Written by Miguel Aragoncillo
My purpose of divulging the use of the French Contrast Method (FCM) is to improve rate of force development (RFD) according to the athlete’s demands.
The specific example I’m utilizing here involves improving vertical jump scores using a Vertec Jump Training System.
1. Potentiation training is a tool that can be utilized to enhance your rate of force development (RFD).
2. Manipulating your CNS with the following can vastly improve your lifting numbers and testing scores.
3. RFD is important to consider for both fast and slow athletes.
The FCM involves a specific exercise selection along with prioritization that allows an athlete to tap into higher thresholds of a motor unit (since motor units prioritize muscle fibers), and if a higher threshold is attained, a greater RFD is created. When speaking about athletes that excel in their given sport, if an athlete produces force faster than their opponent, that quality will help them to power through their competition.
But what happens if you have a technically sound athlete, but he or she is still “slow”?
Barring the obvious answer of sound nutrition, diet, and proper biomechanics during training, there are multiple ways to enhance performance.
Definitions of Complex and Contrast Training
Complex training involves performing a heavy compound exercise followed by a plyometric movement that is similar in movement pattern. A complex training set can involve a squatting movement pattern and pairing that with a jump at a significantly lighter load.
Contrast training is a heavy set followed by relatively lighter sets over a period of sets. This is a method aimed at improving maximum strength, with the use of submaximal drop sets. In this case, a front/back squat can be utilized at a higher percentage of workload and followed with a 10% drop set.
However, what would happen if one were to combine these concepts?
Justifying the FCM
This question can be answered by understanding a few concepts: which exercises are within a strength-speed continuum, popularized by Eric Cressey; post activation potentiation (PAP); and understanding RFD.
Using PAP within a training program refers to utilizing a heavy load and then following up that exercise immediately with a lighter or explosive variation of a similar movement. This will improve motor unit recruitment (for a given amount of time) along with improving the performance of the tested variable (jumping). (2, 3, 4, 9)
However, one thing to keep in mind is the energy demands of a given task. Depending on the movement – say, sprinting – there may be detrimental effects toward sprinting after performing a heavy loaded exercise to elicit a similar effect. (5)
Examining (RFD) within a muscle group involves tracking varying levels of rate of motor unit contractions – either isometric or ballistic contractions according to Dechateau, et al. However, the fundamental point about RFD is understanding that “… high initial motor unit discharge rate … plays a critical role to reach a high rate of force development.” (6)
Using resistance training at a higher percentage of a 1RM should elicit higher threshold motor units (7). When combining this thought process with contrast training, there are slight increases in performance when a fast and rapid movement is followed up with a similar movement pattern, albeit at a heavier concentric loading. This has several justifications, largely owing to an increase in benefits and improvements in neural drive within a specific movement (8).
When examining this information with respect to the FCM, it is important to understand how you can continue to improve this RFD with the contrast and complex training methods.
That said, the idea of how to emulate performance increases should begin to form, and thus the FCM can be be realized.
The FCM was introduced to me when working at Endeavor Sports Performance to great success. Other collegiate coaches have noted improvements in not only the “main” bilateral strength lifts (deadlifts, squats, and bench press), but also improvements in jumps and sprint times for athletes.
If an athlete is slower than another athlete, similar to the above chart, logic would dictate the next question: How can he or she get better?
1. Specific skill and on-field awareness
2. Improvements in internal techniques
3. Decreased body fat to improve bodyweight to strength ratios
4. Improved recovery with respect to optimal performance
5. Traditional exercise programming methods
If on-field awareness and specific skills are enhanced and if body fat is being regulated and improved upon, the most general quality that can be enhanced is the exercise programming utilized by the athlete. Further, strength training can be useful for the advanced athlete by utilizing an amalgamation of techniques, as opposed to linear progressions in movement patterns.
Utilizing the French Contrast Method (FCM)
The French Contrast Method:
1. May be more appropriate for advanced trainees and athletes. That is, those with clean movement patterns who have respectable training time under their belts.
2. Should be performed for a time of approximately two to three weeks.
3. Can be thought of as a peaking method – it can be utilized two to three weeks prior to a competition or testing period for athletes.
