Complex and Contrast Training Methods for Sprinters & Speed Power Athletes
Today we are going to cover what I see as the best approach to strength training for sprinters or other speed/power athletes. We’re going to talk about the complex method and contrast training, how it works, why it is superior to traditional resistance training, and how you can start implementing it into your own training program.
When you set out to implement a training program with the intent of improving sprinting performance, it can be daunting in that there are so many ways to train. Should you lift heavy? Should you lift light and fast? Should you be doing loaded jumps, plyometrics, or assisted jumps?
If we think about the demands of the sprint, athletes need to be strong in order to start aggressively and overcome inertia, they need large amounts of power production to continue to accelerate, and they need great stiffness and reactive strength qualities to reach high maximal velocities.
Heavy strength training could have a great impact on block clearance and early acceleration, and it could increase our baseline capabilities to produce force, but it has less of an impact the deeper you go into the sprint.
On the flip side, high velocity strength and plyometrics likely have more relevance to mid acceleration and maximal velocity sprinting, but solely focusing on this type of training without any heavy strength training could leave you with lackluster early acceleration and leave potential force production increases on the table. If you aren’t strong relative to your body weight, it is harder to be explosive and powerful.
In light of all this, we have to strike a balance between the different qualities needed to sprint, if we want our training program to be most effective in improving sprint performance.
To get the greatest transfer from strength training to sprinting, we should be using complex or contrast styles of training.
Complex training does not mean your program has to be overly complicated, it just means that your training should consist of different but connected parts. Contrast training basically means the same thing, in that you’re using contrasting methods such as a slow and a fast exercise, preferably within the same superset or at the very least within the same session.
For example, you can perform a back squat at a high load such as 90% of your max, paired with a jumping or plyometric exercise such as a low load jump squat, a depth jump, or a band assisted jump.
Why is complex or contrast training potentially superior to traditional resistance training?
One reason is that complex training trains athletes along various points on the force velocity curve, as opposed to only developing one area of the force velocity curve.
If we can improve our ability to produce force at various velocities, it would lead to a superior training effect compared to only improving force production at either low or high velocities. It has been said by Charlie Francis and probably others that improving at various points along the force velocity curve positively impacts other areas on this continuum, and I believe that this is the case. Getting stronger at low velocities can help raise your capacity to produce force are higher velocities, and vice versa.
Along the same lines, complex training reliably improves maximum strength, but does so without neglecting other strength qualities.
“As maximal strength is strongly related to sprint, jump, and COD in male soccer players (Wisløff et al., 2004), improvements in maximal strength may be an additional and relevant benefit derived from CT.” - Effects of Complex Training on Sprint, Jump, and Change of Direction Ability of Soccer Players: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
Another benefit is that complex training likely causes favorable changes in muscle cells and fiber types, whereas only performing heavy slow strength training could negatively affect muscle fiber types.
“Type IIx muscle fibers (i.e., those with greater contraction velocity, power, and rate of force development compared to type IIA and type I fibers) may be favorably affected (i.e., greater preservation) by CT, even when compared to RT. Indeed, an early study reported that 19 weeks of heavy RT reduced percentage of type IIx fibers, whereas a more recent study reported a preservation of type IIx fibers after CT, similar to other studies that have included PT or CT.” - Effects of Complex Training on Sprint, Jump, and Change of Direction Ability of Soccer Players: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
“...the combination of RT and PT during CT may allow the summation of cellular and structural adaptations induced by RT and PT” - Effects of Complex Training on Sprint, Jump, and Change of Direction Ability of Soccer Players: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
That is to say that there is an additive benefit between resistance training and plyometric training, in that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If you only did resistance training or plyometric training, your improvements would be weaker compared to if you utilized both methods in your training.
Complex training likely has a better impact on coordination and movement skill compared to traditional resistance training, as you are required to perform exercises with different demands within a short period of time.
“CT may favor energy transfer between concentric and eccentric muscle actions, providing better coordination and synchronization of active muscle groups to improve and enhance motor skills” - Effects of Complex Training on Sprint, Jump, and Change of Direction Ability of Soccer Players: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
Boo Schexnayder talks a lot about how static lifts like a back squat or bench press could cause discoordination for some athletes and interfere with their sprinting, which is one reason he pulls them out in the period leading up to competition, leaving in olympic lifts and other more dynamic exercises. If we could use complex training to actually enhance rather than hurt coordination and synchronization of motor patterns, this would be a good thing.
How can we implement complex training in our sprint and strength training programs?
In the gym or at sprint practice, we can use different loading methods and exercises to have our best shot at inducing changes that can lead to improvements in sprinting. We want to get stronger at various points along the force velocity curve, and our training should reflect that.
“It is, however, worth noting that the back squat combined with loaded JS/ CMJ and plyometric training method displays a greater sprint ES (ES = -1.20) than the back squat (ES = -0.81) and loaded JS/CMJ (ES = -0.29) training methods.” - Increases in lower-body strength transfer positively to sprint performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis
This means that combining the back squat with loaded jumps, or combining the back squat with plyometrics, are superior training methods as opposed to doing them all separately or individually.
They go on to say,
“Thus, from a practical standpoint, a mixed-method resistance training approach (i.e., complex training) as recommended by Haff and Nimphius  appears to be the optimal training strategy for improving sprint performance when compared with more traditional training methods (resistance training or plyometric training alone). This is in line with previous research reporting a greater improvement in athletic performance after a mixed-method resistance training intervention when compared with traditional training protocols.” - Increases in lower-body strength transfer positively to sprint performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis
In line with this thinking, we should seek opportunities to combine our heavy strength training exercises, such as the back squat or bench press, with a jumping or plyometric activity.
Examples in the gym could include:
- Heavy Back Squat -> Loaded CMJ
- Heavy Back Squat -> Depth Jump
- Heavy Back Squat -> Band Assisted Jump
- Heavy Back Squat -> Walking Box Jump -> Band Assisted Jump
- Single Leg RDL -> Split Leg Assisted Jump
- Heavy Power Clean -> Depth Jump
- Heavy Power Clean -> CMJ -> Band Assisted Jump
- Heavy Step Up -> Single Leg Band Assisted Jump
- Heavy Step Up -> Strike Jump
- Heavy Sled Pull -> Sprint Without Sled
- Medicine Ball Throw -> Sprint
- Hill Sprint -> Flat Sprint
- Weighted Vest Sprint -> Sprint Without Load
- Stiff Leg Hops w/ Med Ball -> 20 Meter Flying Sprint
- 20 meter flying sprint -> Jump Rope
Simple Contrast Versus French Contrast
When you first use complex and contrast training methods, you can keep things simple by combining two exercises that target opposing ends of the force velocity spectrum, such as the back squat and a depth jump.
As time goes on, you can progress toward something like a french contrast, which uses the following setup:
- Main Lift - Back Squat/Bench Press
- Jump or Plyometric Exercise - CMJ or Depth Jump
- Drop Set or Weighted Jump - 30% 1-RM lift or Loaded CMJ
- Plyometric or Assisted Jump - Depth Jump or Band Assisted Jump
Using a french contrast can be a very stimulating and potent training tool, and can make your training very time effective. Each exercise should be done for a limited number of repetitions so that each of the efforts are high quality and high intensity.
Because of the demands on your body, it would be wise to start with simple contrasts and progress over time to the french contrast. This gives you room to progress over time.
- Effects of Complex Training on Sprint, Jump, and Change of Direction Ability of Soccer Players: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7862112/
- Increases in lower-body strength transfer positively to sprint performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25059334/