At Boxing Science we avail of many strength training methods that are backed by science and that have been applied in the field to develop strength, speed and power characteristics that transfer to punishing blows in the ring.
One of these methods, that will be the focus of this article, is Contrast Training.
WHAT IS CONTRAST TRAINING?
Contrast training consists of the use of high and low loads in the same strength training session. Specifically, sets of a high force, near maximal lift are performed before completing sets of a low-force, high velocity lift.
The two exercises used are required to be similar, biomechanically, in order to maximise the post activation potentiation (PAP) response derived from this training method.
Contrast training is often confused with complex training which is another training method that is of particular interest to researchers, however, is considerably different in that sets of high force and high velocity lifts are alternated until the prescribed sets for both lifts are completed.
WHAT IS PAP?
The main benefit of contrast training involves exploiting a neuromuscular phenomenon known as post activation potentiation.
PAP is the term used to describe the heightened neural drive displayed following the completion of sets of a near-maximal high force lift.
This accentuated neural drive is characterised by increased motor unit recruitment, increased rate of motor unit stimulation, and increased inter-muscular co-ordination.
Additionally, combining strength and power methods have been shown to induce positive adaptations that improve storage and utilisation of elastic energy which is essential for explosive concentric contractions during most athletic movements.
Ramping up these physiological and neuro-muscular mechanisms with high force movements ultimately enables the athlete to display greater power outputs and rates of force development during sets of the high velocity movement and thus obtain greater training adaptations.
Combining these strength training strategies also enables us to target opposite ends of the force-velocity curve.
This maximises our chances to shift the curve to the right and therefore create a stronger, faster, more explosive athlete.
BENEFITS OF CONTRAST TRAINING FOR BOXING
In the existing body of literature, contrast training has been shown to improve various measures of athletic performance in rugby and soccer athletes.
Significant improvements in jump height, 10-30m sprint times, and agility performance have been reported to date.
These improvements have largely been attributed to enhancements in the underlying neuromuscular and physiological mechanisms referred to previously.
Improved rate of force development (maximal rate of rise in muscle force in the early phase of muscle contraction) is also considered an adaptation that can be elicited from contrast training.
This is of particular significance for boxers due to the demand for high rates of force to be developed over short durations with the time to land a punch often less than 200ms.
Additionally, contrast training is considered an effective means of maximising both force and velocity components of the power equation. This is said to be a major mechanism for improvements in athletic tasks such as punching.
SAFE AND EFFECTIVE CONTRAST TRAINING FOR BOXING
Standard recommendations for the prescription of contrast training based on research investigating the effects of various volume-load combinations, include:
3-6 Reps at 80-90% 1RM with 4-6 minute rest periods for the high-force movement e.g squat or deadlift.
3-5 reps of 30-40% for the high velocity/explosive movement.
Though these recommendations may be deemed appropriate for strong athletes with extensive strength training backgrounds such as in rugby and soccer there is inherent problems with directly imposing these demands on boxers.
Movement and mobility limitations associated with boxers and the habitual elements of boxing performance (boxing stance, long, steady state road runs, large punching volumes) means exposure to high intensity strength training must be carefully calculated.
Restrictions in the hips and shoulders along with poor posterior-chain strength ultimately increases the risk of injury during heavy
Additionally, a lack of adequate strength training during development years is common in boxing. This means that tolerance to demanding strength training strategies is significantly lower compared to other sports which emphasise physical development from a young age.
Aimlessly programming intensities and volumes based on the literature, without considering the context of a given athlete, is, in our opinion, extremely negligent as a strength and conditioning/sport science practitioner.
Excessively taxing a boxer’s nervous system with rigorous strength training methods that exceed the athlete’s recoverability increases the likelihood of neural fatigue, immune system dysfunction and injury.
Despite the obvious concerns associated with contrast training for boxers, due to the noticeable benefits that can be derived from this training method it’s important to try and adapt the strategy around the athlete’s limitations.