The FCM and “Advanced Athletes”
Using the FCM would need an athlete who is familiar with a large variety of movements in order to fully realize how to produce force without reducing technical skill of the lift. If an athlete is struggling with hurdle hops due to never practicing or being introduced to them, then the athlete should find a different exercise that he or she is used to performing. With regards to maximal lifts, performing a deadlift from the floor may not be appropriate if they have been using a trap bar for the past three years in the collegiate setting.
Timeline and Logistics for Peaking
The FCM is not something to be used for months at a time. The FCM is a “hit it and quit it” type of method: Perform preparatory methods for a duration of time, and then as you close the end of the off-season, or approach tests, perform the FCM as a form of block periodization.
French Contrast Method for Beginners and Youth Athletes
While the FCM is simply one method that is utilized by Cal Dietz (1), it is also a neuromuscular driver toward improvement in qualities for any given athlete. This holds water, especially if the athlete is at a young training age. While they may not provide the intensity seen in a maximal strength deadlift, motor units will be firing, and good movement is reinforced.
For starters, the FCM can be utilized by using a loaded movement pattern, plyometric, weighted plyometric, and an assisted plyometric.
French Contrast Method – Exercise Selection
For my purpose, I will utilize the barbell bench press as the upper body main lift. In this case, a dumbbell bench press can be utilized (if working within the paradigms of a sport that may limit the utilization of a barbell due to limitations seen within the shoulder’s range of motion, such as baseball or softball).
Horizontal or vertical barbell/DB press
Within this realm, a bodyweight movement that is similar in movement pattern will be utilized, and to work within the realm of the FCM, complex training is utilized; I will utilize a reactive or explosive push-up.
Often, the first two exercises are aimed toward the most improvements for two reasons:
1. By the time the athlete reaches the third and fourth exercise, alactic anaerobic energy stores are being rapidly depleted due to time demands.
2. These exercises are often much more objective in nature due to their simplicity: While a weighted or band resisted plyometric vertical jump can be measured for height, the purpose is to improve athleticism on the field. Make sure that what you’re recording and measuring actually matters.
Afterward, a weighted movement – still within the realm of the “push” mentality – will be utilized. The idea is to still promote the mentality of “reactiveness.” So a barbell bench press at a lighter weight (along with stripping the weights) may not be as accessible due to the limits of the arms reaching up and pulling down, which will limit the reactivity of the exercise, along with logistics of setting up two different barbells with different weights for each individual athlete. So, throwing on a weight vest for a push-up works.
Reactive med ball press/scoop/throw
Weighted vest explosive push-up
Assisted or Accelerated Lift:
And finally, the last lift in this series will be an accelerated or assisted lift, or in this case, a pushing pattern that is lighter than bodyweight.
Week 1, Day 1
A1. Barbell bench press – 3 sets x 3 reps at 80%
A2. Explosive push-up – 3 sets x 5 reps
A3. DB push press – 3 sets x 5 reps (at a % comfortable enough to be explosive, yet heavy)
A4. Band-assisted push-up – 3 sets x 5 reps
The totality of the exercises aims to be greater than the individual portions that devise this method. With these individual aspects, the spectrum of speed-strength and strength-speed continuum is covered.
Upper Body Accessory Lifts:
Two things to keep in mind:
1. Accumulation of fatigue
2. Neurological and technical breakdown
For this reason as well, a “core” movement pattern should be limited to regressed movements, so front/side planks, along with any type of anti-rotation or anti-extension/flexion should be included, along with DB farmers walks.
For the lower body, power is meant to be improved upon, so the movement that I am looking to improve would involve the broad jump and the vertical jump.
On deadlift days, I would look to enhance the broad jump. On squatting days, the vertical jump. If there is a specific test that is incoming for a given athlete, I will use one or the other for means of practicing the skill that is required for the test.
