beneath a racked and loaded barbell, with heels pressed into the floor.
  • With your hands slightly wider than your shoulders, grip the bar and lift it from the rack. Hold it directly over your chest, arms straight.
  • Inhale as you lower the bar toward the base of your sternum.
  • Exhale and press the bar up until your arms are fully extended.
  • Repeat five times.

Power: Med-Ball Chest Pass


  • Standing about 6 to 8 feet from a partner or a brick wall, hold a medicine ball at your chest.
  • Chest pass the ball toward the wall or to your partner. Push through your arms to throw it in a straight line, with no arc. You can step forward with one foot as you pass, or hop forward with both feet.
  • Catch the ball at chest height as your partner returns it or as it bounces off the wall.
  • Repeat five times.

Mobility: Prone YTWs


  • Lying prone on the floor with arms out in front of you in a “Y” position and thumbs up, lift your arms off the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades together while keeping your head, chest, and the rest of your body still. Hold this position for three to five seconds. Return your arms to the floor. Repeat five times.
  • Repeat the movement with your arms in a “T” position, with thumbs pointing up.
  • Repeat the movement with your arms in a “W” position, with elbows bent and thumbs pointing up.

More Contrast-Training Combos

Contrast training can be applied to any movement that has both a strength and plyometric (explosive) version, but multijoint exercises are most effective at building functional, full-body strength. Joe DeFranco recommends doing no more than two pairs of exercises in one workout, and making sure that these movements do not involve similar muscle groups. Here are three additional contrast combinations you can try.

Bonus Circuit 1:

Strength Exercise: Barbell Deadlifts

  • Complete three to six sets of five reps.
  • Rest 10 to 30 seconds.

See “BREAK IT DOWN: The Deadlift” for technique and form tips.

Power Exercise: Kettlebell Swings

  • Complete three to six 10-second sets, performing as many reps as possible in that time, without sacrificing form.
  • Rest two to three minutes, then repeat the circuit for a total of three to six sets.

See “BREAK IT DOWN: The Kettlebell Swing” for technique and form tips.

Bonus Circuit 2:

Strength: Neutral Grip Pull-Ups

Power: Medicine-Ball Slams

  • Complete three to six sets of five reps.
  • Rest two to three minutes, then repeat the circuit for a total of three to six sets.

Bonus Circuit 3:

Strength: Sled Push or Sled Pull

  • Push or pull a sled as fast as you can for 10 to 15 yards.
  • Rest 10 to 30 seconds.

Power: Short Sprints

  • Run as fast as you can for 10 to 15 yards.
  • Rest two to three minutes, then repeat the circuit for a total of three to six sets.

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