Contrast Set Training: The Hidden Key to Muscle Growth, According to Science

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Learning the ins and outs of contrast sets can be just the trick you need to get past a nagging plateau.

What many people don’t realize about hypertrophy is that it’s basically isolated conditioning supplemented by higher caloric intake to make muscles grow. In most movements in the gym, muscles often benefit from increasing work capacity and overall cumulative volume to ultimately fully fatigue a muscle by the end of a 60-minute session. And truth be told, under that umbrella, there are many ways to skin a cat.

Contrast sets are one less popular method that’s worth its weight in gold. They’re a fantastic way to make muscle fibers not only fatigued but also accomplish more than they would during a traditional set of work. Learning the ins and outs of contrast sets can be just the trick you need to get past a nagging plateau.

Contrast Training: The Science

In simplest terms, contrast sets create one loaded movement (usually compound in nature) and parallel it by following it up with a simulation of the same movement pattern, unloaded. This second effort will “trick” the fast-twitch muscle fibers and their high-threshold motor units into over-firing, since they are needed to recruit more wholly to move the heavy load that just preceded it. It’s a way to get much more out of every set.

The Moves

As mentioned above, big lifts are a definite way to go when it comes to contrast set training — you’ll receive the most bang for your buck by following that directive. Recommended movements to capitalize on can be broken up into a chart, accompanied by their recommended pairing.

Of course, the above are just examples of movements that would fit a contrast set, and there are others that also can suffice as long as they mimic the movement pattern of the first exercise.

The Rules

Contrast sets ask a lot out of a lifter’s energy expenditure, especially because of the compound nature of the lifts. Being fresh when attempting contrast sets goes without saying. Schedule these toward the beginning of your workout, and treat them as the general volume of your training session. Don’t exceed more than two to three exercises in this format. In practice, there are two general ways to approach rep ranges where contrast training is concerned:

CNS Priming: Low to High

Going heavy with your loaded movement (think of a two- to five-rep max) and instantly following it up with eight to 10 unloaded reps is a great way to make the central nervous system light up and prep your muscles for the latter portion (without inducing too much microtrauma). For strength trainees and athletes, this is an excellent directive to make sure the muscles don’t get over-fatigued and reduce overall performance and efficiency. Olympic coaching legend Charlie Francis employed this method with the fastest man in the world back in the late ’80s (before it was even coined contrast set training).

Simply put, doing 10 reps of both loaded and unloaded brings lactic acid and two sets of energy systems into the picture, conditions the muscles and approaches muscle failure much more effectively and completely. For people looking to make their muscles grow, this is your best bet.

In both cases, rest for three minutes between sets. Focusing on four to six sets in both cases is a smart approach.


Don’t use contrast sets year-round. Use them at key points within your training year to break a plateau or sharpen up your performance. You’ll turn into a stronger, more muscular and powerful machine with an athletic edge.

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