To draw from the same well from the definitions above, a multitude of exercises can be selected here:
Barbell front or back squat
Any single leg lunging or hip hinging pattern
The variety that can be displayed here can become very specific to the athlete and his or her sporting demands. If the athlete’s vertical jump will be tested, let’s utilize this. Apply more specific ideas process across the board, and we have these choices:
Vertical/broad/depth/lateral, or split squat jump
On a personal level, this point forward is the most fun with regards to jumping due to the creative aspects that can be introduced.
DB/barbell squat jump
Goblet vertical jump
Band resisted vertical jump (Vertimax Jump Training System)
Weighted vest vertical/broad/lateral jump
DB/WVest/KB split squat jump
Assisted or Accelerated Lift:
The last protocol within this set involves setting up bands so that you can improve your RFD beyond their normal means due to the elasticity of the bands propelling you upward.
Week 1, Day 2
A1. Barbell back squat – 3 sets x 3 reps at 80%
A2. Bodyweight vertical jump – 3 sets x 5 reps
A3. Band resisted or weighted vest vertical jump – 3 sets x 5 reps (at a % comfortable enough to be explosive, yet heavy)
A4. Band Assisted Vertical Jump – 3 sets x 5 reps
Since many of the exercises promote a quad-dominant jumping protocol, the accessory lifts can promote a posterior chain exercise selection – slideboard or stability ball hamstring curl, single leg deadlift, etc. are all fair game.
Utilizing the French Contrast Method in a Team Setting
For starters, many strength and athletic development coaches do not have the comfort or ability to work with large team settings. I have been fortunate to have worked in both a private team environment and with other private clients where I’ve utilized this method successfully.
That said, the FCM has the capacity to be utilized in a team setting. It is understanding the different rep maxes and individual limitations that may arise from a movement perspective along with any technical lifting issues that will be the limiting factor.
If you have a baseball team with a goal of improving power, these considerations may come into effect:
1. Varying differences in mobility from athlete to athlete.
2. Phase of programming or time of year that they visit you.
3. Varying training ages and movement capacities.
FCM – Week 1, Day 1
A1. Dumbbell bench press or DB floor press – 3 sets x 4 reps at 80% (depending on shoulder or arm injury history)
A2. Explosive push-up – 3 sets x 5 reps
A3. Overhead med ball stomp to floor (heavy – 10lbs or more depending on athlete) – 3×5
A4. Sidestanding med ball shotput with rapid step behind – 3×5/side
The rationale I’m utilizing within this varies from using a general exercise such as the DB BP, then going to a bodyweight exercise, then utilizing a heavy med ball slam, and then finally expressing this force with an accelerated movement in a frontal plane progression of a Rotational MB Slam.
One aspect that this template often refers to is the idea of utilizing various general preparatory exercises to specific exercises to general in rapid succession in order to facilitate power development. This idea has specific roots with Dr. Anatoily Bondarchuk, and more information can be found from Joel Jamieson’s blog and his series The Bondarchuk Principles.
Now I will digress a bit with an anecdote for your entertainment. While I have seen and used the FCM with many athletes, myself and my co-workers have used this thought process and philosophy to enhance our own exercise programs as well.
My successes include increasing my vertical jump. I’m utilizing a Vertec Jump Trainer for measurement, and prior to using the FCM, my best jump was 31 inches.
After multiple runs of the French Contrast Method, along with dietary changes, I have most recently hit 37.5 inches for my standing vertical jump approximately one year later – a 6.5 inch increase in about a year.
Shown here is my friend, Matt, performing a barbell reverse lunge with 405lb twice on each leg. His previous best was obviously much lower than this.
While this has largely been a reflection of my own personal and practical applications of the French Contrast Method, it is recommended that you read Triphasic Training to get the full effect.
Miguel Aragoncillo is a strength coach at Cressey Sports Performance based in Hudson, MA, previously working at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ, along with being a writer, blogger, and competing in both breakdancing and powerlifting (although, not simultaneously). More of his writing can be found at www.MiguelAragoncillo.com.
1 – Dietz, Cal, and Ben Peterson. “Specialized Methods of Applying Training Means (French Contrast).” Triphasic Training: A Systematic Approach to Elite Speed and Explosive Strength Performance. Hudson, WI: Bye Dietz Sport Enterprise, 2012. N. pag. Print.