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

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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