For safe and effective application of contrast training with our athletes at Boxing Science we focus on the following:
Use of contrast instead of complex sets to allow for sufficient rest time between high force and high velocity movements without taking too much away from overall session time.
Manipulation of exercise range of motion to enable our boxers to lift heavier loads whilst reducing the stress associated with lifting loads that exceed 85% 1RM. This reduces the likelihood of fatigue masking the potentiation response which can often be a common concern with this type of strength training.
Lower rep sets are also used to maximise quality, intent and the retention of technique. Our athletes usually perform three repetitions per set of the high force compound movement for 3-4 sets followed by three repetitions of the explosive movement for 3-4 sets.
COACHING AND CONTRAST TRAINING
Prior to employing contrast training with your athletes it is important to ensure they have been exposed to sufficient amounts of the strength training basics in order to establish movement pattern technique and a base level of strength.
Initial strength and movement development is prioritised in our foundational strength and strength development phases. These are important periods for our athletes that develop robustness and will enable them to maximise benefits from future training phases.
Promoting intent is also a major factor that needs to be considered when implementing contrast training with your athletes.
The intent to move fast and explosively is associated with the heightened neuromuscular mechanisms we are trying to achieve.
At Boxing Science, we are fortunate to have access to GymAware technology which allows us to provide instant feedback to the athlete regarding the speed at which they’re moving the bar. Naturally, being competitive athletes, this encourages our boxers to beat their previous speeds during subsequent repetitions and sets.
Without GymAware, the use of subtle coaching cues such as “punching a hole in the ceiling” and placing a target above the athlete during jumping activities are practical ways to promote maximal intent with each repetition.
During high force/maximal lifts it’s also important to instruct the athlete to move with as much speed as possible. Though it will still look like athletes are moving relatively slowly due to the loads they’re lifting, internally, motor units and muscle fibres are being stimulated at a fast rate when maximal intent is exerted.
To promote maximal intent during these high force lifts cues such as “Drive through the heels” during a deadlift and “Drive out of the hole” during a squat are effective at getting the athlete to move quickly under high loads.
Traditionally, contrast training has been used in the pre-season of team sport athletes to enhance strength and power prior to the beginning of competition.
In boxing, however, there is no such thing as a pre-season due to the chaotic nature of fight scheduling.
Therefore, it is important to consider where contrast training fits into an overall training program.
During extended training periods ahead of competition, the over-arching goal is to maintain strength levels.
Reductions in strength have been shown to be associated with decreased power outputs and rate of force development characteristics which can be detrimental to a boxer’s performance.
Referring back to the ability to target both ends of the force-velocity spectrum with contrast training, means we can maintain and even increase strength and power levels that have been developed in previous training blocks without exposing our athletes to undue stress.
This may be particularly beneficial for amateur boxers in the national championships due to the presence of two competition periods in a short space of time.
See the video above for an in-depth outline of how contrast training can be integrated into an overall S&C program.
As mentioned previously both the high force and high velocity movements should be similar in terms of biomechanics.
This means that similar joint angles and force direction should be evident between the two exercises that are being used in the contrast pair.
The most common exercise combinations we use at Boxing Science are:
Anderson Squats (high force) and Loaded Squat Jump/Banded Jump variations (high velocity).
Trap-bar deadlifts from blocks (high force) and Trap-bar jumps (high velocity)
We have found these pairings to be effective in improving our athletes rate of force development, maintaining and in some case improving strength levels whilst minimising the risk of injury.
As such, we have facilitated the maintenance of strength during extended training periods ahead of competition which has consistently provided the platform to build speed and explosiveness that transfers to the ring.
Contrast training is a highly researched training method, used to improve strength and power through exploitation of the post activation potentiation phenomenon.
Contrast training differs from complex training in that all sets of a high force lift are performed before completing all sets of the high velocity lift.
Movement limitation and an absence of a strength training background are causes for concern when implementing contrast training strategies with boxers.
To address such concerns, lower rep sets and partial range of motion lifts can be used. This will allow the athlete to lift heavier loads and obtain the desired potentiation response whilst reducing the risk of injury.